Upriver walleye prespawn runs are annual events in waters where hard-bottomed creekbeds and riverbeds provide spawning potential. In highland impoundments of the southeastern US, late January, February, and March offer historic opportunities to ambush prespawn giants on their way to and within such spawning grounds. Casting or trolling shallow midriver rapids and riffles by night and jigging the deeper pools immediately below them during the day have produced many a walleye in the teens -- some even bigger -- including the world record.
By late winter, big walleyes typically stage somewhere below these river stretches in anticipation of the spring run. Eventually, spring rains trigger a flush of warmer (40F plus), darker water into the impoundment, raising the water level and expanding the creek environment. When this plume enters the main body of the reservoir where the creek arm meets the lake, walleyes go on high alert for imminent action. The first of several waves of fish may immediately begin moving upstream, alternately holding in holes below rapids, then racing across the intermediate shallow-flowing sections, eventually reaching an upstream stretch too shallow to traverse. The fish soon spawn at night amongst the turbulent shallows before dropping back downstream again, eventually dispersing into the main lake.
When walleyes are in inflowing major creeks and rivers, muddy water generally is a turnoff, fishingwise. Fish may be present, perhaps simply moving through, but not on the bite. Sit-and-soak tactics with livebait may produce a few fish, but the real action typically doesn't commence until the water begins to clear; a subtle tinge to the otherwise normally clear water is perfect. Then it may be lights out for a day or two as the lucky few folks in position to catch active walleyes nail fish of a size most anglers only imagine in their dreams. Ah, to be in the right place at the right time!
If you're lucky, have good local contacts, or are good at anticipating the proper conditions and are able to leave on a moment's notice, you stand a good chance of intercepting these short peaks in the annual walleye run. If, however, like most anglers, you must plan your trip well in advance and fish when you're able, it's nice to have a Plan B in hand, in case you don't arrive when fish are lining up to be caught. The backup is to anticipate staging areas and intercept the racers at the starting line, before the race actually begins.
Major rivers entering highland impoundments may offer many miles of navigable water, with walleyes perhaps moving far enough upstream to spawn near a dam. In numerous cases, however, the navigable portions of smaller rivers or active major creek arms are short (5 to 7 miles), shallow, clear, relatively steep, and swift-flowing, with little room to host loads of big walleyes. Thus the bulk of the prespawn walleyes stack up in the first available deeper water just below these river arms, providing a logical place to begin seeking them prior to the run, or during lulls in midrun.
Primary and secondary points -- Prominent points at the mouth of a major creek arm, or partway into the arm, are logical starting places to looks for prespawn, prerun walleyes. These areas typically are sloping extensions of the shoreline, seldom large, and surrounded by 40 to 80 feet of water. Some may feature a few standing trees, although most have rock-sand bottoms and are devoid of cover.
The lip along the top of the point, where it first drops off into the deep water of the surrounding river channel or reservoir, is an obvious place to look for walleyes. If a lip is absent, a small edge may be sufficient to focus fish at a certain depth. Try slowly backtrolling a livebait rig and minnow along the perimeter. Hold the sinker just off bottom most of the time, interspersed with an occasional drop to touch and reconfirm bottom, then lift again to minimize snags. Or try forward trolling a snag-resistant bottom bouncer-spinner harness-nightcrawler combo along the edge. Note the presence and depth of fish on your electronics and rework promising sections.
If you catch a fish or two, however, don't be surprised if others in the area spook and leave. The ultraclear water is seldom conducive to catching more than a handful in any one location before the rest depart. Move on to other potential spots and return later for a quick check.
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Bluff tailings -- Areas where a creek or river channel sweeps up against a vertical, rocky bluff tend to collect schools of roving shad. Walleyes may suspend along the bluff itself, or hold on the ledges formed to either side where the bluff ends and a more sloping bottom begins. These transitions, called bluff tailings, are major hot spots for a variety of species.
Bluffs are easy to spot; just look for the steepest, craggiest sections of shoreline. Pull up close to the wall, and try to note the presence and depth of fish on your electronics. It may not be easy; the steep wall often returns a confusion of echoes to your transducer, and individual walleyes may lie undetectable within the crevices in the bluff wall. Best bet: simply fish likely areas with a vertical jigging spoon, jig & minnow, or jig & plastic tail combo.
Standing timber -- Walleyes in deep, clear highland impoundments show a penchant for suspending in fields of standing timber during the day. No reason to assume they'd abandon that notion now. Admittedly, large prime stands of timber may not be available in and around spawning coves. But smaller, isolated pockets of standing trees likely are present. Treat them as temporary holding areas and explore their potential.
The easiest way to check for the presence of walleyes is to vertically jig a jigging spoon or weedless jig along the trunks of the trees. Use your bowmount electric motor to maneuver inside the treeline and proceed from tree to tree, dropping, dangling, jigging a spoon or jig at different levels along the trunk, anywhere from about 10 to 40 feet deep. Note areas with unusual amounts of cover -- exceptionally large or dense trees, clusters of trees, tangles of fallen limbs, submerged treetops -- rather than vertical trunks. Chances are that some fish will be holding somewhere within the periphery of cover.
Flooded brush -- In high-water conditions often associated with mid to late spring -- well into the walleye run -- flooded brush may be available. Three- to ten-foot-deep brushlines, often found on inside bends within a cove, may provide sufficient cover to hold passing walleyes. It looks bassy and probably is, but it's worth sorting through bass and crappies to tangle with the occasional 'eye.
Longline troll bottom bouncers along the brushline if it's well-defined, without a lot of pockets, twists, and turns to defeat your edge presentation. If it's an irregular border with numerous dips and indentations, however, break out your weedless jigheads. Tip 'em with plastic, a minnow, a piece of crawler, or some combo thereof. Use medium spinning gear and 10-pound-test mono to pitch and flip your lightweight (1/16- to 1/8-ounce) jig into likely holding spots. Somewhere between all those bass and panfish bites, a big 'eye may be lurking. Be ready to stick it good, and quickly get it out away from the cover, fighting the fish in adjacent open water.
Perception versus reality -- Southern highland impoundments aren't chock-full of walleyes. Therefore, they seldom offer the chance to catch a lot of fish, but your opportunities for a whopper or two are excellent, providing you roll with the punches.
Spring weather is fickle, and despite the best-laid plans, you can arrive a half-day after the latest flurry diminishes and be up the creek in more ways than one. So be versatile. Hit the rivers if they're on and producing fish. If not, shift to nearby staging areas and intercept walleyes before their portion of the run begins.
The stage is set and the performance about to begin. The runners are gathering in and around the starting blocks. Feel free to jump the gun.