March 08, 2023
By Jeff Knapp
Throughout the day, my partner and I had been taking river walleyes with regularity, concentrating our efforts within a deep, slow current pool. The tactic du jour had been drifting with the mild current, yo-yoing jig-and-minnow combos just off the bottom. While the action had been enjoyable for a late-winter day, all the fish had been in the 12-to-16-inch range.
As the late afternoon sun dipped toward the western horizon, I positioned the boat at the back of the hole, where the 20-foot depths rapidly gave way to a 4- to 6-foot flat directly downriver. Picking up a rod rigged with a deep-diving suspending jerkbait (a Rapala X-Rap Deep) I cast the lure over the flat and cranked it down to achieve some depth, then began a slow, steady retrieve.
Pulling the lure into the current—a direction opposite the way baits are commonly presented to river walleyes—activated the lure’s action with slow forward movement. That is, until a 24-inch walleye stopped it.
This is just one example of going against the grain for early-season walleyes—an approach that isn’t necessarily the best for numbers of fish, but one that typically puts much bigger ones in the boat.
Unlike in lakes, where bigger walleyes often inhabit deeper zones, it’s common for the larger river specimens to be in shallower water. This is particularly true when they are feeding. The opening anecdote revolves on four key points: It was prime feeding time (evening twilight); the area being fished was a shallow, rocky flat adjacent to a deeper, walleye-holding pool; the lure used had a large profile; the lure inched along into the current, hanging in the face of any walleyes it contacted.
When I expect walleyes to be up on the flats—evening twilight or during dark, cloudy days—I target these areas with suspending jerkbaits in two ways: Casting and slow-trolling into the current.
Casting excels when working a transitional zone, the edge where the deeper water gives way to a shallow, downriver flat. Often, good numbers of walleyes will stay relatively close to the drop-off, within casting range of an anchored boat.
To accomplish this, I either anchor the boat or use the Spot-Lock feature on my Minn Kota Terrova to hold the boat just upriver of the shallow edge of the flat. In places where the depth of the flat is 6 to 8 feet, I use a 4-inch Rapala X-Rap Deep 10. The lure is cast downriver with a medium-power, fast-action casting rod like St. Croix’s Mojo Bass MJB68MF. I use 10-pound fluorocarbon line.
After winding the lure down a few cranks to achieve some depth, the lure is slowly and steadily retrieved back to the boat. While an occasional pause is okay, don’t make the retrieve erratic. This is a tight-line technique; you won’t have trouble recognizing a walleye strike.
Angle your casts to the left and right, and reposition the boat as needed to cover all areas of the deep-to-shallow transition.
Walleyes will also spread out over a flat, particularly as twilight extends into darkness. To cover these larger expanses I’ll slowly troll upriver, using the bow-mount electric motor to pull with just enough force to overcome the current. Tailor lure choice to the depth being fished. If the X-Rap Deep is bumping bottom with about a cast’s length of line out, I switch to a shallower runner like Bomber’s Pro Long A. The key is to stay within a foot or two of bottom. If the lure is frequently making contact with the bottom, odds are it will foul with deep weeds or other debris, rendering it useless.
The traditional way of showing a jig to a river walleye is with the current, where the presentation flows into the path of upriver-facing fish. It’s an effective technique, one that has put thousands of walleyes in my boat over the years. But it’s not the only way. Pulling a jig upriver against the current provides a completely different look. When a jig is presented with the flow, it’s only visible to a fish for a few seconds.
When it’s inched along against the current, it stays there longer. Maybe this is why the against-the-grain method catches bigger fish. Smaller walleyes tend to be faster to react. Bigger fish are often taken by slowing things down. I see this in other scenarios, such as with river smallmouth bass during the summer.
The upriver jig method works best in mild current and moderate depths. Otherwise, the jig will simply sweep too far off the bottom. A classic setting for the upriver jig troll is in front of a creek or river mouth. Toward evening, walleyes will often enter a creek mouth to feed. Earlier in the day they will often be out in the main river, proximate to the river mouth.
