Spring Fever

By Steve Sams - May 1, 2004
After a long hard winter the sound of song birds and the sight of open water trigger walleye fever in most of us. This is the best time too fill the live well with undoubtedly the finest tasting fish the state has to offer.

During the course of a season, situations occur that create peak angling opportunities, and are defined by intense action in easily identified areas. Unfortunately these periods are short lived, and by the time you hear about it they are over. The most productive time is at hand and involves the many river systems available.

Rivers are everywhere, and most of them have a good population of fish. Most anglers live close to a river, therefore it is easy to get into a good bite when the time arises. Most rivers that border states and a lot of inland rivers do not have a closed season on a variety of species.

The areas top walleye waters are no secret and receive their share of attention. You can see it in the lines at the bait shops, boat launches, or on the water.

Pressure

The first step to dealing with pressure is to take a step back and look at the whole situation. Considerations like where and how the majority of anglers are fishing are the first things to consider.

Understanding the "where" can give you an idea of what the walleyes are keying on which may lead to similar areas without the congestion. Look for areas that possess the same characteristics like similar depth and bottom make-up. Also consider wind direction, which can play a major role in locating walleyes.

Even if the back up areas don't mirror the primary areas they still can produce. If there is fewer available fish you can have them all to yourself. Remember that when you're looking for a secondary location is that you will never find all of the walleyes doing the same thing at the same time, in the same place. While the masses may have found where there is a lot of activity you can bet it is happening somewhere else.

Excess activity can scatter a school of fish, shut them down, or push them deeper. By going deeper can separate you from the crowds and produce good numbers.

Secondary channels can be every bit as good as main channels, but usually receive a lot less attention. The reasons they get overlooked is probably because they are less obvious, and take a little more effort to find. The fact is, anglers tend to look for other anglers, and don't always concentrate on the fish. Exploring a secondary channel may be a little lonely, as you may have it all to yourself, but don't let that bother you. Exploration on your own may lead you to the honey hole of your dreams, ahead of, and away from the crowds.

Location

As the temperatures rise and the thaw starts to develop the walleye and sauger action starts to heat up. Fish location is a real key, with walleyes concentrating close to shore, during high current conditions near swirling back eddies and slack water refuges. In years of slow or moderate current flows the fish will relate to the deeper main where current plays a major role in holding fish. Heavy current will push them tight into current breaks, like in eddies behind points, and in front of and behind wing dams. When faced with light current, walleyes tend to be more spread out, and more areas will have to be checked.

Other spots are bridge holes, tips of a big sand bar, log jams, gravel or sand bars, shallow rocky shoals near drop offs, wave washed points, deserted sandy bottom beaches, or bottle necks between two different land masses. Rip-rap is also good, particularly where current hits the rocks, such as on a windy point with deep-water access, or near a culvert where fresh water is filtering through a rock causeway.

Feeder streams funneling into a river represent another spot that holds walleyes well in the spring. The mouth of these tributaries often turn into a fishing gold mine especially after a heavy rain washes fresh food and water into the river.

Depending on the force of the current and the water clarity, fish may be as shallow as a couple of feet deep, or in the bottom of a washout hole, or in a river channel 15 to 20 feet deep. If the current is stronger than normal, the fish probably are hunkered in a slack water area. Also heavy current will push them tight into current breaks, like in eddies behind points, and in front of and behind wing dams.

Wing dams always have a chance of producing fish, but there are a few keys to finding the most productive ones. You will need current. A wing dam in a secondary channel with no current will not hold fish. Wing dams that are filled in

"Boat control is the most critical part of a precise presentation needed to fool these current orientated walleyes."
with sentiment have a slim chance of holding fish but on the other hand a clean dam with the rocks and rip-rap exposed can hold plenty of fish, and are the type you'll want to explore.

When fishing a wing dam, concentrate on the up current side of each wing dam or the flats between them. Look for the boil line (disturbed water on the surface) that's signifies the presence of a wing dam and check out the scour line behind the wing dam to see if it is large enough to hold inactive fish. Wing dams hold fish all year long. Fish are unusually spooky along wing dams and noisy gas engines will spook them.

How you approach a wing dam will depend on how much current is flowing over it. Late winter and early spring before the thaw starts will find the river at it's lowest level. Under these conditions walleyes will range more, and can be found fifty or more feet behind a wing dam. The first place to look is behind a wind dam, but don't be afraid to work the flat immediately upstream of the structure. Walleyes will often stack up on the upstream side, which is generally overlooked.

Another fantastic spring area is the shallows of rivers. Spawning areas are particularly productive as both males and females relate to the gravel and stone substrate.

Presentation

Boat control is the most critical part of a precise presentation needed to fool these current orientated walleyes. It's desirable to match you're boat speed to the exact speed of the current by using a bursting technique to compensate for the wind and current.

The object is to keep the bait in front of the fish. Point the bow into the current and slip down at about the current speed. Keep the bait in the strike zone longer by sweeping the bait across the structure allowing the bait to fall at a slow rate to naturally present the bait to the fish. It is essential to slow down your drift with the electric motor as you go over the structure and watch your depth finder for breaks and barriers. You might have to run the big motor or your kicker in reverse to slow the presentation down even more if the current is increased. If the fish are shallow, you might want to anchor and use your bow-mounted motor to swing the bait and to change your position when fishing on the face of a wing dam.

