The Rising: Changing Water Levels Affect Walleye Location and Behavior
July 25, 2012
As winter loses its icy hammerlock on the environment, meltwater droplets form trickles, trickles become rivulets (or vice versa, depending which is larger), continually unifying to become creeks and streams and, finally, rivers, the granddaddies of all flowing water. No wonder they call him Ol' Man River. Mother Nature dictates the weather, but Ol' Man River shoulders the flow.
Walleyes react to increasing currents and changing water levels as winter creeps almost imperceptibly in transition toward spring. It doesn't take a major change to trigger fish movement and activity; walleyes sense the small stuff we mammals are too land-oriented and big-brained to detect. But suffice it to say that when water enters the river, walleyes react and go with the flow.
Early on, water temperature remains virtually constant; 32F ice dwindles into water of the same chilly temperature. Yet, as the flow picks up, the river deepens ever-so-slightly, currents subtly shift and build, and walleyes react, adjusting their location, swimming upstream, adopting a positive attitude toward feeding, and in general increasing in aggressiveness.
And bite. We like that.
The first hint of increased activity comes with the arrival of new waves of fish at the dam. Having swum upstream until nearly bumping their noses against the impassable structure, they drop back slightly and take advantage of the best available feeding lanes where flowing water will drift food past their noses. Also early on, current is slight to mild, meaning that nearly anywhere walleyes can sit slightly out of modest flow, in position to make a mad dash into it and grab a meal and then immediately return to safe harbor, is a candidate to draw fish.
This can be in the form of large, slowly spinning eddies; visible current breaks along shore caused by points, wing dams, riprap, or other current-breakers; or downstream obstructions like bridge pilings or islands. Basically, current breaks you can see.
Or it can occur along current breaks of the invisible kind, although detectable on your electronics. During low flow, the basins of most holes at river bends, and even deep midriver basin areas just downstream from the dam, often have so little flow that fish can merely spread across the basin, belly-to-bottom, and watch for food to wash over their heads. Obvious areas, like the head ends of holes, are high-percentage feeding areas. Subtler areas, like a middepth stretch of rolling sand dunes providing a series of tiny current-breaking peaks and valleys, are missed by most anglers unaware of their potential. The point is, during low water and reduced flow, walleyes are not restricted to using certain areas because current forces them to do so. Instead, they can be nearly anywhere, often within a few miles downstream of a dam, or within holes at river bends, but are not limited to being there.
This spread-out behavior lends itself to long downstream drifts with jigs and minnows, often through areas of barely reduced current. It favors longline-trolling lipped diving crankbaits on superlines or leadcore, scratching and scrabbling lures across bottom, contacting the occasional rock or odd piece of wood, occasionally discovering the haunts and hideouts of midriver walleyes. And it accommodates zigzagging across and through potential areas with three-way rigs trailing minnows, floating jigheads, even minnow-imitator crankbaits. Show the fish options; they'll tell you what they want.
MIDDLE OF THE FLOW
Increasing flow and slowly rising water levels begin changing the river angling scene, generally as water temperatures creep into the mid to high 30F range. As midriver areas begin bearing the brunt of the new current, baitfish and walleyes begin diverting toward areas with less flow. This generally means that the fish move tighter to shore, to islands, to wing dams and bridges. Where fish were once spread throughout massive gentle eddies, the strengthening storm, much like a hurricane, draws them tighter into the eye. In essence, fish location becomes focused upon distinctive current breaks -- things you can see due to their telltale visual indicators on the surface.
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The effectiveness of haphazard drifts and trolling passes to cover water dissipates in favor of tactics that specifically hug distinct current edges. Now you should be vertically jigging a few inches either side of a current seam -- whichever side seems to produce best -- as your boat drifts downcurrent, or as you use your electric trolling motor to slow your drift downcurrent. Try trolling slowly upstream along such current avenues, using a three-way rig to wiggle and wobble a minnow-imitator crankbait, or dance a floating jighead tipped with a minnow, past the noses of the 'eyes. Hover along key spots and stretches displaying fish activity. Once you find biters, don't be in any hurry to leave until you strain the area. Anchor if necessary or if advantageous to covering a small, distinct spot, especially if you suspect fish are periodically moving through the area.
