The basic principles of spring river patterns are as dependable as the sunrise. They do, however, directly relate to changes in current flow, and thus can vary from week to week, even day to day, as ice and snow melt, spring rains commence, current increases, and water level and temperature creep upward. River walleyes are in a state of perpetual transition, shifting location sometimes subtly, sometimes drastically, in relation to variations in current flow. The better you react to the ever-changing world of river walleyes, the more consistently you'll catch them.
WINTER TO EARLY SPRING
Midwinter is typified by the coldest water of the year combined with the lowest annual flow. Minimum sun exposure and the coldest temperatures permit little snowmelt. Under such conditions, river walleyes most likely stack in moderately deep sections with subtle current. Deep holes directly below dams and downstream holes at river bends often hold most of the fish. Walleyes may scatter throughout the basins of holes, though the most active feeders tend to position along the upstream rims of holes, awaiting food washed downstream into the hole.
With such low flow, however, even deeper midriver basins may hold walleyes. Minor dips and rises in the bottom associated with mini sand dunes, scattered rocks or logs, or simply the middle portions of large slack-water eddies can draw and hold numbers of walleyes. Where current is negligible, fish may simply scatter across the basin. Where current's a bit more pronounced, they more likely tuck behind small current-deflecting objects or variations in the bottom. Fish may appear to be randomly scattered throughout the area, but that's not usually the case.
The common characteristic is that under low-flow conditions, walleyes do not need to tuck tight to current seams formed by underwater obstructions like wing dams, land points, bridge pilings, riprap, or other objects. They may be there also, but they're not limited to such spots. Fishing midriver flats and holes, typically 10 to 25 feet deep, may require nothing fancier than a simple downstream drift while bouncing a jig and minnow on and off bottom.
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EARLY SPRING TO MIDSPRING
As spring approaches, warmer temperatures trigger initial snowmelt and run-off, and perhaps some rain. The resulting gentle influx of water from the surrounding watershed causes subtle increases in water level and current. Water temperature also may begin to creep upward from midwinter lows.
At first, walleyes begin reacting subtly to such changes. As eddies shrink, fish may shuffle over to reposition along the new boundaries of calm water meeting current. As water rises significantly, midriver areas, in general, begin receiving the brunt of the new flow, and walleyes begin abandoning them, shifting more toward shorelines. Here, the aforementioned rock points, wing dams, and riprap obstructions form breaks in the increasing current. Walleyes also may tend to use water a bit shallower during daytime hours -- say, 8 to 18 feet.
Telltale current breaks along the surface of the river often betray subsurface holding areas. Rather than simple straight drifts, it now becomes necessary to position your boat and lines directly along edges where current meets slack water, as you control-drift the boat downstream. Should you elect to cast to such spots, either hover or slip slowly downstream with your trolling motor, or anchor and cast a jig toward the target area. Retrieve it with subtle lift-drops of the rod tip, slightly on and off bottom, letting current sweep it along the current break.
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MIDSPRING TO LATE SPRING
Increasingly warm temperatures trigger major snowmelt and run-off, generally bolstered by spring rains, which create a major influx of water into the river. Water level and current velocity increase significantly. Current is swift and strong in most midriver areas, often precluding their use by walleyes. Significant current breaks are generally smaller, more distinct, and usually associated with major shoreline features. Emphasis now shifts to precision boat control or casting tactics while placing jigs or other lures exactly along the edges of current seams; there's little room for error. Walleyes generally avoid areas of major current. So should you.
Turbulent areas directly below dams often lose their punch at this time; walleyes seem to have disappeared. Basically, the fish have tucked tighter to shore, often moving downstream a bit to areas where swift current dissipates. Backwater channels take on increased importance under these conditions. Formerly too shallow and slack to host walleyes, the added depth and current now make them more attractive.
The average walleye angler's natural fear of snagging and losing jigs in wood cover causes a reluctance to fish tight to flooded wood. But that's often what it takes to catch fish in high water. Control-drifting jigs along the outer edges of flooded brush or trees, or pitching weedless jigs up into open lanes in the flooded forest, can be extremely productive when traditional tactics fail. Not easy fishing, but might be the best alternative during the early stages of flooding, which often accompany the transition from prespawn to active spawning, particularly if walleye activity is focused in 3 to 12 feet of water in and around flooded cover.
HOW CHANGING CURRENT APPLIES TO 'EYES ON THE RISE
In summary, walleyes typically (1) focus in midriver locations during winter and early spring low-flow conditions; (2) move increasingly toward areas of reduced flow or current edges formed by shoreline-related current breaks as the water rises during mid to late spring; and (3) may penetrate the normal river perimeter into cover should banks flood during spring high water. Follow the fish as they shift locations, tailor your presentations to depth and current flow, and continue to catch them throughout the transition from winter to spring. Eventually, high water may enable walleyes to move so far into flooded cover that reaching them becomes impossible until the water drops. But until or unless that occurs, spring fishing continues excellent as the water rises. Rise to the occasion, just as the sunrise welcomes each new day on the river.