September 30, 2010
Walleye fishing in the spring in our state is a tradition, but you don't have to go to the traditional hotspots to catch fish. Think outside the box and head for these waterways.
By Tim Lesmeister
We all know how crowded it gets on the Mississippi River in the spring. Sometimes I think there are more boats at the dams than there are fish in the river.
But I also believe those anglers who are dodging each other know what they are getting themselves into, so there's a lot of fun in the process. No one gets too excited as boats move in and out of position, and everyone seems happy to catch a walleye or two. I always say if you want peace and quiet on the river in the spring, the Mississippi River is not the place to go.
Truth is, if you want peace and quiet, and some outstanding walleye fishing as well, then there are plenty of other rivers to visit. Of course these other stretches of running water don't allow you to fish for walleyes until after the opener. But the wait is worth it.
There is little to no pressure on these other rivers, because anglers just don't want to forego the big boat and hop in a canoe or a small flat-bottomed watercraft to chase walleyes in the riffles and behind the natural current breaks. It's work to fish one of the smaller Minnesota rivers, but the walleye fishing can be beyond compare.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Let's look at the Cannon River for instance. The Cannon gets its start at Lake Tetonka and runs about 90 miles to the Mississippi River. Some of the best walleye fishing on this river is between Cannon Falls and Welch. I haven't explored that region between Faribault and Cannon Falls yet, but I've been told this is also a good stretch for walleyes.
On the Cannon River you can do just fine with one rod and a small box of jigs. Use a medium-weight spinning rod with 8-pound-test line. Tie on a 1/8-ounce jig, and if the fish are biting, just tip it with a scented plastic grub. If the fish are off the bite, then the addition of a minnow or leech can increase the odds.
Some of the best spots on the Cannon are the current breaks. Anywhere the channel gets diverted by a turn or an island, you should fish there. Cast the jig and drag it back over the bottom with the occasional hop and pop.
There are a lot of downed trees in the water on the shores of the Cannon, and these spots are walleye magnets. You'll likely also find some pike and smallmouth bass there, too, but you will be pleasantly amazed at how many walleyes use that timber as a current break to station on.
I will vouch for the fact that most of my fishing buddies cringe when I initially invite them to go canoe fishing with me on one of the small rivers here in Minnesota, but after one trip, they can't wait to go again.
The reason I make it so pleasant is I have nice padded seats with back support in the canoe. I also use clamp-on outriggers to give the canoes some stability. I'll admit it does make fishing much more enjoyable when you can set the hook without the anxiety of potentially tipping over.
I also fish some small rivers with a buddy who has a square-stern canoe. This watercraft has a wide keel, and with the four-horse gas motor mounted on the back there's few places we cannot go.
One of the rivers we fish in the square stern is the Cloquet River from the outlet at Island Lake Reservoir to about five miles downstream. The beauty of having a motorized canoe here is that after you work all the cuts, shoreline timber and inside turns for a few hours you can slowly motor back to the landing under the power of the motor.
The Cloquet, like any other river in the spring, can be running high and heavy so you want to make sure you check out the river flow. You can call the local DNR headquarters and get their impression, or visit their Web site at www.dnr.state.mn.us/riverlevels/index. You can find just about any stream or river in our state and how high the water levels are.
Getting back to the Cloquet. Having the square stern and a gas motor allows us to cast to all the shoreline current breaks as we drift downstream, and as we motor back up we can troll crankbaits. It's the perfect setup for straining the water.
One thing you can say about the walleyes in the Cloquet - and most other small rivers for that matter - is they fight hard. There's something about a river walleye that always makes you want to come back for more because they never give up. These fish know how to use the current and they bulldog into it shaking their heads and fighting all the way to the net. It's a lot of fun.
Last season we decided to modify our spring river program and chase some walleyes on the Upper St. Louis River. We heard that the water levels were going to be perfect for what we had in mind, so we put in at the Skibo Landing.
The St. Louis River is extremely beautiful at its starting point. There were a couple of small boats at the landing when we got there and I must admit some envy at the comfort they had compared to us.
We started out with jigs and minnows. There are plenty of nice bank cuts and inside turns, but fishing was tough, so we changed strategies. When we came to the mouth of a creek that was dumping into the river we started casting the same jigs with leeches and we started catching fish. Trolling back to the landing didn't produce anything for us, but I wrote it off to bad weather affecting the fishing. On a trip there a couple of weeks later - which I couldn't be at - my fishing partner said he nailed both smallmouths and walleyes. Now he wants us to explore some more of the river stretches downstream.
When the water levels are navigable on the Big Fork River in the spring, this is one of the prettiest rivers in the state. The walleye fishing can be good as well.
Since the canoe landings aren't that far apart on most stretches of this river it's a great one to take what I call "day trips" on. I get a few of my buddies; we load a few of my canoes, and we pitch camp at one of the hotels in International Falls.
When you are out early and drop the canoes off at one of the landings, have someone follow you to the next landing downstream where you drop off the trailer vehicle. Then it's back to the canoes to start the drift downstream.
When you go from Point A to Point B on the Big Fork it's nice because you can work all the turns, cuts and fallen timber, and take it nice and slow. You don't have to be in a hurry because it's only a short jaunt to the trailer vehicle.
On the southern sections of the Big Fork you will find some rapids and portages. It's no fun tipping over in that cold spring water so get out and carry the canoes over, even if it looks like it's easy to run. It isn't worth losing tackle, rods and getting soaked. If you do get tempted to run the easy ones, make sure you have everything tied down. A canoe goes over easy when it turns sideways.
