Between the time ice-fishing season closes and the regular fishing season begins, you'll find die-hard walleye fishermen exploring the tailwaters of dammed rivers like the Wisconsin, Wolf and Mississippi. (February 2008).
Photo by Judy Nugent
Between the time the ice-fishing season closes and the regular season begins, you'll find die-hard anglers exploring the big rivers for walleyes -- but not just any walleyes.
These guys are big -- averaging 8 to 10 pounds with an occasional fish tipping the scales at 13 pounds -- and hungry, and they may be your best chance at landing a trophy. But finding them is the trick.
You know the old adage -- location, location, location. And during this time of year, the best locations are below dams on large rivers like the Wisconsin, the Wolf and the Mississippi.
In early spring, instinct steps in forcing the walleyes to succumb to the overpowering urge to reproduce. They travel upstream in the big rivers searching for suitable spawning structure. The dams, however, slow the migration, forcing large schools to stack up in the tailwaters.
Don't feel too sorry for them. They can still swim upstream, the dams just slow them down. But there is another reason why the walleyes like the dams -- food. (Continued)
"The dam acts as a big aerator bringing more oxygen into the water and attracting baitfish," said Jim Lodemier of the Great Alma Float. "Perfect conditions for walleyes."
You know the fish are below the dam, but where exactly do you start fishing? The exact location may vary depending on structure and time of day. Walleyes seek different places depending on the type of bottom, the current, the time of day, water clarity and depth. At midday when the sun is brightest, walleyes like deep, rocky holes from 12 to 18 feet deep where they can duck out of the current to rest. At dawn and dusk, lower light levels make it more comfortable for them to move out of deep holes into shallow, sandy areas in search of food.
A good place to make the first cast is in a seam where fast water meets slower water. Walleyes will sit in that seam watching for crippled baitfish coming over the dam. With water temperatures hovering between 35 and 38 degrees, the walleyes are searching for an easy meal. Use precise casting to hit that seam and bounce your bait downstream.
Another spot to try takes a page out of the boat fisherman's manual. Cast into slower water behind an obstruction. Walleyes are accustomed to spending plenty of time in the current, but they still need a rest now and then. A current break allows them to get a quick rest out of the swift water before they head upstream again. This could be a fallen tree or a cement fixture of the dam. These structures are unique to each dam and will likely change through the course of the season.
You know fish are below
the dam but where exactly
do you start fishing?
Walleyes seek different
places depending on the
type of bottom, the current,
the time of day, water
clarity and depth.
The good news is that these locations are found on all the major rivers. The DePere has received plenty of attention in recent years for big, hungry spring walleyes. But these same obstructions, deep holes and hungry fish are found on the Wisconsin, the Wolf and the Mississippi. Find a good map of the river you want to fish and look for structures that migrating walleyes will use.
Pay attention to when you are fishing. Is it pre-spawn, the height of the spawning run or post-spawn?
Walleyes will be in different places depending on where they are in that cycle. As with all fish, some spawn early and some spawn late, but if you are having difficulty finding fish, it could be because they have moved on to another location.
But there is more to dam fishing than structure and time of day. To further your odds for taking home a monster, you should become accustomed to the best fishing techniques.
"The old tried-and-true method is vertical jigging," Lodemier said. "The key is getting that jig on the bottom. There is a variety of currents you have to deal with depending on how the gates are set and you have to have enough weight to get to the bottom."
He said some people treat river walleyes like lake walleyes and use small jigs tipped with small minnows.
"The jigs will never sink deep enough to be effective," he said. "I can tell you all about size and color, but none of it matters if you don't get it to the bottom."
Lodemeir recommends using a 6- foot, 6-inch medium rod with 9-pound line. If you can't feel the jig hitting the bottom, try a heavier one.
Use a 5/8- to 3/4-ounce hair jig in a natural color. Known as Killer Jigs, the most popular patterns are flat-headed and have a treble hook stinger. Blue, black and green seem to be the most popular colors and they are traditionally not fished with live bait.
Using this size jig, you should be able to feel the bottom. Vertical jigging is preferable to casting provided you are positioned directly above the seams in the current. At the same time, you can better control the action of the jig and tempt these walleyes into striking. This technique may also help you keep that favorite jig. Rocky bottoms are notorious for eating them.
Now that you have the right jig, you need to perfect your presentation.
"Be prepared for snags," said Tim Shurson, a frequent river fisherman. "If you aren't getting snags, you aren't deep enough. Rip the jig up with a full sweep of your arm and let it settle back to the bottom. If that isn't working, cast up toward the dam, let it sink to the bottom and then alternate flicking the jig with retrieving a few cranks on the reel. To do this correctly, snap the rod tip up, and then let the jig sink back to the bottom. When you snap the rod tip, the jig should rise a good 3 or 4 feet off the bottom. When the walleye hits, you'll know it."
"Some people treat river walleyes like lake walleyes
and use small jigs. . . .
Jigs never sink deep enough
to be effective. I can tell you
all about size and color,
but none of it matters
if you don't get it
to the bottom."
There are other artificial bait choices that are effective, but they aren't usually tried until the jigs prove ineffective.
