Fact #1: There has been a steady growth in the popularity of ice fishing over the past few years. Fact #2: There is still a fair contingent of walleye anglers that really don’t embrace the whole concept of their winter "Honey Hole" being a portal cut through the frozen surface of the water. One might think that if you live in the north country, the only option come winter would be to fish through a hole in the ice. After all, (Fact #3) it’s cold up here this time of year … really cold. But if you’re a walleye angler looking for open water fishing opportunities this time of year, there are options. Fact #4: Ice fishing is not the only game in town. As a matter of fact, it may not even be the best game in town.
It’s no secret really. Consider where many of you probably fished the last waning days of late fall before winter’s icy grip took hold. There’s a good chance you were in the upper stretches of a river system. That’s always where large numbers of walleyes congregate in late fall in preparation for the spawning rituals of spring. So where do you suppose those fish spend the winter months? Right where you left them. They haven’t gone any where.
It may take a little home work to find river systems that offer open water fisheries in the winter months, but there are a few that stand out. The upper reaches of the Mississippi; particularly Pool 4 near Red Wing, MN is a favorite, offering some of the best fishing anywhere for not only walleye but sauger as well. While the Red River near Baudette, MN does freeze over, it can be a great destination for a late fall bite and is immensely popular as an early spring fishery. The Missouri River as it winds it’s way through the Dakotas offers fabulous opportunities for the winter angler, particularly below the dams at Pierre and Chamberlain, South Dakota. To the east, the word is spreading like wild fire about the walleye bites on such rivers as the Allegheny and the Niagara. And if you’re looking for a destination a bit further south, the Tennessee River dams at Guntersville, Wheeler and Wilson all hold very winter fishable populations of sauger.
Some of these waters remain open and fishable all winter long, while some do freeze over for short periods but offer windows of opportunity to anglers willing to brave the elements. One constant among all these fisheries in winter is that it’s going to be cold. But cold is relative to location. Cold in Tennessee may be thirty degrees above zero while cold on Pool 4 of the Mississippi may be twenty below. Another constant however is that these areas all hold concentrated populations of winter walleye and/or sauger.
For the most part, when dealing with river walleyes in winter, your efforts should be concentrated in the areas below dams.
Depending on the river, that could mean the waters immediately below the dam to as far as five miles below the dam. The key will be deep water. Winter time typically means reduced current and lower water levels in these river systems. The walleyes will winter in the deeper holes, making occasional feeding forays into the shallows. The channel edges become key structure under these conditions. Pay close attention to the current flow and water levels however. If levels rise and/or current increases due to anything from run-off to power generation at the dam, "high-water" structures such as wing dams, sand bars or shallow flats just adjacent to the channel can become hot spots.
Your standard arsenal of river walleye presentations will catch fish, with vertical jigging and three-way rigs being your bread-and-butter tools. As noted before, fish will be concentrated, holding in key spots along the channel edge. Hovering on these spots with a slow presentation like a jig and minnow combination is tough for any walleye to resist.
Three-way rigs are deadly in rivers for probing specific spots. This could be the face of a wing dam, the head of a main channel hole, or a wash-out on an outside bend in the river. Rigged with a plain hook and minnow and worked much the same manner as vertical jigging, this rig excels in clear water where fish tend to be spooky and hesitant to suck up the standard jig/minnow offering.
In situations where you have a long stretch of channel edge holding walleyes, slow trolling subtle action crankbaits can also trigger a number of biters. The key here is SLOW. Creeping along at three quarters of a mile per hour is about right. Small lipped, shallow running minnow style baits trolled with lead core line is an effective way to cover the depths on these extended fish holding structures.
If you’re one of those not so inclined to do your fishing through a hole in the ice, or if you’re just looking to extend your open water season as long as possible, ask around. You may be very surprised how much open water you’ll find in the winter. Sure, you won’t be fishing these areas in the comfort of a heated ice shanty, but if you’re a die hard walleye angler, comfort is not your primary concern … catching fish is.