Spring Walleye Fishing | Early Season Checklist

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By Jason Mitchell | SCHEELS Professional Angler

For many walleye anglers across the upper Midwest, some of the first open water walleye fishing opportunities occur each year on river systems like the Wolf River, Missouri River, Mississippi River and Rainy River to name a few.  While each system can have specific nuances that make that system somewhat unique, river walleyes also follow some of the same general rules regardless of where they swim.  How fish relate to current and set up on current seams seems universal. This month, we offer some insights and guidelines for narrowing down the hunt for river walleyes this season.

1. The Trump Card

Look for the right color water.  Incoming tributaries and culverts are prime locations for finding spring walleyes on river systems.  This incoming current is often warmer and there are often washout holes, channels and current seams where fish can rest.  Water color however is the trump card.  High water can cause turbidity in the water and contain a lot of debris.  Some incoming tributaries have more turbidity than others after a rapid snow melt or rain.  In some cases, you might have to move upstream from the incoming tributary because the water is too dirty.  Use your prop to gauge water clarity.  If you can see your prop, the fish won’t have any problem finding your presentation.  If you can only see a few inches into the water, spend a good part of your day looking for cleaner water.  Pockets of cleaner water will produce better fishing when rivers get muddy.

2. Fake It Until You Make It

Soft Plastics and hair usually out fish bait, but it is hard to deny the effectiveness of a jig and minnow.  We all know a jig and minnow catches a lot of spring walleyes, but we can argue that soft plastics and hair can catch even more fish.  Here’s why… as your jig sweeps by fish in the current, these fish don’t have as much time to react to or scrutinize your presentation.  The added durability is part of what makes both classic bucktail hair jigs and soft plastics so effective.  When you miss a fish with a jig and minnow and the fish steals the minnow, you’re done.  You must rehook the bait and there is dead time where you are not effectively presenting your presentation.  Soft plastics and bucktail hair jigs or marabou jigs keep you in the water longer.  For moderate current, Kalin’s Sizmic Grubs work well while a slimmer and more streamlined profile like the Kalin’s Jerk Minnow JR work better in stronger current.

3. The Bait Debate

There are times where you better have water in the baitwell and when minnows are needed – it typically coincides with slower current, causing tougher bite conditions. Consistently we find most fish close to the current seam where aggressive fish are in faster water. There are times where fish will move away from the current entirely. Typically they set up in backwater areas during high water or warmer dead water pockets behind sandbars and other current obstructions. This is a situation where we often see a classic jig and minnow shine. No current on a tough bite can sometimes be a minnow bite.

4. Angle of the Dangle

When slipping the current, the old rule of thumb was to keep the boat the same speed as the jig getting swept down river. You wanted to keep your line vertical.  This is a vital page from the playbook and we have seen where you wouldn’t get bit if your line wasn’t vertical to the jig. There are other plays you need to have in your bag of tricks because it is fascinating how river fish respond to different presentations.  Dragging jigs upstream or downstream can be deadly, and what is amazing is that dragging can often put a lot of fish in the boat when traditional slipping presentations that keep the jig right below the boat don’t work.  These dragging tactics shine in less than ten feet of water and there is moderate to slow current – this is where you can find a lot of walleyes each spring.  For dragging down stream, lighten up the jig and give your jig a good cast upstream.  Let the current carry you downstream with the jig dragging upstream behind the boat.  If you can’t keep the jig upstream, you don’t have enough weight.  The other method is slowly dragging the jig upstream.  Again, simply cast behind the boat and use your trolling motor to crawl upstream.  You want the jig to tick bottom occasionally, but not consistently.  These horizontal jig presentations can shine on river systems.

5. Cast More This Season

We all know how good river holes and deep channels can be, but here is the with river walleyes.  These deep holes are often where fish winter.  As the water warms up, raising the metabolism of fish so they start swimming against current and moving through the system, these fish will often use much shallower current seams and breaks.  Some of the biggest fish each spring are routinely caught out of shallow water along rip rap, clam beds and sand bars where there is less than ten feet of water.  In fact, we catch many big walleyes on rivers each spring in less than three feet of water.  You will not only catch these shallow fish by pitching or casting jigs, you can fish through so much more water with each cast.

Checklist of tips to help you catch more walleyes this spring on river systems. In current, soft plastics like the Kalin’s Jerk Minnow JR can make anglers much more efficient.