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Walleye Week: I'd Fish Anyone's Favorite River: Overlooked River Walleye Options Today

We all have one special river that conjures a quick smile and an insatiable thirst to return, and to feel the tug of the current.

Walleye Week: I'd Fish Anyone's Favorite River: Overlooked River Walleye Options Today

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Flowing through our memories like liquid nostalgia, a singular river evokes vivid fish-catching images, plus everything intangible and elusive and beautiful about the pursuit. We all seem to have one—that certain special river that conjures a quick smile and an insatiable thirst to return, and to feel the tug of the current. It’s no accident that the best in angling literature nearly always involves an angler and their favorite river. Roderick Haig-Brown wrote glowingly about British Columbia’s Campbell River in his angling classic, A River Never Sleeps. Norman Maclean spun a wonderful story around Montana’s Big Blackfoot. John Gierach once remarked, whimsically, “I’d fish anyone’s St. Vrain,” with a nod to his sentimental favorite little trout stream.

You don’t have to know how to cast a fly rod to appreciate the sort of perpetual hope rivers can deliver. Rivers bind seemingly disparate factions, such as fly fishers and walleye anglers, in ways we don’t completely understand. But when you read of Haig-Brown’s Campbell or Maclean’s Blackfoot or Gierach’s St. Vrain, you’re instantly transformed, thinking not so much of the trout or the walleyes, but of first love.

“Without mentioning its name, the guy had described it as a fair-to-middling creek that didn’t hold any really big trout,” Gierach wrote, “but he said it was close to his home, real pretty, not too well known, and that he fished it a lot. ‘It won’t knock your socks off,’ he’d said. ‘But I think you’ll enjoy it.” In the story, Gierach then told his friend, A.K. Best, “Sounds like the St. Vrain,” to which Best replied, “I’d do it if I were you. I’d fish anyone’s St. Vrain.”

You get the gist—that walleye anglers feel more or less the same way about their choice river runs. It doesn’t have to be the best place you’ve ever fished, and might not even harbor particularly big walleyes. But it still doesn’t diminish our desire to protect it, to assure that it remains healthy for our kids to enjoy. So, maybe it’s a semi-wild place where boats don’t overwhelm the water.

Where you’re always bound to see something amazing around the next bend: A family of river otters rassling and sliding down a muddy bank like summertime teenagers. An assembly of spiny softshell turtles, all basking in the afternoon sun. Five bald eagles perching in the same ancient white pine.

For me, it’s the way, way upper Mississippi River. Every day proclaims a new adventure; the same scenery and cast of wild characters, but always at least a few little visual gifts to make you stop and shake your head. Never once has the river fished exactly the same—even on consecutive days. That’s a blessing and at times, a curse. But given certain water conditions, I can reliably cast to certain spots with the assurance of at least a few aggressive strikes; sometimes more than a dozen. And if things go well, you can experience something entirely surprising—like walleyes slurping mayflies and small topwater lures amid flooded cottonwood and willow trees on an outside bend.

River Walleyes East

I suspect Dylan Nussbaum feels something similar for his favorite walleye waterway, the Allegheny River in Northwest Pennsylvania. Listening to Nussbaum­, perhaps the top young walleye pro in America today, describe the Allegheny makes you realize this is his one—the river to which he’ll compare all others for the rest of his days. Though he’s fished many of the nation’s classic walleye runs—the Mississippi, Missouri and Detroit among them—his Allegheny beckons him each and every spring.

A smiling angler holding a large walleye in a boat on a river.
Pennsylvania walleye pro Dylan Nussbaum employs unconventional trolling methods on the Allegheny River.

“When you mention the Allegheny, most anglers think of Kinzua Reservoir,” says Nussbaum, who fished his first tournament there with his father when he was 10 years old. “But much of the river is shallow, narrow, and fairly undeveloped. There’s just something special about it. You’re surrounded by big mountainous and forested terrain with 130-foot rock walls dropping right into the water.”

Flowing 325 miles northwest into New York and then southwest back to Pennsylvania again, the Allegheny eventually joins the Monongahela River at Pittsburgh to form the Ohio River. Though the river system has historically been supplemented via stocking of Lake Erie strain walleyes, biologists are currently evaluating natural reproduction and its ability to sustain the population.

Nussbaum says the walleye fishery is currently in excellent shape, although he admits the fish can be picky. Typical of small rivers, the Allegheny also sees extreme water fluctuations. “There are a lot of different feeder streams here, and I’ve seen the river rise 5 feet within a few days. Even after the rains end, it can take two days or more for the river to clear back up.

“When the season opens on May 1, we’re often all the way up the river, as far as we can take a boat before the water gets too skinny,” he says. Prior to that, you’re not even allowed up in the river, to protect the huge run of spawning walleyes. Once the season opens, you can travel 30 miles upstream  and walk along the banks and catch walleyes and muskies.”

