Winter River Walleye Strategies
July 31, 2011
Midwinter is a time of rest in most environments. In the North Country -- walleye country -- lakes and reservoirs freeze, providing an icy platform for foot and vehicle access to ice fishing. Small to medium-sized rivers lock firmly in ice as well, although the treacherous nature of current makes ice fishing a risky process, except in the relative shelter and safety of slower-flowing backwaters and side channels more suited to producing bass and panfish.
In the deep doldrums of January and February, even big rivers tend to form an icy coating. Except by dams. Other than during the harshest extended periods of way-below-zero temperatures, most big rivers continue to offer some form of open-water access immediately below dams.
A nearby boat launch -- a common feature below most big-river dams -- generally allows you to punch a midsized boat into the river, perhaps scrunching through a thin rim of offending ice crystals near shore. If harsher conditions create a firmer perimeter of ice along shore, you often can still slide a johnboat or small aluminum out across several inches of safe ice to reach flowing open water.
From there, it's an easy jaunt up to the dam, unless it's really cold, causing the main river to ice-up overnight, even near the tailwaters. In such instances -- crunch time -- the hardy (or foolhardy) sometimes break through a few hundred yards of inch-thick ice. Ever tried it? Putter along barely above idle speed, occasionally bringing the nose of the boat to rest a few feet up on thin ice. Then jump up and down on the bow to break through -- a mini-icebreaker of questionable persuasion. Don't despair -- a pocket of open water looms enticingly nearby; another twenty or thirty crunchings and you'll be there. Hopefully, that skinny path of tinkling cubeage lingering behind you won't refreeze and have to be retraced, because warming temperatures (hopefully) during the day should remove the offending sheath by late morning. Optimism -- ever the watchword amongst those who refuse to stay home.
Big rivers and big dams, however, usually equate to more flow, more open water, and more open-water opportunity for walleyes. Even during low flows, common during midwinter, there's usually sufficient trickle through the dam to create a pocket of open water immediately below. The size of the pocket varies according to the combination of temperature and current; stronger flows somewhat compensate for lower temperatures, maintaining the status quo. Warmer temperatures or increased flow greatly increase the acreage of open water.
A deep hole generally occurs immediately below dams, scoured out during periods of high water and rapid flow. Under low-flow conditions, however, it's a deep refuge of little to no current, perfect for attracting walleyes and sauger. Excessively deep portions of such holes -- 25 to 40-plus feet -- typically attract sauger. The shallower perimeters -- less than 25 feet -- more likely hold walleyes.
The key to catching walleyes is focusing your efforts along the sections of open water intersecting these modest depths, progressing even shallower if a lack of ice cover permits. Wingdams, shoreline points, the tips of islands -- any current-breaking formations within the open-water portion of the river -- may produce walleyes in as little as 6 to 15 feet of water, and perhaps even shallower at night.
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Night fishing appeals most to anglers without a boat. They can walk down to the riverbank just before sunset, take up a casting position in a likely spot, and spend an hour or two casting during prime time. It's a perfect after-work activity; catch a few fish, then head home in time for a late supper.
MAKIN' 'EM BITE
Presentation, as always, depends on the combination of depth and current, as well as the location and mood of the fish. Given a limited area of open water, longline trolling crankbaits probably is out. Vertical jigging or three-way rigging is more suited to the conditions.
Begin with 1/4- to 3/8-ounce jigs; you seldom need anything heavier due to minimal current. Quarters should be just about right for the combination of depth and current velocity. Oranges, yellows, and chartreuses are universal favorites. Try duller -- browns, blacks, or whites -- if the water seems unusually clear.
Tip jigs with a 2 1/2- to 3-inch minnow to provide an attractive combination of size, color, profile, scent, and taste; hook 'em up through the lower jaw and out the top of the head. Use a simple lift-drop of a few inches, on and off bottom. Drift slowly along in the subtle current, paying attention to visible edges where subtle current meets calm water. Inside the calm water of eddies or within general large areas of slack water, you may need to use your electric trolling motor to cover likely areas; without it, you might sit in one place, motionless, almost like being anchored.
