The ice is still hanging on many of the lakes in the Midwest, but there are some great early open water walleye spots that will help you get over the case of “cabin fever”. Actually this early season is one of the great times to capitalize on a fantastic walleye bite. One of best areas to look at is the Missouri River in South Dakota.
Although reservoirs are huge bodies of water, it’s relatively easy to eliminate most of their surface area right away. In early March, the key place to look is below the dams, especially when the Corp of Engineers is discharging water. Unfortunately, for the weekend angler, the Corp will many times quit releasing water for the weekend. With the flow shut off, it seems that the walleye bite totally dies. One suggestion is to call the local bait shops and ask them whether the Corp of Engineers is discharging water.
Walleyes will wander up stream until they find the source of current flow. Quite often they will hang in deep holes or off deep ledges until the water warms into the low 40s.
When the temperature hits this range, you will find smaller males moving into the shallows. A highly productive technique is casting jigs up into the shallows along shore. The females, meanwhile, will continue to stage out deeper and when the water temperature warms to the mid 40s, they will come into the shallows during low light conditions. Early morning and late evening are the two best times to catch the big females.
One of the most common and successful presentations is the use of a jig and power bait, or jig and minnow. My best success comes with a jig and 3″ Gulp Minnow, or a white twister. Another good bait the last few years on the river has been Berkley Power ribworm.
The best way to present the bait is to vertical jig, with a lift, drop method. Make sure you are always in contact with the bottom and keep your baits vertical by using your trolling motor to match the current speed. Another good presentation this time of the year is dragging jigs. This is easier and at times can be the most successful. From time to time lift the jig and drop it again for added movement.
An area that can be especially good in early spring but can also be a treacherous place to fish is in submerged trees. One of the best places on the Missouri River is below the dam at Ft. Thompson. The shallow areas where the sun warms the wood on those big old cottonwood trees is the place to target. Look for walleyes to hold right next to the roots snarled trunks, so fishing actually becomes an exercise of pitching jigs right into the snags to catch fish. I like Lindy Timb’R Rock jigs to avoid getting snagged up so much.
Although walleyes are drawn to the dam areas, they will attempt to locate and utilize current breaks and eddies. Some of these large reservoirs have an area called a stilling basin, which is an area of overflow used before the dams were completed. They were built as an emergency overflow in case the dam is threatened with excessive high water.
While a strong current churns the water below the dam, the stilling basin off to the side has little current. As a result, walleyes will make their move to this stilling basin. In some years, the basin may even have ice on it. If it does, I have had great fishing by anchoring right next to the ice and casting the jig so that it falls right below the edge of the ice.
Another good walleye fishing area right after ice out will be a dredge hole or a wash out area near the dam. It will quite often be full of males. The danger of fishing in this area is the increased mortality rate for these fish when they are taken out of the deep water. As a result, I personally try to stay away from these areas and encourage others to do the same. Some areas such as the dredge hole at Chamberlain, South Dakota on the Missouri River are actually off limits to fishermen during this early spring ice out period.