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Nussbaum, who follows Allegheny River walleye migrations all year, keys on 3 to 10 feet of water in spring, usually focusing on the shallow end of the spectrum. “We’ve worked through a lot of different presentations over the years, a lot of them involving trolling and crankbaits,” he says. “Locals like to pull ‘crawlers on bottom bouncers. But I don’t think many people have caught on to using leadcore in these small-river situations.”

Though Nussbaum and his father Jesse initially flatlined trolled Shad Raps, they eventually realized the precision of leadcore line yielded greater maneuverability and efficiency, even in shallower, smaller confines. “It might not be a secret, but it’s become a killer method for us on the Allegheny, as well as on many other rivers I’ve fished,” he says.

Envisioning multiple leadcore rigs trolled across little rock and current sweet spots in 3 to 10 feet might give the average walleye angler a headache. But Nussbaum knows it works and actually believes it simplifies the operation. “We run four leadcore setups at once. Two 12-foot Kast King Krome rods and two shorter 7-foot 6-inch Kast King WideEye trolling rods deliver diving baits to various depths, depending on how much leadcore I let back.”

He likes pulling plugs in “super-fast” 3-mph current. Typically, he runs just 30 feet of line off rod tips (20 feet of Sufix 832 Advanced Leadcore and a 10-foot leader of 10-pound-test Sufix 100% Fluorocarbon Invisiline.) “The leadcore sinks 5 feet for every 30 feet you let out,” he says. “So, the key is to minimize line length behind the boat, which lets me make quick turns in tight quarters, hitting all the little rockpiles—which appear on side scan sonar—and cuts in the current, without fouling lines, while keeping baits in the water continuously.

Two anglers holding a large walleye.
In-Fisherman Editor in Chief Doug Stange fishes with Jason Gaurkee to capture footage for In-Fisherman TV on the Peshtigo River in Wisconsin—one of many of the great and amazing river walleye runs across walleye country.

“We like keeping our baits grinding bottom as much as possible,” he says. “Trolling upstream, we stay around 1 mph, alternating between 0.7 and 1.3. If we’re trolling across a 5-foot flat and encounter a 10-foot hole, we can immediately let back 10 more feet of leadcore and instantly get our baits down near bottom. The short leads also mean you can turn around and swing back through a trough or grind back across a rock zone pretty fast—as opposed to cranking in lines and resetting the whole program or making a big wide turn. Both waste time and burn efficiency. But short leadcore leads offer quick-turn precision, keeping our baits in the juice non-stop.”

Even in spring and amid 50°F water temps, Nussbaum’s a fan of “small baits with a lot of action.” He says forage consists largely of shiners, with mixes of perch and white bass. In autumn, walleyes especially key on crayfish, as well as a hot fall shiner run. “I’m typically running a #7 Shad Rap in perch, Red Crawdad, or any natural crawdad color. In slightly dirtier water I run a Hot Steel pattern #4 or #5 Shad Dancer, which is a killer river bait, with more movement and action than a Shad Rap. If fish are off a bit or finicky, I move down to a #5 Shad Rap. In dark, muddy water, I tie on straight white, chartreuse, or a fire crawdad pattern.

“Early in the season, a lot of anglers are afraid to take their boats up in that skinny water. But that’s where the fast current is, which is also what holds walleyes. We’re always looking for faster current, with little rock clusters and current seams, or chutes, near the main river channel. A good walleye here is a 20-incher, but we get plenty of 20- to 24-inchers and tons of 15s. Thirty-inchers also swim here.” He says 50-fish days are feasible in spring, with limits of 4 and 6 walleyes on the New York and Pennsylvania side of the river, respectively.

As water warms into the 60s and 70s in late May and early June, Nussbaum simply follows the main body of postspawn fish downstream (into the reservoir). He continues pulling shad baits on leadcore until he’s 10 miles into the main lake. “We start finding walleyes deeper and deeper, on points near the main river channel. You can catch them by pitching Rapala Flat Jigs in summer and fall, as well as on paddletail swimbaits during the fall shiner run. My dad and I have won tourneys with the Flat Jig; something we talked about in an article last year. When I was away on the tour, he won the Allegheny walleye circuit with this tactic. Now, everyone’s fishing it. We’ll even take the bait out on Lake Erie’s deep Eastern Basin, pitching to big marks on sonar—maybe the most overlooked big-fish pattern in the lake.”

Why Not the Niagara?

Like Nussbaum, who lives near Erie’s immense walleye population, exceptional angler and legendary New York guide Captain Frank Campbell says it’s easy to neglect the nearby Niagara River. Undeniably one of the most remarkable multispecies freshwater fisheries in North America, he says the river’s walleye population is expanding.

A smiling man holding a large walleye in a boat.
With Lake Erie just 20 miles away, New York’s Niagara River remains something of an overlooked walleye spot.

