March 01, 2022
In the spring, many anglers flock to major rivers throughout the Midwest to enjoy bountiful walleye runs. During these times, throngs of aggressive walleyes charge upstream and flood relatively shallow waters as part of their annual spawning rituals.
Over time, savvy river rats have honed their presentation skills to keep baits in the walleyes’ narrow strike zone, despite the heavy currents carrying winter’s snowmelt and early spring rains downstream.
Several of these finely tuned river walleye rigs have become time-tested and trophy-walleye-approved setups that Midwestern guides and professional anglers consistently use to put trophy-caliber fish in the boat.
Below are three top rigs to consider using in your own spring river fishing.
THE WOLF RIVER RIG
As a child of the 1970s, growing up in the urban jungle of Chicago, the Wolf River Rig was the first river-specific fishing rig that I ever encountered. On a spring trip into the relative wilds of eastern Wisconsin, we grabbed a few of these venerable, pre-packaged rigs to fill a pail with walleyes and white bass from—you guessed it—the Wolf River.
The Wolf River rig is a simple fishing system. Built around a 3-way swivel, it consists of a leader that runs to a single hook (frequently a long-shank Aberdeen hook) and a lead weight in the 1/2- to 2-ounce range to anchor the rig on the bottom. By adjusting the length of line between the weight and the 3-way swivel, anglers can present a bait closer to—or farther from—the bottom.
Likewise, by fine-tuning the leader length between the swivel and hook, anglers can provide the bait with more—or less—freedom to swim and sway within the current.
After all these years, there are still plenty of times when a simple 3-way rig like the Wolf River rig can provide big advantages. I like to fish them during the early pre-spawn period when river water is running cold and relatively clear. In these instances wary fish often respond best to live baits fished with relative finesse.
I’ll usually dress the Aberdeen hook of a Wolf River rig with a lively minnow and position the rig along well-defined current seams and upstream of obvious obstructions like log piles or wing dams. With a handful of 3-way swivels, a spool of 10- to 12-pound-test fluorocarbon leader, a package of Aberdeen hooks and a collection of sinkers, you can quickly construct your own Wolf River rigs to suit your current river conditions.
THE DUBUQUE RIG
I have a Dubuque rig tied up on every trip I take to the Mississippi River from the fall through the spring. This fishing system perfectly fits my style: It allows me to present a pair of baits in tandem—at two different depths—at speeds ranging from a dead stop to a steady upstream troll. In my opinion, there are few more productive ways to locate active fish and get them in the boat.
A 3-way swivel is once again at the heart of the Dubuque rig. In this case, however, the dropper line that was connected to a heavy weight in the Wolf River rig is now tied to a jig.
Usually this is a 1/2-ounce jig, but you could go up to 1 ounce depending on current speed. The leader line that ran to a plain hook in the Wolf River rig is now tied to a light jig, usually 1/16 ounce.
Dress these two jigs differently. I like using a 3- to 4-inch boot-tail soft-plastic bait on the heavier bottom jig and a 4-inch ringworm on the lighter top jig. Experiment with these, baiting one jig or the other with a live minnow or compact plastics with different profiles until you discover what fish like.
The Dubuque rig is best presented from a boat moving slowly upstream. Deploy enough line to have the lower jig touch the bottom, and as you move forward, raise the jig to allow it to swim off the bottom. Repeatedly tilt the rod tip back toward the boat to ensure that the lower bait contacts the bottom regularly.
Also, adjust the amount of line that you’re pulling to keep the Dubuque rig in the strike zone. My favorite way to fish this rig is along well-defined current seams where I can work the boat side-to-side across the seam and sample the fish holding on either side of it.
THE DOUBLE RAPALA RIG
As the water warms in spring, walleyes become more responsive to simple stickbaits, like classic Rapala floating minnows, pulled upstream on 3-way rigs. An easy way to present these baits is with a version of the Wolf River rig.
Simply replace the Aberdeen hook with a cross-lock snap and connect that to a No. 7 or No. 9 Original Floating Minnow from Rapala. Lots of colors work, with orange over gold, firetiger and hot steel being some of my personal favorites.
An enhanced version of this classic rig presents two Rapala lures in tandem, with one following the other. After attaching the first Rapala to the cross-lock snap, remove that lure’s rear treble and split ring. To the metal hook hanger on the back of that lure’s body, attach another length of fluorocarbon leader—typically around 18 inches long—and add another cross-lock snap. Now, clip on a second Rapala floating minnow and get that rig in the water.
Like the Dubuque rig, the Double Rapala rig is best presented from a boat moving upstream. I typically use weights in the 2- to 3-ounce range to keep lures close to the bottom. You’ll notice that the two Rapala minnows have very different actions with this rig.
The rear lure swims and wiggles as it would normally, whereas the forward lure’s action is much subtler, being tethered to other objects in both the front and the back. With the Double Rapala Rig, you can mix and match color patterns, lure sizes and even positions within the rig—front versus back—to optimize your catch rates.