It’s finally time for most of the country to take a deep breath. After being battered for what seems like the past six months by one of the worst winters in history, the Midwest is finally thawing out. For anglers across the northern tier of the country, spring means one thing, fat and hungry walleyes will be stacking up in rivers and below dams to spawn.
To understand the walleye obsession in the Midwest, and particularly Wisconsin, is to understand the relationship between a groupie and a rock band or that between Alabama fans and their beloved Crimson Tide.Fishermen from Wisconsin flat-out love their walleyes. There are walleye weekends and walleye festivals.
Walleye is located on restaurant menus across the state. They’ve got it so bad that the Wisconsin governor just announced his creation of a Walleye Initiative for 2014.
This deep passion for walleyes, combined with the emotional release from five months of winter related entrapment, makes fishing the spring walleye run one of the busiest and most exciting times of the year for Midwest anglers.
Click image to see Springtime Equals Walleye Time photo gallery
The Wisconsin River is the state’s largest river, draining over 14,000 square miles from its headwaters on the border of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to its confluence with the Mississippi River just south of Prairie Du Chien. Along the way it transforms from a cold, north woods creek to a wide, shallow river that is constantly changing due to seasonal floods
Along the Wisconsin’s route to the Mississippi there are 26 dams, each providing the perfect combination of rock, gravel, and current that constitutes perfect spawning habitat for walleye and sauger.
One of the best at catching springtime walleye and sauger in the Lower Wisconsin Riverway is guide Joel Ballweg, who runs Ballwegs Guide Service out of Sauk Prairie, Wis. Sauk Prairie is located on the shores of the Wisconsin River just below the dam that impounds 7,197-acre Lake Wisconsin.
Ballweg is a certified river rat and has been fishing the waters of Lake Wisconsin and the river for the past 40 years. Over all that time spent chasing walleyes and sauger, he’s learned a thing or two and was willing to break down the techniques necessary to catch springtime ‘eyes.
The walleye and sauger spawn occurs at different times across their geographical range, but it generally occurs in spring when the water temperature elevates between 42 and 50 degrees. Ballweg actually starts targeting them earlier than that, often before or just at ice out on the reservoirs.
“In a big river system like the Wisconsin, it can pay off to get out there early,” he said. “The walleyes will start moving upriver in late winter, when there’s still ice on all the impoundments. It can be cold, uncomfortable fishing, but it gets a lot better when you’re catching the biggest walleye and sauger of the season.”
The first areas Ballweg targets are the upper ends of river impoundments like Lake Wisconsin, focusing on pre-spawn fish moving out of the lake up toward the next dam.
“The places you want to look for are deeper spots close to where the lake narrows back into a river,” he said. “The fish will hold in there and feed for a while before moving into the river.”
When fishing for pre-spawn fish, the water temperature is often still in the upper 30s and that translates into a slower-is-better approach for Ballweg. He primarily drags jig and plastic combinations through the staging areas, giving lethargic fish a good look at his baits.
“One of my favorite ways to fish in the early spring is to drag a double jig rig with plastics. The second jig gives you an additional chance to attract fish, and at times they can really choke it,” Ballweg said, adding he sometimes vertical jigs or slowly pulls stickbaits across the deeper staging areas. “You can’t be afraid to change up your presentation in the spring, whether it is jighead weight, plastic color, or even a total bait switch. The fish can change a lot in a short time, so if all of a sudden you’re not getting bit, changing it up can often generate more bites.”
Ballweg likes to drag and vertical jig with a 6-foot, 8-inch St. Croix Avid medium power, extra fast action rod paired to a 2500 size Shimano Stradic spinning rod spooled with 10-pound test Sufix 832 braided line. He then ties a 2- to 3-foot double leader of 20-pound Seaguar Fluoro Premier using a modified Albright knot.
Avid walleye anglers may be surprised at Ballweg’s use of 20-pound line for his leaders, since most associate walleye fishing with finesse, but he thinks the heavy line actually helps him.
“In rivers, you’ve got current, snags, and big fish,” he said. “Using 20-pound line I almost never lose fish, and since fluorocarbon is nearly invisible, why not use the heaviest line you can get away with. The braid allows for long casts, sensitivity, and zero stretch; and the heavy fluoro prevents me from breaking any fish off.”
Depending on the current and water levels, Ballweg typically uses a ¼ or 5/16 ounce H20 Precision Jig made by BFishN Tackle as his main jig, and an 1/8 or 3/16 ounce Precision jig on the second dropper. To the jigs, he rigs a variety of BFishN plastics, usually 4-inch Ringworms or Moxie’s.
“That H20 Precision jig is the ultimate walleye jig for fishing plastics. It has a great hook and is one of the only walleye specific jigs that has a metal plastics keeper,” he said. “In the springtime, plastics are key, and that jig keeps the plastic from sliding down the hook shank.”
Occasionally, Ballweg will tip his presentation with a fathead minnow, but often in the cold water of spring a plain plastic outperforms live bait, especially for big fish.
“I think you can often get a few more bites with live bait, but the quality of the fish you catch is a lot better with plastics,” he said. “There are still days though that you need to tip your jig with a minnow.”
Once rigged up, Ballweg will typically make a slow, controlled drift/troll through a staging area while dragging his jig rig along the bottom. He does have several tips for fishing this way.
- Use the lightest weight you can get away with: “The heavier the jig, the more likely you are to get snagged. You want enough weight to get down without letting too much line out, but not be dredging the bottom. Precision jigs come in 1/16 ounce increments, so it’s easy to get the right weight.”
- Mix and match plastics and colors frequently: “I generally start out with bright colors if the water is stained or muddy and more subtle colors the clearer it gets. Putting a different color on each jig is also a good idea while you are dialing them in. Once you get some bites, you can easily switch other rods to that color.”
- Scent matters: “I am a huge proponent of adding scent to your baits. I have done a bunch of side by side comparisons, and adding scent definitely generates more bites. I use Baitmate scents, and their Live Walleye formula is dynamite.”
- Go both ways: “Usually I prefer to drag downstream, but sometimes the fish seem to bite better going one particular direction. Experiment some by going both ways until you start getting bit. You’ll need heavier weights to go upstream though.”
- Focus on the transitions: “Pre-spawn walleyes hang out in deeper holes and bends during their journey upriver. Walleyes will be a little shallower and in less current, and sauger will be in the deepest holes. Look for transitions between the flats and deep spots, then target the edge where it gets deeper.”
Although the spawning run lasts only a couple weeks, targeting sauger and walleye in the mouths of reservoirs actually becomes really good again after the spawn, when the fish are trickling back down into the lake from the river. Ballweg targets those fish the same way, although the warmer water temps give him more presentation options.
Ballweg has been fishing the annual spawning run on the Wisconsin River for many years, and thinks that the fishing now is as good as it’s ever been, with several great year classes of both walleyes and sauger.“I think the regulations combined with more conservation minded anglers have made the fishery really self-sustaining, and that’s a good thing for future generations of anglers,” he said.
Joel Ballweg guides out of a Skeeter MX 2025 powered by a Yamaha 200 HPDI. He uses top of the line St. Croix Rods and Shimano reels and all the latest and greatest lures from BFishN tackle. To learn more about fishing spring walleyes, or to book a trip with Joel, go to www.lakewisconsinfishing.com.