Ah-h-h-h-h-, walleyes stacked up below dams between pre-spawn and spawn … like “fishing in barrel”. OK … maybe it’s not exactly fishing in a barrel, but dams do create a barrier that concentrates “spawning run” walleyes early in the season. It’s a numbers game, with hordes of fish in a relatively small area, and after long months of staring at snow and ice, we all look for a welcome break from living room armchair angling.
Although the fish are congregated below dams, catching them is still a matter of putting the right bait in the right spot. Fish location in the river will depend largely on the amount of current present. Very early in the season, before the majority of the snow pack begins to run-off, current is typically slow. Combined with the fact that the water this time of year is usually as clear as it gets, look for the majority of the walleyes to be near the primary break where the bottom drops into the main channel. Concentrate your efforts on spots where you find an irregularity close to the channel edge, be it a jetty, a rock pile, a point or what ever … there’s likely to be walleyes around. These structural elements provide current breaks and create back-eddies that are perfect holding areas for both predator and prey. Other great areas to check out would be incoming creeks. These often form an underwater “delta” at their mouth, creating a sort of “natural wing dam” that always seems to attract walleyes. River bends are also good bets. Focus on outside bends during low water or slow current times, and inside bends during high water or periods of heavy current.
Vertical jigging is the best tactic for targeting these fish. If you’ve struggled with jigging up walleyes in the past, here’s a few key points you’ll want to keep in mind. Vertical jigging is where the angler works a jig directly below the boat while moving downstream in the river current. It may sound simple enough … but there are a few tricks to doing it right. The idea is to point your bow into the current, and with the bowmount trolling motor, control the drift so as to keep your line vertical. Many anglers make the mistake of trying to fight the current and maintain a vertical presentation by going to a heavy jig. That does two things … it gives the fish a lure that is tougher to inhale into it’s mouth, and by battling the current, you’re not presenting the bait in the most natural way possible. Instead, it’s best to use a lighter jig (usually 1/4 to 3/8 ounce), and use your boat control to “follow the line”. That is to say, if you notice your line begins to swing out to the left, use your trolling motor to move the boat to the left until the line is vertical again. If you notice the jig tends to drag up stream from you, kick up the speed a notch and catch up to it. These minor changes in direction are best achieved with a technique known as “Bursting”. Keep your trolling motor power at a high level (about 80 %), and compensate for drift with short powerful bursts, instead of trying to pull the boat into position with longer, less powerful movements. You want to let the current dictate where you are going to go, and with a bit of “Bursting” practice, you’ll obtain proper boat control, and keep your presentation vertical for longer periods of time.
Having a good, powerful trolling motor is very important for this kind of fishing. You want a motor with plenty of power to control your boat in current and wind, as well as having a long enough shaft to keep your prop in the water in the event that the walleye chop gets a bit “choppy”. The MotorGuide PTSv trolling motor equipped with a 60 inch shaft and 82 pounds of thrust has proven to be a great bowmount for deep-V walleye boats. The added convenience of the motor’s Digital steering and Tracking features can really be a God-send when you want to take your foot off the controls to re-bait or net a fish. With the PTSv, you can simply aim your boat upstream, set the motor to track the depth you’re fishing, and it will keep your boat pointed in the right direction while you take care of business. If you’ve ever fished amongst a bunch of “cabin fevered” river rats in the middle of a hot spring walleye bite, you can easily understand the importance of maintaining good boat control. Let your boat swing out of control for a split second and you risk getting thumped upside your melon with a 1/2 ounce lead-head. Learning to vertically jig correctly will have you using much lighter jigs and definitely triggering more bites.
A few situations can dramatically alter fish location this time of year. Boat traffic is one … every other walleye angler in the area has had a long winter too, and often, the concentration of walleyes below dams also concentrates fishermen. If you’ve hit the prime spots first, and are having no luck, it’s probably not that the fish have quit biting, it’s more likely that they’ve made a move. First place to look would be the middle of the channel. Current will be a bit heavier here, but watch your locator for bottom structures like wash-out holes and rocks … that’s where the walleyes will gather. They may also move into shallow water to avoid the pressure. It’s not uncommon for walleyes in rivers to move onto shallow flats or rip-rap areas below a dam, and at night that is often the best place to find them.
Moving down stream to separate yourself from the crowds can have positive effects also. While the area near the dam tends to be a numbers game, moving down river can often yield bigger fish. Chances are you’re going to get fewer bites, but if you’re looking for quality fish over quantities of fish, it’ll be worth the effort.
High water can make fishing below dams interesting to say the least. Boat control in heavy current can be like work. At times it may seem like you’ve finished a drift before you’ve had a chance to start it. Walleye location is very much affected by high water and heavy current also. In this situation, look for the fish to be pushed in tight to cover. If you were catching fish off wing dams a few days earlier, and a sudden warming trend turns snow covered banks into river filling run off, then the first place to look for the fish would be right up against the wing dams. It’s not uncommon for high water to push fish so far they move into flooded shoreline timber. In extreme conditions, fish may move so tight to shore and structure, that you’ll have to abandon the vertical jigging tactics and switch to jig pitching instead. The general rule-of-thumb is … high water/strong current, fish move toward the bank … low water/slow current, fish move toward the channel.
Spring river walleyes are known to be glutinous feeders, so you’ll tip the odds in your favor if you bulk up your jig offerings to mimic a meatier mouthful. There are many ways to bulk up a jig and help it draw more attention to itself. Adding a 3 or 4 inch Berkley Power Grub or GULP! Minnow Grub and then dressing the jig with a feisty minnow is one popular method. An old tournament fisherman’s trick is to put two minnows on a jig for added bulk and attraction. The same effect can be accomplished by dressing the jig with a Berkley GULP! Minnow, and a live minnow. This is especially helpful in the event that the walleyes are continuously robbing your jig of the minnows and leaving you baitless. By threading on the GULP! Minnow, and then tipping the jig with a live minnow, even if the fish gets the live bait off on the first bite, you can drop the GULP! Minnow back down, jig it a couple of times, and, many times, get him to bite again. Many anglers don’t think walleyes will eat crawlers this early in the season … not true! We used to try and keep crawlers through the winter, just to have them available come spring. The worms didn’t always make it, but when they did they were deadly. These days we simply substitute half a Berkley GULP! Nightcrawler or a 3 inch GULP! Crawler and the results are every bit as good.
The well equipped river rat will also want to have plenty of good stinger hooks available in case the walleyes come down with a case of the “short bites”. A 4 to 5 inch length of 10# FireLine tied to a #8 Mustad UltraPoit Treble Hook is the best stinger hook combination we’ve ever come up with. Adding a small Fas-Snap (the kind of snap used by fly fishermen), makes the stinger simple to take on and off the eye of the jig.
There’s no need to wait for summer to get in on some great walleye fishing. Many states have open seasons for walleyes in rivers right now, and if you’re anywhere near a dam on a river that holds walleyes, you’ll find it’s the closest thing in the world to fishing in a barrel … dam right.