River Fishing For Walleye

River Fishing

By: Kyle Sorensen

It seems as though the hard water season has come and gone in my world.  The temps have risen, and the ice will soon be gone like the closing of a book.  This time is certainly bittersweet for me, as I love my ice fishing, I really do.  The only thing that helps to dull the pain is the excitement that ice-out brings… the springtime run on the Lake Winnebago System! 

When the ice drops and we are able to safely navigate the waters of the Upper Wolf, its game on!  These fish ride the contours and bends of the Wolf River and we must be able to hold in the patterns they travel.  The trick is finding these patterns, which can constantly change.  It was really interesting to witness the movements of the fish during last year’s run.  For whatever reason, the fish were active in certain bends and depths, while for other spots, the fishing action seemed nonexistent.  You might ask yourself as I do, “If these fish are active ten feet away from me (or wherever), why aren’t they active under me?”  Well, it’s a good question and there could be many answers.  As always, I would love to be able to tell someone, go to this spot, do this, and you will catch fish.  We know that’s certainly not always possible due to numerous factors, but I want to shed some light on the “Art of Draggin’”. 

Dragging jigs on our rivers during the run is a deadly tactic.  We have talked vertical jigging, pulling flies, the thumper floater; the list goes on.  While those tactics all have very important spots in my boat during the run, one must find out what is working for that day (or hour).  The short answer – be ready for it all! On a side note, I highly recommend going back into Badger Sportsman’s online archive to read about the other tactics we have previously talked about, as they are very important, just as much as draggin’ jigs. 

Let’s start with the basics – the equipment.  For dragging, I like rods that are 7’ long, which have a stiffer medium action.  While it’s easy to say a “medium” rod, if you feel three different rods that are listed under the medium category, chances are you will feel a difference in each.  I like a rod with a sensitive tip, but a stiffer blank that can handle some of the larger fish that present themselves.  A key to the 7’ length is the fact that the spring of the rod allows me to easily flip eating sized fish into the boat.  I run a rod in each of my hands, so the extra length also helps me get a little extra reach when I’m setting the hook and laying the other rod down at the same time.  As with everything, personal preference is what prevails, as the next person might recommend a 6’ rod with a different action.  If you’re new to this, you quickly find out what works best for you. 

The reels and their line go hand in hand.  For arguments sake, the reel you are using must have a very sensitive drag system.  Being able to fine tune your drag system is a huge advantage, especially on some of the more violent strikes that can happen from time to time.  In my case, it also protects from fish-loss due to my sometimes overly aggressive hooksets… haha! 

I am a strong believer in fluorocarbon because fluorocarbon is practically invisible in the water and it has great abrasion-resistant characteristics. With that said, all of my rods are either strung with full fluorocarbon or they at least have a 3’ fluorocarbon leader.  I really like braid for jigging, as it is so sensitive, allowing me to feel the sometimes very light mouthing bites.  The downside is that braid has very little stretch and going back to the drag system on your reel, you must have it set perfectly so you aren’t pulling it out of the fish’s mouth on hooksets.  If you like braid, I recommend an 8 lb. variety, complimented with a 6 lb. fluorocarbon leader.  I connect the two with a very small barrel swivel, as it makes reties a whole lot easier – chances are you will certainly be donating a lot of jigs to river structure!  If you run straight fluorocarbon, a 6 lb. class is great.  A huge thing to remember, seeing we are going to be fishing the bottom of the river, is the fact that our line will be running into sharp edges, especially when crossing paths with the infamous zebra mussel.  It is critical that you are constantly checking your line for even the smallest of nicks.  If one is found, retie immediately.  

Jigs come in a variety of sizes.  While color can sometimes make a difference, in my opinion, it’s at the bottom of the totem pole in terms of importance.  I feel the most important aspect is the weight.  I wish I could say all you need is a 1/16 oz. jig and you’re set, but that is certainly not the case.  The current in the river is constantly changing and because of that, so should the weight of our jigs.  We have to keep a nice angle from the boat to the bottom so we are able to feel the jig just grazing across it.  The trick is also not having too heavy of a jig causing it to sink into the bottom or cause your line to become vertical.  We want those jigs to just dance/shimmer across the bottom.  So, make sure to have a variety of sizes to accomplish this, usually ranging from 1/16 to 1/4oz.  I like normal lead-heads, but some adamantly prefer hair jigs, which are basically lead-heads with some hair tied on the shank.  Depending on the bite, it’s not a bad idea to have stinger hooks on hand.  Sometimes the fish will barely mouth the bait and are gone before you know it.  The stinger can drastically add to your hook-up percentages! 

Bait is a huge topic, but I will sum it up.  It is important to have minnows, leeches and crawlers in the boat with you.  One day last year, all I could catch on crawlers were goats and small eyes.  I switched to leeches and Bam!  Quality fish started showing up.  The easiest way to find out what they want on a particular day is to have your partners trying the opposites of you.  The fish will show you what they want, and you can then make the switch. 

So now we’re rigged and its time to hit the water.  Boat control and positioning are extremely important aspects to pay attention to if you want to be successful while draggin’ jigs.  The basic concept is simple, motor upriver and drift back, allowing your jigs to drag across bottom.  A basic run for me is to either pick the left or right side of the river, usually off of a break to start, but that can change very quickly.  I will run up past the area I want to target and drop the Minn Kota, utilizing it to keep the boat perpendicular to the drift of the specific area I am shooting for.  If I am fishing by myself, I will run a parallel drift, using the Kota to not only control my drift, but also to slow it down which allows me more time in holes or structures I come across.  If the first pass area doesn’t pan out, I will make another next to the first one, and so on, as to eliminate the water in that certain bend of the river.  If nothing is panning out, it’s time to make a run to a new section of the river. 

An important area to speak on is the presentation of the jig.  While yes, we are mainly just dragging the jig across bottom, I do like to lift the rods up from time to time to not only check for debris, but to throw in a little more action.  If a fish is following it and can’t snatch it off bottom, sometimes this helps to give it a better angle to get it in its beak. 

As a good rule (even though its certainly not 100%) walleye can certainly turn off when the current is slow and/or practically nonexistent.  If you are chasing the river runners and the bite isn’t there, chances are, neither is the current.  Don’t give up as the current can change at any given time.  Have a bunch of jigs with you, pay close attention to your electronics, and have a ball.  If you want to see some draggin’ action from last year’s run, check out the video on the OB Outdoors YouTube Channel (youtube.com/oboutdoor).  

I hope you all have an awesome start to the open water season, no matter where you find yourself!  If you are hunting down walleye during the run this year, I’m sure you are going to have some fun times just as years past.  Until next time, “Tight Lines. Stay Dry. 

Chase