If the open-water area is limited, which we'll assume it is, simply inch along and try to cover a variety of sections and depths. Attempt to pinpoint a productive area and rework it numerous times. Walleyes sometimes don't bite on the first pass; and sometimes they're fussy. If you miss a few reluctant biters, add a stinger hook to the jig, and insert one barb of the treble into the minnow's tail. Fish that barely grab the tail are easily hooked on the stinger -- and frequently missed without it. It's a key component when the bite's off.
If the bite's on, consider adding a grub body to the plain jighead, although you likely should add a minnow nevertheless. (Adding bait seems to help in cold water, most of the time.) A bigger profile also might trigger a bigger fish.
If they're really thumpin' it, however, consider experimenting with just a plain plastic tail. Or a jigging spoon or bladebait -- both easy to fish where current is minimal. Blades, in fact, are popular river baits, often triggering strikes from fish that bypass slower jigging presentations. Work both blades and spoons with a more aggressive upward sweep, then drop the rod tip. As with jigs, fish usually strike on the fall, so avoid excessive slack or you'll miss feeling the bite.
A 1- to 1 1/2-ounce three-way rig baited with a minnow is another good bait that can be drifted or trolled, or fished in place. Keep the dropper and leader short -- maybe 15 inches apiece -- to position the bait near bottom where walleyes tuck down tight to the basin. If you want a little extra color or action, switch the plain hook to a floating jighead that'll bob and weave in the subtle current. It's a good choice when the fish appear to be lethargic or extremely fussy.
The same lures or lure-livebait combos apply when fishing from shore. Simply cast them out across likely areas and retrieve them back. Livebait combos can be fished in place for extended periods; lures must be worked with a fair consistency of motion to achieve the proper action and attraction. Show the fish a variety of tactics and see what they respond to best.
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Snags are the bane of shore anglers, and depending on the area being fished, they may range from infrequent to abundant. That's the price you pay when you lack the mobility to move out over the top of a snag and try to jerk it free from the bottom. If snags are bad, do the math; lost three-way riggings are cheaper than lost lures. If your losses aren't excessive, chalk up the occasional lost lure to the price of doing business.
At night, river walleyes may move into the extreme shallows, often right up against shore. Casting a minnow-imitating crankbait or shad bait can produce big time on bigger fish. Key on prime spots -- obvious eddies, an inflowing creek, a wing dam. You don't have to work deep; 3 to 5 feet should be adequate.
Need a break from the midwinter blues or from the ice patrol? Short of heading to the Southlands, big rivers with big dams are the best game in town. The pocket of open water may be relatively small; the less area you need to check. When you don't have to run around and check many miles of river, you can spend more time playing with presentation changes and adjustments. Fun to do on a moderately warm day, basking in the open-water opportunity while the surrounding countryside is locked in snow and ice.
SOME DAM GOOD WEBSITES
Larger rivers with a sequence or major dams fall under the management of authorities that regulate water flow (and ensuing water levels). It's possible to log on to their websites to check characteristics for individual lakes and dams, to gain some indication of current and river conditions to help plan your trip.
NOAA's Riverwatch, an extremely helpful and easy-to-navigate website with current and projected water levels for the Upper Mississippi, Ohio, Allegheny, Monongohela, and portions of the Arkansas, lower Missouri, and other rivers.
The US Army Corps of Engineers website for the Upper Missouri River Region Water Management Information offers river and reservoir levels, outflow projections, lake levels, boat launch and ice conditions, and other helpful stuff.
The Tennessee Valley Authority website offers information on many southeastern reservoirs, including water levels, outflow rates, predicted power generation periods, plus flow rate of regional streams.
The US Geological Survey Real-Time Water Data website offers water levels and stream flow rates throughout the US.