Many of the great rivers of North America are alive with walleyes (and saugers) as March slides into April, the timing of the spawn depending on the portion of river and variables like water temperature and day length that influence timing as much as two weeks or more in some years compared to others.
One of the more remarkable walleyes I've caught in recent years measured 26 inches and weighted just shy of 9 pounds. This melon of a fish, spewing eggs as I handled her, came from the headwaters of Pool 4 on the Mississippi River, on March 19, 2012. I was exploring in preparation to film a TV segment, the rest of the crew to show up the next day — so no photo.
The temperature in the main river that day was 54°F, well past the 43°F to 45°F range when river walleyes might typically be expected to begin spawning. Yet the third week of March is several weeks before traditional spawning time on Pool 4. Last season, an untypically late one by comparison, water temperature in the main river didn't reach the mid-50°F range until late April.
There are many potential topics to explore in talking about river fishing, especially given the large range of rivers. On the Columbia near Irrigon, Oregon, one might be jigging 60 feet deep, while anglers wading below the Linn Grove dam on the Little Sioux River in Northwest Iowa could be catching them in 2 feet of water 10 feet from their boots.
Meanwhile, below Fort Randall Dam at Pickstown, South Dakota, a 45-mile section of semiwild river flows into Lewis and Clark Lake, created by Gavins Point Dam, near Yankton. The tailwater generally sees a slow grind of fish migrating into the area, starting during fall and mid-winter and lasting into spring.
By comparison, the final section of the Peshtigo River, which flows only a half dozen or so miles before emptying into the Green Bay portion of Lake Michigan, often has a "run" lasting about three weeks. The migration begins just after ice-out, with some males moving quickly upriver, followed perhaps a week later by progressive flushes of females and more males. The females might be in no more than a week or two. One can often monitor trending conditions and groups of fish by catching nearly spawning fish one day; followed by spawning fish the next; and postspawn fish already moving downstream the next. Nor is it unusual to catch fish in each of those conditions the same day, or even within a couple-hour time span.
One of the grand things about river fishing is that walleyes usually don't stop biting as they spawn. Indeed, often the fishing just gets better as fish approach the spawn; and it usually doesn't shut down after they spawn, although you might have to track fish to spots adjacent to spawning areas.
Of course, rivers get busy this time of year. Fishing from an anchored position below the De Pere Dam on the Fox River in Green Bay several years ago, I counted 90 to 100 boats bobbing about. Another 30 folks were fishing from shore. Not bad for a river that's almost entirely catch and release during the spawning season.
Even with the cold weather the mood of the crowd was upbeat that day. Two guys prepping a boat at the landing had their cheesehead hats on and were each wearing a necklace of heavy mono fishing line with a half dozen sausages tied in. "To keep the sheepshead away," one of them told me. The crowd was even reasonably tolerant when a truck launching a boat with a motor from the 1950s, predictably couldn't get the motor started, although there was a question from somewhere back in the line — "Illinois plates?"
As we have often said: If the fish are there, people will come — in the case of spring walleyes, to sections of the North Platte River, Wyoming; to all the Missouri River reservoirs in the Dakotas; to all the Mississippi River pools in the upper river; to the Detroit River; and to dozens of other rivers large and small, including rivers of the Midsouth, such as the Cumberland, where saugers reign — to drop just a few more names.
So you begin to get a sense of the dynamics at play one fishery versus another. They're all similar, yet also unique in their own way. That can also be true for the fishing techniques at play, one fishery versus another. Yet so too are there universal aspects to what works. My purpose is to add to the mix a few options that might be overlooked on some fisheries.
Presentation Perspectives — On the presentation side of things, we've traveled a slow evolutionary tract the last 40 years. True, one might still today grab a jig box full of plain jigs, get a bucket of minnows, and never look back. But, as good as a minnow on a jighead can be at times, especially when the toughest weather and water conditions prevail, today most anglers realize they can maximize their catch on many occasions by using artificial lures, especially as we move from the Cold Water Period into the Prespawn and finally the Spawn and Postspawn periods.
Crankbaits are great at times. Bladebaits work, too, along with some lipless lures. But the most versatile option is a jighead dressed with a softbait body of some sort, which is where we're headed here.
