March 10, 2022
By Steve Ryan
As soon as rivers clear of ice, walleyes are ready to greet the first crop of diehard anglers. With a long winter to ready gear, reels are spooled with new line and tackle boxes restocked with all standard jig sizes and colors. Just add a minnow and anticipation runs high for that first solid thump at the end of the line.
This spring ritual repeats itself year after year on productive walleye rivers across the country. What also repeats itself are the same techniques being rehashed with varying degrees of success depending on water conditions and strength of the walleye “run.” By learning what works elsewhere and modifying presentations as the spawn progresses, anglers can increase catch rates on their home waters.
As a kid, much of my spring walleye fishing took place on impoundments of the Wisconsin River. Packs of pesky, male walleyes were stationed below paper-mill dams as soon as the river opened up. The joy of catching one small walleye after another from dam sites lost its appeal about the same time we lost feeling in our fingers. We quickly learned that our time would be better spent miles downstream, where big prespawn females were positioned at the mouths of creek arms that brought slightly warmed water into the impoundment. The bulk of the bigger fish were awaiting water temperatures to climb to near 40°F before heading upstream to spawn in the river.
This locational strategy works not only on the Wisconsin River but on impoundments from West Virginia to the state of Washington. It involves finding the sweet spot where creek channels intersect with the main river channel to form an underwater point. Locate wood or rock cover on this structure and anchor to target lethargic prespawn fish with a lively minnow baited on a three-way rig. It’s a slow presentation that requires patience but offers a big payday when fish refuse more active slipping or casting techniques.
Basic store-bought three-way rigs, commonly known as Wolf River rigs in Wisconsin, generally consist of a 3/8- to 3/4-ounce bell sinker attached to a short dropper line, and a longer leader to a stout #2 Aberdeen hook, tied with 15-pound monofilament that never fully uncoils in near-freezing temperatures. Through the years, we discovered several tricks to make this standard rig more effective.
Easy fixes include using a 6-pound-test breakaway dropper line, so if the sinker gets snagged, the rest of the rig can be saved. Swap out the stock hook for a #6 Owner Mosquito Light hook and use 8-pound-test fluorocarbon as the leader material. The ultra-sharp point and self-setting design of this light-wire hook allow for easier hook penetration and more solid hook-sets than on mono mainline. While braids have overtaken monos in most popular walleye techniques, its lack of stretch and increased sensitivity can be detrimental in early spring when fish need extra time to chew on the bait prior to slowly moving off and loading the rod.
In snaggy settings, the bell sinker can be swapped out for a slinky-style sinker more commonly used to drift rigs for steelhead, or a series of split shot crimped onto the dropper line. When fishing areas devoid of snags, a stand-up jig dressed with a Lindy Fuzz-E Grub body and tipped with a minnow works as a great substitute for the sinker and offers bonus catches (where it’s legal to fish multiple baits). The stand-up jig helps position the minnow at the ideal angle to allow walleyes to more easily pluck the bait off the bottom.
On sunny days, shallow waters on adjoining flats heat up by mid-afternoon. Swap out the stand-up jig for a Yakima Maxi jig with its attractive marabou and Flashabou fibers, and then slowly work the rig up the shoreline and into the creek arms. This was our precursor to a Dubuque rig that functions as a search tool once walleyes transition upriver. Over decades, Dubuque rigs have been modified in countless ways to catch spring walleyes across the country.
Other modifications to the Wolf River rig included adding color and flotation. Color was introduced in the form of a bright-orange, pink, or chartreuse glow bead placed in front of the hook. Flotation came from a Worden’s Spin-N-Glow or a Lindy Snell float. When the bite was slow, a Phelps Floater jig, with its soft texture, had fish hanging onto the bait longer. The Phelps Floater is no longer in production but Northland’s Gum-Drop Floater is a good substitute.
The Spawn Kicks In
At the first sight of a “milking” male or “soft” female, shift the program upstream and focus on areas adjoining spawning flats. Scrap sedentary three-way rigs for more active approaches. Try casting a B-Fish-N Tackle AuthentX Ring Worm quarter-current downstream and allow it to swing past boulders and through current seams, before it positions directly behind the boat. With a slight sweeping action of the rod, slowly pull the bait forward and allow it to drop back half the distance of the pull. This pulling-and-dropping-back motion allows different areas of water to be slowly covered throughout the retrieve, with the bait presented at multiple speeds and depths.
Consider using a Clam TG tungsten jig to gain better feel each time the jig makes bottom contact. Since tungsten is denser than lead, its ability to better transmit feeling is on par to switching from monofilament to braided line. Making positive bottom contact and being able to decipher when rock turns to sand or mud helps you anticipate bites and catch more fish. Most bites occur on the pause or the drop back. This makes keeping a tight line critical.
In especially snaggy rivers, such as the Peshtigo in Wisconsin or Pecatonica in Illinois, casting crosscurrent can be disastrous to your jig supply. In these settings, try casting directly downstream and swimming the jig back to the anchored boat. Constant bottom contact is not the goal. Instead, experiment with various sizes and styles of jigs and paddletails to get a constant thumping action from the tail while the bait hovers close to the bottom as it gets swept side to side as the current pulses.
Paddletails that have proven especially productive through the years include the Mister Twister Sassy Shad, Kalin’s Sizmic Shad, and B-Fish-N AuthentX Pulse R. Upsizing bodies can be effective for trophy fish. The bigger the bait, the harder the tail thumps. Take this into consideration when river conditions muddy with spring rains.
Another trick involves trimming the first inch off a 3-inch Sassy Shad and then nose-hooking the tip of the bait, instead of threading the entire body onto the shaft of the jig hook. Nose-hooking gives the bait a quicker and wider side-to-side action in current. If water conditions clear, the AuthentX Moxi tail thumps less and is a better choice. Remember to switch colors to match light and river conditions throughout the day.
