Cold Water Walleyes on the Big River

By Ted Peck - November 1, 2011

The Mississippi is getting sleepy, easing downstream in shades of gray which mirror skies overhead. By month's end backwaters will freeze hard enough to allow tentative steps by a vanguard of bucketeers whose number will soon be legion.

Last year November 24th marked the first trip out on the ice for me. It was good to see the spring bobber dance again, a welcome change from almost daily forays to the arms of mighty oaks waiting for a Booner and afternoons probing wintering holes for walleyes and saugers with clients and sometimes just for fun.

Walleye location doesn't change much from Thanksgiving until early March on Pool 9. If its still possible to launch the boat and navigate those still on the River will likely see my Lund easing through holes along the channel edge with 18-24 feet of water where these myopic Manitous will hunker down until runoff goads them into moving upstream in early March.

Tailwaters of lock & dam #8 at Genoa hold several wintering holes and lots of fish. If this winter is like the last one we'll be out there chasing fish with jigging spoons and Northland Puppet Minnows by mid-January in a bite which lasts as long as the ice is 'safe'---usually 3-6 weeks.

Last year it was time to break the long rods out again on March 12. By March 20 the word got out and the fleet arrived. Fortunately, the River had opened up to allow my Lund to slide downstream to chase walleyes and sometimes catfish away from the bumper boat parade.

Fish behavior is fairly predictable during the cold water period, especially from about November 15 until freeze up and for the first week after ice out before the River begins to rise in earnest.

The last 10 days of October and first 10 days of November is the most exciting walleye fishing of the year for me, because the fish are on the move. When this window opened the River was at low pool with quite a few fish holding on the wingdams.

There are 55 wingdams on pool 9. Eight of them produce walleyes consistently in the fall, with fish showing up on a regular basis on about eight more. A half dozen closing dams and similar structures also hold fish.

The caveat here is 'low fall pool'. During high water like we had during autumn 2010 many fish hung out in the quiet water of running sloughs instead of out on the main channel rocks.

Old Man River is in a different mood essentially every day. Consistent success is a matter of reading his mood and seeing where it is likely to send the fish. There is only one way to dance with this immortal spirit: time on the water.

When the walleye pros were roaring up and down the River during the MWC championship the middle of October I was quietly sliding a few walleyes into the livewell back in a couple of running sloughs and letting the bigger fish swim free.

This bite didn't become consistent until October 17. When it did I tried fishing out of other boats to keep from drawing a crowd. For the next 10 days it was pretty easy to put 20-40 walleyes and saugers in the boat on a half day trip.

Many of these fish were short or just legal 'eaters'. Bigger fish started showing up about October 22. Water temperatures continued to drop. By October 27 most active fish had pushed out of the running sloughs and into my favorite fall spots along the channel edges and near certain wingdams. They will be here pretty much until next spring.

Walleye success on the Mississippi isn't about where the fish were swimming last week. It isn't even about where they're swimming today, because once you find them you can usually catch them. My biggest thrill in a perpetual game of tag with Old Man River is figuring out where the big gals are gonna be and have a hook hanging in front of their faces when they show up.

There are few sensations sweeter on God's green earth than having a 25 inch walleye gernip your jig or garwoofle a blade bait when there are no other boats in sight.

Author Ted Peck
Ted Peck
Cap'n Ted Peck has over 30 yrs. guiding experience, specializing in multi-species fishing on Pool 9-10 of the Mississippi from Genoa, Wi. to Prairie du Chien. Cap'n Ted is a pro staffer for Lund, Northland Tackle, MinnKota, Bill Lewis Lures, Evinrude, Uncle Josh, HT Enterprises and Custom Jigs & Spins. When not guiding Cap'n Ted communicates the outdoors experience via newspapers, magazines, TV, radio and through seminars. This work has taken him all over the midwest, Canada and beyond... but he always returns to the upper Mississippi which he considers the most diverse fishery in North America. Click here for more info on Ted's guide service. Cap'n Ted's new book Mississippi Musings with the Old Guide is a personal account of his long career as a professional fishing guide on Old Man River.