Rivers lend a helping hand to walleye anglers in the fact that they tend to have open water year around. If you live in an area where you can fish twelve months out of the year for walleyes, winter open-water fishing can relieve a little of the winter doldrums.
Most winters, it is the headwaters or the first few miles of a river that tend to stay open all year. This all depends on currents of course, but open water is available. If you have not had your boat out on rivers in the winter months, the first thing that will catch you off guard is the crystal clear water. Rivers tend to turn much clearer with cold water. This problem eliminates a good number of techniques including vertical jigging in shallower water. But many times in the winter, the walleyes will hold in main river eddies. These eddies tend to be on the shallow side, anywhere from 6-15 feet. If you pull the boat into the area, the fish blow out of the zone.
To reach these fish, you must retrace you fishing knowledge back to the basics. Dig out the anchors. Dig out the split shot, get some minnows, and plan on pure finesse fishing.
Tie up split-shot rigs with a number 10 or 12 livebait rig hook. Put the split shot anywhere from one to two feet above the hook. The length between the split shot and the hook will vary with how fast the current is running. You always want to have a good feel of your bait. The longer the lead gets, the less feel you will have in stronger currents.
To start off, you will have to play with the distance and weight of the split shot. The ideal presentation is to cast up current and let the bait bounce along the bottom through the eddy. If the bait stops, a simple lift of the rod should get it drifting again. If you have to keep lifting the rod to get the bait to move, you have too much weight on. Vice versa, if you cannot feel the bottom, you have too little weight on. Finding the right weight generally takes a couple of drifts through the eddy. The rule of thumb for the distance to place the split shot is that the minimum distance is twelve inches. The lighter the current, the more you can extend the distance. Do not go over two feet. When you extend that distance over two feet, you have too much play in the line between the weight and the hook. This means a slack line and missed fish.
When fishing eddies in the winter, you want to take a three-step approach. First, anchor off the outside current line of the eddy. Drop the anchor so the boat is a good twenty feet off the outside current line. Once you anchor, cast the outside edge of the current line. Give it a good fifteen minutes. If you catch fish here, you may not have to move the rest of the fishing trip. If you only get a few hits or no hits, it is time to reposition.
Move the boat within ten feet of the outside current line and fish the slacker water inside of the eddy. This is generally the best location in the eddy in midwinter. Cast the same as you did on the outside current line.
If you do not get any results, move the boat further in and anchor so you can cast the shallow current line. Cast this area the same as before.
The fish will be in one of these three locations in the eddy. Rule of thumb: the most aggressive fish are on the outside current line, the neutral fish are holed up in the slack water of eddy, and the least aggressive fish are on the inside line of the eddy. This does not always hold true, but it is a good guideline.
One more key to this -- earlier I said dig out the anchors. It is always good to anchor the front of the boat, and once in position, drop an anchor off the back of the boat too. This will keep the boat from moving and keep you in proper fishing position.
The next time cabin fever hits you, grab the boat and hit the water. And, nothing cures an ailing angler better than a fight at the end of the fishing rod.