Minnesota'™s Best Spring Walleye Rivers
September 30, 2010
Adam Johnson is an aquatic biologist and a professional angler. If anyone knows how to find and catch our state's walleyes, it's him.
As far as Adam Johnson is concerned, there’s hardly a river that won’t be productive for walleyes in the spring.
“The river, any river, in the spring, is where all the action is,” he said. Johnson, an aquatic biologist and professional angler, uses the fact that walleyes are in a transition mode and on the move in the spring as the criteria for his statement.
“Spawning puts the walleyes in an easily patterned scenario that makes getting your lure in front of them a simple prospect,” he said. “On the bigger rivers where you find the dams, the walleyes migrate to these manmade barriers in the spring where they’re stopped. This concentration of fish makes it easier to target lots of them at this time.”
And on the rivers where a dam is not an obstacle?
“Walleyes will move out of lakes and into rivers to spawn as well,” explained Johnson. “Below a shallow riffle where the current washes over a rubble bottom is always going to be a productive area.”
Johnson admits that there are plenty of options besides dams and shallow rapids where walleyes can be found.
“It’s because all the fish don’t move at once,” he said. “From late March through mid-May in Minnesota, there will be walleyes moving upstream to find an area to spawn. While many of the fish are finished by the middle of this period, you always have some early movement and late spawners.”
With that in mind, Johnson recommends not only the dams and spawning sites on rivers as prime locations to fish, he recommends taking advantage of the current breaks as well.
“As walleyes move both upstream and downstream, the current breaks become not only resting places, but also spots from which to feed on the minnows, crayfish and whatever else is moving downstream with the current,” said Johnson. “Current breaks near the dams and spawning sites on a river can be just as productive as the area below these barriers.”
According to Johnson, the main component when deciding where to present bait is the water level. Rivers tend to fluctuate based on how much snow fell over the winter and how quickly that snow is melting. Spring rains can also affect how high the river is running and how fast the current is flowing.
“Walleyes in the river, when they’re on the move, are going to position themselves according to the current,” said Johnson. “If the water is high and the current is fast, you will not find many walleyes in the main channel. They don’t want to fight that current when they can slide up to the bank and follow the current breaks upstream.”
On the other hand, if the river is low and the current is slow, then those same walleyes won’t hesitate to stay out in the middle.
“Walleyes will still use current breaks to rest behind,” said Johnson, “like the tips of wing dams and islands off the main channel, but with less current the fish will move out away from the banks and follow a main channel upstream.”
Anglers on the river tend to follow the predictable game plan, according to Johnson, which is pitching a jig-and-minnow to a spot, letting it sink to the bottom and slowly dragging it back to the boat.
“While this is a productive presentation,” said Johnson, “there are plenty of other techniques that work just as well, or better, on the river.”
At a dam, where everyone else is trying to hold in a spot and pitch a jig, Johnson can often be found using a three-way swivel setup with a short swiveled snell and a minnow, and sliding his boat with his bow-mounted electric motor into eddies, up to the front of wing dams, and slipping along the edge of the base of a riprap shoreline.
Johnson also likes to use the bow-mounted electric motor to position the boat on wing dams and over rapids while he feeds out a crankbait. The current provides the flow to generate action on the lure and his electric motor holds him in position to just let the lure sit in a productive spot to catch the attention of the walleyes holding there.
“I don’t sit in one spot too long,” said Johnson. “There are certain spots on these current breaks where the walleyes congregate, and when I catch a fish, I’ll work that spot because chances are good there are more fish right there. Sometimes just getting off a spot by a few feet will be the difference in catching fish or not.”
Let’s look at a few of Johnson’s favorite spring river spots and what he does to catch fish.
ST. LOUIS RIVER
“Most of the spring walleye fishing on the St. Louis River takes place from the Highway 23 bridge to Duluth Harbor,” said Johnson. “There’s also some great fishing in Superior Bay right in front of Duluth.”
