Finding Flood-Level Walleyes
October 04, 2010
High water levels from spring rainfall don't have to signal fishing frustration. Use the floods to your advantage on these prime Iowa walleye waters! (May 2009)
Spring floods present Iowa walleye anglers with a number of challenges, not the least of which is the addition of hundreds, perhaps thousands of new surface acres to explore.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
Iowa Department of Natural Resources net and electro-fishing surveys show a significant population of 1- to 5-pound walleyes in Saylorville Reservoir, just north of Des Moines on the Des Moines River. Bragging boards at local bait shops show photos of anglers with walleyes up to 7 pounds taken from the big flood control reservoir.
"Saylorville had some of the healthiest, thickest walleyes we sampled anywhere in my territory last fall," said IDNR fisheries management biologist Ben Dodd. "There's a huge population of shad in there, and the walleyes do very well because of those shad. We stock walleyes in Saylorville every year. There's probably some natural reproduction, but it's our stocking programs that keep the fishing as good as it is."
Dodd hopes to make walleye fishing even better at Saylorville through a research initiative designed to discover exactly where the stocked walleyes end up.
"Walleye fishing in the Des Moines River above Saylorville has been excellent for the past decade, so some of those walleyes may be moving upstream," he said. "Walleye fishing below the dam, down through Des Moines and into (Lake) Red Rock has been good, too, so some of them may be going through the spillway.
"We're going to tag some of the fish we stock and then see how many of those tagged fish show up above and below Saylorville. (We'll use) that information to adjust our management practices on Saylorville itself."
One of Dodd's biggest challenges in managing walleye populations at Saylorville is the nearly annual rise and fall of water levels in the flood control reservoir. Almost every year the lake swells with snowmelt and spring rains in April, May and June, then slowly returns to normal pool sometime in July or early August. In an average year, Saylorville spends between two and four months above normal pool.
High and changing water levels present walleye anglers at Saylorville with a variety of challenges. Aside from adding thousands -- perhaps tens of thousands -- of surface acres to the lake, the additional depth encourages walleyes to explore miles of newly submerged shoreline structure. Runoff from farm fields as far away as southern Minnesota adds turbidity to the lake's water, changing where and how walleyes feed.
Stymied by the extra miles of submerged structure and variable turbidity, many anglers give up on walleyes at Saylorville when the lake is above normal pool. But there are a few anglers who quietly launch their boats onto the big lake no matter how high or turbid the water is. Those anglers don't expect easy fishing when the lake is high, but they are confident that if they use a few tricks and fish a few areas favored by walleyes during high water, they have a better-than-average chance of equaling or bettering catch rates from when the lake is at normal pool.
POUND THE PAVEMENT
Some of the better-known high-water walleye hotspots when Saylorville is 10 or more feet above normal pool are submerged access roads and parking lots. Some of the roads and parking areas, such as those associated with the lower access to the Big Creek Spillway just west of Polk City, are graveled and therefore naturally attractive to walleyes. Others, including the parking lots at Cherry Glen Access on the east side of the main lake basin, are paved. No one is certain why walleyes are attracted to flooded pavement.
"I've got a couple guesses, but no scientific reasons," said Dodd. "Fish like a hard surface, so maybe all that hard pavement attracts them. Or, it could be that when the parking lots only have a couple feet of water over them, that fish are up there soaking up warmth that the pavement absorbs on sunny days through the shallow water. There could be other reasons that we don't understand. But I've heard of some guys doing really well fishing those flooded roads and parking lots."
High water in Saylorville usually means higher water flow from the pumping station at the marina dam and over the Big Creek Spillway. Walleyes are attracted to current, making both locations prime possibilities.
The barrier dam just east of the marina protects Polk City from flooding by Saylorville Lake. Water from the small lake on the north side of the barrier dam has to be pumped uphill into Saylorville Lake when water levels in the bigger lake prevent the smaller lake from draining normally. Currents around the concrete discharge tower on the south side of the barrier dam attract all species whenever the pumps are running.
