By this time of year, even the most die-hard ice anglers may be itching to get the boat out. Even while many lakes remain frozen in the northern regions, big rivers beckon, with walleye populations that have already begun their earliest pre-spawn feeding. In many areas, there are overlooked opportunities, though some popular spots, such as Ohio’s Maumee River, host hundreds of anglers early in the season. Walleye populations thrive in large river systems, as most offer excellent spawning areas with gravel and current that allows the eggs to develop and hatch. We find excellent opportunities east to west—from the Niagara River in New York to the Allegheny in Pennsylvania, the Detroit and Saginaw in Michigan, Fox and Wolf in Wisconsin, and the mighty Mississippi that runs from Minnesota through Wisconsin and Iowa into Illinois, and many more for river walleyes.
The key to fishing river walleyes is understanding the current and how it positions the fish. Several different approaches can work, depending on the size of the river and its flow. Slip-drifting with the current is the most popular technique when the current is moderate. This technique is essentially vertically jigging while you slowly drift downstream, using a trolling motor to adjust speed and to move laterally.
Use a heavy enough jig to maintain bottom contact with your line straight up and down. Some key areas include wing dams, and the current breaks associated with them and sand dunes. Some systems have rocky outcroppings, like wing dams, where prespawn river walleyes hold, or you may see sand dunes on the bottom, with fish holding in the deeper troughs in the sand.
While jigs and minnows are the mainstay, we often do as well with soft plastics, particularly ringworms, and small paddletails. When to choose depends on the mood of the fish. If they’re going, you can’t beat plastics, but if the bite is tough or they’re keyed in a a particular baitfish, minnow can be the only game in town. Vertical jigging is not the only way to fish jigs in rivers. When the flow is slow and the water is clear the fish can often spook away from the boat and it pay to pitch jigs or drag them a short cast behind the boat. Take note of water color, the jig bite can die when the water gets dirty, but it doesn’t mean you can’t catch ‘em.
We’ve had exceptional fishing when the water get’s dirty pulling cranks on 3-way rigs. It’s been successful for ages because it works so well. We generally run about a two-foot dropper line to the lead, then about a four foot lead to the lure. Choose a heavy enough weight to keep good bottom contact. Our favorite minnowbaits on the three-way, are Rapala Original Floaters (generally size #9 and #11), Jointed Rapalas, or Storm Thundersticks. Floating lures run above bottom, avoiding snags, while their quivering, rolling action drives walleyes wild. We usually present three-way rigs slow trolling upstream. Focus on deep current breaks, holes, and channel ledges.
In the big picture walleye in high dirty water tend to move toward the bank while in low clear water conditions fish tend to move upstream deep in the main river channel.
If you want to get on the water, get the boat going, and take home some fine fresh fish, look to your local rivers. While seasons in some areas are closed to walleye fishing until later in spring, you can find rivers that are open, with walleyes waiting to be caught.