The last small river worth noting before we look at some big-stream options is the Rum. This little jewel of a river is an awesome walleye fishery in the spring and quite popular with anglers who don't mind putting out some effort to land a lot of big fish.
The Rum from Princeton down to Anoka is loaded with access points, but don't get fooled by their close proximity to each other. The way this river twists and turns it can take a lot longer than it looks to get from one landing to another.
The best way to attack the Rum is to put in at one landing and work downstream to another where you have your pickup waiting. On most days the current is moving pretty good on every section of this river so paddling back to a spot is going to be pretty tough.
There are a lot of bends and shallow riffle areas on the Rum. Every one of these spots looks good, but don't get too locked in. Make a few casts with a jig, and if you catch a walleye, tie off and work the spot. After about 10 minutes if there are not fish biting in that spot, it's time to move on.
On the riffles, make all your casts quartering away toward upstream. As the jig washes over the shallow rubble, keep a tight line and when the lure drops off the downstream side of the rapids, let it drop and concentrate on feeling the bite. This is always where you get the hit. Those big walleyes lay at the base of the churning water, and when a morsel sinks down in front of them, they inhale it.
There are a few things to consider when fishing the small rivers in the spring. Wear a good pair of neoprene chest waders. It's amazing how often you exit the canoe when you are able to do so. With the waders you can hop in and out whenever you have water shallow enough, and the neoprene style is the safest.
Never remove your personal flotation device. Even in the shallowest water it's great to keep your head above water if you slip or tip.
I always carry a small pack with an extra pair of clothes wrapped in a plastic bag. It's here I also keep Power Bars, matches, some parachute cord and other stuff that might come in handy should I get stranded for some unforeseen reason.
The entire time we've discussed small rivers in the spring for walleyes, I realize some of you anglers have been twitching uncontrollably at the thought of being on the water and not having the benefit of your big boat. It's there you have all your rods and multiple tackle boxes. Sonar and GPS are right there on the console next to your compact disk player. And how does one function properly without their bow-mount electric motor? Well, lucky for you, there is the Minnesota, St. Croix and Mississippi rivers.
The Minnesota River really gets a limited amount of fishing pressure for walleyes in the spring, which is unusual, because the river has some outstanding spring walleye fishing.
In the past few years you are finding anglers entering the Minnesota River where it dumps into the Mississippi River and running up to the Mendota Bridge, and drifting back downstream working the channel and current breaks for walleyes.
The fishing has been good, probably because these walleyes haven't received much fishing pressure in the past. Boats tend to stack up at the point where the Mississippi and the Minnesota converge, but no one until recently thought much about heading up the Minnesota River to chase the walleyes that migrate up to spawn.
The St. Croix River is in fact a border river and does open a couple weeks earlier than the mid-May opener. During this period there are going to be a lot of boats working just about every section of the channel and any current breaks that hold walleyes. This will affect the walleyes in a negative way, so don't get your hopes up too high when fishing those 14 days before the actual statewide opener.
One tactic that does work well is one that has been refined by a fishing buddy of mine who has used it to win some major river tournaments. Michael Meyer Jr. is a fixture on the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers, and one of his productive techniques consists of trolling shallow-running crankbaits just a few yards from the shoreline.
So that the boat doesn't spook the fish as it motors past, Meyer keeps his watercraft far from the shoreline where he's trolling and gets his lure into the zone with the use of planer boards.
Meyer does admit some practice is involved with this technique because you are dodging downed timber and you will find yourself stuck in the wood, rocks and vegetation that is found in those shallow locations - at least until you get the hang of what lure works best in a particular location and what the bottom contour is like.
Meyer says this presentation works well when there are a lot of other anglers on the river and they're pushing the fish up close to the shore, or when the water is holding stable or slightly rising, which is typical in the spring. If the river level is falling, then the main channel is where the walleyes usually go.
The Mississippi River from the Ford Dam to Hastings is open year-round, but all the walleyes you catch there must be released. This obviously creates a tremendous big-walleye fishery. For the anglers that enjoy just catching a lot of hefty walleyes, this is one part of the river worth exploring. Obviously there are plenty of anglers that think so, because every spring this piece of river gets more crowded.
It isn't nearly as crowded as the section of the Mississippi from the dam at Pool No. 4 to Lake Pepin. Sometimes it's just a treat to run up to the dam on a beautiful spring day and watch all those boats chasing walleyes.
You have two types of anglers. There are those that have the bow-mount trolling motor down and a rod in each hand as they stand on the platform in the front of the boat and yoyo jigs. The fun begins when an angler gets bites on both rods at the same time. Then you have the old "tiller boys." They might have one rod in a rod holder, a deadstick as they like to call it. The other rod is in their hand. They are using a three-way swivel setup, or a Wolf River rig as it is commonly known. They use their transom-mounted outboard motor to slowly slip themselves upstream while the minnows on the snell below perform their magic.
Most of the time everything works just like a finely choreographed dance, but occasionally someone gets too close to another and the lines get tangled. Rarely do tempers flare as the anglers sort out their mess, but the flow of boats does become modified for awhile.
Anglers on Lake Pepin tend to work the shoreline rubble by casting crankbaits or pi
tching jigs tipped with minnows. There are still a lot of walleyes on the shallow cobblestone, and they seem to be exceptionally hungry during those sunny spring days.
In fact, there are few places on any of the rivers in Minnesota that won't be productive for walleyes in the spring. Those just mentioned are but a few options for anglers. Surprisingly in the past few years both the small and large rivers have become increasingly more popular to anglers chasing walleyes, but there seems to still be plenty of room on the bandwagon, so hop on. You'll discover the ride is worth it.
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