Small Water Walleyes
April 02, 2016
Many modern walleye anglers have become proficient at finding walleyes in wide-open spaces. Side-scan sonars, GPS guided trolling motors, and in-line planer boards ease this task. But when walleyes tuck into tight spaces inaccessible to these sophisticated fishing techniques, the advantage is back in the fish's court. Two common scenarios beyond the reach of most boat anglers are spillways and shallow river settings. Each calls for a different approach and tackle considerations.
Spillways present several key areas that attract walleyes. The first is at the base of the chute where concrete "blockers" diffuse the strength of the water passing through the dam before it moves downstream. Referred to as the stilling basin, this area contains oxygenated and often cooler water, as well as baitfish. Better yet, baitfish often are disorientated, maimed, or killed as they're forced through the spillway gates. This frothy whitewater appears too violent for walleyes. On the edges of the basin, however, small eddies form. Where current reverses direction along the face of the spillway, walleyes feed. But getting to these fish can be tricky.
Tailraces often have boating restrictions for safety. But shore-fishing is typically allowed below dams. A good pair of waders and the right attitude get you into good spots. With long casts from shore, you often can get lures into the stilling basin where walleyes await. Choose lures that cast well and present a large profile that fish can locate in fast water.
Baits presented in pockets of slower current often get eaten within the first several feet of the retrieve, as the lure dives and changes direction in the torrent of churning water. Bottom contact usually isn't necessary below spillways. Walleyes feed throughout the water column as they compete with other predators.
Hefty minnowbaits cast well, especially those with a weight-transfer system that propels the bait like a dart. Three favorites for this situation are the Sebile Bull Minnow, Yo-Zuri Mag Minnow, and Savage Gear Manic Prey. They seem large for walleyes but they outperform smaller baits in this setting, especially in low-light conditions when walleyes are most active.
The Bull Minnow is 5 inches long and weighs 3/4-ounce. It casts well and produces a loud rattle as it wobbles in current. And its buoyancy helps it to bounce back after hitting rocks, especially important in shallow conditions. The slightly heavier Yo-Zuri Mag Minnow has a magnetic weight transfer system so it casts well. It also tracks well in fast water, which increases its effectiveness. The 6-inch Savage Gear Manic Prey minnowbait weighs 11â'„3 ounces and runs within 3 feet of the surface. Its extra weight allows it to be cast an extra 10 to 15 feet to reach small slack-water pockets below the spillway.
For these big jerkbaits, I favor 7½- to 9-foot medium-heavy-power spinning rods and reels spooled with 15-pound braid. The Fenwick Eagle 8½-foot Salmon/Steelhead rod (EA86MFS-2) is my favorite. Long rods increase casting distance, keep line off the water, and help control fish. Thin braid such as Sufix 832 enhances lure action and your contact with the lure, as well as long-range hook-sets. To land fish in somewhat precarious conditions, carry a long-handled net like Frabill's Crankbait Conservation Net. Model #9522 has a telescopic handle that extends to 96 inches and a knot-free design that reduces tangled hooks and fish.
After fishing the stilling basin, move downstream, looking for objects that break the current and offer a resting area for fish. In these areas, nothing works better than a bladebait. Their compact size and weight means they cast far and sink quickly. Classics like the Heddon Sonar and new styles like the Vibrations Tackle Echotail work well. Bladebaits have fluttering action on the drop and as you lift them against the current.
I fish blades on a 7- to 7½-foot spinning rods, such as the Fenwick Elite Tech Walleye Rod (ETW72M-FS) with 30-pound braid. It's important to make bottom contact with the lure and thoroughly work the upstream and downstream sides of current breaks. In swift water that means frequent snags, and heavier braid allows more baits to be pulled free.
I work bladebaits with a rip-and-fall retrieve. To increase success, concentrate on every cast and visualize where the lure is. That means counting it down on the fall. Pay attention to the height of each snap of the rod and note how long it takes to hit bottom. Walleyes often slash at these lures as they rise and fall through the water column so try to detect short strikes and quickly get the bait back into the strike zone.
Also be mindful of changes in water level and flow. Water conditions regulated by spillways can change frequently, shifting the position of eddies and how walleyes relate to cover. Fish key spots several times from various angles. Current shifts can make a big difference in both the location and mood of fish.
Spring and fall bring major migrations of walleyes up rivers across the country. Spring means spawning and fall means feasting. Throughout these migrations, walleyes seek deeper pools among swift shallow runs to rest and feed. Again, the biggest challenge is gaining access to these locations, many of which are not conducive to boating.
Kayak angling is the most practical way to target walleyes in skinny water settings. These lightweight craft can be hauled into tight spaces and launched anywhere without a boat ramp. Their shallow draft allows them to cruise over water just a few inches deep. The stealth of these vessels is unparalleled as well. Anglers can paddle within a rod's length of fish without disturbing them.
