Crankin' For Slip-Sliding Walleyes
September 28, 2010
Sure, people are catching walleyes near the dams on rivers at this time of year, but there are even more fish downstream that haven't ever seen a hook! (April 2007)
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
The old saying "What goes up must come down" can be applied to walleyes after their spring spawning run in a river.
Legions of walleye chasers will be out there jigging and rigging for their wallhanger when the fish head upstream. Few anglers, if any, remain on the water when consensus amongst the most revered local river rats is that the big parade is over. Many people head for other rivers where the walleye wedding march plays a week or two later. Others stow their rods and get back to work.
Back when I was a professional firefighter, April was time to be a walleye gypsy by traveling literally thousands of miles to be there when fish were pointed upstream and eager to feed. Nowadays, I seldom travel more than a couple hundred miles from home, supplementing my fire department pension with a little more guiding work. Clients don't want to hear "you shoulda been here last week" at the end of the spawning run and before fish actively move into summer feeding patterns several weeks later.
As a guide, you may be able to tell folks that walleyes spawn primarily over rocky rubble bottom at night when water temperatures warm to 45 to 48 degrees. You can also tell those paying to sit in your boat that the big female fish they wanted to dance with for possible inclusion on the trophy wall at home is sitting in a slack-bellied post-partum funk with no interest in feeding. And that comes as close to telling the truth as a fisherman ever gets. But clients don't want to hear about last week, or see your card tricks, or marvel at your turkey-calling prowess without benefits of a call. Those 'eyes haven't left the river, so what are you going to do?
You may start with a reference to Wanda, that old female walleye now skulking near the bottom in an attempt to recover from losing nearly one-third of her body weight overnight during spawning. Catch and release of female walleyes is growing in popularity. Trust me, the hardest fish you will ever set free is your first walleye over 10 pounds. If you plan on keeping a few 'eyes for the pan, fishing is all about catching walleyes from legal size up to about 20 inches anyway. And these male walleyes have been on a feeding rip since the spawn -- much like teen-aged boys after dumping off their prom dates.
The key is presentation. Hooking up means putting something desirable in front of the fish you want to catch. You could be a veritable jigging machine, but after the spawn, the only bug-eyed fish that will see your jig hopping seductively over the rocky bottom are those big post-spawn females. Male walleyes are sliding back downstream from where they came, but in no particular hurry. They just coast a little higher in the water column, which has probably warmed at least a few more degrees beyond that 45- to 48-degree mark when the focus of the entire adult walleye population was centered on spawning.
Like post-prom teen-aged boys craving a burger, shake and fries, post-spawn walleyes want a presentation that's a little snappier than a jig or rig slowly crawled along the rocky rubble bottom. We're talking about a presentation that practically screams crankbait!
Knowing that active fish have relocated higher in the water column is only part of the equation. Getting them to bite means homing in on a lure profile close to the forage base found in the river this time of year. Bear in mind, walleyes aren't the only fish with spawning urges pounding in their little brains. In many rivers, runs of other species like white bass come right on the heels of the walleye run. There could also be a dozen minnow species with more slender profiles that are also in various stages of making the pilgrimage upstream.
If you are on one of those rivers where white bass are the next species to be moving upstream, a chrome/ black or white Rat-L-Trap -- or a white twistertail on a jighead -- can keep your rod in a state of perpetual bendage. There are very few young-of-the-year baitfish swimming in the river in April. Walleye food on the way back downstream is primarily mature baitfish, smaller fish like little white bass, and possibly insects.
Chances are the water you are fishing is somewhat discolored by spring runoff. Post-spawn male walleyes may be sliding back downstream a little higher in the water column, but they're still passing through unfamiliar territory. Start by probing the mid-depths under a bright sky, and the top 2 feet of the water column at dawn, dusk and in between. If the fish are used to living in perpetually stained or dirty water, the bite may be in the top 2 feet of the water column at mid-day. But if you're fishing a tributary of a major river where the local landscape is already cleared of snow, those walleyes used to carrying out their evil deeds in the shadows may be wary until the sun goes down.
A number of lure profiles will work for these slip-sliding walleyes, with a common denominator found in making a steady retrieve rather than trying to animate the bait with little twitches of the rod tip. The key is putting your offering in the walleye's strike zone, which is probably just a couple of feet both horizontally and vertically, since the water is still fairly cold and the fish are most active at night.
About 30 years ago, the folks at Rapala came out with their Countdown model that sank at the rate of about one foot per second. This lure is still one of my go-to baits for post-spawn walleyes because it allows quick experimentation by using primordial math skills to probe depths until active walleyes are found.
The key is putting your offering in the walleye's strike zone, which is probably just a couple of feet both horizontally and vertically, since the water is still fairly cold and the fish are most active at night.
The most economical lure is a basic twistertailed K-Grub on a 3/16- to 1/4-ounce jighead. Cast, count down and retrieve. I prefer 3- to 4-inch K-Grubs rigged with the fliptail curling downward. In clear water, firecracker, cotton candy, clear hologram and purple seem to work best. In off-colored waters, chartreuse, orange, yellow and white catch more fish.
Jighead color doesn't seem to be as critical as twistertail color choice, so unpainted jigheads work quite well. But if I had one choice for all water clarity conditions in the spring, orange would get the nod.
The traditional ballhead jig works just fine for this kind of fishing. But if you're looking for the hands-down best jighead for fishing plastics, the Precision Jighead sold by B-Fish-N Tackle Company is really hard to beat.
Even with a "designer" jighe
ad, the cost of this rig is about 25 cents, 30 cents tops. But cost is not an issue to a walleye angler who has had nothing better to do for the past several months than peruse sporting goods catalogs and cruise bait shops. Those $6 glass-pattern Shad Raps and $15 Lucky Craft Pointer stick baits that caught you in a weak moment will also catch walleyes -- if you put the baits in front of the fish.
Location is always a major component in the fish-catching equation. When you're targeting post-spawn walleyes in rivers, think "ambush." Although the walleyes are drifting lazily back downstream higher in the water column after the spawn, just walking down to the riverbank and casting willy-nilly is never a high-percentage option.
Thinking like a walleye greatly enhances your chances for success. Although post-spawn males are eager to eat, they don't want to work too hard at chasing down food. Fan-casting at the leading edge of a quiet riffle, ghosting in the quiet slack water next to fast water in a back eddy or similar locale behind a deadfall, rock or other barrier is where these fish tend to congregate on the slide back down from whence they came. It's even better to make 100 casts at the epicenter of a "fish funnel" like the downstream edge of a bridge piling at the edge of the current.
Although a boat certainly gives you access to more potential fish-staging areas than from limited ambush points from shore, this post-spawn walleye recession slide is one time when the shore-angler or wading angler has tremendous potential to leave the river with a hefty stringer of eaters. Unlike the frenzied hours when fish were on a mission to get upstream, this bite can last a week or more. You don't need an expansive tackle inventory to get hooked up either. One medium spinning rod, a pocket tackle box with a few crankbaits, K-Grubs and jigheads, a pair of pliers, hip boots and a stringer is all you need to be a player.
If you want to go walleye "catching," sneak down to a river after work and pitch a crankbait or plastic twistertail. "Dressing for success" can be an excellent strategy, too, so wear a nice sport shirt, pants and tie. River rats will think you are just some idiot who doesn't know the run is over. Just remember to keep the stringer tied off a good 20 feet from where you are fishing -- and don't set the hook when somebody is watching!