Winter River Fishing Strategies For Walleyes And Sauger

It gets pretty doggone icy and cold in walleye and sauger country during December, January, and February. Nearly every lake and even big rivers tend to ice over. It's a sad scene for walleye anglers who don't ice fish, though at least there's some open water below dams where constant flow keeps the water open and winter walleyes and sauger await. According to In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail (PWT) Executive Director Jim Kalkofen, "Boat access is one of the main factors in searching for a place to fish for walleyes and sauger during midwinter. Many boat ramps in rivers are located in bays or marinas that often ice over during winter, even though the main river remains open. River fishing can be fabulous, including a good shot at catching some monsters, if you can find a place to launch a boat and can handle the cold."

Staging walleyes and sauger concentrate near dams. The fish migrate upriver in fall where they spend the winter and eventually spawn in spring. December through February, when surface temperatures may range from 32F to 34F, river walleyes and sauger tend to hold in holes, from 12 to 40 feet deep. Holes that develop immediately below dams are scoured out during periods of high water and rapid flow -- typically during spring and summer. During winter, however, water levels usually are steady and the current comparatively slow. Under typical low-flow conditions, these holes are ideal spots to find walleyes and sauger.

Sauger typically hold in the deeper portion of the hole, while walleyes more likely stage somewhere in the shallower periphery, but still in the hole. "Holes are obvious and traditional spots to look for fish and are definitely worth fishing, especially if fishing pressure is low," Kalkofen says. "But other spots can be just as good, if not better, than classic traditional spots.

"Many of the same spots that were good in late fall are good in midwinter. We've discovered that even slightly deeper water, say 1 to 2 feet, is enough depth variation to hold walleyes.

The advantage of fishing rivers during winter is that the current is slower than it is all year. This is a great advantage to anglers because with less turbulence, you can use sonar more effectively to find fish and pinpoint their exact location."

Keying on other prime locations like wingdams, shoreline points, and the tips of islands can produce. Basically, any current-breaking formations within the open-water portion of the river may produce walleyes, even in as little as 6 to 15 feet of water, and perhaps even shallower at night. In slower river current, walleyes increasingly use the tops, sides, and even the front (upstream side) of reefs, rock piles, and wing dams. River bends or holes below bridges also are worth investigating.

"Many anglers concentrate their efforts by looking for walleyes in the deeper holes," Kalkofen explains, "but sometimes walleyes make a move shallower, especially during a midseason warm-up. We've found walleyes moving up on large sand flats during midwinter, probably to feed. The fish seem scattered, but they're plentiful and fairly active."

Vertical jigging is the most popular presentation. Depending on water depth and current, 1/4- to 3/8-ounce jigs do the job in most midwinter scenarios. You seldom need anything heavier due to minimal current. Tip jigs with a 21⁄2- to 3-inch minnow hooked up through the lower jaw and out the top of the head. This keeps the bait facing forward in the current and provides plenty of action and flash to attract fish. Use a simple lift-drop of the lure on and off bottom.

Drift slowly along in the subtle current, paying attention to visible edges where subtle current meets calm water. Inside the calm water of eddies, or within general large areas of slack water, you may need to use your electric trolling motor to cover all the potential spots. Pitching a jig into the slack water and slowly hopping it back along bottom toward the current break also produces.

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Jigging spoons or bladebaits are easy to fish where current is minimal. Blades, in fact, are popular river baits, often triggering strikes from fish that bypass slower jigging presentations. Bladebaits like a Heddon Sonar or Reef Runner Cicada provide vibration and action on the rise. Spoons like Bass 'N Bait's Rattle Snakie, Northland's Buckshot Rattle Spoon, and Lindy-Little Joe's Rattl'r feature rattles that further enhance their attracting power while wobbling on the fall.

Present blades and spoons on about 10-pound-test line with either spinning or casting gear. Use a 6- to 7-foot medium-heavy casting or spinning rod to work 1/2-ounce bladebaits. Drop a bladebait to the bottom, then engage the reel, taking up slack until the line is tight and the spoon is just off bottom. Beginning with your rod tip pointed down at an angle (about 8 o'clock) toward the water, lift your forearm slightly while modestly snapping your wrist upward to about 11 o'clock. Use aggressive lift-drops of perhaps 12 to 18 inches. As the lure begins to descend, follow it downward with the rod tip. Walleyes typically strike on the fall, so avoid excessive slack or you'll miss feeling the bite.

"Jigs, spoons, and bladebaits are great midwinter options. One of my favorite and most productive presentations, believe it or not, is a castable minnow rig that features a 12- to 14-inch leader. The short leader allows me to lob-cast the rig much as you would a slipbobber onto, say, a sandflat or the top edge of a hole. Winter walleyes are somewhat lethargic, and the castable rig allows for fishing the bait without letting the fish feel any resistance. I use a 1/4-ounce weight, like Lindy's Rattlin' No-Snagg, and I work the system much as I would a jig, dragging it and stopping, drag and stop. When I get bit, I instantly feed the fish line to give it time to eat my bait, then I reel in the slack and set the hook."

A 1- to 1 1⁄2-ounce three-way rig baited with a minnow is another good bait that can be drifted or trolled, or fished in place. Keep the dropper and leader short -- each maybe 15 inches -- to position the bait near bottom where walleyes tuck down tight to the basin.

Crankbaits are effective for finding walleyes in rivers. Troll them through known concentrations of schooled fish, possibly even triggering bigger fish. Hard-body baits -- minnowbaits, suspending jerkbaits, crankbaits, and rattlebaits -- tend to trigger big fish bites in rivers all year, even in water temperatures below 35F. At this time of year, long, slim deep divers in smaller sizes, like the Reef Runner Lil' Ripper, Storm Deep ThunderStick Jr., or Rapala #10 Deep Down Husky Jerk produce.

Open water below dams is the coldest flowing water of the year. Personally, it gives me chills to think about bobbing around in a boat on water that would otherwise freeze if it weren't for the constant current. Not to mention that the air temperature and wind chills often are colder than the freezing point (32F) of water. But walleyes and sauger can be found staging, if not stacked, in specific spots below dams during midwinter. And it's amazing how fast you forget about the cold once you start catching fish.

Get Your Fish On.

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