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Riege: Open Water Walleyes in the Winter


Winds blowing out of the north at 15 to 20 miles per hour. Chances of snow 40% today, increasing to 80% tonight with a 4 to 6 inch accumulation possible. Monday, a warming trend and a thaw, temperature to soar to about 35 degrees by Tuesday with slow to moderate rise by Wednesday. Does this sound familiar? Do you want to know what is hot at this time of year? Winter walleyes below the river dams on the Mississippi or heading south are the answers to your forecast as well as your questions.

This is the time of the year that winter river walleyes are in their prime. The walleyes have all moved up to the staging areas right below the dams on the Mississippi and they are in open water. The walleyes like this area because the “hole” below the dam is a resting place and a feeding area. This area is high in oxygen and fish migrate to this area to rest before starting the spawning cycle.

This “hole” below the dam is not just for resting, but also is a major feeding area for those walleyes that have migrated to this area. Their body metabolism is slow, but they still have to eat. Therefore, they simply watch the offerings float by them or be carried downstream via current.

Look for breaks in the current. They may be behind islands, points, and below bars in mid channel. In strong current, walleyes group tight to structure. In softer current or low water periods, like winter, they often scatter, and hold on edges of barriers or current breaks.

With this in mind anglers should stop and think where are the edges on this body of water.

For example, walleyes in cold water will probably be where there is a warmer temperature. That might mean the northern part of the lake or where a feed creek dumps into the river. Then, what other structures are present to make up the edge? Is there a barrier from current or wind? Is the bottom sandy, muddy, rocky etc.?

A river walleye unlike lake walleyes has to fight current all of it’s life. Therefore, the walleyes in the rivers have adapted to be in areas that offer current breaks so they don’t have to fight the current all of the time. These current breaks are anything that diverts the current and allows slack water. The slack water areas are found below the dams where an eddy is formed by the water being drawn over the dam and rushing downstream causes a slack water area on each side of the dam. Other obstructions that cause slack water might be below wingdams, behind rocks, a depression in the floor of the river, a stump or fallen tree, or man made obstacles such as bridge abutments.

The key to locating walleyes in the river in the fall and early winter starts with locating a series of obstacles and then allowing your bait or lure to present itself in a natural manner so the walleye can race from behind the obstruction to acquire the offering and then race back into the slack water area to digest his meal and await another.

To slow down your lure presentation use a little jig tipped with a minnow. But don’t get stuck in a slow pattern. Utilize extremes. Rip the jig back to the boat on one retrieve, and then work the jig slow, bouncing it along the bottom on the next retrieve. My favorite jig in this situation is a 1/4 ounce Northland Fire-Ball jig tipped with a minnow. I prefer the Fire-Ball because it is round and I can easily attach a stinger hook to the minnow and up my chances of catching a finicky walleye. When in doubt if you have contact with the bottom, increase the size of your jig and minnow. You might get hung up more, but you might also have a wallhanger on your hands.

Winter has its icy grip on the Upper Midwest. Most of us have our boats on our trailers and if “cabin fever” has set in all we need to do is pull it out of the garage hook it up and we can be heading south for some great walleye fishing.

How far south, you might ask? Well if you could draw a imaginary line through Little Rock, Nashville and Atlanta you could pretty much define the southern limit of the walleye range. But is seems that those lakes lying closest to that boundary are the ones that produce the biggest fish.

Many fishermen heading south will probably fish deep water for walleyes and that can be a big mistake. Most of the walleyes in these southern lakes are shallow. Any short, hard bottom point may hold walleyes on a given day. But reservoirs or lakes have hundreds of short, hard bottom points. You are better off passing up the short points and stopping when you find a long point with several kinds of fish attracting features. A good point might have a stair step ledge on one side, scattered rock on top and a shale bed lining the other side. The point’s shallow inside turn may be soft bottomed, while the deeper outside turn might break off into another smaller, hard bottom point. Such an area is almost certain to hold walleyes.

The same principle applies to sunken islands; many points, stair step ledges, and a variety of bottom conditions are generally better than a smooth, gradually breaking sand hump. I might also mention that an already good island is made all the better by the presence of a saddle. This saddle is a dip between two higher spots of land. If this saddle area is connected to a prospective point all the better, because it is a fish magnet.

Don’t forget to check out some other productive areas such as roadbeds, riprap, creek channels, stump fields, or isolated rock piles, bars and rockslides.

One type of structure that is over looked by many anglers is floating structure. Oh sure there is the buoy and maybe a swimming platform that fish are attracted to, but more specifically there are mud lines. Mud lines can be formed when the wind comes up on those warm days or they may be formed as another stream or river flows into an existing one. The confluence of the two rivers meeting will also form a mud line.

All mud lines are not created equal at least in terms of angling potential. An angler should look for secondary structure contained in the mud line such as vegetation, boulders, and submerged brush. This secondary will hold baitfish and eventually the larger fish will follow the mud line until it provides food or an advantageous ambush point.

Mud lines are a great structure to fish in because the angler can fish them quickly. If you fish an area and you don’t have a fish within 10 to 15 minutes move on to another location. My father, who loved to troll, would work over a mud line and if nothing was active he would be on to another spot.

Lure selection in the form of crankbaits should appeal to the fish senses. They should be big lures that displace water and give off vibration, or rattle and they should be flashy with bright metallic finishes. A great choice here would be the Storm Thunderstick. It has all the ingredients for fishing mud lines, color, flash and vibration.

If you are looking for trophy walleye fishing then Greers Ferry in Arkansas is the place to be. Early in the winter concentrate your fishing at the mouth of feeder creeks, especially in the early evening hours. Troll your #7 and #9 Shad Raps parallel to the deltas formed by these creeks.

There are literally dozens of healthy walleye fisheries in the large flood-control and hydro-electrical lakes of the South. Such lakes are Cumberland Lake in Kentucky; Stockton, Truman and Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri; Greers Ferry, Bull Shoals and Norfork in Arkansas.

Friday a Winter Storm Watch will be in effect. Blizzard conditions will make travel extremely dangerous. Travelers are advised to use extreme caution. What is it going to be? Heading south for those walleyes or, open water walleyes, you can make the decision, but the important thing is don’t give up, there is still a lot of hot action.