Once river walleyes spawn, they typically disperse from spawning sites to current break locations to rest and recuperate. If the flow is high, they often seek refuge in flooded wood and slough backwaters, where they may remain until water levels subside.
'EYE GOTTA SPAWN
In spring, river walleyes seek out classic spawning locations -- hard bottom, rock-rubble, or riprap areas swept by current; mussel beds mixed with gravel; or small tributary creeks with gravel washout bottoms. During years of high flow, walleyes may spawn on vegetation, like reed canary grass.
They typically start spawning when the water reaches 40F to 45F. Males generally arrive at spawning sites about a week or two before females and remain about two weeks longer. Females often hold a short distance away from spawning sites, in slower current, until their eggs ripen. Once water temperatures reach the proper level, spawning begins and is usually staggered over a 14- to 20-day period.
"Every spring, walleyes come out of their wintering habitat and move into warmer backwater locations," says John Pitlo, Iowa Natural Resource biologist, who has spent many hours studying the prespawn and postspawn movements of river walleyes. "Mud bottoms in backwater lakes and shallow sloughs absorb the sun, which can raise water temperatures 2 to 6 degrees warmer than the main channel.
"Female walleyes seek out warmer water during the prespawn period to help their eggs mature," Pitlo says, "often staying in warmer backwaters until their eggs are ripe, before moving to the spawning ground where males await their arrival. Females generally don't spend much time at the spawning site. In fact, a female may be on the spawning bed for only about half a day, long enough to dump her eggs, and then she's out of there," Pitlo explains. "She may return to the same backwater spots she came from if the water level remains the same.
"During the postspawn period, we've observed interesting walleye behavior during studies where we radio tagged fish to track their movements. The fish are scattered during this period and may set up in the same spot for several weeks, say behind a tree or in a small clearing in the trees.
"When I started these studies, we returned to the same spots day after day and found radio-tagged walleyes in the exact same spots. Just to see if they were dead or alive, we positioned right over them and banged on the side of the boat. Still no signs of life. We finally lowered a paddle into the water to touch them," Pitlo explains, "and sure enough, they moved."
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It has long been thought that a walleye's desire to eat is switched off for many weeks during the spawn. Although fishing success may flicker during the peak of the spawning period, walleyes expend lots of energy spawning, and they need food to replenish this depleted energy.
In rivers, current speed and water depth dictate walleye location during postspawn. Structural elements that provide a current break are potential spots -- points, logjams, beaver dams, flooded wood, causeways, boulders, and deep holes. Large slow eddies, tips or sides of wing dams, and bridges all attract fish. Current seams on the surface likely indicate a current break on a vertical plane to the bottom, where walleyes line up along the edge, waiting for a passing meal.
During high flow, walleyes seek low-velocity current breaks in backwater chutes and in flooded trees amidst the flood plain. Each tree provides a current break for postspawn walleyes to rest, recuperate, and feed. Oak, cottonwoods, and willows tend to grow in gravel areas, and walleyes seem to favor these bottoms.
"Good river anglers study how the current is flowing across the surface, past trees, and over rocks or other obstructions that create current breaks," says Tommy Skarlis, expert river angler and In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail pro. "Trees swept by the right amount of current over the right kind of bottom -- say rock, sand, or gravel -- are the best backwater walleye spots."
PITCHIN', FLIPPIN', DIPPIN'
Positioning the boat as close as possible to cover without spooking fish allows you to make a controlled cast, flip, pitch, or dip to key spots. Position the jig ahead of the current break and use the force of the current to work your jig down in front of walleyes facing into the current.
Match the right jig weight to the current strength to slowly work it downstream. Lighter jigs, 1/16 to 1/8 ounce, less likely snag and are easier for a walleye to inhale, but they can be difficult to use in strong wind and current. If you lose contact (sense of feel) with your jighead, consider using a heavier jig. They sink faster, however, and snags become more frequent.
Weedless jigs like the Northland Weed-Weasel or Bait Rig Slow Poke slide over obstructions like wood, weeds, and rocks better than a roundhead jig. They also fall slower, which makes staying in contact with the jig in deeper water or stronger current more difficult.
"When I'm working wood, I used a 7 1/2- to 8-foot casting rod to dip a jig in the trees, similar to dipping for bass, crappies, and catfish," Skarlis suggests. "Every tree in the slack water creates a current break and is a potential walleye home. I like to think of each tree as being a little walleye apartment with maybe one, two, or even three residents. Moving as quickly and quietly as possible, simply put the rod tip right next to a tree and vertically dip the jig two or three times in and around each tree before moving to the next one. Walleyes are typically ready to ambush any food that ventures into the current-break area they're using.
"I use 17-pound-test Berkley XT mono, which allows me to quickly jerk the fish out of the wood before it wraps around a tree," Skarlis explains. "I also use a light-wire hook, which allows me to simply straighten the hook to free it from the wood, reshape the hook, and get right back to fishing."
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FOLLOW THE FLOW
Every day is a new day on rivers when water levels rise and fall. You may find walleyes relating to creeks, cuts, chutes, and boat harbors when water levels are high. But as the water level starts dropping, they instinctively seek deeper water. As walleyes begin filtering out of backwater areas, they begin using current breaks in deeper water near backwater locations.
"I look for deeper cuts in water leading into backwater areas," Skarlis says. "Big, slow eddies with deep water near the main channel of a backwater cut, or on the downcurrent side of an island, can be good when the water is dropping.
"The fish always are more aggressive at the edge, where the current meets calm water. I also graph fish in the center of eddies or holes," Skarlis claims, "although they're always less aggressive. Even so, I've caught lots of big fish in the eye of an eddy."
Vertically jigging or three-way rigging are other good options for drifting along a current break or riprap area, hovering in the middle of an eddy, or anchoring at the mouth of a feeder creek that meets the main river.
Fishing vertically in strong current or deep water calls for additional weight to reach bottom. Heavy 3/4- to 1-ounce jigs enable you to stay in contact with the bottom in heavy current. And their larger profile increases their visibility in dirty or deep water. Bounce and bang them off the bottom and rocks to trigger strikes.
Trolling long stretches of flooded wood is a good way to intercept walleyes migrating along treeline cover, providing depth and room are sufficient to make effective trolling runs. Position your crankbait close to the cover by sticking your rod tip right next to the trees to draw walleyes out from the wood. The no-stretch qualities of superlines like Berkley FireLine or Spiderwire greatly increase your ability to detect weeds or wood that foul your crankbait. If you can't feel the crankbait vibrating, simply rip your rod tip forward, which often removes debris without having to reel the lure all the way back to the boat.
Identify and anticipate fish movements when river water levels are high. Search for walleyes in shallow cover, look for current break locations with hard bottom, and don't hesitate to try new locations or tactics in backwaters.