I have had the opportunity to fish most of the great river fisheries in North America, although I claim no specific expertise in fishing some of the best of them. The Columbia is, for example, such a study in contrasts, and has such big fish, that it is the most interesting case study in walleyes happening. But this could move many directions. There are many topics for another day.
I bring to each fishery no particular need to follow tradition. You can tell me at the boat ramp what color jigs and softbait bodies are best and I'm listening, always listening, (and I might reconsider later) but I'm also already confident in the range of lures I'm going to fish with, because they have worked wherever I have gone.
But my apples don't fall far from the tree. Most of what I fish with is no more than a tinker different than the status quo. Much of what might be different probably is based on my long-standing reliance on various paddletail swimbaits, which have proven to be a key to catching walleyes wherever they swim. This lure category isn't just another fundamental category for walleyes, along with crankbaits, blades, spinner rigging, livebait rigging, and the like — the paddler group is the single most versatile option among them all.
But river fish require paddletails that are more compact than those that often trigger lake and reservoir fish, especially this time of year. And, indeed, some paddletails usually don't begin to produce well until the Cold Water Period gives way to Prespawn, as temperatures begin to rise and fish start to get the urge and get more active.
Hair jigs dressed with softbait or minnows, a plain jighead and a minnow, and less aggressive soft lures like a jighead dressed with a ringworm or Berkley Gulp! Minnow are consistently better in the coldest water — say water temperatures in the lower to mid-40°F range. Some of this depends on the river, though. Swimbaits are a good choice from the beginning to the end on the Peshtigo, although at times one still needs to temper back. (A little bigger often fishes better on the lower end of Great Lakes tributaries these days, because most of those river sections have gobies — and even when they don't, fish that spend most of their time in the bigger water are used to feeding on them, and therefore on bigger baits.)
Considerations for Cold Water — Before looking at some of my proven compact combos, a few thoughts on fishing some of the standard options for cold water. The most fundamental move with a hair jig tipped with a minnow, or, as I often prefer, a hair jig tipped with a 1- or 2-inch tail section of a 3-inch Berkley PowerBait Drop Shot Minnow, is to move the jig along as you drop it to the bottom, then immediately lift it from 2 to 6 inches or so, and hold it in place. Current sweeps past the jig making it move just a bit as the flowing hair also adds action. Or, after dropping, lifting, and holding, add a distinct hop, or a gentle lift-fall, followed by another dead-still hold in place a set distance above bottom. It often helps to add a twitch or two, or a gentle nod to the jig as it swims in place.
There's an attracting phase to what you're doing — the lift-fall, the hop, the gentle nod — followed by the main triggering maneuver, which usually is the hold in place. Exceptions would seem to arise in deadsticking, or in dragging, but even then there's some gentle movement going on.
I think of this as "flagging," as in waving a flag to get attention. Even when you're dragging a jig on bottom, upstream or down, or better yet at an angle to current either upstream or downstream, I add flagging maneuvers, even though they might be subtle. Same when you're swimming a jig more aggressively along a current edge. A little rod-tip movement adds life to the jig, flagging (attracting), and then triggering when fish get in close. The objective always is to add life to the jig, or at times add the look of "flawed life," as in an injured something, in order to get fish to sample our offerings.
So we circle back to specific lures. A minnow tipping a jighead fishes well on the hold as the minnow struggles, but the jig-minnow package doesn't flag as well as a compact hair jig tipped with a limber section of the Drop Shot Minnow, or the entire Minnow. Which produces best depends, but the compact package often fishes more effectively than a jig-and-minnow, especially as movements become more aggressive. A distinct pop or snap of the jig up a foot and back down into the hold position often is a key maneuver. Saugers often love this move, either just above bottom, or with the jig touching bottom on the fall.
Compact packaging can also be important with ringworms, most of which are 4 inches but often fish better trimmed to 3 inches in cold water. They become difficult to rig on a jighead that has much bulk to the keeper behind the jighead, because the body of the worm is small, therefore splits. Fished at the full 4 inches the action of the curly tail stabilizes the end of the softbait so most of the movement is near the head of the jig, while the tail doesn't move much. The entire package moves better in sync when it's more compact.
