River fishing for walleyes has been a tradition in Wisconsin and much of the Midwest for decades. Most rivers, like the Wisconsin River, stay open year-round because of the flowing water and current. When the water temperature reaches the 40 degree mark, anglers begin flocking to the numerous rivers in southern and central Wisconsin hoping for a large pre-spawn female or some legal fish for the frying pan. The conversation in river towns like Sauk City, Wisconsin Dells, Castle Rock, Genoa, Lacrosse, Winneconne, and Dubuque centers around walleyes and if they are active and biting yet.
This past weekend, there was a good fishing clinic at the Wilderness Fish and Game store in Sauk City. The speakers were great with all the chairs filled and there was a “buzz’ among attendees talking about when the walleyes are going to start biting. Customers were loading up on jigs and other equipment for spring river fishing. The extended forecast looked good for warming the river, but the weatherman decided to throw a curve ball to the waiting anglers. We’re going to get a snow storm Monday night and Tuesday with measurable precipitation. This will delay fishing for a short time because later in the week it looks like the temperature is going to be in the 40’s and that will start to melt the snow that has been piling up in recent weeks. There is a good side to this delay and that is we need more water after the drought and low water of last season. Snow and rain will greatly help the Wisconsin River and all the rivers throughout the Midwest. The first walleye tournament of the year is only two weeks away with the Master Walleye Circuit opener at Spring Valley, Illinois.
Wisconsin is lucky enough to have its share of medium size rivers that hold numerous walleyes and its cousin, the sauger. Both species have migrated up the rivers starting last fall and continuing throughout the winter before they spawn in the spring. Anglers try to find the holding and staging locations where the fish hold and try to catch them before and after they spawn. The walleye’s journey upriver is completed in March and April when the fish come to an impassable structure, which in the Midwest is a dam. Then, the female walleyes and saugers search for the proper structure and bottom composition for laying their eggs. Water temperature should be in the low to mid 40’s with a bottom composition of pea size rock and gravel. A little current is also necessary to flow over the eggs and help oxygenate them. The smaller males have been in the spawning areas for a week or two waiting for the females to arrive and find a suitable spawning location. The smaller males are very aggressive and bite regularly while they actively search for the females and their eggs to fertilize.
Remember that all river walleyes do not spawn at or near the dams. I happen to reside about 5 miles below the Prairie du Sac Dam in Sauk Prairie, Wisconsin which is a very popular spot for spring walleye fishing. Depending on the weather, there can be over 100 boats fishing directly below the dam in the tailrace area. A majority of the boats are directly below the dam and within a hundred yards of the structure. Walleyes and saugers are caught regularly, but a majority of the fish will be the small male walleyes and inches below the 18 inch walleye minimum. Saugers are legal at 15 inches. There are 90 miles of river from the Prairie Dam to the Wisconsin River’s confluence with the Mississippi River. My point is that there are many places miles below the dam where female walleyes will stage and spawn when they find the “right” location. Some of these “spots” never get any fishing pressure or see a boat! Access can be a problem in some areas of the Wisconsin River, but a savvy angler will search out these locations and have the walleyes to themselves. There are always some nice walleyes caught near the dam, but there can be larger and less pressured fish many miles below the fleet of boats at the dams.
Some anglers have difficulty catching fish in a river’s current and spring river fishing is different than lake fishing. Try to remember a few things and your river success will greatly increase. River walleyes are constantly fighting the current of the river, so the fish are always looking for some structure to break the current and allow them to burn up less energy. Walleyes like to dart out, feed quickly, and return to their holding spot while conserving their strength for spawning. These “spots” are located on all rivers, so anglers should head downriver looking for holding locations instead of motoring to the dam. It will take some experimentation, but if you take your time you should be able to find these pre and post spawn fish. Once you’ve learned to “read” a river, finding fish becomes much easier. When you find these prime locations, you’ll never fish in a pack of boats again! Finding walleyes is the hard part. Catching river walleyes is much easier than locating them!
The equipment and gear is relatively simple. First, you need a good, sensitive rod to feel that light tap of a finicky spring walleye. A quality graphite rod between 5’6” and 6 feet is needed (G. Loomis SJR720), an open faced spinning reel is used (Daiwa’s SS 700), and spool the reel with 8 pound monofilament in green (Berkley Trilene XL) to match the river’s stained color. Always use fresh line in river’s because you will get snagged and regularly check your line for nicks. I used to use 6 pound test mono, but I switched to 8 pound and it allows you to pull out of snags much easier. Retie often because river fishing gives you line nicks and you don’t want to lose a big walleye because of the line! I retie after every fish I catch. Always have a good supply of jigs in many sizes and colors because you will lose a few in gnarly rivers. Jig shape varies with a flatter jig allowing you to “cut’ the water with a lighter jig. A lighter jig gives you better feel. River walleyes are usually close to the bottom in the spring. Colors can change regularly, so have an assortment of colors. You always want to be able to feel the bottom whether jigging, casting, or dragging your jig. I’ve found the Bait Rigs Slo-Poke to work well with its slow fall and unique design allowing you to work thru rocks and wood without getting hung up.
Sometimes, walleyes want something much simpler. I’ve found that a plain hook of good quality, a split shot, and a colored bead above the hook works wonders as a “dead” rod or one that you cast and retrieve very slowly. The distance between the hook and split shot varies with the structure and bottom content that you’re fishing. I start with about a foot between the two and if the bottom is clean, the walleyes are finicky, or biting lightly I go longer. Also, change the bead color when things are slow. My bait of choice is a lively fathead minnow. I buy two sizes of minnows, a medium and large size because you never know what the fish want the day that you’re fishing. Let the walleyes tell you what they want. Plastics work very well these days too. I know guides you never use live bait anymore. They use products like Gulp, a biodegradable non-plastic soft bait that comes in many colors and designs. Make sure to have a good assortment of plastics in different colors with you. Ringworms and twister tails are a must too on rivers and have a good assortment of them.
Boat control is another key when fishing rivers in the spring. Anchoring above and below structure works and have two anchors for better boat control. Slowly drifting downriver is another tactic that can work some days. The last method is to “slip” the current where you point the boat’s bow upriver and use your trolling motor against the current to slowly move downriver while you vertically jig. You must find the speed that allows to move slowly and still keep your line vertical.
You now have the how and where to catch spring walleyes, so get out and try these proven tactics and techniques. I’ve used the same tactics for decades and much has not changed except the quality of the equipment. Spring walleyes are not going to chase your offering, so you must use a slow, slow presentation no matter what technique you choose to use. This is also a good time to wade, but I don’t have the space in this article to explain it. Dress warm and head to the nearest river. Low light times are also the best because walleyes will often move shallow to feed.
Guides; Gary Engberg, (608)-795-4208, Wally Banfi, (608)-644-9823.