Follow the Food to Catch River Walleye
May 15, 2017
Working down the food chain: That's what this river walleye expert recommends for catching more fish. Here's why.
The spring walleye spawn is over. Many walleyes have slid back downstream into lakes and flowages where they will spend the summer, along with most folks who follow this myopic Manitou in hot pursuit.
However, a sizable segment of the American walleye population is forever riverine, dwelling in running waters ranging from mere creeks up to and including those waterways the size of the mighty Mississippi. I ought to know. I work fulltime as fishing guide on a river.
Deciphering river walleye habits is more vexing than finding these fish in a lake, where wind is a primary driver of water movement. Wind and other factors push invertebrate organisms called zooplankton, which walleye forage species, such as minnows, feed on. Walleyes are never far behind their forage base.
In a lake, that situation generally means anglers will be targeting the windward side, narrow neck downs, humps, reefs and islands where walleyes can corral dinner with minimal effort.
Effort is a major key in walleye behavior. These fish are opportunists, dining on easy pickings whenever possible.
Why chase down an energetic minnow when a virtual buffet of critters that biologists call benthic macroinvertebrates is lazing right in front of that toothy green nose?
These 10-cent words are easily translated into fishing vernacular. Benthic means essentially living on or near the river's bottom. Macro means large. Invertebrates are critters without a backbone — from leeches and nightcrawlers to crustaceans like crayfish, which have an exoskeleton instead of a backbone.
Insect larvae such as hexagenia and hellgrammites are like popcorn to walleyes. When these larvae leave the river bottom to become mayflies and Dobson flies, walleyes go into a feeding frenzy — but they ignore anything that doesn't look like a floundering insect trying to take flight.
When a hatch is coming off, a large Clouser fly presented on a fly rod or attached to a small topwater lure via a short, stout dropper line just tears 'em up.
Since most clients struggle with a fly rod, I keep a stash of clear Storm Chug Bugs and Heddon Tiny Torpedoes in a small tackle box within arm's reach all summer long. A sweet 4 weight St. Croix fly rod perpetually rigged with a Clouser is also ready to go for those who prefer not to use "gear."
Catch river walleyes on a topwater lure? You betcha! Angling success happens when preparedness meets opportunity.
Rebel recently came out with a couple of hellgrammite lures that look like they might work when walleyes are feeding on insect larvae. But like most crankbaits nowadays, the price tag is a little steep, with plenty of hooks to find structure (instead of fish lips) in a snag-strewn river.
A 2-inch dark melon pepper Kalin grub on a 1/8-ounce jighead provides essentially the same presentation at a cost of less than a quarter.
With walleye metabolism in high gear during the summer months, a jighead with a small spinner blade, like the venerable Roadrunner can result in more fish.
Jig weight is a key element for success. Any weight heavier than 1/8 ounce does not allow a natural presentation. If you need more weight to stay close to the bottom, you aren't fishing where the fish are anyway.
Casting into the current is part of an effective presentation. Thirty years of guiding has taught the wisdom of both diplomacy and using word pictures in coaching clients.
When a client grumbles because casting downstream has not produced results, I bring up air travel — have you ever seen a plane come in for a landing backwards? Planes land into the wind. Fish face into the current.
Casting downcurrent or crosscurrent will catch fish, but the jig won't fall as quickly and the strike window of the fish is smaller.
A GOOD GEAR ADDITION
Folks who spend a lot of time on the water typically have a readily accessible gear caddy containing products like sun block, insect repellant, hand sanitizer, and assorted fishing attractant products.
All of these products contain scents and oils that repel fish — no big deal when fishing for a reflex strike with some kind of lure.
But there are times when live bait out-fishes every artificial lure in the tackle box. A major reason live bait is so effective is its natural scent.
Keeping a deer hunter's no-scent spray or soap handy in the gear caddy can make a world of difference if conditions call for live bait.
