March 05, 2020
River systems offer some of the finest walleye fishing around, and late winter into spring is prime time to tap some of the best bites flowing water has to offer. East to west, north to south, the Prespawn through early Postspawn periods offer ample opportunities for anglers, in waders, or on the bank, as the walleyes’ annual spawning migration focuses oodles of them in predictable places.
We’re not just talking resident fish, either. While many walleyes spawn along the shorelines of lakes large and small, the seductive currents of inflowing rivers and streams attract more than their share of amorous migrants. Which means a river’s walleye population balloons during the height of the spawning migration. World-class waters include iconic Great Lakes tributaries like the Detroit, Fox, and Maumee rivers, to name a few, but tributaries large and small provide chances to catch the action across the continent.
The combination of cold water temperatures and unstable weather common from late winter into spring can throw a wrench into the best-laid fishing plans. But the rewards of reading rivers right are worth the effort. “The bite can be very tough,” cautions diehard river rat Chris Messerschmidt, who strafes spring walleye hot zones on fish-rich pools of the Upper Mississippi, as well as the legendary Rainy River on the Minnesota-Ontario border. “But on the flip side, it can be unbelievable, too. With big females moving upriver and feeding heavily, you have one of the best chances of the year to catch giant fish.”
“This is when people stop referring to walleye size in terms of length and start talking poundage,” says longtime guide and In-Fisherman friend Brian “Bro” Brosdahl. “Forget the long, skinny fish of summer. Egg-laden female walleyes are footballs right now, making it the best time ever to break the 10-pound barrier or even tie into a 12-, 13-, or 14-pounder on select fisheries. And on some rivers, like the Columbia, even bigger walleyes aren’t out of the question.”
Understanding the basics of the walleye spawning migration is key. In a nutshell, the fish move upriver—often until they hit some type of obstruction, like a dam, or simply run out of navigable water. In some systems they push upstream from main rivers into progressively smaller waterways to spawn in streams so shallow and narrow, you’d swear they would never see a bullhead, let alone a walleye.
Keep in mind that in many rivers, “spring” walleye fishing actually begins in fall, when fish begin gathering in wintering and prespawn locations. Deep holes at the outside of river bends or scour holes below dams are top staging locations. Fish continue to congregate in holes below dams throughout winter, while fish from holes farther downstream move up to join the party.
As the spawn nears, the fish often drop slightly downstream. Snowmelt and spring rains fuel rising water levels, moving walleyes toward near-shore structures to prep for procreation and avoid merciless mid-river currents. Wing dams, shoreline points, inside bends, bridge pilings, clam beds, and channel intersections are all worth checking.
“Rockpiles, logjams, and sand dunes can also be fish magnets,” Messerschmidt says. “And dunes have recently become some of my go-to spots, especially on the Rainy River.”
Though In-Fisherman has for decades advocated fishing dunes, this type of structure is still largely overlooked by many spring walleye anglers. Dunes look like a large washboard or series of waves on the bottom, with the difference between dune peak and valley running 1 to 3 feet. Even in areas of strong current, walleyes find plenty of current protection in a 3-foot trough. Formed by constant current over moldable bottom, like sand, prime walleye dunes are found in depths of 4 to 20 feet, mostly in midriver channel areas and along large flats bordering the channel edge. A series of these hills and valleys may span just 100 feet or stretch for half a mile.
One of the main challenges to success in a dunes-day scenario is locating fish. Sprawling dune sequences require an open-water or flats-fishing mindset. A single fish or small schools may hide behind one dune, while hundreds of dunes on either side are vacant. And since walleyes move frequently, a hot dune can quickly turn cold.
Messerschmidt recommends using sonar to find productive dunes. “Dunes are easy to spot with two-dimensional or side-scanning sonar,” he says. “But with side-scanning units, you can also see fish lying in troughs between the dunes. I target them by fishing heavy jigs, up to 2-ouncers, moving the boat left and right, cross-current, over each depression.” When fish are found, and when current allows, anchoring is another popular option.
