December 07, 2020
Using my boat's bow-mounted trolling motor, I matched our drift with the speed of the mild current. The sonar unit showed some nice marks tight to the bottom. I figured it was just a matter of time, and not much time, before we had a walleye in the boat.
Not to be disappointed, moments later my partner Sid swept his jigging rod sharply upward, sinking the hook of his 1/4-ounce, minnow-tipped jig into the mouth of a sassy 20-inch walleye. I quickly scooped it up with the net, the first of many to make it into the boat on that chilly late-November day.
As a full-time fishing guide who focuses on rivers most of the time, I'm often asked when is the best time to fish rivers for walleye. The answer always—and without hesitation—is late fall, usually beginning in early to mid-November.
On most river systems, walleyes tend to scatter following the spring spawn. Finding them during the summer months can be a hit-and-miss proposition. Water temperatures are warm and ‘eyes have much freedom to roam.
The arrival of fall brings cooling water and often an increase in flow, both factors that force walleyes to seek areas of reduced current. As cold-blooded creatures whose metabolisms match their surroundings, walleyes can no longer afford to spend life-sustaining energy bucking strong current.
I find that as rivers drop into the 50-degree range and lower, a transition begins where walleyes gravitate to deeper pools with mild current. Such spots include pools protected from the main flow by obstructions such as rock bars and islands. Outside river bends can also hold fish, as the deeper water found there often exhibits lower current.
If the river is impounded, chances are good that a considerable number of walleyes will be found in the outflow area below the dam. Expect these fish to be tucked into calmer pockets such as the mouths of lock chambers and current edges located near hydroelectric outflows and discharge gates. Scour holes found below fixed crest dams will also hold walleyes if the current is not too strong. Just keep in mind that fishing below dams, particularly during the cold-weather months, is potentially dangerous. Use common sense and be sure to abide by any boating restrictions that might be in place. Also, dam outflow areas are often one of the better areas for shore anglers to enjoy the fall action of river walleyes.
Understanding why walleyes are where they are now, the next challenge comes in efficiently fishing for them. I break this down into three basic approaches: Presenting baits both with and against the current and keying on evening twilight bites where the fish typically become more aggressive.
WITH THE FLOW
During a typical late-fall day on a walleye river, the fish will be in a neutral mood much of the day. They are catchable but not necessarily aggressive. Put something in front of them and they’ll likely eat it, but they might not move far to do so. In this situation it’s most effective and efficient to slowly drift with the current while presenting a lure in a vertical—or mostly vertical—manner under the boat.
Picture a pool roughly a hundred yards long, one formed below a current-deflecting rock bar washed out into the river at the mouth of an incoming stream. Walleyes can be scattered throughout that pool, and by drifting with the current you can put a light jig—I typically use either 3/16- or 1/4-ounce—close to the bottom and connect with pods of fish here and there.
When the water depth is roughly 15 feet or deeper, I like to present baits vertically. If shallower, where the boat might spook fish, I prefer to make short pitch casts while the boat is drifting and slowly work the jig back.
A wide assortment of leadhead jigs work well in this situation. Short-shank jigs like Northland’s Fireball excel when coupled with a large fathead minnow or shiner. Berkley’s Gulp! Alive! Minnows in the three-inch size also work well, sometimes even better than live minnows and potentially cheaper in the long run. Jigs with longer shanks, such as VMC’s Google Eye, allow for the addition of a piece of plastic. When paired with a minnow, the offering provides a bigger profile. Hair jigs, both tipped and untipped, are another good option. In terms of colors, fire tiger, chartreuse, lime green, orange, white and purple all work.
Beside classic jigs, blade baits like the Silver Buddy are a top offering. They can be jigged just off the bottom during the drift or pitched with short casts and hopped slowly back to the boat.
Many good walleye holes have an eddy effect where the current swings back "upriver" close to the bank. Often, it's possible to drift with the natural downriver flow of the river to the end of the hole and then get in the near-bank backwash to work back up it. This is a very efficient method.