By opener there are still plenty of walleyes in the river that are migrating back to Lake Superior, according to Johnson. The main channel averages about 12 feet deep, which makes this river a perfect candidate for a three-way swivel rig.
“Keep the dropper line from the swivel no longer than 12 inches,” instructed Johnson. “Walleyes in current tend to hug the bottom and won’t come far off it to take a bait.
“The distance between the two banks is not much, so just get out in the middle of the river and let the spinner and minnow do the work,” added Johnson.
During high-water heavy-current situations, Johnson will slide the boat into a protected backwater area and cast shallow-running crankbaits.
“The walleyes are moving into the slack water to rest and feed, and a slow-moving crankbait that is wobbling just a foot or two below the surface will get the walleyes’ attention,” said Johnson.
Where the banks spread outward, like in Spirit Lake and through St. Louis Bay, Johnson will pull the three-way swivel rig along the edge of the channel or cast deeper-diving crankbaits to the e
dges of islands and around the pockets of vegetation.
“Of any of the rivers in Minnesota,” said Johnson, “the St. Louis ranks right up there in the top three for spring walleye fishing.”
ST. CROIX RIVER
Hastings To Stillwater
You’ll be competing with a lot of recreational boat traffic on the St. Croix River south of Stillwater, but the fishing is worth it. The channel is well marked, there’s a lot of current breaks to key on and the walleye fishing is at its finest in the spring.
“Some anglers like to buoy-hop on the St. Croix,” said Johnson as he described how trollers will just move from one marker to the next while pulling bottom-hugging crankbaits. “It’s effective, don’t get me wrong, but I just like to work shallower water and cast.”
Johnson will set up a drift using his bow-mounted electric motor to keep the boat in position, and he’ll cast a 1/4-ounce jig tipped with a white or chartreuse scented grub into 8 to 12 feet of water. The lure sinks to the bottom, and as it’s dropping, the boat is moving downstream along with it.
“When the jig touches bottom I start a slow retrieve back to the boat,” said Johnson. “I don’t let the lure get downstream past me. The jig stays between me and the shoreline.”
This bait will catch everything from sheepshead to catfish and the occasional pike, but when you do hook a walleye, move back upstream and drift there again, and again, until you aren’t catching any more walleyes in that spot.
Pool No. 4
The most popular spring river destination in the state is Pool No. 4 on the Mississippi River. While you may have to deal with some recreational traffic on the St. Croix in the spring, much of the traffic on this stretch of the Mississippi River is angler-related.
“This pool seems to stand up to the heavy pressure it receives,” said Johnson, “because every spring the success stories far outweigh the sad ones.”
Johnson breaks Pool No. 4 into three distinct regions. There’s Lock and Dam No. 3 where many of the anglers migrate in early spring. Lake Pepin is another unique spot that provides quality spring walleye potential. Then there’s Wabasha, which has a multitude of backwaters and bays, and is one of Johnson’s favorite late-spring spots.
“This section of the Mississippi River is open year-round, so you not only get some of the early spring spawners up at the dam, but you can follow the migration back to the lower end of the pool as they move from one end to the other,” said Johnson. “From mid-April until early June, there are walleyes spread out all over in this pool.”
Instead of joining the crowds, Johnson likes to fish the edges. He describes “the edges” as spots where you can see the current ebb in front of a backwater area. Wing dams are also one of his favorite spots to tempt walleyes.
“Where a backwater or a channel breaks off the main river, there will be a spot where the current lightens,” said Johnson. “You can actually easily see this. Walleyes will slide up to this edge and sit in an indentation on the bottom where an eddy has cut a dip. It’s a great spot to pitch a jig-and-minnow.”
Pool No. 5 & Pool No. 5A
If you want to fish wing dams on the Mississippi River, these two pools will provide you that opportunity. Johnson puts the boat in at Winona and heads upstream, working his way back from one wing dam to the next.
“If the river is high and the current is moving, I spend most of my time on the downstream sides of the wing dams,” said Johnson. “Slower current means the walleyes will be sitting on the upstream sides of the wing dams and they’re a little easier to get a lure in front of.”
