Crankin’ For Slip-Sliding Walleyes

By Ted Peck - May 1, 2012
The old saying 'what goes up must come down' can be applied to walleyes after their spring spawning run in a river. Legions of 'eye chasers will be out there jigging and rigging for their myopic Manitou when the fish head upstream. Few-if any-remain on the water when consensus amongst the most revered local river rats is that the big parade is over.

Many head for other rivers where the walleye wedding march plays a week or two later. Others stow their rods and get back to work. Our exceptionally warm spring this year has thrown classic walleye thinking right out the window.

On the Mississippi where I'm a full time guide pulling cranks on three-way rigs is usually a May tactic. This year it was putting dozens of fish in the boat by mid-March. But pitching ringworms toward shallow shoreline pockets was working too.

Walleyes usually spawn on the Mississippi April 10-20. This year spawning will be spread out over several weeks-and over by the time it traditionally begins.

Every day is a brand new adventure in the spring of 2012. Consistently successful anglers have thrown out the calendar and "fish the fish" using water temperature, water clarity and current velocity to arrive at successful presentation strategies.

As a guide you may be able to tell the folks that walleyes spawn primarily over rocky rubble bottom at night when water temperatures warm to 45-48 degrees-provided the female's eggs have had time to develop.

You can also tell those paying to sit in your boat that the big female fish they wanted to dance with for possible inclusion on the trophy wall at home is sitting in a slack-bellied post-partum funk with no interest in feeding and come as close to telling the truth as a fisherman ever gets.

But clients don't want to hear about last week, see card tricks, smile at an eagle scooping up a little fish or marvel at your turkey calling prowess without benefits of a call. The days of easy money when clients didn't really need your expertise are over.

Those walleyes haven't left the river, Bucko. Now what are you going to do?

You might start with that reference to Wanda, the old sow which is now skulking near the bottom in an attempt to recover from losing fully one third of her body weight overnight.

Catch and release of female walleyes is growing in popularity. Trust me, the hardest fish you'll ever set free is that first marble-eye over 10 pounds. If you plan on keeping a few 'eyes for the pan walleye fishing is all about catching fish from legal size up to about 20 inches anyway. And these guys have been on a feeding rip since mid March, acting like teenage boys after dumping off their prom dates.

The key is presentation. Hooking up means putting something desirable in front of the fish you want to catch. You may be a veritable jigging machine, but after the spawn the only bug eyed fish which will see your jig hopping seductively over the rocky bottom are those big post-spawn females…and suckers with advanced brain tumors.

Male walleyes are sliding back downstream from whence they came in no particular hurry, coasting a little higher in the water column…which has warmed at least a dozen degrees beyond that 45-48 degree mark when focus of the entire adult walleye population was centered around carrying on the family name.

Like post-prom teenage boys craving a burger, shake and fries post-spawn walleyes want a presentation that's a little snappier than a jig or rig slow-crawled along the rocky rubble bottom. We're talking about a presentation which practically screams CRANKBAIT!

Knowing that active fish have relocated higher in the water column is only part of the equation. Getting them to bite means homing in on a lure profile close to the forage base found in the river this time of year.

Bear in mind walleyes aren't the only piscators with spawning urges pounding in their little fish brains. In many rivers runs of other species like white bass come virtually on the heels of the walleye run. There may be a dozen minnow species with more slender profiles which are also in various stages of making the pilgrimage upstream.

If you're on one of those rivers where white bass are the next species to be moving upstream a chrome/black or white Rat-L-Trap…or a white Echotail blade bait can keep your rod in a state of perpetual bendage.

There are very few young-of-year baitfish swimming in the river in April. Walleye food on the way back downstream is primarily mature baitfish, smaller sport fish like little white bass…and possibly insects.

Spring is in the air. All of God's creatures are on the move, including some bugs.

Streamer flies for post-spawn walleyes? Might just work if a major hatch is coming off. Especially towards evening.

Chances are the water you are fishing is somewhat discolored by spring runoff.