At 4 inches, though, the offering is more representative of an immature lamprey (ammocoete), especially when fished in pop-and-drop fashion, snapped off the bottom and then allowed to fall on an almost slack line. The compact package probably is more representative of minnow forage.
The lamprey prey connection is recognized by a few on the Columbia River, but is little talked about elsewhere, although most states that have river walleyes have as many as four or five lamprey species living in at least some of those rivers. This, too, is another fascinating topic for another day.
Here is a progression of lures that fish well for me, moving from cold water into prespawn, spawn, and postspawn.
Gulp! Minnows and PowerBait Minnows — PowerBait is taste-infused and walleyes don't like to give it up once they bite it. Gulp! is more spongelike, oozing scent and taste specially designed to appeal to walleyes. I have caught so many fish with both options that I can't be sure if one fishes better overall in rivers. I tend to use Gulp! in colder water, switching to PowerBait as temperature surpass about 50°F. Both the 3- and 4-inch options work well, with the 3-inch bodies better early on.
Berkley has terrific jigheads designed for use with Gulp!. The Minnow Jigghead in 1/8 and 1/4 ounce couples well with the 3-inch body. If the 3/8-ounce head is required, I often trim a 4-inch minnow down by a half inch. The slightly thicker body goes better on the heavier jig.
Minnows fish well vertically or pitched to current seams and bounced and swum back to the boat or shore. I usually prefer paddletails when casting to shallower structure as they provide more bulk to get the bait to move a bit slower. They also give off much more vibration as you grind them along.
Plenty of other jigheads work well here. One nifty option is the Crystal Eye jig from crystaleyes.com. One of my favorite tactics is to use the combination of a 1/4-ounce ReelBait Original Flasher Jig (long shank) with either the 3- or 4-inch minnow body, from an anchored position at the top of a current seem. Pitch downcurrent and with your rod-tip held high, work the bait along the seam back to the boat, gently moving the rod tip to get the combo to swim along the bottom. The spinner is spinning, and given that these baits have straight bodies (it's vital to rig them so they are perfectly straight), with gentle rod-tip pumps the lure holds well in current yet moves along in slight walk-the-dog fashion. The Northland Thumper jig is another noteworthy option with a smaller spinner.
The B-Fish-N Tackle Pulse-R — One of the most unique paddletails on the market, the 3.25-incher has a segmented body with the deepest and widest grooves of any such plastic, making it super soft and pliable. It has a deeper top-to-bottom profile at the head end, thinning toward the tail, where it connects to the top of a paddle that's ultra thin and tapers slightly at the bottom. As a result, the paddle catches water and flaps with little resistance. Grind it along in a dead-slow retrieve even in the coldest water and it often entices fish. In cold water and in tougher conditions I trim the 21 body segments back to 15 segments so the body is about 2 inches long.
One favorite jighead is a ReelBait Original Flasher Jig (long shank) in 1/8 or 1/4 ounce. Even moving dead slow, the jig holds well in deeper water because of its keel design, as the spinner spins and the tail flaps and undulates, causing the entire combo to crawl into action with a left-right "swim" on the retrieve, or on the drag. Here, too, the Northland Thumper Jig is another fine option.
As the season progress, the entire 3.25-inch body works well on slightly heavier ReelBait Flasher for fishing faster or in deeper water. The body also works, either trimmed or in full form, on standard jigheads, perhaps best on round jigheads, which move easiest in combination with any type of body that moves. The Gulp! Minnow Jigghead also couples well.
Fish this one vertically in slack water or along current edges, or drag it upstream or cross-current with occasional lift-falls. Or pitch it to shallow water and slowly grind it in, dropping it the bottom occasionally to stay in the key depth zone. It also fishes well pitched upstream and swum back downriver along a current seam. Or anchor and do the opposite, fishing it slowly upriver along a current seam.
Berkley PowerBait Beat Shad — This one, yet to be discovered by most walleye anglers, has a ringworm body with a paddletail. It's one of the best soft bodies to hit the market in recent times. (It's also exceptional for smallmouths.) It fishes just as well in cold water as it does in warmer water, and is a good compromise paddletail anytime fish aren't that active. I now rarely fish with ringworms, but use this option instead.
