April 13, 2021
By Dr. Jason Halfen
An annual ritual is occurring right now in rivers across the Midwest. Within these moving waters, large numbers of walleyes are beginning to gather—first to feed, and then to spawn—as winter’s snows give way to the first leaves of spring. Not far behind are throngs of anglers, many of whom have spent the past several months staring down 8-inch holes in the ice. These folks are now ready to ease the boat off the trailer for the first time since fall and cast a line across open water.
Dr. Jeremy Frigo, a USCG-licensed charter captain and walleye fishing enthusiast on the Upper Mississippi River, knows this pre-spawn walleye ritual well. For more than 15 years, "Doc" Frigo has maintained a meticulous fishing log any data-driven scientist would admire, which documents not only prevailing weather conditions and fish caught, but also the key variables for success on any river: water temperature, clarity, stage (level) and perhaps the most important—flow.
"Whenever I have a first-time river angler in my boat, the first lesson I teach them is that finding river walleyes is all about current, which we commonly refer to as flow," says Frigo. "There’s no more critical time for understanding flow and its impact on walleye location than late winter, leading into the pre-spawn and spawn periods. When fishing a lake, walleye anglers look for humps, reefs and dropoffs, but on a river those kinds of structural elements are secondary to flow."
We begin our early-spring walleye seminar by considering typical river conditions from February into early March. "One thing that will absolutely blow your mind is that in late winter, even below major metropolitan areas like the Twin Cities, the Mississippi River has the same water clarity that you’d encounter in a freestone trout stream," says Frigo.
He says that six or seven feet of visibility is common, often for weeks at a time. The water level is also low, and flow is minimal—usually the lowest flow of the year. He suggests anglers think about how these conditions, along with water temperatures hovering in the mid-to-upper 30s, dictate walleye locations and govern their willingness to feed. The low flow allows walleyes to go anywhere they want in the river.
"They’re not going to be belly to the bottom or pinned tight to a current seam," Frigo says. "Rather, they can roam—especially along main channel edges and adjacent shallow flats—in search of their next meal. These fish might be up on these flats during their daytime hours, but their willingness to strike a lure will, in general terms, be low."
With exceptionally clear water, Frigo likes spending much of his day targeting saugers in deeper water, as well as scouting for big walleyes in the shallows with a high-quality underwater camera. A good camera, like the Aqua-Vu HD7i Pro Gen 2 system, is an invaluable tool for helping to locate these late-winter river walleyes. With its 1080p high-definition video signal provided in vibrant, natural color, the Aqua-Vu HD7i makes it easy to spot walleyes and easily differentiate them from the other common denizens—channel catfish, drum and enormous schools of shad—that will also light up a river angler’s fish finder.
"An underwater camera is a big confidence builder," Frigo says, "because once I start seeing walleyes—especially big ones in large numbers—I know that I’ve located an area to focus my attention when the dinner bell rings."
According to Frigo, this happens around twilight. Although the water’s temperature in these rivers is hovering just above its freezing point, walleyes will still feed with regularity. However, with high water clarity in late winter, the big walleye bite becomes a low-light affair, starting from twilight into the first few hours after dark.
"Under the light of the full moon, this is a bite that can last all night—or as long as anglers can stay awake for it," Frigo says. "This is one of my favorite times to use a technique referred to locally as ‘dragging,’ but could equally well be called ‘jig trolling.’"
Here’s how Frigo describes this technique. First, creep the boat upstream at a speed of around 0.5 mph. Then make an easy cast behind the boat with a light jig—typically 1/16- or 3/32-ounce—tipped with a supple soft plastic, often a 4-inch ringworm or a 3 1/2-inch paddletail. Next, cruise along channel edges and adjacent flats, "dragging" your soft plastics behind the boat until you contact feeding fish.
"Remember, under low-flow conditions, walleyes won’t be pinned to the bottom, so don’t be afraid to keep that bait suspended in the water column," Frigo says. "A big walleye won’t hesitate to zip three or four feet off the bottom to drill a ringworm undulating overhead."