Look for break lines and barriers for the best results.

Methods

Usually in the spring the fish metabolism is low and the bite is quite light. I recommend using the lightest tackle you feel comfortable with and then go lighter when using jigs.

Use as light a jig as possible. You only want as heavy of a jig as you need to get to the bottom. Start out with a 1/16 oz. And move you're way up. Current will play a major part in what weight jig you will use. Larger walleyes will inhale a jig and if they feel anything out of the ordinary will spit it back out. When fishing rivers you can expect to get snagged. Use a good quality jig. You will be able to pull out of alot of snags if the hook bends, not break. Scenic Tackle has the best jig on the market. Not only do they use a quality hook, but the finish won't chip like most of the jigs on the market.

Tip a jig with nightcrawlers, minnows, leeches, or whatever the fish seem to prefer that particular day.

Vertical jigging works best and minimizes snags. Lower the jig slowly, keeping the line taut. You may get a hit on the way down. Every 15 seconds or so, raise the jig up a foot or two and lower it to the bottom. The sight of the cloud of

"Use as light a jig as possible. You only want as heavy of a jig as you need to get to the bottom. "
sentiment that is kicked up when the jig hits the bottom can trigger a hit. Most of the time you will get a subtle hit, wait, when the fish hits again, nail it.

To cover a large area when trying to locate fish try drifting. Head up river and let the current guide you. Let out just enough line so that your jig makes contact with the bottom at an angle of no more than 45 degrees. You might feel that your bait is to close to the boat and the passing boat may spook the fish but this isn't the case, even in shallow water.

You will begin to expect the fairly monotonous cadence of your jig bouncing on the rocks and gravel. If anything interrupts that cadence, whether it is the feeling of being temporarily snagged, a sudden weightlessness or loss of contact with the bottom or even a sudden "dead" feeling set the hook. Once you get the hang of this method, it is a prime way of locating new schools of walleyes.

Walleyes glued to the bottom are often thought of as being inactive but it is not always so. Even if they are a little bit sluggish, chances are that at least a few of them can be coaxed into biting. The key is knowing they are there, and concentrating your efforts where the majority are found.

Using one of the many "Rigs" available produces well in high current conditions. When using a wolf river, lindy or a Big Dave Sully rig, a medium action rod will perform better than the lighter action rods. Eight-pound test line is about as light as you want to go.

To fish with a rig, anchor your boat and cast down stream. Tip the rig with a minnow or two or a nightcrawler and watch the rod tip for a twitch. If the action is light, tie on a floating jig. The buoyancy tends to keep the minnow moving back and forth in the current, making it easier for walleyes to spot. The length of the leader should start at about 24 inches and increase in length until you find what is producing.

Don't be afraid to experiment. If most anglers are live bait rigging with nightcrawlers try minnows or anything else you can get. Rubber tails can be effective. Try speeding it up, if everyone is moving slow, or slow it way down, if everyone is moving fast. Other options are colored hooks, rattle baits, trying different colors, using crank baits instead of spinners, and varying your retrieve to create a more erratic action. The idea is to give ole moon eyes a different look, and something he isn't use to or really likes.

Cold Fronts

Cold fronts have given walleye fisherman a long standing excuse for an empty live well. This a generally accepted excuse accepted without question by many. Cold fronts are a way of life, no more so than in the springtime.

River systems are not affected as much by a front as is lakes or large bodies of water.

When dealing with a cold front, timing is essential. Fishing can be unreal at times and a passing front can actually accelerate walleye activity.

When a high pressure system approaches walleyes start to feed heavily. A passing front can produce optimum conditions such as overcast skies, and a good walleye chop. Following this period, such as clear skies and higher pressure, seems to shut the fish down for a couple of days.

Another consideration is measuring the severity of the front and how drastic the temperature had changed. After a cold front has passed, many fish will head for deeper water where they will hole up until better conditions return. Typically many of those fish will be turned off but chances are a few can be caught. While there may be plenty of fish in the shallows there are always some deep. Deep fish are less affected than those in the shallows and may continue to feed in the same places and times as they did prior to the passing front.

All in all cold fronts do have their effect, but by making the right adjustments you can continue to catch fish under the worst conditions. It can actually be good.

Conclusion

Walleye fishing peaks when the food is least abundant. The food supply becomes the lowest in the spring when most of the previous year's baitfish have already been eaten and a new crop has yet to be produced.

Be careful when anchoring around wing dams. You might not get your anchor back. Take a lot of different jigs, both weight and color. Be flexible; don't stay with the same color or presentation too long. Keep trying new and different things until you find what the fish want. Take along warm and wet weather clothing. Be prepared for the unexpected. This is the most exciting time for action and variety. I can taste them already.

Author Steve Sams

Steve Sams
Steve Sams is an outdoor writer and licensed fishing guide who specializes in walleye, musky and deer hunting.