Tapping Changes In Current Velocity
Change is a constant in rivers and river-run reservoirs, and savvy walleye fans are no strangers to adjusting fishing locations and tactics to match the eternal rise and fall of water levels. Few fishermen, however, are anywhere near as serious when it comes to strategizing their reactions to variations in velocity. Funny, because tweaking tactics to match ebbs and surges in the force of the flow can mean the difference between suffering skunk hollow and finding your walleye nirvana.
Just ask Jon Thelen. A lifetime of guiding on Minnesota's famed Mille Lacs Lake — along with years of matching wits with fellow pros on multiple walleye tours — has taught the intrepid Minnesotan a thing or two about the importance of understanding what walleyes do, and how anglers should react, when current picks up or falls flat.
Case In Point
One of Thelen's epiphanies on the relationship between walleyes and changes in current occurred while fishing an In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail (PWT) tournament on South Dakota's Lake Francis Case out of Chamberlain, South Dakota. The 100,000-acre walleye-rich Missouri River impoundment offered numerous fishing options, and one of the hottest was the bite on a large flat where the White River joins the reservoir. "People were catching fish here and there," he says. "But I noticed that peak walleye activity coincided with the Corps of Engineers running water through the dam. When the current picked up, so did the fishing. It was like flipping a switch."
Conversely, when the flow died, the bite died with it. "You could still scratch up a few walleyes in slack-current times, but you had to work hard for them, in deeper water adjacent to the flat," he says. Fortunately for him, the Corps opened the gates at predictable times each day, and current velocity likewise increased a short time later. So Thelen was able to fish other spots before arriving at the White River flat in time to catch the best walleye fishing. It turned out being a one-two punch. "Big walleyes were suspended in flooded timber about 18 feet down," he says. "I would troll for them in the morning — putting a couple in the box — then, the minute the Corps turned the water on, I'd pull my lines and run to the White River flat to fill out my limit with smaller, aggressive fish. Guys who fished that flat all day long each day commented on how 'lucky' I was, because the fish didn't bite until I got there."
The Francis Case scenario is not unlike that discovered by savvy bass fishermen in southern and mid-southern impoundments such as those on the Tennessee River system, where timing is everything when it comes to fishing key structure below power-generation dams. Knowing when the turbines start turning — and being ready, on the right spot with the right bait — can be key to catching the day's best bass action. And the same holds true in the walleye world.
In both bass and walleye fishing, it's how current changes affect baitfish that trips predators' triggers. Increased flow does two things to make walleyes' lives easier. For one, it forces forage species such as shad to ball up, often against current breaks such as wingdams, rockpiles and other structure, making them easy targets. It can also wash weak and injured baitfish downstream, where they're little match for a lurking walleye's lighting-fast reflexes. In either case, fish expend less energy filling their bellies when prey is buffeted by strong current.
In the presentational realm, a palette of techniques take fish, but fast water often dictates adjustments to keep your lure or bait in the strike zone despite the heavy flow. Thin-diameter line, such as super mono or braid, is a plus no matter the method. Same goes for bulking up — whether it's upsizing the dropper on your three-way rig or beefing up the weight of a jighead. Here, Thelen notes, the quick-change characteristics of the new Lindy Jig are a boon. "A clean line tie eye every time makes it easy to quickly tie on a new jig to get the right color or weight," he says.
One of Thelen's patented presentations for slick-water walleyes, especially in cold water prior to the spawn, is a jig-dragging approach utilizing the lightest leadhead possible. "If you can keep the jig on bottom, an 1/8-ouncer is ideal," he says. "Light jigs are good draggers because they seldom snag, thanks in part to the small hook." While Thelen prefers Lindy Jigs, a variety of other light leadheads take walleyes on the drag. Softbaits such as Gulp! Alive! are great tipping choices, as are live minnows, frozen shiners, and half 'crawlers. No matter the dressing, stinger hooks are out. "Dragged, all they do is collect trash," he says.
The dragging procedure involves casting upstream of the boat, letting the jig fall to bottom, then using the bowmount to slip downstream just fast enough to maintain bottom contact. "Keep your rod at a 40- to 45-degree angle from the water and watch the tip for pickups," he says. "Once in awhile, raise the rod a foot or so, then drop it back down, to give the jig a little extra motion."
Sometimes drought, low water, a lack of flow through a dam's turbines, or other factors make current scarce. While it's a common scenario in late summer and fall, a river's flow can go south even in classic heavy-current periods such as spring and early summer, when a scarcity of snow the preceding winter — coupled with below-average rainfall — make for poor flows.
