Three Step Winter River Walleyes — Part 2

In the second part of a three part winter river walleye series Scott Fairbairn shares why three-way rigs may be the best winter river walleye option.

In the first part of this three-step series I covered one of the key aspects of ensuring vertical jigging success for winter river walleyes. I mentioned that vertical jigging has accounted for more of these cold water fish than any other technique. Unfortunately this is common knowledge. If you are like me you often roll into your favorite winter walleye hole during the peak bite only to find a steady parade of boats precisely presenting vertical jigs to a group of weary walleyes. After the procession runs for a while the walleye action routinely slows down and leaves everyone scratching their heads. Fear not, there is an alternative that often can out-produce vertical jigging, especially under a heavily pressured scenario like the one just described.

When faced with a large group of anglers vertically jigging I immediately break out three-way rigs and stick-baits and troll in the opposite direction. Simply changing the direction can cause fish that have become indifferent to the passing jigs to flare up and attack a well presented stick-bait.

In order to effectively present three-way rigs to winter river walleyes you should be geared up with some technique specific gear:

For three-way rigging I prefer 7ft medium or medium heavy rods with a good levelwind or baitcasting reel. Three-way rigs are going to require constant adjustment in the amount of line you have out and this is just simpler with these types of reels.

For fishing line I have moved from using mono to almost entirely using Fireline for my main line. Fireline has low diameter for its break strength and cuts the water better allowing better contact with the bottom. This can become critical under faster current conditions. Fireline in the 14/6 size gets the nod. If it is very snaggy you can go one size larger.

Choosing the correct size weight for three-way rigs can also be critical to success. Unlike vertical jigging for walleyes you should try to lean towards the heavy side for your bell or pencil sinkers. When you are trolling a three-way rig you should maintain bottom contact with less than a 45 degree angle in your line. Adjust the weight size up or down based on trolling speed, current speed, and depth. As a general rule of thumb, two to four ounce weights are typical. In heavy current or deep water I have gone as high as 8 ounces (medium heavy rods get the call).

Three-way rigging has two important dimensions to the presentation. Specifically leader and dropper lengths. As a starting point, keep the leaders three to four feet in length and the droppers from six to eighteen inches. Adjustment of these lengths can be critical, so in areas where fishing with multiple lines is legal or when more than one angler is in the boat, start and experiment with several different leader and dropper lengths until the fish show a clear preference. Six inches on the dropper can make a big difference in whether you are in or out of the walleye strike zone.

While there are hundreds of crankbaits on the market there are only a select few models that make for good three-way rigs during the cold water period. Specifically stickbaits like Storm’s Thunderstick and Thunderstick Jr., as well as Rapala’s Original Minnow and Husky Jerk are the right choice. Stay away from baits with too much wobble and stick to the more subtle rolling actions of these stickbaits. Match the size of stickbait to the fish you are targeting. Thunderstick Jrs. and Rapala Originals in size seven or nine for small fish and Thundersticks, number 11 and 13 Raps, or size 12 and 14 Husky Jerks for bigger fish.

As far as actually presenting the baits on a trolling pass make sure that you work to zigzag across current and up and down breaklines. If you find that the fish are holding in one key area you can focus on a straight run but for the most part a side to side slipping trolling pass usually yields the best results. Pay attention to your speed with the norm being a slow creep upstream while slipping side to side.

Time and again I have seen three-way rigs out produce traditional vertical jigging presentations under heavy pressure. Next time you come around the bend and see fifty boats on your favorite hole change things up by going against the grain.

In the next segment I will share one final highly overlooked option for winter river walleyes that will often produce some of the biggest fish in the system. Stay tuned…