Riege: Winter river walleyes

Published 7:14 pm Wednesday, February 20, 2013

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.

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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 have to fight current all of their lives. 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.

In the fall of the year the turbidity of the water subsides and walleyes are more visually stimulated as they see food floating by the slack water areas. This is not to say that all walleyes see their food before the strike and in some cases they strike more out of vibration and smell than they do from visual identification.

One reason that I like to use jigs while fishing for fall walleyes in a river system is the control an angler has. Vertically jigging for walleyes gets my blood pumping and believe me on those cool crisp fall days when it would be nice to be on shore burning a campfire or dried leaves, you need all of your blood pumping just to stay warm. With the proper head design and weight, jigs are the most versatile of all river techniques, from the shallowest flooded cover to the deepest, fastest current.

The majority of river fishing with jigs involves either slipping the current or drift fishing the current breaks. The presentation is a simple lift-drop-pause method of jigging, raising the jig some 3 to 6 “ as you slip downstream. The jigs that I prefer to use are Northland Fireball jigs because of the rounded head. The rounded head allows the jig to bump along the bottom and not get hung up in snags or brush. If you are as vertical as possible a jig will stand up allowing the hook to be exposed away from the floor of the river. When you tip the jig with a flathead minnow the minnow stands up and looks like it is trying to pick up the jig. As the minnow struggles against the weight of the jig it sends out wounded signals and the natural scent attracts the walleyes and allows them to hang on just that much longer. If the walleyes seem to be just biting the tails off the minnows the Fireball offers an additional eye so you can easily attach a stinger hook. The stinger hook is a great addition in the cold waters of fall and spring.

When looking for structure and edges, I recommend using a good electronic unit. The Lowrance HDS-8 is the one that I prefer. The Lowrance HDS-8 with structure scan will allow you to see the difference in the hard and soft transition areas. Since fish rarely suspend in river and streams the resolution on either of these units allows you to locate and see fish that are tight to the bottom.

When the tailrace areas becomes crowded with boats, start moving downstream to holding areas. Flooded timber can be good at times. Try flipping a Lipstick or Foxee jig tipped with a minnow into cover. Use your bowmount electric trolling motor. I prefer the MotorGuide, because it is quiet and usually in stained water you can stand right over the top of the fish without spooking them.

When the particular structure is shallow don’t hesitate to use the slip bobber method. Attach a 1/8 oz. Fireball jig with a piece of plastic screwtail and a minnow to your slip bobber rig and allow the waves and wind to do the vertical jigging for you. If those walleyes are biting short, attach a stinger hook to your Fireball jig.

Finding the walleyes in the current breaks is the key, and refining your presentation will allow you to boat a fish dinner quicker than you can say “winter river walleyes” three times.