While Messerschmidt favors jigs, other presentations work in dunes. Back in 2000, for example, walleye warriors Eric Olson and Jason Przekurat won the Masters Walleye Circuit Championship on the Mississippi River out of Red Wing, Minnesota, by hand-lining dunes. Three-way rigs are another great choice. A variety of presentations work wonders behind hand-line (and pole-line) shanks or three-way droppers. Of course, such techniques shine in a variety of other river situations, too.
“Logjams and brush hold plenty of spring river walleyes, but anglers often shy away from the nastiest tangles,” Brosdahl says. “A lot of times, fish lay in the scour hole under the cover. The trick is figuring out how to get your bait to go under the wood enough to tempt the fish, without losing the rig. Depending on current, walleyes may be found toward the tip of the cover, similar to a wing dam, but there are times fishing straight-on along the upstream side is the way to go.”
Brosdahl says a three-way rig is a great tool for extracting walleyes from woody cover. “Let the current carry the trailing line and bait into the walleyes’ lair, and hang on because strikes from big river fish can be violent,” he says. “Willow cats, leeches, and creek chubs are all great choices for livebait here and in other river scenarios. I like using Northland Tackle’s Gum-Drop Floater, because it stays off bottom and swings back and forth in the current.”
Choose the Right Jig
Selecting the right jig to match river conditions and mood of the fish is critical to spring walleye success. In low flows and clear water, Chris Messerschmidt favors the classic Lindy Fuzz-E-Grub, while he opts for the balanced, long-shank Lindy Jig, often tipped with a shiner or flexible YUM Pulse swimbait, in stronger flows and lower-vis conditions. Brian Brosdahl’s jigging palette ranges from compact Northland Fire-Balls to the company’s prop-style Whistler Jig. “The Northland Current Cutter is a top choice virtually everywhere, and exceptional in strong flows,” he says. “Plus, you can snug plastic bodies tight to the head and thanks to a bait keeper, they don’t easily slide down the shank.”
Similar in design to the Current Cutter is B-Fish-N Tackle’s H2O Precision Jig, with a balanced streamline head that fishes effectively in current, premium Mustad hooks, stainless steel bait-keeper, and in 12 colors and 9 weights from 1/16 to 5/8 ounce.
Tricks of the Timber
Brushpiles and logjams often hold walleyes but can be challenging to fish. Walleyes often hold in scour holes below woody cover. Depending on water level and current, fish may hold near the deep tip of the cover or along the front face closer to shore. Anchor or use your trolling motor to hover upcurrent and use three-way rigs or livebait rigs with floating jigheads to feed livebait beneath logs and brush. Brace for impact as strikes can be violent. Also, be prepared with plenty of backup tackle as snags and breakoffs are common. Pitching jigs
tipped with plastics or livebait is also an option, particularly for anglers fishing from the bank or wading shoreline shallows.
Veteran river guide Captain Chadwick Ferrell taps the spring walleye bite on a variety of rivers and impoundments a short cast from his Knoxville, Tennessee, headquarters. “Depending on the watershed and water conditions, both walleye location and productive fishing tactics can be completely different,” he says.
In stained, warmer water systems like the Tennessee River, he frequently targets walleyes along outside bends. “We love to see fish at the leading and tailing edges of outside bends,” he says. “Bottom bouncing with heavy jigs tipped with local livebait options or softbait like Berkley Gulp! works well when you’re on fish. In search mode, ‘crawler harnesses and diving jerkbaits such as Wally Divers and Rogues are good options.
“When fishing below hydro dams, you need the turbines running,” he says. “If the turbines are flowing, walleyes are facing upstream and feeding, and the bite lasts all day. When the turbines are off, use sonar to pinpoint fish on structure.”
Below clear-water impoundments such as Norris Lake, created by a dam on the Clinch River, Ferrell takes a different approach. “When the turbines are running, the river is up to 12 feet deep and the flow pushes you downriver at 3.5 mph,” he says. “Finessing isn’t an option. Either fancast and retrieve or put your bow into the current and use the trolling motor or a quiet kicker to creep along with a bottom bouncer and ‘crawler harness or diving crankbait. You’ll pick up trout and walleyes with the same rig.