Like the ringworm, it measures 4 inches and early on it needs trimming back to about 3 inches. The body is bigger than the ringworm body, so when trimmed it couples better with most jigheads. Many softbaits like this have a laminate line running the length of the lure top and bottom. To get jig and softbait running true, rig your jig hook through the lure so the body's straight with the hook run out right through the top laminate line.
It fishes well vertically, but works best slowly grinding along, allowing the thumper tail to do its thing. So troll it or cast it. It's a good dragging option, too.
Primetime Paddletails: Berkley Ripple Shad — Finally, a couple options that often don't fish well in the coldest water, but once walleyes enter prespawn, with temperatures pushing past the mid-40°F range, they can be dynamite, producing both numbers of fish and tending to produce bigger fish.
The Berkley PowerBait Ripple Shad is offered in 5, 4, 3.5, 2, and 1 inches. For most river situations the upper end size I fish is the 4-incher. But it's a favorite so I fish it a lot, especially casting it to shallower river spots. It's a great search option for bigger fish. The porky 26-inch fish that I mentioned catching right at spawning time fell for a body similar to the 4-inch Ripple Shad. The Berkley Hollow Belly isn't available anymore. A body that's similar is the 4-inch YUM Money Minnow.
In rivers, I always fish the Ripple Shad body rigged flat, the 4-inch body typically on a 1/2-ounce jighead, a longtime favorite being the Owner Ultrahead Saltwater Bullet Jighead. Another option is Kalin's Ultimate Saltwater Bullet Jig, which is fundamentally the same design as the Owner, and is available in 1/16- to 2-ounce sizes. The smaller sizes are vital for matching various river conditions. I prefer unpainted jigheads. They blend well with just about any body and leave the emphasis on the body, not the jighead.
Rigged flat, the combo darts better with rod-tip movement, and glides and swims beautifully on the fall. The bait also comes to rest perfectly on the bottom, with the hook up, and also lifts off bottom perfectly. Rigged flat you have more hook gap, which means better hookups. Indeed, rigged like this you almost never miss fish — some of the high hooking percentage is a factor of fish usually being so completely fooled by the presentation that they take it deeply.
The 4-inch body fishes well on 3/8- and 1/2-ounce heads. The 3.5-inch version fishes well on 1/4-, 5/16-, and 3/8-ounce heads. The 3.5-inch lure can be reduced to fish well at 3 inches on those same heads. The Northland Slurp Jighead is another favorite head for the smaller bodies.
Another Primetime Paddler: The Berkley Havoc Grass Pig — I started experimenting with the 3.5-inch version in rivers last spring, after many years of using the 5-inch version in many different situations during the entire open-water season on rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. Can't say yet whether I like it better than the Ripple Shad for certain situations without more time on the water. But it's a winner for walleyes. Seems to work best rigged on 1/4-, 5/16-, and 3/8-ounce heads, especially ballheads, or any head that allows the jig body to swim on the retrieve, as the tail also paddles back and forth. If anything, rigged right this one probably has a bit more action overall than the Ripple Shad. All my experience so far as been casting and retrieving the lure.
Last fall I fished for walleyes with Brian Woodward of Casper, Wyoming, on Pathfinder Reservoir and the North Platte River running into Pathfinder. Woodward, who runs the Walleye Stampede series of walleye tournaments, is a fine angler who hadn't fished the Grass Pig before. He started with his confidence softbait, a straight-bodied 4-inch Power Minnow; but I convinced him to try the Grass Pig, while I pitched a 4-inch Ripple Shad body on a 1/2-ounce head. Not only did he catch a lot of fish with the Pig, which he fished on a 3/8-ounce head, he had one close to 9 pounds.
Woodward also manages the Rocky Mountain Discount Sports store in Casper. He looked at me at the end of our trip and said, "Well, guess I'll be ordering in a stock of Grass Pigs for the spring season." And, beyond the other lures I've highlighted for river fishing in this article, that's generally the way it goes with someone who finally discovers paddletails. They're remarkable, really, and they fish just as well in rivers as they do in lakes and reservoirs. â–