Mississippi River Walleyes (or Best Spot by a Dam Site)

By Judy Nugent - November 1, 2006
Spring fishing on the Mississippi River centers on one thing - walleyes. Every year in April, the fish move upstream to spawn in the annual ritual. These fish are big and hungry, giving you your best chance at a trophy. Walleyes between 8 to 10 lbs are not uncommon with the occasional fish tipping the scales at 13 pounds. According to pro fisherman Ted Takasaki, "the Mississippi River is home to more walleyes and saugers now than ever." While many fishermen agree, there are still many among us who put back those large, trophy females to make sure the walleye population will be strong in the future. There are plenty of smaller fish to fill your stringer. This bite the real deal but you have to know where to go. You know the old adage - location, location, location. And the best location in April is a float.

What is a float?
Floats are permanent barges or floating docks positioned directly below a lock and dam. For a nominal fee they will shuttle you to the float where you can rent rods, eat at the restaurant, or fish. There is generally a float at every lock and dam. They are positioned right below the dam. While boat fishermen battle currents and menacing warning signs keeping them from the dam, float fishermen sit comfortably on some of the best water. Getting there is easy with good parking and shuttle boat to get you onto the float. Docks can hold upwards of 150 people at a time, but rarely is it that busy. It is a great place to fish if you have a family, have special needs, or just hate being confined to your boat. Of course the ultimate reason to fish the floats is their prime location. Suzanne Neisius of Hubbard's Float below the Lynxville dam says, "you have a better chance on a float than a boat because we have 40 foot holes, different rock structures, a back eddy that swoops under the dock and access to shallows." While this structure does help, what makes floats so successful has a lot to do with the walleyes themselves.

In April, instinct takes over and the walleyes succumb to the overpowering urge to reproduce. They travel upstream in search of suitable spawning structure. The dams slow this migration resulting in large schools of fish stacked up right below the dams. But don't feel too sorry for them. They can still make it upstream, the dams just slow them down. But there is another reason why the walleyes like the dams - FOOD. "The dam acts as a big aerator bringing more oxygen into the water and attracting bait fish," says Jim Lodemier of the Great Alma Float. Perfect conditions for walleye.

Structure
So you know the fish are below the dam, but where exactly do you start fishing? Their exact location will vary based on structure and time of day. Walleyes will be in different places depending on the type of bottom, the current, time of day, water clarity and depth. Generally speaking, in mid day the walleye are in deep, rocky holes from 12 -18ft. They are usually there when the sun is brightest. Try and find deeper pockets as fish will seek out depressions where they can duck out of the current for awhile. At dawn and dusk the fish will move into the 6 - 7 foot sandy areas or even as shallow as 1 or 2 feet. The lower light makes it more comfortable for them to move into the shallow areas in search of food. Once you have taken into account depth and time of day, you'll have to adjust for current.

A good place to take the first cast is in a seam. This is where the fast water meets the slow water. Walleyes will sit there looking for crippled bait fish coming over the dam. With water temperatures hovering around 35 - 38 degrees, the walleyes are looking for easy meals if they can find them. Use precise casting to hit that middle water. Extremely fast current and extremely slow water will not hold walleyes. You have to cast into that seam and bounce your bait downstream.

Another spot to try takes a page out of the boat fisherman's manual. Cast into the slower water behind any obstruction. Walleyes are used to spending a lot of time in the current. But they still prefer to take a rest now and then. They will look for a current break to hide behind to get a quick rest before they head upstream again. This could be part of the float, a fallen tree, or a cement fixture of the dam. These structures will be unique to each float and will likely change through the course of the season.

Technique
But there is more to float fishing than structure and time of day. To up your odds at taking home a monster, you need to get accustomed to the best fishing techniques to use. Jim Lodemier says, "Guys come to the float with different techniques, but if they stay long enough they all start doing the same thing. "

The old tried and true method is vertical jigging. Lodemier says, "the key is getting that jig to the bottom. There is a variety of currents you have to deal with depending on how the gates are set and you have to have enough weight to get to the bottom." Some people treat river walleyes like lake walleyes and use small jigs tipped with small minnows. These jigs will never get deep enough to be effective. I can tell you all about size and color, but none of that will matter is you don't get it to the bottom. Use a 6 foot 6 inch medium rod with 8 lb line. Feel for the jig. If you can't feel it hitting the bottom, try a heavier jig.

Start with a 5/8 - ¾ oz hair jig in a natural color. Known as Killer Jigs the most popular patterns are flat headed jigs with a treble hook stinger. Popular choices are blue, black and green and they are traditionally not fished with live bait. At this size you should be able to feel the bottom. Vertical jigging is preferable to casting because the floats are positioned right over those seams in the current. At the same time you can better control the action of the jig and tempt these walleyes into striking. Also, this technique will help you keep that favorite jig. Rocky bottoms are notorious for eating jigs.

Now that you have the right jig, you need to perfect the presentation. Tim Shurson, a frequent fisherman on the float, says, "Be prepared for snags and if you aren't getting snags, then you aren't deep enough. When you fish vertically, rip the jig up with a full sweep of your arm. Then let it settle back to the bottom. If this isn't working, you can cast up towards the dam. Let it sink to the bottom and then alternate flicking the jig with retrieving a few cranks on the reel. To do this correctly, snap the rod tip up. Then let the jig sink back to the bottom. When you snap the rod tip, the jig should rise a good three to four feet off the bottom. When the walleye hits, you'll know it."