AGAINST THE FLOW
Conventional wisdom suggests presenting baits with the current. As outlined above, this is indeed the standard approach. However, going against the grain (current) can often produce the biggest walleyes of the day.
Whereas jig-and-minnow combos and blade baits rule when drifting/jigging with the current, I find suspending jerkbaits to be the deal when fishing against it, in particular Rapala's X-Rap Deep and Bomber's Suspending Pro Long A. The places that tend to be most productive for the against-the-current presentation are often shallower flats close to the deeper jigging holes.
In this situation picture a shallow, rocky flat located below the deeper hole previously described. The back edge of the hole is defined by both depth and current. The depth quickly decreases from 10 or 12 feet up to the 4- to 6-foot range, with the current increasing slightly.
Foraging walleyes will exit the protection of the deeper pool to feed in the shallows. They seem to respond best to a lure pulled against the current that dangles in front of them as it’s slowly worked forward.
The lure can be presented two ways. First, you can anchor (actual or GPS) to hold the boat on the upriver end of the flat and make casts directly downriver. Slowly work the suspending jerkbait back to the boat. The mild current will help activate the swimming motion of the lure, and you’ll be able to creep it painstakingly slowly.
The second tactic, and one that works well on larger flats, is to slow-troll upriver and trail the suspending jerkbait behind you. The key is to move the boat just fast enough to make forward progress. Trolling also allows you to fine-tune things by varying the amount of line you let out, so the lure runs a foot or so off the bottom.
Expect the bite on shallow flats to be better on dark, dismal days.
THE TWILIGHT BITE
While you’re often dealing with neutral- to negative-attitude walleyes during the day, as evening approaches they often pick up their pace and actively seek forage. It’s a perfect time to camp out on a prime spot and let the feeding walleyes come to you.
What’s a prime spot? Most commonly the area near a feeder stream or river that feeding walleyes invade during low-light conditions to target the forage fish found there.
I classify these spots in two ways: Places where smaller streams have washed out a gravel or rock bar, and larger streams where a sizeable creek mouth exists where walleyes actually run up into the creek itself.
In the first case, a current line will exist where the main flow of the river hits the rock bar. Anchor the boat right on this current line; walleyes will move along it line as they work their way shallow to feed. In the second scenario, there is often a distinct depth change where the feeder creek meets the main river—a ledge scoured away by the river’s flow. Walleyes often follow this edge when moving toward evening, so anchor your boat on the deep, main-river side of the ledge.
Since the water is shallower in these spots it’s often wise to lighten up the jig size, making short pitch casts up into the calm water near the incoming stream. Whereas jig bites during the day might have been soft and subtle, during the evening there’s often a sharp pop to strikes. It’s common for the bite to shut down once twilight transitions into total darkness.
TOP EAST WALLEYE RIVERS
1. Connecticut River: In an area where walleyes are not native and trout and bass reign, the Connecticut is the best walleye river for New England anglers. The 125 or so miles between Monroe and Hinsdale, N.H., provide the best walleye habitat.
2. Chemung River: Southern New York’s Chemung River harbors a good walleye population on a medium-sized river. Productive water exists from Corning to the Pennsylvania line.
3. Delaware River: The mighty Delaware boasts a nice walleye population in the stretch that separates New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The best water lies between Sandts Eddy, Pa., and Port Jervis, N.Y.
4. Allegheny River: The Allegheny River provides western Pennsylvania anglers with two-fold walleye opportunities. Plenty of fish are found in the free-flowing portion of the river from Warren down to East Brady. From East Brady to Pittsburgh, lots of walleyes are taken from 70 miles of river impounded by locks and dams.
5. Susquehanna River: Central- and eastern-Pennsylvania anglers have good walleye fishing on the North Branch of the Susquehanna from the New York line down to Duncannon. The main stem of the Susquehanna is also productive, particularly the section south of Harrisburg where several power dams interrupt its flow.
6. Potomac River: The Potomac River is the best river walleye option for Maryland anglers. The stretch between Harper’s Ferry and Clear Springs has a solid population.
7. New River: In West Virginia, the New River provides good walleye fishing during the winter months. The best section is between Sandstone Falls and Meadow Creek.