Wing dams are notorious for eating lures and jigs, so Johnson recommends taking plenty of tackle along. One of his favorite techniques for working the upstream sides of the wing dams is a three-way swivel rig with a crankbait.
“The dropper should be about 18 inches long and the line from the swivel that holds the crankbait should be about two feet long,” said Johnson. “Some guys anchor above the wing dam, but I like to use the bow-mounted electric to hold position and then drift the lure into where the walleyes are right above the dam. I can just lift the rod tip and slip the boat over a few feet to another spot and then drop the lure back down, which lets me work from the shoreline edge to the tip of the wing dam. The current keeps the bait wobbling and you don’t need a lot of line out to put the lure where you want it.”
On the downstream sides of the wing dams it’s hard to beat a jig-and-minnow, according to Johnson. You cast the jig upstream toward the wing dam and let it settle to the bottom, hopping and popping it over the rock and rubble where the walleyes are sitting.
“I’ve got a beat-up prop I put on when I fish the Mississippi around St. Cloud,” said Johnson. “I won’t take my boat there if the water is low, but when the water is higher and the chances of me beaching on a gravel bar are low, I’m going to chase some walleyes there.”
Johnson admits that the Mississippi downstream from the St. Cloud dam can be full of surprises in the form of shallow gravel and sandbars, but if you’re careful you can navigate the deeper channels and get into some phenomenal spring walleye fishing.
“The bases of those shallow bars are loaded with walleyes and smallmouth bass,” said Johnson. “What I do is tie on a 1/4-ounce jig and tip it with a small sucker minnow. Just drop it right over the side of the boat and work it on the bottom over that rubble and sand.”
Johnson, along with a partner or two, will stay in chest waders while fishing the Mississippi out of St. Cloud so that if, or when, the boat needs a push off a bar, then the crew can just hop out and get moving again.
“Crankbaits can be deadly for walleyes on this section of the Mississip
pi,” said Johnson. “I like the shad-shaped baits that will just brush the bottom in about 8 feet as you run the lure along the base of the rapids.”
“I like to make a couple of trips to the Boundary Waters each year, and when I go in the spring I like to chase walleyes on the Kawishiwi,” said Johnson. “This river is going to be extremely productive in the spring because there’s hardly any fishing pressure. You have to take a canoe and get the permits, and people just don’t want to work that hard for a walleye.”
The section of the Kawishiwi River that Johnson is spending his time on is the South Fork north of Highway 1. “It’s a long portage, but it’s relatively flat,” said Johnson. “Get your permit early for this one because there’s a lot of paddlers that like this section of the river and it fills up fast.”
Johnson said that it’s not difficult to pick out the prime spots where the walleyes will be stationing in the spring.
“I carry a sonar with me, and wherever the bottom falls off quickly is a great spot,” said Johnson. “I just drop a jig-and-minnow to the base of that dropoff and wait for the bite.”
Johnson does anchor the canoe over these locations, using a heavy rock he’s picked up at his campsite.
“There’s no such thing as boat control in a canoe, so you have to be stationary if you’re going to work a location properly,” he said.
A current break along the shoreline is also a high-percentage location, according to Johnson.
“This usually consists of a downed tree that you would normally consider a prime location for bass, but up this far north it becomes a magnet for walleyes,” he said.
To keep from getting hung up in the branches, Johnson incorporates a jig with a weed guard and fishes the lure as vertical over the side of the canoe as possible.
“It often means I’m tied up to the tree,” he said.
* * *
Minnesota has some of the most productive lakes in the country, which means the rivers are often overlooked. “Except in the spring,” said Johnson. “If you have a canoe, the spring is the perfect time to drift the Crow Wing or the Rum. You can’t beat the Rainy River in the spring, and if it’s big numbers of walleyes, there’s not a spot on the Minnesota River where you can’t find some walleyes.”
So it must be true. In the spring there’s hardly a river that won’t be productive. Go find out for yourself!