Go With the Flow for Trophy Walleyes
May 21, 2018
The Badger State's flowages often are overlooked for walleyes. That can be a mistake!
Flowages have been a Wisconsin fishing option for nearly a century. One of the first flowages in America's Dairyland was the 15,300-acre Chippewa Flowage, formed in 1924 by placing a dam on Sawyer County's Chippewa River.
Backwaters of the mighty Mississippi essentially became flowages in the 1930s with construction of 33 massive lock-and-dam systems in an attempt to control flow volume and make the "Father of Waters" more navigable.
Our namesake Wisconsin River has been called "the hardest working river in America" because of many power producing dams between the headwaters near Lake Namekagon and its confluence with the Mississippi near Prairie du Chien. Most dams on this river system were constructed in the late 1940s and early 1950s — essentially at the dawn of American sportfishing, which continues to evolve nearly 75 years later.
Flowages have similarities with lakes, rivers and reservoirs. But when it comes to fishing, consistent success requires a special set of tactics and presentations for walleyes which are unique.
Unlike many Wisconsin lakes, fishing is often best on the stained water of flowages on very sunny days, with greatest success often mid-morning and mid-afternoon instead of around dawn and dusk.
Flowages, by definition, mean current is pushing water through these fisheries from upstream to downstream. During high water periods flow can be substantial. With Wisconsin waters at low and stable levels typical in late summer and during the winter, minimal flow is typical. In either extreme or those times in between, current is a major driver of both fish location and lure presentation.
Since flowages have generally stained water, vibrant colors are usually more productive than natural hues. Variations of firetiger are good places to start. Orange, chartreuse, green pumpkin and white — often in combination with other colors, also work well.
Two of the most overlooked colors are black and its spectral first cousin, purple. When a flowage is running high and somewhat dirty, walleyes often tuck into shallow weeds both for escape and to prey on easy food. This can be a good time to break out bass lures like a spinnerbait or chatterbait.
On the upper Mississippi where I work full time as a guide, my three favorite summer flowage lures are the jig, an oxbow pattern Rat-L-Trap and a Carter Custom Shaker chatterbait with a Kalin Sizmic plastic grub.
Yes, the chatterbait and spinnerbait will catch a lot of bass and pike. But they are very effective weapons for walleyes, too. All of these predators, and more bizarre species like bowfin and gar, are back in flowage weeds on a rising river because this is where the easy food is.
Side Notes: Sight Fishing in Stained Water
Mention "sight fishing" to most Wisconsin anglers and they'll conjure images of drop-shotting in Door County, Lake Geneva or Lake Owen in Bayfield County with fluorocarbon line and aquarium-clear water.
Water clarity under ideal conditions in most Wisconsin flowages is 3 feet or less, with walleyes often holding just a foot or two deeper than a human can see into the water column with Polarized sunglasses.
Sight fishing with jigs under these conditions means thinking of your fishing line as a linear strike indicator. Hi-vis line is the only way to go. Hi-vis braided line takes your game to an even higher level because there is essentially zero stretch, which is ideal for moving walleyes out of heavy cover quickly.
Short precision casts are necessary, essentially pitching or flipping instead of casting. A reflexive hook set is part of the package — give a walleye two seconds and she'll tie your line around a branch every time. Current is a major factor in both walleye location and orientation when fishing a flowage with a jig. Walleyes most likely will be next to rather than in the current, facing into the flow.
Use the lightest weedless jig you feel comfortable with, but never more than 1/8 ounce. The distance between a perfect cast and snagging up is less than one-half inch.
The most important consideration when looking for any fish on any water at any time is the predator/prey relationship. Too many anglers make the mistake of going directly after the species they want to catch. If you can figure out what the preferred species is eating you can be there with the appropriate lure when the fish show up.
Current and clarity seams are both things to look for when chasing flowage walleyes. It's common knowledge that walleyes like to locate on the "lazy" side of where current and slack water meet — like the slack water downstream from the Highway 21 Bridge just below the Petenwell flowage dam.
Clarity seams are subtler, especially when flowage levels are on the way down. When flowage levels are on the rise you can often see a distinct mudline where water from a tributary or drain tube enters the greater flow.
Many flowages have bays and nooks which load from downstream, holding both slightly clearer water — and walleyes — until water under the influence of more current backs up into these pockets as flowage levels rise.
Falling flowage levels offer an even more exciting option, especially when a flowage is coming out of flood conditions with water up in the shoreline trees. Vegetation which is on dry ground at normal flowage pool levels has a filtering effect as water levels drop, often creating an extremely clear water seam near shore which can change by the hour as water levels continue to drop.
High water is a fact of life on the Mississippi, which is near or beyond flood stage an average of two months between March and November. Walleyes don't leave the river just because boat launches are closed and water is up in the trees. They follow the food!
On the Mississippi, this means flowage water, like running sloughs and side channels where young-of-year fingerlings of the estimated 110 fish species swimming in this water grow by feeding on benthic macroinvertebrates such as worms, insects, amphibians, crustaceans and any fish smaller than they are.
True, structures like wing dams that border the main river channel are good places to catch walleyes in the summer months, if the river is running at normal summer pool levels, but the upper Mississippi — and its flowages — have had pool levels between the "action" and "minor flood" stage for almost the entire month of June four of the last six years.
This immortal river drains over one-third of the continental United States, including all of Wisconsin. If the Mississippi is running belly full, most major tributaries like the Wisconsin River system are at high pool levels as well.
Walleye fishing in this system is better than most folks can ever remember, thanks to a slot limit which prohibits harvest of 20- to 28-inch fish, with a five-fish daily bag that can include only one walleye over 28 inches and a minimum length of 15 inches.
Petenwell Flowage is near the middle of the Wisconsin River system with over 23,000 acres making 'Pete' our state's second largest inland lake.
More stories about Walleyes
Guide Jesse Quale likes to fish the northern third of this flowage in June, trolling the 8- to 15-foot contour with crankbaits like the No. 5 Shad Rap, Salmo Hornet and Berkley Flicker Shad. He likes to run six planer boards, with baits pegged 15 to 50 feet behind the boards at about 1.7 miles per hour.
"When you find an active school of walleyes, it isn't unusual to have several fish on at once," Quale said. "The best conditions are relatively calm winds under a bright, sunny sky."
Quale also likes to target June walleyes on 16,600-acre Castle Rock flowage immediately downstream from Petenwell. "When fishing the 'Rock' I like to target the south end down around the Buckhorn Bridge," Quale said. "I also fish a little shallower here, generally trolling the 6- to 10-foot contour."
Walleye presentation changes drastically when these flowages are at high pool levels, which is often the case in early June.
"When water levels are high the walleyes tuck in close to woody cover in very shallow water," Quale said. "If this is the case, the best way to hook up is pitching a 1/8-ounce weedless jig right in the middle of a tangle."
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