As the spawn nears, focus on shallow-water areas that trap warmer water and concentrate on low-light periods that have big fish transitioning on and off these areas. On mud- and sandflats more than 6 feet deep, snapjigging paddletails can appeal to large fish that ignore slower and more subtle presentations. Upsize jig weights and grub sizes to get a good snapping action from the bait with each rip of the rod. Allow the jig to hit bottom and pause for a second prior to the next rip. The pause can be the best trigger for early spring walleyes.
On small rivers across the country that draw a run of walleyes up to dams or spillways as spring rains fill them to capacity, shore-casting with a modified three-way rig can be effective. An especially deadly rig is a fly and jig combo tied on a three-way swivel. To a 6- to 12-inch dropper line of 6-pound mono attach a 1/4- to 3/8-ounce Walleye Nation Creation’s Marble Eye Jig and 3-inch curlytail grub combo. The narrow, hydrodynamic shape of the Marble Eye Jig helps it ride through rocks with less snags and the positioning of its line-tie allows it to pivot off rocks. Paying attention to subtle advantages in jig designs can reduce the time and expense of retying snagged jigs and rigs.
To the second swivel of this three-way rig, attach a walleye fly to the end of a 16- to 42-inch leader of 10-pound-test fluorocarbon. A longer leader delivers more side-to-side swinging action from the fly, while a shorter leader causes the fly to track more in-line with the jig. For mainline, use 12- to 20-pound braid, depending on how snaggy the water is. Fish the rig slowly and without the added fuss of livebait.
Start by casting the rig cross-river and allow it to sweep in the current on a tight line. Feel for bottom contact and then work the rig back slowly by sweeping the rod upward 3 to 4 feet to get the jig off the bottom and accelerating the action of the fly. Next, twitch the rod tip several inches to get the jig rocking in place on the bottom and the fly quivering. Most hits come during this twitching action.
Walleyes that move up to these small dams hold close to shore to get out of the main current. A single large boulder can serve as a current break and holding area for a handful of fish. Present the rig slowly all the way to the bank, and pay attention each time bottom contact is made in order to develop a mental picture of the river’s terrain. Strikes frequently occur within a few feet of the bank.
If conditions are too snaggy to allow for a jig to serve as the weight for the rig, crimp a series of split shots onto the dropper line. The string of split shots slide more easily through rocks and can be cast directly downstream and nearly parallel to the shoreline to target walleyes holding on the first depth break. With the bottom jig removed, a second fly can be tied in series with the first fly or attached with a second leader of a different length to the same swivel as the first fly. When flies are tied in series with each other, the first fly has less action, whereas flies tied on separate leaders have actions independent of each other. Experiment with these variables to appeal to the mood of the fish.
In snag-free settings, a 3/4- to 3-ounce pencil sinker can be used on the dropper to allow the rig to be cast greater distances crosscurrent and then worked back aggressively with a ripping and pausing action. While this rig first gained popularity among white bass anglers, it proved equally effective on both postspawn and prespawn walleyes. This same rig can be used on rivers to pull flies upstream in the boat at speeds of 0.4 to 0.7 mph.
On systems such as the Columbia River where only one line can be run per angler, bottom bouncers are the delivery system of choice for pulling stickbaits near river channels and the edge of sandbars. At locations where multiple lines can be used per angler, a heavy jig on the dropper line of a three-way rig can be substituted for the bottom bouncer. This provides the framework for a more versatile rig commonly known as the Dubuque rig.
The Dubuque rig is especially popular on big-water systems such as the Mississippi, Missouri, and Menominee rivers. But it can be used on any river or lake not overly riddled with wood. The standard rig consists of a heavy jig, such as 3/4- to 11/2-ounce Walleye Nation Creations Death Jig or Custom Jigs & Spins H2O Precision Jig dressed with an AuthentX Moxi grub, attached to a short mono leader to one eye of the three-way swivel. A buoyant stickbait like a Rapala Flat Rap or Bagley Bang-O Lure is attached to the second swivel eye on a 4- to 8-foot fluorocarbon leader. The mainline is tied to the third swivel eye. The length of the leader determines how far off the bottom the lure runs.
The dropper weight or jig keeps the lure within a few feet off the bottom as the boat slowly works upstream against the current. With the rod in hand, the amount of line deployed can be quickly adjusted to ensure constant bottom contact. This also allows the rod to be swept forward occasionally to get the lure accelerating at random intervals and then stalling and rising up on the pause. When pulling lures, steer the boat in a slightly serpentine pattern to cover multiple depths up and down channel breaks and to present lures in front and across the faces of resting fish.
This technique is ideal for covering water to locate prespawn walleyes. It also appeals to fish looking for a slow horizontal presentation instead of more active ones like pitching or slipping with jigs and bladebaits. Since stickbaits are being pulled at slow speeds upstream on Dubuque rigs and are constantly within a foot of the bottom, it takes little effort for big fish to track and eat these baits. This same approach is equally effective on postspawn fish moving back downstream after the spawn. At that point, trolling speeds can be increased to match the mood of fish and the dropper to the jig or sinker lengthened to contact walleyes suspended off the bottom.
The walleye run rarely progresses in a routine, systematic fashion. Cold fronts, torrential rains, muddy water, and quick warm-ups all play a part in the process. The beauty of mastering rigging and jigging options is that walleyes can be caught with them under almost any conditions. By paying attention to details and making small adjustments to each component, you can put yourself on the path for more and bigger walleyes this spring.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan is an outstanding multispecies angler, staying at the forefront of locations and tactical refinements to get on the big bite.