Rigging For River '™Eyes

Put an experienced lake fisherman on a river and the sensory nerves light up. He notices and reacts to things that are taken for granted by the regulars.

Angler Paul Nelson hauled in a fat spring walleye.
Photo by Noel Vick.

To truly realize the nuances of rivers one must also understand natural lakes. Such training is essential to appreciate the uniqueness of running water pulling on your line like a drawn bow; how walleyes face upstream and treat current breaks like structure; how anchoring can be the equivalent of covering water when fish are on the move.

River buffs recognize the relationship between running water and walleyes. But an experienced lake fisherman — well, put him on a river and the sensory organs light up. He notices and reacts to things that are taken for granted by river regulars.

Enter exhibit A, Tom Neustrom. The busier-than-heck guide earns a living pounding out natural lakes, and he's a whiz at it. Neustrom feels equally as comfortable on a river. Why? The veteran walleye fisherman pays attention to detail and is a quick study. When in Rome, Neustrom becomes a Roman.

He runs rivers from time to time, building plans around the post-spawn period when walleyes are allegedly dormant. Locals who battled boats and slammed fish during the pre-spawn heydays are likely out chasing turkeys. So, Neustrom takes the opportunity to activate post-spawn walleyes in privacy.

River holes are his thing.

"Walleyes hole up for a simple reason," said Neustrom with conviction that only comes from experience. "They're recovering from the spawn and need to get out of the current."

The term "hole" is certainly up for interpretation, too, but in this case, Neustrom is matter of fact. "It's a dip in the main channel. Things might be running at 10 to 12 feet and suddenly it plunges to 16 or 25 feet. That's a hole."

Said holes occur throughout the span of a river, but it's those nearest known spawning areas that fill up first. If you're not certain where walleyes repopulate, a manmade dam is a prime point of orientation. Instinctively, walleyes forge upstream in advance of the spawn. Dams force them to call it quits. Fish make ends meet with what's available. And when the baby-making is complete, they drift downstream, ducking into nearby oases — Neustrom's holes.

"Walleyes suck into the holes," he said. "There's less current, but when they do decide it's time to eat, all they need to do is rise to the upper lip." That's a fine place to begin, but before dropping the anchor, let's qualify the hole.

Neustrom's keystone spots materialize along fast-running outside bends. "Water runs quicker along an outside curve. And you can bet it's deeper there, scooped out."

Those washouts are a safe harbor for recovering walleyes and the larger the hole the more fish it likely houses — pretty typical stuff. But size isn't all that Neustrom seeks. He requires definition as well, "Better holes have a definitive upper lip, a quick break, not a gradual slide."

Neustrom calls the opposite a divot. They have smooth, tapering edges and aren't nearly as attractive to walleyes.

"Resting or not, walleyes want to be near structure, an edge," he said.

From Superman's perspective — X-ray vision included — a hole has a teardrop shape. The head — upstream flank — opens, maybe widens some and slims down into the tail, where eventually the river-channel reconstitutes.

Business is conducted on the front, especially the break between the bottom of the hole and front lip. "Walleyes use the front, not the back," explained Neustrom. "The front corners are the best."

Neustrom plies back and forth athwart the head, crosscurrent, finding those spots where the stiff upper lip starts bending backward. That's a key contact point.

Mostly, the leading edge washes across a firm bottom, generally gravel. The hardpan continues down the ramp and to the base of the hole. Somewhere along the line, though, dictated by decelerating current, gunk settles and the river floor softens. And according to Neustrom, walleyes don't hover over mud.

"That's basically dead water, not somewhere a walleye will sit," he said.

As holes dissolve downstream, they often produce a debris field. You'll see deadheads and other debris — regrettably, some manmade — piled up, each spring bringing new erosion, uprooted trees and dock sections.

"Walleyes will use downstream structure, like a logjam, if there's current and a clean bottom. Just don't expect to find numbers of fish there," he said.

Water clarity plays a role too. Neustrom finds that walleyes are more dispersed in colored water, say following heavy rains or the spring melt. They find solace from the current behind shoreline-oriented structures, like pools below wingdams and flooded timber. Oppositely, clearer water concentrates fish and they like massing in Neustrom's holes.

So, let's assume walleyes have assembled in a hole. By using electronics, you have a feel for its shape and depth range and also locate the head and corners; time to anchor and soak a jig. River goers regularly "slip" and slow troll holes, blanketing large tracts of water, but never sit over fish for long, which can be detrimental. "Remember, these fish are likely neutral, even negative, so you need to keep the bait in their faces," he stresses.

Neustrom picks a spot, anchors and only relocates as necessary. His technique is thorough, too, giving sleepy fish a chance to pinpoint his presentation. Doing so requires precision anchoring.

"I drop anchor 10 to 15 yards above the front edge and let out 50 to 60 feet of rope," he explained. "Anchored correctly, the bow of the boat ends up on the lip and the back over the beginning of the break."

Naturally, there are variations in anchoring distances and rope length, but his calculations provide a sound start.

Once situated, Neustrom first addresses active walleyes. "If there are any hot fish, they'll be on the top of the break." His technique is simple but requires some artistry and practice. Neustrom casts upstream at the 10 o'clock position — 2 o'clock angle off the starboard side — le

tting the jig set down and begin tumbling downstream.

This is the perfect place to define his presentation — plenty of live bait, some plastics and always a jig. He carries an array of weights, too, but a certain few see the most action. Depending on current speed and depth, he operates with 1/4- to 1/2-ounce jigs, with a 3/8-ouncer tied on most of the time. The trick is selecting a jig that reaches the bottom, rolls with the current but doesn't get hung up.

Color also carries weight — pun intended — as does sound in certain circumstances. Neustrom likes chartreuse and green in clear water and goes to orange and pink in cloudier conditions. Contrasting two-tone jigs are universally preferred.

Turbid water begs for noise. River-going walleyes utilize all their senses, vibrations to the lateral line included.

"Rattles draw attention," Neustrom said. His pick of the litter is the Northland Fishing Tackle Buck-Shot Rattle Jig, which was designed with dirty rivers in mind.

Collared or spinner jigs have river written all over them as well. The rotating metal not only acts as an attractant, but also slows jig speed. Big profiles and slow movements are superb characteristics in a river jig. The Blakemore Road Runner Walleye Head and Patterson's Real Bait Walleye Flasher are two spinner jig options. Neustrom counts on a Northland Whistler Jig, which features a spinning, airplane-prop-styled collar.

Bladed and spinning jigs work beautifully with his retrieve, too. After casting, instead of ripping or snapping back to the boat, Neustrom drags the jig, letting the blades do their thing. His foundational retrieve is a "hold and drag, hold and drag" cadence employing two foot pulls. Again, the key is maintaining contact with the bottom, but not donating jigs to the river.

Out of the chute, Neustrom tips his jig with a minnow, preferably a live rainbow.

"They're tough and aerodynamic, cutting nicely through the current," He hooks them through the chin and out the top of the head, keeping the presentation as linear as possible.

To fish faster, or create an even larger, more aggressive stature, Neustrom uses a color-matched grub body instead of live bait. Four inches is about right.

It's worth peppering a position before relocating. "River fish come and go," he explained. "They'll arrive in waves in a good spot. And even if I don't catch one immediately, if the spot feels right, I'll give it a workout."

Now that's a whole lot of river intel from this Lord of the Lakes. But I've seen him operate. There isn't a set of circumstances he can't master, moving water included.

Get Your Fish On.

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