Outdoors: Now’s time to hit walleyes on the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers
GARY ENGBERG For the State Journal
MAZOMANIE – For area anglers who enjoy jigging the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers for walleyes, it’s time to break out the fishing gear.
As of Thursday, smaller male walleyes and a few large pre-spawn females were being caught locally. Male walleyes always show up below the state’s dams first before the larger and egg-laden females arrive for spawning. The males are currently easier to catch and fairly aggressive considering they’re just emerging from winter’s doldrums.
Spring fishing for river walleyes is a Wisconsin tradition that has been cherished for decades. As soon as water temperatures nudge toward 40 degrees, anglers begin to flock to the rivers of southern and central Wisconsin hoping to catch a few keepers or a 10-pound trophy.
Wisconsin is blessed with an abundance of medium-size rivers that hold walleye and their close cousin, the sauger, who have migrated up the rivers in late fall and winter. Anglers try to find the staging areas where the fish congregate and intercept them before and after they spawn.
Walleye migration is completed in March and April when they come to impassable structures, which on Wisconsin’s rivers means one thing: dams. Many fish will stay within a mile of the dams, but others filter back downriver to suitable spawning sites. The female walleye then searches for the proper structure and bottom content – hard and covered with pea-sized rock and gravel – for laying her eggs. In some rivers, like the Wolf, walleyes spawn in marshes. A slight current flowing over the eggs is needed to oxygenate the eggs.
But all walleyes do not spawn at or near the dams. For example, the Prairie du Sac Dam on the Wisconsin River at Sauk Prairie is a very popular location for spring anglers. There can be as many as 100 boats directly below the dam in the tailrace area fishing for walleyes on a spring day.
A vast majority of the boats will be within 100 yards of the dam. Fish are regularly caught here, but a majority will be smaller males. There are almost 90 miles of river from the Prairie du Sac Dam to its confluence with the Mississippi River at Prairie du Chien. The point is this – there are countless places below the dam and many miles downriver where female walleye will stage and eventually spawn when they find suitable water and structure. Some of these locations never get any fishing pressure.
Access can be a problem in some locations, but it’s possible to fish many miles below the dams and find quality walleyes and saugers.
A few tips River fish constantly have to fight the river’s current. Considerable energy is used up fighting the current, so river walleyes will use any type of structure to break this current. This is how river walleyes conserve their energy.
The current-blocking structures can change from river to river, but things to look for include wing dams; wood; fallen trees; boulders; rock piles; islands; bridges; river bends; humps; and depressions in the river’s bottom. The structures break the river’s flow and allow the walleyes to wait and ambush any food that passes or floats past. Try heading downriver while looking for these holding and staging areas instead of motoring to the dam.
The best tackle for spring walleyes is the basic jig and minnow or jig and plastic combo. Try using 8-pound monofilament such as Berkley Trilene XT in green to match the color of the stained water that you’ll encounter. Monofilament is forgiving and a little line stretch is needed for the many snags you will find in most rivers.
Have an assortment of jigs in different sizes, colors and shapes to experiment with and see what the walleyes prefer. Colors can change regularly, so keep trying different hues until you find what the fish want. Plastics (try Berkley Gulp or the Walleye Assassin) can be deadly during the spring, alone or dressed with a medium or large fathead minnow. If the fish are biting lightly, you may want to add a stinger hook to your jig.
Wading this time of year can be very effective as can slipping the current in a boat while vertical jigging. Try to fish the low light periods when fish move shallow to feed. Big female walleyes will often move shallow to feed after dark or in the middle of the night depending on the moon phase. Fan casting an area with a shallow running crankbait (Mann’s Jerkbait or Rapala Husky Jerk) in natural colors (black/white, perch, or blue/white) is also worth trying. Use a stop-n-go retrieve while twitching the bait now and then. Whatever presentation you use, be sure to use a very slow retrieve because the fish are not going to chase your bait when the water is cold.
If fishing from a boat, slip the current or slowly drift downriver while vertical jigging. Keep your line as vertical as possible so that you can feel the light tap or tick of a walleye and the river’s bottom. The walleyes are always close to the bottom, so tap it gently as you move downriver.
Besides the Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers, the Wolf, Fox, Rock, Crayfish, Baraboo and Pecatonica rivers are also good for catching walleyes during this spring spawning period.