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Spring River Walleye 101
By Gary Engberg
This winter will go down as one of the warmest in
history or at least as long as weather records have been kept. The
ice-fishing season was long in coming and is on its final legs right now.
But, the good news for anglers is that the walleyes and saugers are biting
and have been for most of winter for those hardy soles that have never
put their boats in storage.
Many fishermen put their boats away
in the fall and don’t bring them out again until springtime when the ice
and snow has left us. But, there a growing group of anglers who have found
out that the fish migration up river by walleyes doesn’t just happen one
warm spring day. Walleyes start working their way up river in the fall
and winter and travel as far as they can before encountering the first
of many dams on the Wisconsin River at Prairie Du Sac. There are over 85
miles between the Mississippi River and the first dam on the Wisconsin.
The important thing to take note of is that the walleyes and their cousin
the sauger start migrating and looking for good staging spots and holding
areas way before spring. Even though their metabolism has slowed down considerably,
river fish still have to eat everyday to just maintain their body weight.
This river migration takes place in all rivers in the upper Midwest. The
Mississippi, Fox, Wolf, Rock, Crawfish, St. Croix, and even the Pecatonica
Rivers all experience this phenomenon.
During normal winters, an angler
can usually get out on a river by the end of February and for sure by the
first week of March. I’ve kept records over the years and there are
always good walleyes caught by the end of February and some real trophies
are caught the first two weeks of March. Though, the majority of the fish
caught are small males, some pre-spawn females are caught. This is
one of the better times of the year to target big fish.
I know of some walleyes approaching
10 pounds that have been caught already this year. Anglers should take
notice that the size for walleyes will change April 1st for the Wisconsin
River. From the dam at Prairie Du Sac on the Wisconsin River and west to
the Mississippi River, walleyes will have to 18 inches long, instead of
15 inches. The daily bag limit will be lowered from 5 fish to 3 fish. Saugers
stay at 15 inches, but are included in the 3 fish daily bag .The river
above the dam (including Lake Wisconsin) will have a slot size where no
fish between 20 and 28 inches can be kept.You may still keep 5 fish between
15 and 19.99 inches. Also, only one fish over 28 inches may be kept. These
new regulations are in affect to the dam at Wisconsin Dells.
If you fish the Wisconsin River
and most others including the Mississippi, you have to use extreme caution
because the rivers are low and your lower units and props can take a beating.
I’d advise talking to someone, if these are unfamiliar waters, so that
you have no major problems. You can use V- hull boats, but flat bottom
johnboats are the best for most rivers.
Another way of fishing these
early walleyes is to wade during low light periods of the day. You need
a good pair of neoprene waders, about 4ml thick, to go into this 35-degree
water. There are times when those wading do better than boat fishermen.You
have to dress properly. Walleyes, and often-big females will
find areas out of the main current, where they can rest before they spawn
and drop their eggs on the river’s marble size gravel and rock. Wading
just before dark, at night, and just before sunrise are primetimes to catch
The best techniques
for wading are casting a jig-minnow combo, a jig and twister tail, or a
long stick bait like a Mann’s Loudmouth Jerk or a floating Rapala. The
top colors are black/white and blue/white, though it still is important
to experiment to see what the fish want that day.The same goes for jigs
and plastic twister tails, change colors till you find the one that works
that day. A rule I loosely follow is to use brighter colors during the
day and black or white at night because then the fish are looking more
at the profile and silhouette. Whether wading or fishing from a boat, one
should work their baits extremely slow. Walleyes are still a little
sluggish and won’t chase a jig or crankbait very far.
the rivers current and the available food supply drive river walleyes.
Ideally, a walleye likes to hide behind something that breaks the current
and wait for some food to float by and then dash out and get it. I mentioned
it before, but it’s worth repeating. River walleyes have to eat everyday
just to maintain their body’s weight. This is why walleyes like to position
themselves behind something that breaks the current and allows them to
conserve energy while waiting for food to float by.
Here are some
of the areas to look for when fishing spring river walleyes. Remember that
current breaks are the keys. Rocks, boulders, fallen timber, islands, bridge
abutments, river bends, and wing dams are all good spring locations to
search for fish. Feeder creeks and drainage culverts are other areas to
consider. During periods of high water walleyes will move into shallow
spots of only a few feet to escape fast moving river currents. In
low water times, the fish move deeper into the protected current areas.All
these fish need is a rock to slide behind or a dip in the bottom of a foot
or two to break the current. Conserving energy and finding food are what
drives these river fish. Learning these basics will make anyone a better
go to a dam area to fish you will usually find 90% of the boats concentrated
in the main area below the dam. There’s no doubt that there are fish here,
but not all fish go as far as the dam. Many fish will stage and find holding
spots anywhere within a couple of miles of the dam. Experiment and get
away from the crowds and you may be surprised at what you find. I live
4 miles below the Prairie dam and I catch big walleyes close to home all
spring. The tailrace waters right below the dam are a place to start, but
don’t get stuck by all the boats right below the dam.
river equipment is pretty basic; a good graphite rod about 6 feet long
in medium or medium-light action (Loomis or Fenwick are great choices),
a open face spinning reel with 3 or 4 ballbearings (Daiwa or Shimano ),monofilament
line in green or coffee color for the stained water (Stren or Berkley)
in 6 or 8 pound test, and a good assortment of jigs from 1/16 to 1/4 ounce.
I used to always use 6 pound test line, but I’ve switched to 8 pound which
seems to work fine and I loose fewer jigs.
Bait Rigs Slo Poke Jig
|Have 3 or 4 different color jigs in all sizes (the Bait Rigs Slo
Poke is a great river jig) and plastic twister tails in assorted colors
(purple, white, black, blue, chartreuse, orange, and glow ).
Cast your jigs
and minnows and work them back slowly. The fish are going to be within
a foot of the bottom, so use a jig that lets you maintain bottom.. If you
use too heavy of a jig you’ll be snagged constantly. Also, somedays the
fish want something simple like a plain hook and a split shot dressed with
a fathead minnow. I may put a colored bead above the hook for added attraction
or use a colored hook. Three-way swivels with live bait on a hook or a
floating jighead works too and also helps you maintain your bottom contact.
Lastly, use good, lively fathead minnows in a couple of sizes.
If you take some of
my advice you should be able to catch some spring river walleyes and get
a jump on the fishing season. Some good early places to fish are; Sauk
Prairie and Wisconsin Dells on the Wisconsin River; Genoa and Ferryville
on the Mississippi River; and Fort Atkinson and Jefferson on the Rock River.
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