Two styles of fishing kayaks existâ€”paddle and peddle. Traditional paddle kayaks dominate the market and are great for getting into remote spots. You can then anchor or get out and wade. In current, paddle kayaks are slightly more difficult to fish from since you must constantly put down your rod to paddle and keep the kayak in position as you drift.
Peddle versions like the extensive line of Hobie Mirage kayaks allow for hands-free propulsion. Their foot-peddle drive system causes underwater fins to propel the kayak forward, keeping your arms free for fishing. Many anglers also find Hobie's peddle system more efficient for traveling upstream in moderately fast current.
As with any kayak fishing, keep gear organized and have safety as your main priority. Never paddle areas at night without becoming familiar with them in daylight. Always wear a personal flotation device and fish with a partner. Other essentials include a spotlight for surveying the water and a headlamp for dealing with gear. Keep a knife within reach to cut free of any entanglements or to extricate yourself from waders that fill with water. The Gerber River Shorty knife is a fine option with lots of features, including a blunt tip for safety, sure-grip handle, and serrated blade to cut through anything. A wading jacket that holds a pair of Plano 3600 Stowaway trays helps keep tackle organized.
The most useful gear for small rivers is a good pair of waders. Neoprene waders have been the standard for cold-water wading, but they tend to be slightly less comfortable in the joints and don't breath well. Extended walking can trap sweat in the waders for a damp, cold feeling. I prefer new styles like the Hodgman Aesis Sonics, as their thinner and more pliable material allows a greater range of motion. Their no-stitch seam guards against wearing and leakage, and their breathable V-TecH material allows for maximum vapor transfer through the upper portion of the waders. A removable liner also makes them ideal for wading in both cold and warm water.
Since shallow walleyes can be spooky, the best time to target them is at night or during dusk and dawn periods. In spring, walleyes are less tolerant of strong current and tend to rest in current break areas. Most of these spots can be located by reading the surface of the water to spot current seams formed by rocks, logs, or small points along the riverbank or on bottom. Other obvious areas include bridge abutments and other large structures in the river. Each slack area can potentially hold walleyes.
Water temperature and depth suggest lure selection. In cold shallow water (less than 5 feet deep), stickbaits such as Smithwick Rattlin' Rogues, Rapala Husky Jerks, and Storm ThunderSticks excel. They have an enticing side-to-side wobble, even at very slow retrieve speeds. Cast the entire pool, working from the upstream to downstream portion. Make short casts, quartering across current, keeping the rod tip high and working the lure lowly all the way back. Fish often strike within the last rod length of the retrieve so finish each cast by lowering the rod as the lure approaches. Instead of making the final few cranks of the reel handle, draw the rod forward to speed up the lure, then allow it to rise to the surface. Anticipate last-minute strikes throughout this process.
During the initial casts at each pool, try not to snag. Disturbing the area spooks any walleyes nearby and it will be a while before they settle down. If no bites occur, make longer casts to work the outside edge of the pool and into faster current. This causes the lure to swing farther downstream into the pool. Finally, experiment with retrieves. Add pulls and pauses and vary speed.
If the lure doesn't hit bottom during a retrieve, switch to a deeper diving model. My top producing change-up lure last season was Bandit's 4¾-inch Shallow Walleye stickbait. It can be cranked down past 10 feet, so it's ideal in deep pools. It also catches walleyes in shallower water, when steadily banging bottom is the ticket. By removing the front treble hook, keeping the rod high, and reeling slowly, the lip of the Bandit Shallow Walleye bounces off bottom while the tail rides up. It also pops up quickly after encountering rocks, which makes it is less prone to snagging.
When water temperatures are above 50°F, shad-style lures often are more effective. In shallow areas, hold the rod high to keep them from snagging, as many can dive to 6 feet. When fished along the edge of current seams, you can catch walleyes by holding a Rapala Shad Rap or Salmo Hornet stationary in current. It wobbles frantically in place as the current moves it erratically from side to side. Avoid casting cross-current with deeper-diving baits since they're more prone to snagging when swung across shallow rocky areas. Instead, cast downstream and slowly work the lure back up, probing each rock and pocket you encounter.
Where woodcover makes it impractical to work lures with treble hooks, softbaits like the Berkley Rib Shad, Kalin's Sizmic Shad, and Owner Rib Eye Swimbait rigged on a bullet-head jig or wide-gap swimbait hook can be fished without snagging. The paddletails on these baits create considerable vibration, which helps draw strikes in murky, fast water. By matching these softbaits with an appropriate jighead or belly weighted hook, they can be swung cross-current and either slowly retrieved upstream with a hopping retrieve or held steady and allowed to vibrate in place.
With the right approach, no spot is too tight to catch walleyes. Match gear to the conditions; play it safe; probe every inch of cover and each slack-water pocket; and you will encounter walleyes that have rarely been approached by anglers.