Depending on where you are, your last chance for finding open water walleyes could very well be on a river. While the bigger more well known rivers like the Mississippi get all of the attention, there’s plenty of excellent opportunities available right now, it’s just that it could be on a much smaller scale. Small rivers can really turn on late in the season, and the action may be a lot better than you might expect.
Late fall walleyes on large rivers can be spread out for miles, and finding the active ones may take a little doing. Fish can be found from directly below a dam to as much as ten or twenty miles downstream, and only a few are probably active at any given time. Compare that to small rivers where the areas that can hold fish are rather limited, and can be quickly found and fished.
Come late fall small river walleyes stack up in small easily defined areas, and can become extremely vulnerable. Not only can they be found in specific areas they’re also usually deep into a serious feeding binge. The combination of these two factors plays right into the hands of late season anglers.
Specific areas include deep holes ( the deepest you can find ), that provide walleyes with a safe home for the winter. Finding holes with enough depth can take a little work, and will require a little investigation.
Dams are one of the first places to look and can make finding late season walleyes a snap. If your little river has a dam you can bet there’ll be a least a few walleyes using the area. Another potential hangout exists where a dam has been previously removed. The same attractions ( like depth and current ), are probably still there and can hold plenty of fish.
With the absence of the aforementioned more time will have be spent looking for less obvious wintering grounds. Deeper holes are still the ticket but they’ll have to be of a natural origin. Look for outside bends where a river makes a hard turn and the current has cut a deep hole near the bank. You’ll also want to look for shoreline eddies ( where the current reverses itself), and check for depth. If they’re deep enough they too can hold plenty of fish. Another key to look for would be a large flat adjacent to deep water. Flats offer many feeding opportunities and the combination can make for the perfect late fall fishing hole.
While wintering holes may be rather small in size there are specific areas that you should look for. One of the keys to finding walleyes that are holed up is to fish current breaks. Current breaks are high percentage spots that can help to concentrate fish and deserve a good deal of attention. Look for the break (where fast water meets slack), and get to work.
An effective method for working current breaks is to simply drop an anchor, trying to keep the boat positioned right on the edge, and lifting and dropping a jig and minnow combination along the bottom. Jig size can vary depending on how deep your fishing and how much current you’re dealing with. The key is to use as small a jig as possible while retaining the ability to stay in contact with bottom. Quite often that will mean jigs in the 1/16 to 3/8 ounce size, and as heavy as a 1/2 ounce. Tip the jig with a smaller minnow like a fathead or shiner and lift and drop the jig, letting it bang into the bottom.
Strikes can be difficult to detect and fish are often not felt until you lift the bait. If you feel a little extra weight, set the hook. If you’re missing fish trying waiting for a few seconds before the set. Trailer hooks can help with short strikers but may be more trouble than their worth, as they increase your chances of getting hung up and will also pick up a lot of unwanted debris. An excellent option is Northland Tackles single hook stinger which doesn’t pick up as much debris but will still nail the short strikers.
Another method that Team Crestliner member Rick Olson uses that can help with missed fish includes tipping a jig with two minnows instead of one. Rick will run the hook through the mouth of the first minnow and out behind the head as far as possible, and then hook a second one through the lips. "If you set the hook and miss a fish quickly drop the bait back down and hold on. Many times fish will come back and take the bait completely and give you a much needed second chance."
After you’ve thoroughly worked the current break try casting a jig into the slack water and slowly crawl the bait back to the boat. And don’t be afraid to cast into extremely shallow water. Although walleyes need deep water to make it through the winter, they’ll often move shallow to feed.
While many inland lakes are going through the process of developing ice, rivers can remain open and fishable for another several weeks or more. The presence of current delays the freezing process and can keep rivers accessible. Some of the best small river action I’ve experienced occurred when I had to break ice out of a slack water area along a current break in order to have place to fish. It took some doing but by running the boat up on the ice and waiting for it to settle I was able to break it out one piece at a time. See you on the river.