We all know the saying “April showers bring May flowers”, but when those showers become torrential spring downpours and combine with the run-off from melting snow, many rivers in the “walleye belt” run high, muddy and fast. Heavy current conditions like this are not at all conducive to great walleye fishing! While you might think the solution would be to simply look for areas of reduced current, the problem is that’s not necessarily where the fish are. Walleyes often seek out these areas because, while the current may be ripping on the surface, they are still able to find little nooks and crannies along the bottom where they can sit out of the current, darting out to grab a quick meal as the current sweeps it by. If the fish’s best chance for a meal is in the heavy current, that’s where most of the fish will be.
Bottom line is … the walleyes aren’t always where we’d like them to be … they’re not always going to be in “easy to fish” areas of the river, accessible by “conventional” river tactics like vertical jigging. Our goal here is to share a few tried-and-true techniques for fishing walleyes in heavy current, realizing that although this situation isn’t always the easiest fishing in the world … it can be the best walleye fishing available.
The key to any tactic that is successful in heavy current is that it gives the angler control and keeps the bait near the bottom. That means the use of heavy weights … the stronger the current you’re fishing, the heavier the weight you’ll need to control the presentation. You also want a presentation that allows you to “Cover and Hover” … that is to cover water, either by moving upstream, slipping downstream and even sliding cross-stream searching for these isolated spots that are holding the walleyes.
The most popular technique for fishing heavy current is what’s known as 3-way Rigging. The rig starts with a 3-way swivel tied to a main line of 10 pound test Berkley FireLine. The FireLine is nice because it maximizes feel and its small diameter cuts the current better than monofilament. To the second leg of the swivel tie a twelve inch piece of 6 pound test mono with a bell sinker at the end. Weights will vary from about 1 to 3 ounces depending on the amount of current and weight needed to keep bottom contact. Think of this much the same as you would bottom bouncer fishing … you want to keep the rig at about a 45 degree angle from the rod tip to the bottom … this will give you the best feel and control.
At the business end of the 3-way, run a 3 foot leader of 10 pound test mono (or another good choice would be Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon) to your bait of choice. There are several good lure options for 3-ways ranging from small floating crankbaits to streamer flies. One rig that has been very successful over the years is called a “D-Rig” or Dubuque Rig, popularized on the Mississippi River. It consists of a #2 Aberdeen hook dressed with a three inch twister tail style grub like a Berkley Power Grub or a GULP Minnow Grub in high-visibility colors like chartreuse, white, orange or yellow, and tipped with a small minnow or half a nightcrawler. You can also add a red bead just ahead of the hook for added color. The nice thing here is that while swimming in the current, the Berkley tail is thumping along creating vibration, with plenty of fish attracting color and is dispersing a scent trail… so there’s a lot of attraction to entice the fish.
While 3-ways will handle most heavy current situations, there are times an even heavier approach is needed. Anglers on the Detroit River between Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie deal with extremely heavy current … up to 5 to 7 mph … virtually every day. That’s some serious current, and its one area where Handlining has become very popular. Handlining resembles a throw-back to more ancient angling methods, but is really a very effective way to fish extreme current conditions. It does require some specialized equipment … most importantly being the reel. What’s used is an automatic retrieval reel spooled with a wire cable, to which is attached a weight of a pound to a pound and a half. Between the weight and the cable is what’s called the shank … a section of cable with up to three leader connection points spread about a foot apart. Riviera Trolling Systems out of Michigan (www.rivieratrolling.com) offers a complete Handlining kit which includes the reel, cable, shank and other various hardware to get you started off on the right foot.
The common set up would be to run a leader of 5 to 10 feet of 20 pound test Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon from the lowest connector on the shank (about 12 inches up from the weight) and then another leader twice the length of the first one off the next connector on the shank. The lures most often used with Handlining are flutter spoons and shallow running minnow-style crankbaits. The heavy leaders are an advantage for two reasons … tangles do occasionally occur and the heavier line is easier to untangle, and if you do snag the lure, you can usually pull the lure free by straightening the hook out a bit.
The reel is mounted on the side of the boat, the angler grabs the cable in his hand, and the rig is worked in a jigging motion. When a fish is hooked, it’s much like fishing a tip-up in the winter … the line is brought in by hand. Because of the long leaders used, long-handled nets, with extentions might be needed. Many Handliners also suggest that using a leather glove on the line hand is a good idea.
A variation of the Handline that many anglers now starting to use is a technique called Rod-Lining. Here, the use of a short, heavy-action rod is used in place of the bare hand. We use the Bass Pro Shops Muskie Angler Rod, model MX66MHT-2 (a 6’6” medium heavy Muskie Rod) with a reel spooled with 30 pound test Berkley FireLine. With this rig, we’ll use weights from six to eight ounces, and rig this much like the Handlining set-up, using two 3-way swivels above the weight to run the leaders off of.
Keep in mind too that it doesn’t just have to be rain and run-off that creates a heavy current situation. There are plenty of rivers that run fast on an ordinary day or areas of an otherwise meandering river that exhibit “heavy current” characteristics caused by things like wing dams, narrows or just because it happens to be a fast stretch of river. So when the walleyes in your river aren’t in the “easy” water, look for them in the heavy current. It may not be the easiest walleye fishing you’ll ever experience, but then no one ever said that the best fishing was always going to be easy.