Farther north and due northwest of Polk City lies the spillway from Big Creek Lake into Saylorville Lake. When Saylorville is at normal pool, the south side of the scour hole at the end of the big concrete spillway is accessible via a gravel road and a parking lot. When the lake is high, anglers in boats can work that flooded gravel road and parking lot for walleyes or fish the currents in the scour hole itself at the base of the spillway.
Shore-anglers can take Northwest 125th Road off state Route 415 northwest of Polk City to a parking lot at the top of the north side of the spillway and walk down to fish the north side of the scour hole. Or, they can hike the bike path from a parking lot off Jester Park Road to fish the south side of the spillway, the scour hole or the submerged parking lot.
IF NOT CURRENT, THEN STRUCTURE
LeWayne Luers is a taxidermist and fishing guide from Urbandale (www.fishbyluers.com, 515-276-4950) who fishes for walleyes at Saylorville year 'round, no matter how high or low the water level. When the lake is high, he focuses first on specific structure where he has learned walleyes congregate.
If rock jetties associated with the Cherry Glen or Lakeview boat ramps are flooded, he first goes out during daylight hours and uses his electronics to precisely map the structure. He may fish those jetties while mapping, or he may return after dark and use his electronic mapping to guide him as he works those jetties.
"Sometimes it's a night bite, sometimes it's a day bite," said Luers. "By mapping those spots I have flexibility to fish whenever they're biting. I use a bottom bouncer to slow-troll parallel to the top, sides and base of those jetties. Depending on how high the water is, they may be on the tops, they may be along the sides or they may be right along the base."
Luers rigs a 2-
ounce bottom bouncer with a 6- to 7-foot, 10-pound Trilene XT leader, tipped with a No. 2 circle hook. He uses a long leader in case walleyes are spooked by the passage of the bottom bouncer. The long leader allows the fish to recover and pay attention when his bait appears 6 to 7 feet behind the "bouncer."
At the end of the mega-leader Luers threads a frozen 4-inch-long shad headfirst onto the hook, so the J-part of the hook is sticking out of the shad's mouth. He then adjusts the speed of his trolling motor so that the line from the tip of his fishing rod to the bottom bouncer trails into the water at a 10- to 45-degree angle.
"Thirty degrees is optimum," he said. "Any more than 45 degrees and you're going so fast that the bottom bouncer loses contact with the bottom. Guys ask me how fast they should go, but I hate to quote an exact speed because it depends on the weight of the bottom bouncer they use, if there's a tailwind, what kind of line they use -- there are too many variables. If they just try and keep that line at around a 30-degree angle, their speed is about right."
If Luers is marking fish in association with the submerged jetties but his circle-hooked shad generate no strikes, he exchanges the circle hook and shad for a yellow or orange floating jighead. He tail-hooks a large live minnow to the floating jighead and slows his trolling motor until his line is nearly vertical.
"You want to go slower with that live minnow," he said. "Tail-hooking gives me more bites than lip-hooking, but you've got to move a little slower. I've also noticed that bigger minnows catch bigger walleyes when I'm fishing this way."
Luers often checks out the face of Saylorville's dam, depending on water level. The large riprap on the face of the dam is always attractive to predator fish species, but he's noticed that a line of willow trees on the face of the dam can be especially attractive to walleyes when the lake is high enough to flood those trees.
"On the face of the dam, I'll switch away from the bottom bouncers and start throwing crankbaits," he said. "I'll throw either a No. 7 Shad Rap or a No. 7 jointed minnow, usually in gold or silver. If the lake is high enough to flood those willows on the face of the dam, the water is probably pretty turbid, so brighter colors seem to work better. But I always have a dark-color and a bright-color crankbait rigged and switch back and forth as I'm casting. Sometimes (walleyes) will surprise you and take a color that really doesn't make sense according to the turbidity of the water."
Luers cautions diehard walleye anglers who cast crankbaits along the face of the dam in June to expect "annoying" competition for their crankbaits.