"When current is lacking, you have two options," Thelen says. "Either look for what little flow is left, or think outside the box and fish areas where baitfish and walleyes suspend when current subsides. Option one is best for numbers of small to mid-size 'eyes — making it good for securing a batch of fine fillets, or for rounding out a tournament limit. The latter approach tends to produce the biggest walleyes.
Let's start with the search for lingering current. "Anything that focuses flow is going to have the last bit of the river's life-blood in slack-water conditions," Thelen explains. "This can be a channel edge, narrows, depth change, or any other compressed water in a necked-down area either on structure or caused by structural elements such as wing dams and jetties. Sometimes the primary river channel contains all that's left of the flow. Here, I fish tighter to the channel than I normally would, and focus on the deepest part of that channel as well."
On the relatively free-flowing St. Croix River, which forms the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin, Thelen points to the legendary Kinnickinnic Narrows as a prime example of where to find the last bastion of a river's power during low-flow periods. "At the final PWT Championship, in the fall of 2008, a lot of boats stacked up in the narrows to catch a quick limit of smaller walleyes," he says.
While the tactic paid off, the winning weight came from — you guessed it — a slack-current area, which brings us to Thelen's big-fish option. "Gil Mollet won that last championship trolling crankbaits on a gradual drop from 19 to 23 feet of water, in a slack-current area where there were so many suspended baitfish that the seagulls were going crazy feeding on the surface," Thelen says. Mollet ran Berkley Flicker Shads and other cranks two to three feet above bottom, through schools of shad so thick his lines shook from bumping baitfish.
Thelen has his own no-current success story. "In 2003, the PWT was on the Mississippi River at Lake Pepin," he says. "Whenever the current is going, you can count on shallow fish. But when it stops, the baitfish spread out and the walleyes follow. I moved away from the other boats, out into 16 feet of water in the middle of nowhere, and trolled crankbaits 4 feet off bottom." His 24.78-pound Day-Three catch was the second-largest of the tournament, vaulted him up the leaderboard and secured Coleman's classic "Cool Under Pressure" honors. It also cemented his respect for the big-'eye pattern in no-man's land.
To target these bruisers, Thelen starts his quest in shallow areas where the current was last running well, and moves deeper from there. "This is all about the baitfish, because where they go, walleyes follow," he says. "When the current goes away, it opens the door for forage species to get away from current breaks and move higher in the water column. Since the baitfish and walleyes are scattered, it's not so much a matter of searching for them on sonar," he notes. "You won't see tight balls of bait, although a large, long blip on sonar might be a trophy walleye. Ultimately, though, it comes down to trolling to find the fish."
Thelen takes an aggressive tack, towing shad-imitating crankbaits like Lindy's Shadling at speeds of 3 to 4 mph — both up- and down-current. "Obviously, the high speed allows me to cover more water," he says. "But it also triggers more fish, because a crankbait ripping by full-blast draws feeding strikes from walleyes that might not jump at a slow-moving lure that doesn't stand out from all the other baitfish milling around."
In a typical four-rod setup, Thelen strains water with two outside lines on planer boards, with baits running four feet off bottom on 150 feet of 10-pound mono. His inside baits are longlined a bit farther back, so they zip along just two feet off bottom. "Even two feet is still suspended by river standards," he says. "I usually get the largest walleyes on the highest lures."
Low current often equates with cleaner water, which compels Thelen to choose crankbaits with natural finishes. "The fish can visually home in on a bait farther away, and I believe in shad and shiner patterns in such conditions," he says. "Rattles are good, because we're still not dealing with gin-clear water, and they do pique walleye's curiosity and bring them in for a look at what's making the noise."
Besides putting you on the biggest walleyes, this open-water tactic gets you away from crowds that often gather in the classic areas of last current walleyes. "I fished a Cabela's Masters Walleye Circuit qualifier on Pepin in 2006," Thelen recalls. "The current was slow, and almost everyone who cashed a check was fishing the channel markers — or 'cans' — along the channel edge, where there was some current left. I fished in the pack on Day One for two-pounders, then moved out deeper for big fish on Day Two. In hindsight, I should have made the move sooner."
Together, Thelen's slick- and slack-water theories add new dimensions to the age-old game of reacting to changes in river and reservoir water conditions. On moving-water fisheries across the Walleye Belt, they offer the promise of dialing in peak times on prime structure, and targeting relatively untapped trophies as well.
Dan Johnson of Harris, Minnesota, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and coordinator of the Cabela's Masters Walleye Circuit, masterswalleyecircui