By this time, the word's usually out that fish are biting, so the crowd begins to gather below the dam. If so, try different tactics than most: bladebaits, jigging spoons, or other oddities that make your lures stand out amidst the ensuing jigfest. Anchor and soak live minnows on a three-way rig, saturating an eddy. Pitch your lightweight jig and minnow combo in front of a wing dam and let it wash up tight to the front face to trigger active biters. And if the water's sufficiently high for fish to move into the boil above the wing dam, cast a crankbait ahead of the rocks and retrieve, bang, bounce it across the crest. Ditto for current sweeping along riprap. In all cases, get your baits in there tighter, but always close to the current flow. That's where active walleyes will be waiting, in perfect position to dash into the fray to snatch a passing meal.
And when the dam crowd's too numerous to fight, shift your efforts downstream, a 1/4-, a 1/2-, a mile or so if need be. Get away from the fishermen and chances are you'll find the fish, who are also of like mind regarding avoidance. Slipping downstream away from the party is one of your best strategies during these conditions. Fewer fishermen, more fish for you.
Ah, the bane of all river anglers -- water levels high enough to jump the bank, pushing both water and walleyes back into the woods. Anglers fishing traditional main-channel areas experience little but frustration, both because such areas are difficult to fish in such conditions and because, by and large, the bulk of the walleyes aren't there.
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Water Levels And Walleye Location (cont.)
Think of it this way: When water penetrates the trees, so do the walleyes, and if you want to catch them, you must go in after them. Admittedly, if the water is truly raging and penetrating hundreds of feet back into the forest, well, efforts may be better spent elsewhere -- like back home getting a jump on spring cleaning and yardwork -- because you can't reach the fish to catch them. But if the water is only a bit back into the weeds and wood, you're still in the game.
Solving this dilemma becomes the province of fishing tight to current breaks along shore, and penetrating the cover with fairly weedless presentations, like weedguard jigs tipped with soft plastics or minnows, crankbaits or, for the adventurous, even a small bass-style spinnerbait. The key is to focus on getting your offerings inside the flooded edge, where fish are able to hold or roam, rather than being swept downstream. Current along the main river channel may be so swift that you can't achieve much within a mile or so of the dam. If so, move downstream even farther, or into adjacent side channels that moderate the water's fury. In doing so, always be on the lookout for places where fish can get up into cover and current breaks of any form, out of the maelstrom.
Flippin' or pitchin' small weedless jigs is perhaps the easiest attempt you can make to test for the presence of walleyes. Pitch that baby back in there amidst the flooded brush and weeds and logs, and creep, crawl, fall, pause, slither it back toward the boat. Probe in and around a significant flooded tree, frontside and back. Hit that small pocket of calm water at the back end of an island, or at the intersection of a tributary stream or side channel with the main river. Anything and everything is fair game. Adopt the mentality of a bass angler covering shallow water, rather than a walleye angler probing deep basins. After all, when walleyes act like bass, you have to react like a bass angler in order to contact and catch them.
Hey, no one says fishing high water is gonna be easy; in fact, it can be downright tough, even hopeless at times. But early high water, when the fish first begin penetrating the cover, is still fishable, and can sometimes surprise you with good results. Your biggest advantage over other river anglers is that you recognize the conditions, begin shifting your efforts downstream and into areas with less current -- aggressively probing where fish can be, not where they used to be. Switching away from traditional river walleye tactics in favor of bassy-looking areas with just a few feet of water, adjacent to the flow. To neither the first, nor the second, but perhaps the third or fourth wing dam in a series, where the current might be sufficiently moderated to hold a few 'eyes. To where you're reduced to fishing areas of reduced current, because that's where the fish are forced during high water.