“When the turbines are off, the water’s ankle deep in spots and wading or kayaks are the ways to go,” he says. “Fishing can be incredible. I’ve parted schools of 3-pound walleyes in 3 feet of water. Cast a pink jig tipped with a Gulp! Leech or a small jerkbait on light spinning gear.”
To plan his strategies accordingly—and for safety’s sake—Ferrell keeps tabs on water generation schedules and other intel on water conditions. “Major fluctuations in flow and depth make many spots downright dangerous for visiting anglers who don’t know the river, particularly areas with a lot of rocks and especially around the dams,” he says.
Spring Stinger Savvy
Stinger hooks can be trip-savers whenever light-biting fish nip the tails of jig tippings without tasting the steel of the leadhead’s hook. On the flip side, there are times a stinger does more harm than good. Here’s what you need to know to make the call on whether to add extra bite to the jig.
“Stingers can be crucial in the spring river game,” guide Brian Brosdahl says. “A lot of times walleyes just waft at the jig and only get the tail end of the plastic or meat. When that’s happening, stinger hooks are a must.”
Indeed, stingers can be key in deep, cold water, when lethargic ’eyes don’t displace enough water to inhale the entire jig—especially a heavy head common in river scenarios. Fussy walleyes grasp and lightly hold the tipping’s tail; when you set the hook at the hint of resistance, it’s a guaranteed swing and a miss. Unless you add a stinger. During tough spring bites, a stinger hook can convert 9 out of 10 light biters into hookups.
It’s common practice to hook a stinger in a minnow’s back, just behind the dorsal fin. Not too far back or the bait will flip, cross the line and curl up. However, some anglers prefer to let the stinger dangle freely. The idea is, if a lazy walleye can’t muster enough suction to inhale the whole jig, at least it might suck in the free-flopping stinger. Keep in mind, hooking the stinger in the minnow restricts action a bit, while letting the stinger dangle makes the setup a tad more prone to snags and fouling.
Although stingers convert many short strikes into catches, they tend to reduce the overall number of bites. And they are trouble in cover—especially woody cover—and are trash magnets, collecting grass, algae, and other gunk. Hooking on top of the bait can reduce the amount of garbage you pick up.
Tying stinger hooks is an easy DIY project. Tie an adjustable stinger by running your mainline through the jig eye, making an overhand knot at the eye, then tying off the hook at the desired length behind the main hook. But be forewarned, knot strength isn’t the greatest. Or, make a pretied stinger by tying an open clinch at one end of the stinger rig and tying the hook on the other. Or, simply buy a mass-produced add-on stinger available from a number of tackle companies. Brosdahl prefers Northland’s snap-on Sting’R Hook, which easily clips to the jig’s stinger eye or line tie eye. Lindy makes a couple varieties, including the Fast Snap Stinger Snell and rubber-coated Stinger Snell, which simply slips over the hook point.
If you tie your own, line choices include ultra-stiff mono, which rides higher when free-wheeling for fewer snags and better positioning when a walleye takes the bait. Other anglers argue that super-limp, superline stingers are more easily sucked into the fish’s mouth. No matter the line, #8 and #10 trebles are great for leeches and minnows, while #4 to #6 salmon egg hooks shine for ’crawlers.
Dunes a few feet high deflect strong spring currents over the heads of walleyes lying in troughs between the crests. Anchoring and cross-current maneuvers are both viable boat-positioning options to fish these spots.
Where current permits, anchor on the upstream edge of a dune by lowering your anchor into a valley upstream. Experiment with anchoring positions, from near the tip to close to shore. In low water, fish may gravitate toward the tips; high water and strong flows tend to push walleyes into dune valleys closer to shore.
*Dan Johnson is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and Public Relations Manager for the Union Sportsmen’s Alliance. Guide contacts: Brian “Bro” Brosdahl, 218/340-6051; Capt. Chadwick Ferrell, 865/455-0412.