“We catch walleyes all year long in the Niagara,” Campbell says. “We probably get our biggest fish during the winter, but again, because Erie is just 20 miles away, most anglers prefer to do it the easy way and hit the big lake. On the Niagara, we can consistently catch 8- and 10-pound fish with some in the 11- and 12-pound range. It seems like the population is increasing because we’re catching a lot more smaller fish the past few years. But if you hit it just right, a good day can kick out 15 to 20 walleyes, with quite a few under 18 inches.” The walleye limit on the upper river near Lake Erie is 6 fish, 15 inches and longer. The lower Niagara (below the Falls) hosts a 3-fish limit and 18-inch minimum.

Meandering 36 miles north, from eastern Lake Erie to western Lake Ontario, the Niagara is not a true river, but rather a strait—defined as a narrow waterway connecting two larger bodies of water. Even for the sheer experience of a profoundly powerful river that flows up to 25 mph in places, the Niagara is worth a trip. Thankfully, something big and impressive is always biting here—including world-class smallmouth bass, king salmon, and steelhead. According to Campbell, there’s a peak prespawn walleye bite during January and February, baring ice flows from Lake Erie that can eliminate boat travel. The walleye season closes in mid-March and opens again in May.

“We don’t have a good postspawn bite here, but our best fishing occurs in July, August, and September and through the winter months,” Campbell says. “While waves of fish can move up from Lake Ontario, we’ve got a pretty good resident population of walleyes here.”

His preferred method is anchoring along points and edges of structure near the main channel. A local spring hotspot remains the mouth of the river as it enters Lake Ontario near Fort Niagara, and out onto the current-facing side of expansive, sandy Niagara Bar. To locate fish along extensive edges, anglers run planer boards with Rapala Minnow-style baits. He works the river 150 to 200 days a year and tracks fish location almost daily. He’ll typically park on specific sweet spots, working a small, live emerald shiner on a three-way rig, with four or more rigs per boat. He uses a pencil-shaped drifting weight, which ticks bottom and resists rock snags. “Some days, we also do well with 1-ounce bucktail jigs down in 20 to 50 feet of water, and when the water’s cold, a bladebait gets you some big bites.”

Small River Simplicity

If you like the sound of simple patterns and presentations, it might be time to fish your favorite local river. Given favorable flow conditions, I can hit my local river anytime from walleye opener in mid-May through August, confident in catching fish with just a couple rods in the boat. The fish aren’t always big, but I can run with a 3/8-ounce jig and a favorite 3- to 4-inch soft paddletail or curlytail or a jerkbait like a Rapala Shadow Rap Shad and nearly always boat a near-limit of fish. On the best days, we’ve boated over 20 walleyes, plus plenty of bonus pike, smallmouths, and catfish.

In spring, I’ll stop at the mouths of any inflowing water, including the tiniest of creeks to simple drains from river backwater areas. Natural rock points running perpendicular to current attract fish all season long. And all summer, one of the best and most overlooked spots is a non-descript midriver shallow riffle area with sand and rock, or even plain sand. More and faster current is better in low or stable flows. Spring and summer, if you never fish deeper than 5 to 7 feet, you’ll catch all the walleyes you want. In these midriver riffles, which mostly run 2 to 5 feet, I make upstream casts with the jerkbait and work it back with a mostly straight retrieve, pausing and popping the rod and slashing the bait in slower-current areas, to trigger bites. Two baits that always work are a 4-inch #10 Husky Jerk (Glass Purple Sunfire) and a Shadow Rap Shad Deep in Ghost or Molten Copper.

A man sitting in a boat holding a large walleye.
If you like the sound of simple patterns and presentations, it might be time to fish your favorite local river.

When the water rises and floods shoreline foliage, I’ve begun to experiment and catch fish with a Z-Man ChatterBait WillowVibe—a ballhead jig with a small, strategically attached willowleaf blade—dressed with a 3-inch paddletail, such as a Slim SwimZ. You’ll be hearing more about this bait in the near future. But for now, work the WillowVibe with a slow, steady retrieve, twitching the rod tip and doing periodic stops-and-goes to make the lure randomly hunt and slash. I’ve always found that a willowleaf blade produces like magic in dirty-water situations, including high-water rivers. Work the WillowVibe-swimbait combo from just beneath the surface around shoreline brush and wood to 3 to 5 feet deep on the slackwater sides of cover. Active walleyes aren’t averse to getting right up in the fast current, gashing at baitfish that flip in and out of the surface film. And on that one magical afternoon, you might even find yourself reaching for a surface-kicking frog or a Rapala Skitter Walk.

Nothing particularly special about this river. Nothing, that is, other than the experience itself, which is frequently sublime, never disappointing, and always an exercise in enlightenment. Guess I’d have to agree with Gierach. “I’d fish anyone’s St. Vrain.”


In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt is an outstanding multi­species angler and decades-long contributor to In-Fisherman publications. Contact: Captain Frank Campbell, ­niagaracharter.com.




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