There are other artificial bait choices that are also effective, but aren't usually tried by fishermen until the jigs prove ineffective. First is the sonar. This is a blade bait with a pulsing action to get their attention. This action can help bring the walleyes to you instead of the other way around. "They buzz pretty aggressively,' says Shurson, "when you snap your rod. It really gets their attention." The other choice is a Dave's Kaboom shiner. Meant to imitate a minnow, these can be deadly when the walleyes are keying in on those bait fish attracted to the dams. Len Warland, a river fisherman from Eastman Wisconsin, says, " use a Kaboom in silver, chartreuse, metallic yellow with a black stripe, or Fire Tiger colors." These only come in one size and can be used with a dropper line with a 1 oz sinker and a 4 to 6 ft. leader. Another choice is a ½ oz jig tipped with a plastic twister or a ringworm tail. Warland says, "The trick to this style of fishing is to keep contact with the bottom, and keep your line at about a 45 degree angle to the water." The owners of Hubbard's Fishing Float make another choice, a jig called the "One Eye." This is hand painted and has hooks coming out of both ends. Tipped with a plastic worm, it can be deadly.

River Rig
While artificial lures are effective, some fishermen still prefer live bait. Many use a river rig made with a 3 way swivel. To make a river rig, start with your main line. Tim Shurson uses FireLine from the reel to the swivel, but your regular mono can work as well. Most fishermen use 8 lb for its combination of strength and sensitivity. Tie the main line to one part of the swivel.

From the swivel you make a dropper line. At the end of the line you'll put a sinker that will bounce off the bottom. The length of the dropper line depends on where you want the bait to be. If fish are a foot off of the bottom, you'll set your dropper line at a foot. Start with a 1 oz sinker. You can adjust the weight depending on the strength of the current.

On the third swivel is an 18 inch leader connected to your hook. Try a 30 inch snelled hook, size 6 and tip it with a minnow. When the water warms up later in the season, leeches can also be effective. The float owners will be able to tell you exactly what bait the walleyes are keying in on at that particular moment and will often have it for sale. Some fishermen also put a blade, like the blades on the sonars, near the hook. Again, the pulsing action helps to get your offering noticed.

The idea is to coax that walleye into striking by placing food right in front of its nose. The river rig allows for precise and constant presentation. Sooner or later that walleye won't be able to resist.

Conclusion
So what do you need to bring? The basics include a valid fishing license and some cash. Most floats charge around $14 to take the shuttle and you can fish from 6 am to 6 pm. For an additional fee you can stay overnight and take advantage of night fishing. In addition, some floats offer lodging or a warming room to keep off the night chill, but it is a good idea to dress for the weather. Float owners usually sell live bait, basic tackle, and burgers, fries, and a full breakfast menu. Each has their own specialty. If you go to Alma, try their breakfast concoction knows as "The Mess." This dish is made of eggs, hash browns, cheese, meat, onions, and peppers - and if you want, they top it with sauerkraut. If you think that sounds good now, try it at 2:30am when you're catching trophy walleyes in a snow storm.

If you are looking for the walleye of a life time, go to the Mississippi River in April. With the right location and the right approach, you might just catch one worthy of mounting - and you'll never miss your boat again.

Side Bar

  • The Great Alma Float - owned and operated by Jim and Tim Lodemier by lock and dam #4. This float offers food, limited lodging, handicapped accessibility, and fish cleaning services. Seven day passes are available as well as reduced rates for children. The day rate is $14. Contact at 608-685-fish (3474) or www.almafishingfloat.com.
  • Fountain City Bar and Float - This float is located under lock and dam #5A four miles south of Fountain City. The day fee is $6 and the float is handicapped accessible. It is 25 miles north of LaCrosse, just east of Winona, MN. Contact at 608-687-8286.
  • Tremplo Fishing Float - This float is located under lock and dam #6 near the town of Trempealeau and offers leisure fishing.
  • Clement's Fishing Barge - This is a fishing float located near the town of Genoa by lock and dam #8. They are open 7am to 6 pm. Fishing fees are $14 a day, but only $5 for kids. Genoa is 17 miles south of LaCrosse. Contact at 800-903-4903 or www.clementsfishing.com.
  • Hubbard's Fishing Dock and Cafe - owned and operated by Bill Hubbard Jr. It is located below lock and dam #9 commonly referred to as the Lynxville dam. This is 10 miles north of Prairie du Chien across from the Falling Rock bar. Fees are $13 for day fishing 7am - 5pm and $18 for night fishing 7pm - 5am. This float is also handicapped accessible. Contact at 608-732-1084 or www.hubbardsfishingfloat.com.

Author Judy Nugent
Judy Nugent
Judy Nugent has been writing for several years. Her work can be found in Wisconsin Outdoor News, Wisconsin Outdoor Journal, Wisconsin Sportsman, Midwest Outdoors, Fly Fisherman Magazine and Snowshoe Magazine among others. She is also on the TV show OUTDOOR WISCONSIN. Judy has experience in radio with the show Great American Outdoor Trails where she does a weekly segment called Women on the Trail.