Post-spawn male walleyes may be sliding back downstream a little higher in the water column. But they're still passing thru unfamiliar territory. Start by probing the mid-depths under bright sky and the top two feet of the water column at dawn, dusk and in between.

If the fish are used to living in perpetually stained or dirty water the bite may be in the top two feet of the water column at mid-day. But if you're fishing a tributary of a major river where the local landscape is already cleared of snow those walleyes used to carrying out there evil deeds in the shadows may be wary until the sun goes down.

A number of lure profiles will work for these slip-sliding walleyes, with a common denominator found in making a steady retrieve rather than trying to animate the bait with little twitches of the rod tip.

About 40 years ago the folks at Rapala came out with their "Countdown" model which sank at the rate of about one foot per second. This lure is still one of my go-to baits for post-spawn walleyes in the 21st century, as it allows quick experimentation using primordial math skills to probe depths until active walleyes are found.

The most economical lure is a basic twister-tail K-grub on a 3/16-1/4 ounce Precision jighead. Cast, count down and retrieve. I prefer 3-4 inch K-grubs rigged with the fliptail curling down. In clear water firecracker, cotton candy, clear hologram…and purple seems to work the best. In off colored waters chartreuse, orange, yellow and white catch more fish.

Jighead color doesn't seem to be as critical as tail color choice. Unpainted jigheads work quite well. But if I had once choice for all water clarity conditions in the spring, orange would get the nod.

The traditional ball-head jig works just fine for this kind of fishing. But if you're looking for the hands-down best jighead for fishing plastics the Precision jighead sold by B-Fish-N Tackle Co. out of Coralville, Iowa is awful had to beat.

Even with a "designer" jighead the cost of this rig is about 75 cents… a dollar tops. But cost is not an issue to a walleye angler who has had nothing better to do for the past several months than peruse sporting goods catalogs and cruise baitshops.

Those $6 glass pattern ShadRaps and $15 Lucky Craft Pointer stickbaits which caught you in a weak moment will also catch walleyes…if you put the baits in front of the fish.

On Mississippi River pool 9 where I work as a full time guide Berkley Flicker Shads and #5 jointed Shad Raps fished in a three-way rig with a heavy jig and five inch K-Grub are killer combinations.

Location is always a major component in the fish catching equation. When you're targeting post-spawn walleyes in rivers think "ambush". Although the walleyes are drifting lazily back downstream higher in the water column after the spawn just walking down to the river bank and casting willy-nilly is never a high percentage option. Thinking like a walleye greatly enhances your chances for success. Although post-spawn males are eager to eat, they don't want to work too hard at chasing down food. Fanning at the leading edge of a quiet riffle, ghosting in the quiet slack water next to fast water in a backeddy below the riffle or similar locale for effortless contemplation behind a deadfall, rock or other form of barrier is where these fish tend to congregate on the slide back down from whence they came.

Better to make 100 casts at the epicenter of a "fish funnel" like the downstream edge of a bridge piling at the edge of the current than to expend the same amount of effort sitting on the picnic table next to the parking lot a short walk downstream.

Although a boat certainly gives you access to more potential fish staging areas than from limited ambush points found when fishing from shore this post-spawn walleye recession slide is one time when the shore or wading angler has tremendous potential leave the river with a hefty stringer of eaters.

Unlike the frenzied hours when fish were on a mission to get upstream, this bite can last a week or more.

You don't need an expansive tackle inventory in a $35,000 deep vee boat to get hooked up either. One medium spinning rod, pocket tackle box with a few cranks, K-grubs and jigheads, a pair of pliers, hip boots…and a stringer…and you can be a player.

Dragging a jig or rig along the bottom may have been the way to go walleye fishing when the run was on a week ago. The fish haven't left the river. If you want to go walleye "catching", sneak down to the river of dreams after work this evening and pitch a crank or plastic a little higher in the water column.

"Dressing for success" can be an excellent strategy. Wear a nice sport shirt, slacks and necktie. River rats will think you are just some idiot yuppie who doesn't know the run is over. Just remember to keep the stringer tied off a good 20 feet from where you're fishing…and don't set the hook when somebody is watching.

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.