Winter on Missouri's big river doesn't faze these fish. Brave the cold to get into some first-rate angling on the Mississippi.(February 2008).
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
Braving the winter winds and finger-numbing cold to pursue the saugers and walleyes on the big river isn't everyone's cup of tea. Stiff breezes along the water and plummeting temperatures can make chasing these fish a bit uncomfortable -- but for those willing to take to the water in the early-spring weather, good fishing awaits.
The best fishing in Ross Dames' neck of the woods is in pools 20, 21, 22, 24 and 25 on the . The Missouri Department of Conservation fisheries management biologist knows, because he has his finger on the pulse of the river's fishery.
"It's a winter fishery," he said. "In September, the walleyes and saugers start to migrate upstream towards the dams. The fish start to concentrate in the pools under the dams, and that's when the fishing is good. The good angling starts as early as October and goes through February and maybe into March. Below the dams in the tailwaters is where you'll find them."
The Mississippi is a hit-or-miss fishery throughout the winter, said Dames. One day you'll be taking fish, and the next day you won't even know they're there. Though most of the fish are smaller, the walleyes can run up to 25 inches and the saugers up to 20.
Typically, live night crawlers, minnows or leeches are the bait of choice for most sauger and walleye anglers on the Mississippi, said Dames. When the current is strong, weights of up to 1/2- or 3/4-ounce may be necessary to keep the bait on the bottom.
If there are seven or eight boats on each of the pools, it's a busy day on the water. Surprisingly, river fishing is popular with only a small contingent of regular Missouri anglers, putting the fishing pressure on the light side. There's plenty of room to spare for visiting anglers who would like to sample the fishery.
"Fishing near St. Louis for walleyes and saugers is best below the Clarksville and Winfield dams starting in the fall, when water temperatures fall below 60 degrees," said MDC fisheries management biologist Danny Brown, of St. Charles.
"Some fish are caught below the Mel Price Dam in Alton, but not as many as under the more upstream dams. The river needs to be in a normal to low flow pattern for good fishing. Once it gets high and muddy, the fishing can get tough. I typically tell anglers that fishing is best when the stage at Winfield Dam is around 17 (feet) or less."
According to Brown, most anglers bounce 3/4- to one-ounce jigs tipped with minnows off the bottom near current breaks in the turbulent water below the dams. A trolling motor comes in handy to keep the line vertical in the water column for those wanting to jig. Some anglers use crankbaits along the shallower water between wing dikes and land some nice fish.
The river can be low and clear in the winter, and anglers can take advantage of the concentrated fish below the dams by fishing with the old stand-by -- a jig and minnow combination.
Tip a lead-head jig with a 2- or 3-inch shiner or fathead minnow, and then put a tiny piece of plastic from a worm or grub body on the hook's point. This will keep the minnow on and not interfere with hooking percentages.
Marie Schulte has been a fixture along the river for years. She's worked at Rick's Bait and Tackle under four owners and knows the ins and outs of walleye fishing on the big river.
"In February there will be a two-week window (when) the fish are really hitting," said Schulte. "You can limit out without much of a problem during that period. But it really depends on what the water level is doing. If the water is high, anglers will have trouble catching fish in the early spring, so it's impossible to predict when that two-week window will be."
Schulte's picks are the Winfield and Clarksville area dams. All winter long, anglers in winter gear are out on the water, as long as the weather isn't severe and the river frozen over.
According to Schulte, the best rig on the river is a jig-and-minnow combination with a little twist. Put a minnow on a first hook and attach a stinger hook to round out this very effective bait. When a fish chases the minnow, it'll get hooked on the stinger.
Schulte said that most of the walleyes run from 9 to 14 inches, with a few reaching 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 pounds.
Leadlining is another favorite trick used by locals to tempt a few pre-spawn fish into biting their jig or crankbait. Troll upstream with color-coded leadcore line on a trolling rod for the best lure action. Be certain to let out enough line for the bait to contact the bottom. Bumping along on the bottom is the goal, so use relatively inexpensive baits to avoid becoming gun-shy, as the chances are good that you'll lose a few lures.
The water can be turbulent, owing to run-off. Given the muddy water, the walleyes and saugers will probably bite well during the sunniest part of the day and back off some during low-light periods.
Keeping the bait on the bottom is key, no matter if you're trolling or casting. Jigheads weighing up to an ounce are sometimes needed. Jigs and weights that are too light represent the most common mistake made by anglers here. Late-winter 'eyes and saugers are bottom-huggers and often will ignore bait moving well above them in the water column.
Southern Missouri anglers don't fare nearly as well as their northern neighbors, according to MDC fisheries management biologist Lynn Schrader. Below the St. Louis area, the Missouri River joins the mighty Mississippi and the river turns into good catfish water but loses its 'eyes and saugers.
"We don't have many good walleye holes in the St. Louis reach of the Mississippi River," said Schrader.
Mark Haas, another fisheries biologist, agrees.
"There's not much to offer in the way of walleye and sauger fishing in the river in southeast Missouri," said Haas. "I haven't heard of people fishing specifically for those species at any time of the year (here). When we set nets for sturgeon sampling we occasionally take a few saugers, but no walleyes."
New Madrid County Conservation Agent Rodney Ivie has seen a few saugers and a walleye come out of the river in his county, but catching them was a relative fluke. It would take a special eye for good habitat to find the few walleyes and sa
ugers that venture this far south.
Even in the northern Missouri pools, the walleye population has been down for quite a while and no one knows why.
"We're looking into it," said Dames. "It could be that the dams are blocking the migrations, a problem in the habitat or other factors we don't know about, but I'm sure it's not a harvest issue."
A tagging study is underway and Dames encourages anglers to call the phone number on the tag when a tagged fish is taken. Conversely, saugers appear to be thriving throughout the Mississippi River.
Shore-bound anglers essentially are limited to the earthen parts of the dam. Bank fishermen probably won't be able to reach the fish since they'll concentrate in two or three areas in a pool, usually away from the shoreline in the deeper water. The walleyes and saugers will be in schools that boaters can tap into easily, but bank fishermen are likely to end up missing the action. Though smaller rivers offer excellent shoreline opportunities, fishing the Mississippi River for walleyes and saugers usually demands a boat.
Launch ramps are provided throughout the length of the river and this area is no exception. Each pool in this area of the state has a ramp that allows access.
Anchoring below and off to the side of fast current can, at times, put anglers right on the fish. Walleyes and saugers will rest just outside of the fastest water, and a well-placed jig and minnow or a deep-running crankbait can be dynamite. If a boater isn't careful, the current can become a problem.
Safety is always an issue on the Mississippi River. Maintaining the recommended 200-yard leeway both upstream and downstream from the dams can help avoid situations that can quickly turn tragic. Use a fluke or Navy-style anchor with more than enough rope to stay in one spot in the wind and current. Upwards of 50 or 60 yards of rope isn't out of the question.
Navigation charts from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are available for a price from Gone West at 1-800-537-7962.
For more information contact the MDC's St. Louis regional office at (636) 300-1953.