Even if you're on the water when sun block or bug spray is not necessary, hand washing or spraying with no-scent products will increase your catch when using live bait in a feeding presentation.
Our skin contains the amino acid L-Serine, which fish find as repulsive as gasoline. The quantity of L-Serine a body secretes varies from person to person. In a sport where little things can make a big difference, baiting up with scent free hands can help you put more fish in the boat. — Ted Peck
Using superbraid like FireLine works better than either monofilament or fluorocarbon because it sinks quicker and has essentially zero stretch, which is more conducive to feeling strikes in this finesse presentation.
The goal lies in swimming the lure back to the boat within 6 inches of the bottom.
This typically requires several casts that find structure instead of fish. At most, it costs a quarter to set the hook. If the hook happens to find a rock, a steady pull on 10-pound-test superbraid usually straightens the hook before the line breaks.
Getting back to fishing is a simple matter of bending the hook back to its original position after touching up the point with a file!
One of the biggest grins in guiding comes when a client laments "I'm snagged again," and then quickly corrects with, "Whoa, I've got a fish!"
With walleyes — or any other fish — the most important component in finding consistent success is an understanding of the predator/prey relationship. The predator is always going to locate in close proximity to its chosen prey where it can attack with the least amount of effort.
When walleyes are feeding on hellgrammites, you'll find them working areas with some current and a rocky-rubble bottom. Hexagenia larvae usually burrow in a softer bottom. The best way to take advantage of a Hex hatch is to move quickly to the area where adults are starting to appear on the river's surface and get that Clouser fly in the water!
Full-blown Mayfly hatches only happen a couple of times every summer. Timing of a major hatch is fairly predictable. For anglers who don't give the walleyes what they want, fishing is generally very tough.
If you offer up Clouser fly, odds are the fishing will be memorable. There are several places where Mayfly hatches are so heavy that they even show up on radar. The Upper Mississippi is such a place.
I have witnessed 2-inch limbs break from sheer mayfly weight. A major Hex hatch is a natural phenomenon. If you're there when it happens, stop fishing for a few minutes and take in the spectacle.
Mussel beds are the best-kept benthic macro invertebrate secret of all. Mussels are filter feeders. In the course of metabolism they convert carbon dioxide to oxygen, which attracts pretty much everything that requires oxygen to survive — beginning with zooplankton, another link down the food chain.
The zooplankton draws in minnows and panfish species, with walleyes swimming close behind. Mussel beds are tough to locate even with the most sophisticated electronics, primarily because most folks don't know what they're looking at in the bottom signal on the sonar.
Because I am quite familiar with the location of several mussel beds on my home water already, confirming that those little bumps on the bottom are indeed mussels is a study in progress when probing other areas.
Currently, the best way to find a mussel bed is pure old school river rat: Your hooks find a mussel shell instead of a fish, or you observe piles of mussel shells along the shore at times of low water.
Mussel beds can be found in water from 3 to 30 feet deep. Once located, success simply means putting a lure in close contact with the mussel bed. Depending on water depth, the most effective presentation is casting or trolling a big-lipped crankbait or a jigging presentation with either the basic jig or blade bait like the Echotail.
If you're a big fan of superbraid line and chasing walleyes relating to mussel beds, don't forget to check the foot of line directly above your hook or lure for abrasion after every fish — or after every 50 casts or so.
Abrasion caused by the sharp edges of mussel shells can have a quick and profound impact on the integrity of superbraid line.
On a rapidly rising river — or even a summer river at flood stage — you can catch walleyes if you look down the food chain at the predator/prey relationship. Walleyes will follow the food. On a rising river the food moves into backwater areas out of the current.
Have you ever caught a summer walleye throwing a spinnerbait or chatterbait back in flooded timber or over weeds that once were dry ground? Walleyes don't hop on a bus to the next town or to the next lake over. They follow the food in the water they call home. To find them, that's what you should be doing too.