"During that time of year, channel catfish are spawning in the rocks on the dam, and you'll catch three catfish for every walleye you get," he said. "I love catfish as much as walleyes, so that's a bonus for me, but the real walleye fanatics get frustrated when their trophy 9-pound walleye turns out to be a 5-pound channel cat."
If Luers doesn't locate walleyes at discrete locations in the flood-level lake, he then targets large expanses by trolling at specific depths. Depending on water level, he looks for the 15-foot-deep contour line associated with the old river channel or major humps in the lake, then trolls crankbaits at 13 feet along that contour line.
"Sometimes the walleyes are scattered all over the lake when it's high, following schools of baitfish," he said. "Those are the times when I take off and troll. Trolling covers a lot of water and lets me find fish when they're scattered."
Precision is the key to Luer's trolling success. He spools all his reels with Berkley 10-pound-test Trilene XT mono and has carefully experimented to identify how deep various crankbaits run at different speeds using that diameter line.
"I normally put four rods out the back of the boat," he said. "Two will be rigged with No. 5 jointed Shad Raps, one dark colored, the other light colored. I'll put those two rigs around 100 to 110 feet behind the boat. Then I'll put out two more rods rigged with No. 7 orange, blue, silver or some other bright-colored rattling Shad Raps and pull them around 80 feet behind the boat. The speed will vary with wind and current, but usually I'm around 1.6 miles per hour."
Careful observations have proved that at that speed, with those crankbaits, at that distance behind the boat, the lures will run around 13 feet deep. By following the 15-foot contour line along the old river channel, Luers says his crankbaits are at Saylorville's prime walleye depth.
"I want the fish to see those big, bright, noisy Shad Raps first," he said. "If they're in an aggressive mood, they'll take them. If they're spooky, they'll back off. If they're just not paying attention and the first baits fire them up but they miss them, then along comes the smaller, quieter crankbaits about 20 or 30 feet farther behind. This way I've got something for active fish, for spooky fish and for fish that just weren't paying attention and needed to be woken up."
Luers admits that his high-water techniques require patience. "Every so often you can go out and do the bottom bouncers on the jetties, throw crankbaits along the dam, or troll the old river channel, and hit them right off and do real well. But when the lake is high, it's usually a process of elimination.
You've got to try the jetties, then the dam, maybe the parking lots, maybe the Big Creek Spillway, maybe do some trolling. If you go out there and expect to catch your limit in an hour or two, you're generally going to be frustrated. There's a lot of water in that lake when it's flooded, and it takes time to work through all the places where the walleyes might be."
While Luers slightly favors trolling, he admits it's a good way to "sightsee without catching fish." He skews the odds in his favor by trolling only in high-percentage spots.
"I'm not trolling aimlessly," he said. "I know from hours on the water that there are spots where walleyes tend to hang out at various water levels. And I kind of check those spots out before I start trolling, looking for fish on my electronics. I don't troll if I haven't marked either baitfish or larger predators."
Like other dedicated walleye anglers, Luers keeps to himself most of his best walleye hotspots, but offers hints of where he might fish when Saylorville's waters are high. He admitted to being fond of an area just north of the Mile Long Bridge, towards the west end of the bridge.
"At normal pool, there's a big log or stickup you can see from the bridge," he said. "Just to the east of that the old river channel drops down to 20 feet, even at normal pool, so it's even deeper when the lake is high. There are some contours associated with that deep spot that have been real good for me."
Luers also admits to being fond of the area just beyond the state Route 17 bridge, south of Madrid in Saylorville's upper reaches.
"When the lake is flooded, that's where it goes from being a lake back to more of a river, so there's more current and there's more of a distinct breakline along the sides of the channel," he noted. "Sometimes walleyes from the main lake like to move up into that current. There are times when pulling crankbaits along the sides of that river channel has been really productive."
Even though he's reluctant to reveal his secret spots for walleyes in Saylorville when the big lake is at flood level, he's confident that anglers can catch them with patience and a little luck.
"They're in there, and there are some nice ones," he said. "It's just a matter of figuring out how to get you, them and your bait in the same spot at the same time."