High water in rivers in the Midwestern region of the United States last fall may be a good sign of things to come for walleye and sauger fishermen this coming spring.
Experience has taught us that faster-than-usual current in autumn often triggers huge numbers of the fish to swim upriver in preparation to spawn. Larger than normal schools may be in place on or near traditional spawning sites by the time winter leaves and water temperatures rise to the 40's.
That doesn't mean swift water in fall means spring fishing will be like shooting fish in a barrel. No two days on rivers are alike. Slight changes in water depth and current speed cause fish to move to new locations. Here today, gone tomorrow can be frustrating. Cold fronts arrive routinely and even if you're on fish, the weather can turn walleyes and sauger off in a heartbeat. Water clarity can go downhill fast in an early-spring rainstorm.
Still, rivers can and must be mastered. The Mississippi River, the Missouri River system, the Illinois River and others play host to both species, which thrive in moving water. Some spend their entire lives in rivers. Others that inhabit natural lakes and reservoirs play out important parts of their life cycles in rivers and streams.
Tactics used to attack rivers have evolved over time. When fish are actively pursuing forage, trolling with leadcore or three-way rigs can put lots of walleyes and sauger in the net.
But, jigs are still the tried and true method when fish are neutral or negative, perhaps due to those cold fronts mentioned earlier. Jigs are also the technique of choice when they're crowded together on smaller structural elements. Jigs are also the go-to choice when debris, like leaves that foul hooks, make trolling implausible.
A jig's adaptability explains why most anglers answer what is the one thing in their tackle box they can't do without. It's usually not a $5 lure. Even a guy like Al Lindner, who he helped his brother, Ron, develop the Lindy rig, doesn't mention that particular fishing mainstay. Lindner gave the answer that most fishermen give; "A jig."
Though basically the same, jigs have evolved since anglers made the first one by crimping split shot on a hook. Early breakthroughs involved adding color, sound and hair like the popular Fuzz-E-Grub. Lindy Fishing Tackle recently introduced what could be the biggest breakthrough in jigs ever made. The company has applied its innovative X-Change approach to jigs and made them easier to change up to adjust critical factors like their weight and color. Just snap one jig head off and another one on without retying the hook.
Weight is the key element to fishing jigs in moving water. You must have the right weight to meet conditions of current and wind to stay on the bottom below the boat.
Smaller is better in some places. A Professional Walleye Trail tournament was won by fishing in 4-feet of water on the Mississippi River at Red Wing, Minn. Water was dingy and walleyes were crowded on a rocky and sandy inside turn in this shallow water. Small jigs, usually one-eighth of an ounce, were used to jig below the boat without spooking the fish. On the Detroit River, one ounce is sometimes not enough to stay on the bottom where the fish live. Ted used something as simple as a 3/8th ounce Fuzz-E-Grub jig to win the 1998 PWT Championship on the Missouri River.
Getting the weight right is a snap with the X-Change Jigheads, which come in four sizes from 1/16th to 3/8th . Essentially, anglers tie a 2/0 Max Gap hook on their line, choose the jighead they need to match the situation and snap it on. If they move to shallower or deeper water or the wind picks up or lays down, you can easily switch the weight without having to retie with cold wet hands.
Locations are easy enough to figure out even on unfamiliar rivers. Current concentrates walleyes and sauger in places where water slows. Get a river map and eliminate long straight stretches – fish will move through those areas quickly. But, focus on the first bend after those long stretches – fish will hold there to rest. If the bottom is made of sand, gravel, clay or other hard surfaces like clam shells, they may even lay their eggs there. Inside turns, where water slows most, are better than outside bends during the spring. Fish also will locate themselves in holes in the bottom. In addition to natural holes, look for holes at river bends barges cut as they turn.
Slack-water areas known as eddies also form on the upstream and downstream sides of islands, on either side of dams, in front and behind wing dams. The best wing dams are on river bends. Fish might also hold in the limbs of fallen trees or flooded tree roots way back in feeder creeks flowing into the main river. (In fact, that's where Ted found the winning fish back in 1998.) Spots where these tributaries join with the main river also slow current.
Walleyes tend to be shallower than sauger on average. When water rises, both species move to shallower breaklines closer to shore. They also move toward the bank on the face of wingdams or migrate into backwaters and inside marinas to escape strong current. The first current breaks near dams are often good bets with water is high.
One of the most potent jig presentations is slip jigging, or line chasing as it's sometimes called. Thinner braided high-viz line, like Power Pro, in the 8/1 or 10/2 sizes is a plus. It's thin enough to cut water resistance and its no-stretch quality allows anglers to sense bites quicker and set the hook faster than with monofilament. The braided line also lets you feel the presence of gravel, sand or mud and locate places where the bottom content changes from one to the other. Fish love those transitions.
Use longer rods with enough backbone like 6' 8" St. Croix Legend Elite LES68MXF to feel the strikes and drive the hook home.
Pick a jig – or, in the case of the X-Change Jig, a jig head - heavy enough to keep the bait directly below the boat. Some pros think the lightest jig they can use and still reach the bottom is best because walleyes and sauger can inhale them better. Others really like to pound the bottom with big jigs to raise a commotion and attract fish. We say try either way and let the fish tell you want they want.
Experiment with colors, too. Natural colors are often best in clearer water while contrasting bright colors are often good in dirty or dingy water. If action stops on one color, try other colors before leaving a spot.
Add a fathead minnow or a try a Munchies Thumpin' Ringworm or both. Sometimes fish want bigger profiled baits.
Boat control in current takes time to learn. Turn the boat into the current or the wind, which ever is stronger, and use short bursts from the electric trolling motor to chase your line as you keep the jig just off the bottom. The goal is to keep the line straight below the boat. Otherwise, you won't feel a strike. Slip the structure to the end, then run up stream and try another pass at a different depth until fish are found.
We've seen times when several boats are slipping the same structure but only one or two boats are catching fish. Their "secret" was having a sonar unit, like a Humminbird with side-imaging sonar, that revealed a feature like a hump or depression or transition from soft to hard bottom that held fish.
If trolling methods aren't working on rivers in spring, x-change them for a jig.