The first is sonar. It's a bl
aded bait with a pulsing action to get their attention. This action can help bring the walleyes to you instead of the other way around.
"They buzz pretty aggressively," Shurson said. "When you snap your rod, it really gets their attention."
The other choice is a Dave's Kaboom shiner. Meant to imitate a minnow, they can be deadly when walleyes are keying in on baitfish attracted to the dams.
Len Warland, a river fisherman from Eastman, said, "Use a Kaboom in silver, chartreuse, metallic yellow with a black stripe or firetiger colors. These only come in one size and can be used with a dropper line with a 10-ounce sinker and a 4- to 6-foot leader.
"Another choice is a 1/2-ounce jig tipped with a plastic twister or a ringworm tail," he continued. "The trick to this style of fishing is to keep contact with the bottom, and keep your line at about a 45-degree angle to the water."
The owners of Hubbard's Fishing Float offer another choice, a jig called the "One Eye." It is hand-painted with hooks coming out of both ends. Tipped with a plastic worm, it can be deadly.
While artificial lures are effective, some fishermen still prefer live bait served up on a river rig made from a three-way swivel.
Shurson uses FireLine for his main line from the reel to the swivel, but said that regular 8-pound monofilament works as well.
From the second swivel, attach a dropper line with a sinker that will bounce off the bottom. The length of the dropper line depends on where you want the bait to be. If fish are suspended a foot from the bottom, set the dropper line at one foot. Try a 1-ounce sinker first, and then adjust the weight according to the strength of the current.
On the third swivel, attach an 18-inch leader with a 30-
inch No. 6 snelled hook tipped with a minnow. Later in the season, when the water warms, leeches are also effective.
The Fishing Float owners should be able to tell you exactly what bait walleyes are keying on and often have it for sale. Some fishermen also put blades, similar to the sonar's blades, near the hook. Again, the pulsing action helps get your offering noticed.
The idea is to coax a strike by placing food right in front of its nose. Using a river rig allows precise and constant presentation, one a walleye eventually can't resist.
As in most fishing situations, it helps to bring plenty of common sense with you. Spring can mean frozen launches, ice floes and hidden debris, not to mention strong currents.
Unfortunately, it seems someone makes the mistake of getting too close to a dam every year. I've seen pictures of capsized boats, trapped fishermen and heard horror stories of heroes who tried to save them. Pay attention to the warning signs posted around dams and make sure you don't become a statistic.
In early spring, instinct
steps in, forcing walleyes to
succumb to the overpowering urge to reproduce. They travel upstream in the big rivers searching for suitable spawning structure. The dams, however, slow the migration, forcing
large schools to stack up
in the tailwaters.
If you want to forget your boat all together, consider one of the permanent barges positioned directly below a lock and dam. These are found primarily on the Mississippi River and for a nominal fee they will shuttle you to the float where you can rent rods, eat at the restaurant or fish.
There is usually a float positioned just below the dam where all that water is churning. While boat-fishermen must battle currents and menacing warning signs, float-fishermen sit comfortably on some of the best water.
Getting there is easy with good parking and a shuttle boat to ferry you to the float. Docks may hold as many as 150 people at a time, but it's rarely that busy. It is a great place to fish if you have a family, have special needs or just hate being confined to your boat.
Of course, the ultimate reason to fish a float is its prime location. Suzanne Neisius, who works at Hubbard's Float below the Lynxville dam, said, "You have a better chance on a float than a boat because we have 40-foot holes, different rock structures, a back eddy that swoops under the dock and access to shallows."
If you want the walleye of a lifetime, spring river fishing
is your best bet. There are other times of the year that you might catch more fish, but you will likely catch the biggest fish in the spring. Some of these fish are heavy because they are females full of eggs. Consider releasing these fish because for every big female you catch there are several big males right behind her. By releasing the females, you can help assure high-quality walleye fishing in Wisconsin's rivers.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
The Great Alma Float near Lock and Dam No. 4 is owned and operated by Jim and Tim Lodemier and offers food, limited lodging, handicapped accessibility and fish-cleaning services. Seven-day passes are available at $14 a day with reduced rates for children. For more information, call (608) 685-3474 or visit the Web site at www.almafishingfloat.com
The Fountain City Bar and Float is located under Lock and Dam No. 5A, 25 miles north of La Crosse. The day fee is $6 and the float is handicapped accessible. For more information, call (608) 687-8286.
The Tremplo Fishing Float is located under Lock and Dam No. 6 near Trempealeau and offers leisure fishing.
Clement's Fishing Barge is located by Lock and Dam No. 8 near Genoa. Fishing fees are $14 a day for adults and $5 for children. Genoa is 17 miles south of La Crosse. For more information, call 1(800) 903-4903 or visit www.clementsfishing.com
Hubbard's Fishing Dock and Café, owned and operated by Bill Hubbard Jr., is located below Lock and Dam No 9, also called the Lynxville dam, 10 miles north of Prairie du Chien. Fees are $13 for day fishing and $18 at night. This float is also handicapped accessible. For more information, call (608) 732-1084 or visit the Web site, www.hubbardsfishingfloat.com