Whereas a 3/16- or 1/4-ounce jig is ideal for fishing with the current, to pull against it will require upsizing to 3/8 or 1/2 ounce. Starting at the lower end of the selected area, simply use the trolling motor (or smooth-running outboard) to creep slowly upriver. Cast out behind the boat and feel for bottom contact. If it’s not made, pay out a bit of line and check again. Continue this until you feel bottom, then regain some line to lift it up a bit. It’s sort of like trolling with leadcore line.
I use the same medium-power, extra-fast-action spinning rod (St. Croix’s Eyecon EYS68MF) for pulling jigs upriver as I do when drifting with the current. The 2000-sized reel is loaded with 10-pound braid and a short 10-pound fluorocarbon leader. To that I tie a lead-head jig tipped with a minnow, chub or plastic, or a bucktail jig. When the situation is right, an extremely efficient method is to slip-drift an area downriver and then pull heavier jigs back upriver through the same area.
Three-way rigging provides a third way of presenting a lure or bait against the current. It’s a good option for deeper water and/or stronger current.
The ingredients for the 3-way rig are a 3-way swivel, two dropper lines, a bell sinker and a lure or bait. The main line coming off the reel is tied to one ring of the swivel. A short (approximately 12-inch) dropper connects to a bell sinker. A longer (approximately 4-foot) dropper mates the last swivel ring to the offering.
It’s common for shallow-running minnow baits, such as the original Rapala or Storm’s Thunderstick, to be fished on a 3-way rig. Minnow baits can be used in tandem by removing the tail hook of the front lure and linking it to the second with a 12-inch dropper. Don’t use a deep diver, as you don’t want the lure digging bottom behind the sinker. Another option is a chub, minnow or shiner rigged on an Aberdeen hook. Bell sinker sizes from 1 to 4 ounces cover the situations commonly encountered.
Whereas the first two methods are ideal for the depths of the settings described, the 3-way rig, via the heavy sinker, allows one to ply deeper water with the same in-their-face upriver tactic.
I commonly fish a 3-way rig on a heavier trolling rod designed for downriggers. The line-counter trolling reel is loaded with 30-pound braided line, the droppers with nylon mono or fluorocarbon.
A classic setting for the 3-way rig is a deeper pool with lots of bottom irregularities where walleyes can duck down out of the current. Starting at the downriver end of the targeted area, use either the electric or outboard to slowly work upriver. Tailor the sinker size so that you can reach bottom while keeping the presentation relatively close to the boat—no more than at a 45-degree angle, but preferably less. As you work your way upriver, slowly lift and drop the rod tip, making occasional bottom contact with the sinker. Keep your eyes on the sonar unit so you can anticipate when it’s necessary to pay out or take in line to keep the lure/bait near bottom. The accuracy of accomplishing this is increased by the short let out.
As in life in general, going against the flow can sometimes produce rewards in early-season river walleye fishing, namely the biggest fish of the day.
The East boasts several excellent walleye rivers, particularly in the species’ native range. Keep in mind opportunities are subject to the weather, as well as season closures during portions of late winter and early spring.
The Allegheny River flows north to south, providing around 200 miles of walleye fishing opportunity. The uppermost portion below Allegheny Reservoir (commonly called Kinzua Dam) benefits from warmer water flows thanks to the multi-level discharge. From Warren, Pa., downriver to East Brady, the river is free-flowing, with walleyes concentrated in deeper pools. From East Brady to Pittsburgh, locks and dams impound the river; walleyes collect below dams and at river or creek mouths.
Rebounding from decades of industrial and municipal pollution, the Monongahela River now boasts excellent fisheries for several species, walleyes included. Navigation locks and dams influence the entirety of the Mon. As with the lower Allegheny, walleyes (and its closely related cousin, the sauger) stack up around creek mouths and below dams.
UPPER SUSQUEHANNA RIVER
The Susquehanna River is one of New York’s best free-flowing walleye rivers. Expect the best habitat and walleye populations to be between Cooperstown and where the river first crosses into Pennsylvania.
The mighty Delaware provides anglers of both New Jersey and Pennsylvania with good walleye fishing, with the chance for exceptionally sized fish. Expect to find walleyes concentrated in the deeper holes in the stretch between Sandts Eddy, Pa., and Port Jervis, N.Y.
Walleyes are not found in many New England waters, but the Connecticut River is an exception. The best section for ’eyes in this border water is found between Monroe and Hinsdale, N.H.