Who doesn’t love a good magic show? The music, the lights, and the awe of wondering how the magician made the trick happen. A great magician knows how to plan for a spectacular show. A good river angler knows where to be and what to use to get a bite. Both are masters of creating illusions.
Before you can create the illusion of an easy meal for a walleye, you need to locate the fish. On a river system early in the spring, walleyes will concentrate up to a mile below natural barriers, such as rapids or dams, between the pre-spawn and spawn period. Exactly where the fish are located will depend on the amount of current present. Very early in the season, before the snow begins to melt, the current is slower and the water is clearer. This causes the walleye to be near the primary break where the bottom drops into the main channel.
Spots where you find an irregularity close to the channel edge, such as a jetty, a rock pile, wing dam or point will most likely be holding walleyes. These pieces of structure provide visible current breaks and create back-eddies that are perfect holding areas for both walleyes and baitfish.
The first nice weekend of the year typically means that there will be a lot of boat traffic on the river, which can cause a traffic jam at the dam and the fish may move. To stay on the fish, you will have to make a change in location, most likely to the middle of the channel. While the current is stronger here, the fish will be gathering near structure on bottom where there are “unseen” current breaks, such as dunes in the sand, boulders, and wood on the bottom.
To navigate the river with our lines in the water, we use a MotorGuide Xi5 bowmount trolling motor. If we get a bite, or see a fish on the sonar we will put the motor in “Anchor Mode.” This will hold us in that spot until we are ready to move downstream again. If we are fishing a visible break, vertical jigging with minnows, ring worms and Gulp! Minnows or Twitchtail Minnows can be very productive. For most early-season vertical jigging scenarios, subtle action jig tails work well. The Berkley Power Jig Worm is a favorite! This 3-inch worm has a paddle on the back and is very limber. This allows the bait to have a lot of action without a lot of effort on your part. Natural colors that resemble a real nightcrawler work well.
When using Berkley PowerBait Minnows, the 2 or 3-inch size mimic real minnows quite well, especially when doubled up by threading a 3-inch minnow on the jig up to the jig head. Follow it with a 2-inch version hooked through the nose. This rig increases the profile of the bait and gives it extra action. Don’t rule out putting on a 4 or 5-inch bait to entice a bite either!
Begin working these baits with a sharp “pop” off the bottom, followed by holding it for a couple seconds. Then slowly lower the bait back down and pop it again. Since the walleyes are relating to bottom, you don’t want to pop the bait more than six inches. Be careful to not let the bait sit on bottom for too long or it will drag in the current and become snagged.
For aggressive fish, a 3-inch Berkley PowerBait Twitchtail is dynamite! This durable and flexible bait comes in a few different colors. In clear water we use Black Shad, while in tannic water Golden Shiner is a good choice. If we need a bait with more scent, especially in murky water, we go a 3-inch Berkley Gulp! Minnow. When fished slowly, this bait will slowly disperse scent like a blood trial, expanding the strike zone.
Using blade baits, like the Johnson Thin Fisher, with a bit of a twist on the technique is another great option. For years these baits have been vertically jigged, but if you cast it out and work it back to the boat in the same manner you would a jig, you can trigger some pigs to bite!
Getting bites off of the unseen current breaks calls for a few different techniques. For those areas with wood on the bottom, a drift over the top with weedless jigs baited with crawlers or ringworms will often do the trick!
The best way to fish the dunes is to use lead core line while trolling over them with a Berkley Flicker Shad or Flicker Minnow. When it comes to rod selection for pulling lead core, the new 9 1/2 foot Bass Pro Shops Walleye Angler Rod is a must have! Not only is this rod made of high-tech materials, but it also collapses down to easily fit in a rod locker.
While trolling, we keep the boat on course with a FOB that is worn around the neck that controls the PowrTran Python Kicker Steering System from anywhere in the boat! Instead of using two throttles to keep the boat to control the trolling speed, this system works in conjunction with the iTroll, which can fine-tune speeds to a 1/10th of a mile!
Don’t rule out fishing backwater areas either, such as the back channels on the Mississippi River. If you head to the back channels, rigging creek chubs and red tails or casting jigs and Twitchtails is the way to go! We like to use Berkley FireLine Ultra 8 Carrier Braided line with a Berkley 100% Flurocarbon leader when doing this, as it is made for casting into structure!
As you can, there are plenty of tricks that you can use to get you Next Bite when you are fishing a river system, and it will be much easier than pulling a rabbit out of a hat!