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Be a River Master
By Ted Takasaki and Scott Richardson

Walleye fishermen looking for some early season fun can be found on rivers throughout the Midwest. For Nick Johnson, the target is the Mississippi River near his home in Elmwood, Wis., about 30 minutes from Lake Pepin. He used the knowledge he first learned on that stretch near Redwing, Minn., to become the 2004 FLW Walleye Tour champion on the Mississippi River farther downstream at Rock Island, Ill., last fall. “Even in January and February, we are out there a lot,” said Johnson. “There’s never a closed season.” Johnson said the Mississippi River at Redwing also offered another advantage. Walleyes react to current just like their river heritage has taught them. They also react like walleyes in lakes and reservoirs do when little or no current is present in Lake Pepin, a wide spot in the Mississippi River. Johnson was forced to learn tactics to deal with both situations. “As Pete Harsh once said, ‘Don’t be a one-horse charlie,’ ” he said. As a result, Johnson has an extensive repertoire. “Lead core is like my teddy bear,” Johnson said. “But, it isn’t always the best way to catch fish. It doesn’t always work. Trolling a long stretch and only getting one fish off of one point during the pass is not productive. I would have to take everything up and set up for another pass. This is just not efficient. Sometimes you can catch more fish by slowing down and fishing one particular, isolated spot with live bait. If I can get them casting a jig or crankbait in shallow water, I’m happy. In the springtime, I spend a lot of time vertical jigging as well.” Oh, that’s not to mention Johnson used three-way rigs to win the FLW Walleye Tour championship.

Ted Takasaki with a nice River Walleye

Spring sauger averages 15 inches and up on the Mississippi. But, walleyes topping seven pounds often wind up in the net. One thing that determines early season success is totally beyond the power of fishermen to control. That factor is the health of the shad population, Johnson said. A shad population down in number enhances the bite. For example, heavy rains and high water last year delayed good shad spawns. The forage fish weren’t able to grow to the four or five inch size required to make it through the winter. Their numbers aren’t there now, and Johnson anticipates a good bite. By February, fish are staging in holes near spawning areas. Sauger are deep, perhaps 25 to 35 feet. Walleyes tend to be shallower in as little as 3 to 4 feet of water even during the height of winter, he said. Most walleyes and sauger spawn from the head of Lake Pepin to the dam seven miles upstream. The trick is to keep moving until you find them. Look for marks on your electronics that are connected to the bottom. Walleyes in rivers rarely suspend. “If I’m not seeing fish on the sonar screen, I’m not spending too much time there,” Johnson said.

Before the spring rains raise the river and make the water dingy, Johnson and his pals have been known to put underwater cameras down to see 20 or 30 fish on a spot, all about to spawn. But, they won’t eat with reproduction on their mind. They could fish that spot all day and not get one. When high water comes, they move into flooded grass far back in the backwaters where they are hard to reach. They’ll also take refuge in washboard bottom areas where water action has created ripples on the sandy bottom where they can hide from current. “I never pass one of those areas up,” he said. Everyone knows about the fish at the dams, where pressure is intense.

Lindy little Joe Fuzzy Grubs one of my personal choices
Lindy's Fuzzy Grubs
Keep it simple. For the deeper sauger, vertical jig with a big enough Fuzz-E-Grub to stay straight below the boat in whatever current and wind conditions you face. Add a fathead or shiner. Use a stinger hook if there’s not too much debris. Use your trolling motor to slip with the current or hover and work the holes from side to side and up and back.
Rattlin Lindy Max Gap Jig 2 Pack Lindy Max Gap colors For The shallower walleyes, look for steeper breaks with a sand bar that cuts the current. Cast a Max Gap jig with a Munchies Thumpin’ Ringworm. Keep things light - an eighth or three-sixteenth oz. jig is best for a slow fall. Step up to a quarter ounce if the current is fast. Larger swirl tail grubs, like the Munchies Thumpin’ Grub also work. Stick with a handful of colors, such as chartreuse, white and black in clearer water and bright colors when things turn muddy. Johnson thinks the best time on the Mississippi River comes at the end of April. Water has reached 52 to 56 degrees. Most of the spawning is done, and he starts finding walleyes in Lake Pepin. He disputes that spawned-out fish need rest

“All the fish don’t spawn in one night. They bite and they bite hard. They are just scattered.” Walleyes set up on larger concentrations of shad wherever that might be. In higher water, current plays a role both in the river and to a lesser extent, in the lake. Look for current breaks that form eddies. Look for flooded willows, stumps, weeds, even shallow bays.... anything with an edge for walleyes to push baitfish against and attack. “They use the edges like a wall,” Johnson said. Another key to locating them is to be aware they tend to concentrate in the warmest water in places featuring rocky rip rap. Now is the chance to pull three-ways in eddies formed by gravel bars or clam beds. He uses two different styles of weights. One is the common bell sinker in one to two ounce sizes. However, a pyramid sinker imparts an action Johnson likes. It will hang up from time to time on bottom features like a rock or a clam shell. As it does, his medium-action 8 1/2 to nine foot downrigger rod in the rod holder loads up. As the boat moves forward, the pyramid-style sinker frees itself and shoots forward. If a walleye or sauger is lurking nearby, the action is often enough to trigger a vicious strike. “It’s a cat and mouse thing,” Johnson said. He uses a medium-action rod to hold in his hand, too. It is shorter than the downrigger rods, say seven feet, but he needs the softer action and added length to act as a shock absorber. If not, a frisky walleye could straight out the light-weight hooks that many floating jigs feature. Forget that stuff about having your line at a 45-degree angle to the water, he added. “I’ve been known to have it 50 feet back, but make sure you’re on the bottom,” he said. He uses minnows, hooked through the lips or near the tail, to May 1, then switches to leeches hooked through the sucker or a nightcrawler hooked in the middle to add action and a bigger profile. His main line is 10 pound test. The leader is usually six feet long and made of 8 pound line. Try a variety of colors on your floaters. He also likes the Lindy Rattlin’ Hooker. How fast? “I’ve been known to go downstream at 3 mph to trigger fish by July,” Johnson said. Let the fish tell you want they want. Johnson never leaves home without his leadcore after March 1. Again, keep it simple. Tie on a barrel swivel, an eight to six pound braided leader and a snap.

Rapala Shad Rap He normally uses a number 5 or number 7 Shad Rap. Sometimes, you’ll catch him using floating stick baits early in the year. “A lot of guys make it too hard,” he said. One tip - Johnson does custom paint jobs, painting some lures solid chartreuse, solid black, solid brown and solid orange with purple backs. Best speed is 1.8 to 2 mph, but he’s been known to troll as fast as 4 mph to trigger fish. Cabin fever got you down? Tired of looking through a little hole in the ice?

Get to the nearest river where it’s always open season on walleyes. Dan will be speaking at the Walleye Masters Institute in Rolling Meadows, Illinois on March 5th. Make sure you reserve your spot and learn more about fishing rivers and catching springtime walleye and saugers by calling 630-842-8199.

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