Got a fancy walleye boat? Me, too. There are times, however, I’d rather leave the old girl behind and go fishing without her. Don’t get me wrong, I have no ill feelings toward my rig; in fact, I’m actually quite fond of her. But there are outings where I’d rather don a pair of hip boots and cast from the shore side of things, while wading knee-deep in water.
It’s the sound and feel of gravel under my feet in the silence of a moonlit night, and the simplicity of using only one rod and a small tackle tote with only a few lures to choose from.
Okay, forget the la-de-da—it’s the fish—the walleyes, saugers, and saugeyes in both quantity and quality that can be caught while wade-fishing that turns my crank, especially during the fall and early winter months. And it doesn’t matter where one fishes, be it river, reservoir, natural inland lake, or Great Lakes: There are key locations where wading can outproduce casting from a boat.
A Sander Swims Through It
Fall walleyes and their relatives are common in rivers and streams across much of North America. The rivers of Michigan, where I started fishing, are no exception, and to this day I’m drawn to their ever-moving waters.
One thing I’ve learned over the years, though, is that there’s more to catching fish from flowing water than just an aimless cast—namely because walleyes prefer certain sections of river for feeding and resting.
Sometimes the best person from whom to learn the habits of river walleyes is an angler always trying not to catch one. Take Traverse City, Michigan, guide Russ Maddin, who’s been flinging flies for trout with clients since he was 14 years old.
Maddin has seen many rogue walleyes come from the same waters where trout live, but from very specific places. “Although the species intermix, there is a sector of a hole or run where we hook more walleyes than trout,” he says.
While working big streamers for browns, Maddin and his clients take the majority of their walleyes in the upper sections of both deep, slackwater pools and crossover runs (where the main current shifts from one side of the river to the other), especially those featuring sizeable logjams.
“Ninety percent of the walleyes we catch come from the top portion of these areas, right behind the first break into the hole or run. They move up there to feed and then drop back into the wood to rest,” he says.
During our river walleye excursions, Maddin and I forego the feathers and instead cast floating bodybaits such as Rapala Original Floaters, Smithwick Floating Rattlin’ Rogues, and Bomber Long A’s. We concentrate our first few casts in the upper sections of holes and runs while standing alongside them, then walk and cast our way downstream.
Bodybaits work well in shallow-river headwaters, as they imitate the juvenile trout walleyes feast on. (The stomach content of nearly every walleye I’ve ever caught from trout water has proved this theory.) They also run high in the water column and away from the snag-infested bottom.
If the water’s deep, say 8 feet or more, suspending versions can be used without fear of losing them. Suspending Rogues and Rapala Husky Jerks are two of our favorites. Whether the bait is floating or suspending, cast it slightly up- and across stream, then make a steady retrieve back, just fast enough to give the lure its wobble.
Wade-fishing for headwater walleyes requires beefy equipment. Six- to 61/2-foot medium-power fast-action spinning or casting rods are perfect for short, accurate casts. Ten- to 12-pound-test monofilament has a little stretch to it, keeping it from breaking while coaxing fish out from heavy cover. Use a snap (not a snap swivel) to connect lure to line.
Walleyes and saugers can also be found within the lower sections of rivers, sectors where trout are less abundant and warmwater species thrive. Again, the upper sections of deep holes are key locations, especially within swirling, backwater eddies just below sharp points or snug to the current below culverts.
Swirling waters are top night-fishing areas. After dark, predators move up into eddies at the head of the pool and sabotage baitfish as they pass through the fast water, and then flail around in the roiled water below the point or culvert.
Bodybaits also work well in the lower sections of rivers, as do a variety of jig-and-plastic combos. In most casting situations, 1/8- to 1/2-ounce jigheads fit the bill; however, experiment with different weights until you find one that allows the jig to drop through the surface current, yet isn’t so heavy that it falls right to bottom, catches, and snags up.
You have it right when the jig is just heavy enough so that when you feel it “tick” bottom you can quickly lift it, letting it swing downstream with the current as it falls.
The shape of plastics that can take fish from rivers is only limited by the angler’s imagination. Long, slender-shaped bodies are my favorites, however, because they cut so nicely through the current. Four-inch curlytail worms and 3- to 4-inch minnows are top options. Hop them the way you would when casting in lakes, or twitch them like jerkbaits.
Wade as close to eddies as possible without spooking fish, then cast slightly upstream and into the head of the churning water.
As for equipment in these larger lower-river sections, a 61/2- to 7-foot medium-light action spinning or casting rod will lengthen your casts.
Ten-pound-test superline, such as Berkley FireLine, works well for both bodybaits and jigs, since the thin diameter of the no-stretch line cuts through the current and is sensitive. Tie jigs directly to the line and use a snap for bodybaits, as discussed earlier.
Lakes and Reservoirs
With miles of shoreline to cover, the decision on where to wade-fish an inland lake or reservoir can be overwhelming. Concentrate on classic spots as you would when fishing by boat, and you’ll be in the zone.
In natural inland lakes, common cover and structure—weeds, wood, and rocks—are always good places to start, especially if they’re adjacent to points with deep water nearby. One overlooked area is a deep cut that comes right up to shore. Such cuts excel after dark. As fish move shoreward to feed, they’re funneled up to shore and concentrated at the ends.
In reservoirs, steep gravel points are hotspots, as well as riprap walls near dams or deep water, especially if a wind’s blowing into them. Here, walleyes and saugers feast on minnows, crustaceans, and insects in and about the rocks.
Fish caught off gravel points tend to be migratory souls that moved in after dark, while those in big-rock riprap may be there all day, holding within the crevices.
A 7-foot medium-light-action rod is a good choice when fishing lakes and reservoirs. The extra length allows increased casting distance.
In addition to the lures mentioned so far, lake ’eyes can also be fooled with slipbobber rigs. Minnows, chubs, and leeches are by far the best livebaits under floats.
Even waters as massive as the Great Lakes can be efficiently fished on foot. For example, piers adjacent to rivermouths are definitely worth checking out. While casting most anywhere from the cement wall can put you on fish, walleyes congregate most around two specific places—elbows and pier heads.
The elbow of a pier, no matter its degree of angle, is a perennial fish-holder. Undertow currents from waves dig trenches out from the corners; baitfish and walleyes come together in these deeper pockets of water.
Waves also form gutters at the end of pier heads, and predator fish nose up in the river current within these depressions.
The Great Lakes call for large lures. In water to 8 feet, #18 Rapala Original Floaters and Smithwick’s 5-inch Floating Super Rogues are a good match to the smelt and shad forage. In deeper water, CD11 Rapala CountDowns and Rebel FTJ3 Fastrac Minnows get down into the strike zone better. Hint: Reel that CountDown in at a creep, literally less than a foot per minute (yep, it basically just sits there). Walleyes can’t stand to let this injured minnow creep by.
Casting from piers calls not only for large lures, but for longer-than-normal rods. Medium-action spinning rods 81/2 to 91/2 feet long, coupled with long-casting reels spooled with a limp 8- to 10-pound-test monofilament, are key to launching lures out into the abyss.
Looking to catch a stringerful of walleyes, saugers, and saugeyes this fall? Why not leave the boat behind and walk the banks of a nearby river, shoreline of a lake or reservoir, or pier jutting out into the Great Lakes? Concentrate on key spots and, day or night, you’ll find great fall action only a cast away.
*David A. Rose is a writer, photographer, speaker, and fishing guide (wildfishing.com) who lives near Traverse City, MI.