July 30, 2012
Above the surface, we visualize a flat, still surface and imagine fish below. Beneath the membrane separating air and water, however, the aquatic world is anything but silent and still. Vibrations and sounds abound, alerting fish to opportunity and danger. Currents surge, diminish, and reverse. Sight comes into play -- primarily at close range -- but powerful forces other than vision dominate the walleye lifestyle.
Current is a universal fish attractor. Viewed from our perch above the water, we theorize and visualize the edges of current, with fish holding within a comfortable position and flow velocity, poised to shoot out and capture an unfortunate morsel drifting by in the adjacent faster flow. That's right where you want your lure or bait, tumbling downcurrent to waiting teeth and jaws and 'eyes.
But to walleyes, current is much more than just a food supply or feeding lane. Strong instinctual urges dictate walleye behavior, particularly in spring. Walleyes, genetically programmed and ingrained to run toward current and spawn among turbulent rocks and boulders, often migrate long distances to reach suitable combinations of depth, bottom content, and current flow. Thirty miles away in a lake or reservoir, fish can't feel the current of a feeder creek as they can the main flow in a river, thirty miles downstream from a dam. But somehow, they know it's there. A place to return to every spring to execute the spawning ritual, and perhaps to linger for some time afterwards should feeding opportunities be present.
In lake chains with current flowing between bodies of water, walleyes move toward rocky narrows in spring, and especially to the mouths of feeder creeks and streams with rocky bottom. They hold in adjacent deep water during the day, then move up into the current at night once water temperatures rise above 40F. Following a week or so of spawning activity, walleyes may disperse to other developing food sources. Or they may remain to chow down on minnows or insects in the area. In general, the faster the water warms, the quicker the walleyes tend to say adios.
In the cold Canadian North, however, many lakes never warm, or at best warm at a slow rate. Walleyes may linger around the first hole below a waterfall, narrows, or river mouth for weeks or even months, depending on current to deliver food in an otherwise infertile environment. Current becomes a powerful year-round fish attractor in many such waters. In others, it's at a seasonal peak in spring, dwindling in importance as summer approaches.
In reservoirs -- hybrids of lakes and rivers -- walleyes often react like river fish in spring, moving far uplake into feeder rivers or creeks with rocky substrate. Should suitable rock bottom be lacking, they opt instead for windswept riprap along dams and causeways -- an artificial substitute for productive natural spawning conditions. If windswept rock shorelines are available, they, too, may draw fish, much as in natural lakes. All else being equal, rocky shoreline spots most exposed to the brunt of the wind from several directions tend to attract the most walleyes in early season. Wind creates current, necessary to oxygenate eggs deposited into crevasses between rocks and boulders.
In essence, current draws walleyes from vast distances, long before they open their mouths to grab and gulp the first shiner, shad, smelt, or minnow along the prime edge of a current break. Once walleyes arrive, current takes on the dual role of both attractor and deliverer of sustenance. No wonder it plays such an important part in the walleye lifestyle.
HOW WALLEYES RELATE TO CURRENT BREAKS
In some cases, current is obvious. In others, current -- or more appropriately the effect of current -- is more subtle, but nevertheless important to fishing success. Here are several examples.
Feeder creeks -- Tributaries flowing into lakes, rivers, and reservoirs create obvious feeding areas for walleyes. The flow flushes food items downcurrent, simultaneously attracting gamefish toward the source. Inactive walleyes may lie a short distance outside the actual current edge. As they become active, often at night, they proceed directly up into or along the knife edge of the flow, holding in an area of reduced current or slack water within easy reach of passing forage. Placing a cast or executing a drift along such edges is about as high percentage as it gets.
Tributaries tend to produce fairly uniform flow patterns for a period of days, unless sudden rain or snowmelt creates a quick rise in water levels and associated current. Such increases can attract lots of fish in a short time. But the point is, given stable conditions, consistent flows attract fish on a regular basis. Thus the fishing at tributary intersections tends to run from good to excellent, rather than from poor to the opposite extreme.
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Narrows -- Narrows between lake sections may or may not have consistent current due to the flow of a river or creek through the system. If it's consistent, expect some fish to be in the area nearly all the time. All else being equal, the downstream exit from the narrows tends to be best, often in the shallows at night.
Nearly any narrows is subject to fluctuating short-term current due to changes in wind speed and direction. Strong winds from one direction push water through the narrows, and the larger the lake, the more current generated. As the wind subsides, the flow begins to surge back in the opposite direction. Wind-generated current can even override and reverse natural current flow. The point is, narrows are focal points for current flow. Take advantage of them.
Windy shorelines -- Wind pounding into any shoreline creates an intermittent current that may last for hours or days before subsiding, turning a fishless spot into a bonanza as active walleyes penetrate the shallows to feed along the shoreline. In general, shorelines that plunge to several feet provide a vertical edge, against which walleyes can trap baitfish. Tapering shorelines are far less attractive, even in wind, because baitfish can escape into water shallower than where walleyes can effectively pursue them. The best shorelines tend to have deep-water access nearby.
Windy points and reefs -- Like shorelines, points and reefs exposed to the wind become excellent feeding locations. With points and reefs, however, wind and current build against the upwind side and surge over the top of the shallow crest. Often, the upwind edge or tip tends to attract the most active walleyes. Under strong wind conditions, darkness, clouds, or rain, walleyes may penetrate up into just a few feet of water, actively feeding among boulders, reeds, cane, or other cover. As the wind subsides, they disperse back into the adjacent depths.
Rivers -- Long periods of consistent flow create areas where distinct current breaks form as moving water is deflected by an object, whether a point, wing dam, bridge piling, riprap, rock pile, island -- whatever. Active walleyes lie along the edge of the current; inactive walleyes lie farther away. All else being equal, the upstream edges of such spots often attract the most active fish. Walleyes may be active in such spots in deeper water during the day, shallower at night.
Consistent flow conditions trigger dependable depth patterns and timing of fish activity. A sudden rise in water level and increase in flow, however, changes everything. Fish shift around to reposition along the edges of new current breaks as edges reform in the rising tide. Walleyes often forage shallower in rising water. At the opposite extreme, during a dry spell, walleyes reposition to other spots, often deeper, where subtle current breaks form again under the new conditions.
Dams -- Dams feature all ranges of current flow, from extreme to subtle, and some walleyes always are nearby. During the cold water of fall, winter, and spring, however, instinct urges walleyes to move many miles upriver, where dams stop their progress and they form large concentrations. Water level and velocity determine exact fish position. With high, fast water, walleyes tend to move closer to shoreline current breaks or into nearby backwaters within a few miles of the dam. In low water, they tend to drop deeper, associating with subtler current breaks closer to midchannel.
Locks -- Intermittent current caused by the opening and closing of navigational locks triggers brief flurries of feeding activity. Fish often lie dormant during periods when lock activity is quiet. Then suddenly, as a lock opens and flushes water and food down through the exit, gamefish rise off bottom, dash into the vortex, and grab a meal. Short but intense bursts are the rule; for a few minutes, the fish become aggressive before settling back into relative dormancy.
We've seen the same effect as large ferry boats or barges enter or leave a dock; the rush and turbulence of propellers activates fish in the immediate area.
Current -- Don't underestimate current, an important locational element for walleyes. Sometimes it's consistent; other times, it's brief or intermittent, ever changing. In any form, however, walleyes relate to it. If fishing current is high on your list of priorities this spring, you'll likely catch more and bigger walleyes. Given the option of fishing otherwise equal spots, go with the flow. That's usually what the walleyes do.