River conditions change—sometimes quite rapidly—as winter fades into spring and pre-spawn walleyes move to new locations, dictated in large part by increasing flow. Frigo says that the clear, low and slow river of winter quickly becomes turbid, high and fast once snowmelt kicks into high gear in late-March and April. Walleyes respond to this dramatic increase in flow by closely associating with current seams.
A current seam is, quite simply, an area where fast-moving water runs alongside slower or still water. Envision a small point projecting from the shoreline into the river. The current will hit and deflect off the point, continuing downstream; immediately behind the point will be a region of protected, slower-moving water, or perhaps an eddy. The well-defined intersection of the fast and slower waters is the current seam, and it might extend for some distance downstream from the object—the small point in this case—that created it. Your hunt for big pre-spawn walleyes takes place here.
"Current seams are conveyor belts for walleye food," Frigo says, "and when the water comes up and gets fast in the spring, seams will help to concentrate big walleyes in easy-to-find areas. Those big, sow-bellied females will rest in the slack water and sample the gravy train of food sweeping downstream along the seam."
Frigo recommends anchoring or using Spot-Lock technology to keep your boat adjacent to a seam. Then, cast jigs tipped with soft plastics, hair jigs or blade baits quartering upstream. Allow the slow current inside the seam to sweep the bait downstream.
"Fish each spot confidently, and if you don’t connect, move on," Frigo says. "When you’re chasing a 10-pound walleye in the spring, you need the same mentality as a musky angler: You’re trying to put yourself in position to get a couple of bites per day, bites from the right fish."
To do this, he advises distancing yourself from the crowds that congregate below the dams and finding current seams of your own downstream. Hopefully, these are areas where fish haven’t been bonked on the head by jigs in previous months.
"Spend your time ‘pig-hunting’ down there," Frigo says. "You’ll be excited by what you find."
Spring Sweet Spots
Sample walleye action at these perennial producers.
OLD MAN RIVER
Each spring, anglers from across Minnesota and Wisconsin flock to Pools 2 through 5 on the Mississippi River, which offer fantastic fishing during the pre-spawn period. Action extends from the all-catch-and-release fishery on Pool 2 within the Twin Cities to the well-known Pool 4 near Red Wing, Minn., and beyond into Pool 5 around Alma, Wis. Deep water will concentrate saugers, while shallow flats and main channel edges are the key to finding big walleyes. The biggest fish of the year fall for 4-inch ringworms dressed on relatively light jigs.
GREEN BAY GREATNESS
The Fox and Oconto rivers near Green Bay, Wis., host incredible runs of walleyes from the bay, drawing anglers from across the Midwest looking to join the 10-pound club. Excellent boat ramps in De Pere on the Fox and near the mouth of the Oconto River provide access for boaters; abundant shore-fishing opportunities exist as well. Cast or drag jigs, or troll shallow-running stickbaits, to connect with a migratory monster.
The Detroit River, pulsing through the Motor City, is an annual destination for avid walleye anglers who want to connect with giant fish. Heavy current flowing out of Lake St. Clair and into the western basin of Lake Erie draws an enormous run of walleyes, which can be targeted effectively both from shore and from a boat. Hefty presentations, including heavy jigs and minnows or hand-lining shallow-running stickbaits, are the go-to presentations on the Detroit.
MAUMEE RIVER MAGIC
The Maumee River near Toledo, Ohio, is another Lake Erie tributary hosting a big run of Great Lakes walleyes each spring. While some target fish from a boat, just as many don neoprene waders to chase pre-spawners on foot. Don’t over-think it; jigs dressed with twister tails cast upstream and worked along the bottom with the current will put eaters on the stringer. Parking for shore anglers is available along River Road in Maumee. Check current conditions and up-to-date fishing reports at maumeeriverwalleyerun.com.