Spring Walleyes, Now’s the Time! By Gary Engberg For area anglers who enjoy jigging the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers in the spring for walleyes, now’s the time to break out the fishing gear. As of this writing, smaller male walleyes and a few large pre-spawn females are being caught in many of the state’s rivers. Male walleyes will show up first below the state’s dams and provide the early action weeks before the larger and egg-laden females arrive for their spring ritual of spawning. But now, the males are much easier to catch and fairly aggressive considering that they’re just coming out of the doldrums of a winter that set records for snow and cold in the Badger state. Spring fishing for river walleyes is a Wisconsin tradition that has been cherished for decades. As soon as water temperatures nudge toward 40 degrees, anglers begin to flock to the rivers of southern and central Wisconsin hoping to catch a few “keepers” or a trophy of 10 pounds or more. Wisconsin is blessed with abundance of medium size rivers that hold walleyes and their close cousin, the sauger, who have migrated up the numerous rivers in late fall and throughout the winter. Anglers are now trying to find the holding and staging areas where the fish congregate and then intercept the fish before and after they spawn. The walleyes migration is completed in late March and into April when they come to impassable structures, which on Wisconsin’s rivers are dams. Some walleyes will stay and spawn stay within a mile of the dams, but many filter back downriver to locations that they find suitable for spawning. The female walleye will then search for the proper structure and bottom content for laying her eggs while waiting for the water to warm. What female walleyes are looking for is water with a temperature in the low to mid 40’s with a hard bottom that is covered with pea and marble size rock and gravel. But, in some rivers like the Wolf River in central Wisconsin, walleyes will spawn in marshes if hard bottom areas aren’t available. A slight current flowing over the eggs is then needed no matter where the fish spawn to oxyBut remember, all walleyes do not spawn at or near the dams. As an example, the Prairie du
Sac Dam on the Wisconsin River at Sauk Prairie is a very popular location for spring anglers. There can be as many as 100 boats directly below the dam in the tailrace area fishing for ‘eyes on a nice spring day. A vast majority of the boats will be within a hundred yards of the main dam. Fish are regularly caught here, but a majority will be the smaller males that were earlier mentioned in this article. There are almost 90 miles of river from the Prairie du Sac Dam to its confluence with the Mississippi River at Prairie du Chien. The point is this, there are countless places below the dam and many miles downriver where female walleyes will stage and eventually spawn when they find suitable water and structure. Some of these locations never get ANY fishing pressure! Access can be a problem in some locations, but it’s possible to fish many miles below most of the dams in the Midwest and find quality walleyes and saugers. Though, many nice fish are caught close to dams, there are some larger and less-pressured fish many miles downriver. An angler may not catch as many walleyes or saugers, but the quality will be much better. Many anglers have problems with river fishing because they are fishing in water that is moving with current. If you remember a few of the things mentioned here, your river fishing will dramatically improve. River fish constantly have to fight the river’s current. A considerable amount of energy is used up fighting this current, so river walleyes will use any type of structure to try and break the river’s flow. This is how river walleyes conserve their energy. The current-blocking structures can change from river to river, but things to look for include; wing dams, wood, fallen trees, boulders, rock piles, islands, bridges, river bends, humps, and depressions in the river’s bottom. All of these “structures” break the river’s flow and allow the walleyes to wait and ambush any food that passes or floats by them while still conserving their energy for the rigors of spawning. A river walleye or sauger must eat everyday just to maintain their body weight. These locations are located up and down all rivers, so the wise angler should try heading downriver when looking for these holding and staging areas instead of motoring to the dam and its tailrace locations. It may take some experimentation, but if you take your time and remember some of the walleye behavior mentioned earlier, you should be able to find fish. Once you learn to “read” the river, finding fish in the spring becomes much easier and you’ll never fish in a fleet or pack of boats again! Finding fish is the hard part, while catching them is much easier. The best tackle for spring walleyes is the basic jig and minnow, a jig and plastic, or any combination of the two. Try using 8 # monofilament, like Berkley Trilene XT in green, to match the color of the stained water that you’ll encounter in most rivers. Monofilament is more forgiving and a little line stretch is needed for the many snags that you’ll find in most rivers. I used to use 6 # mono, but through the years I’ve found that the 8 # mono is just as good and allows you to lose fewer jigs and pull out of many more snags. Have a good assortment of jigs in different sizes, colors, and shapes to experiment with and see what the walleyes prefer the day that you’re on the water. There are many jigs now made for river fishing that have a flatter head and cut the current better allowing you to use a lighter jig while still maintaining bottom contact. Colors can change regularly, so keep trying different hues till you find what the fish want that day. Plastics (try Berkley Gulp, Power Bait, or the plastics made by Kalins and Walleye Assassin’s) can be deadly during the spring, when used alone or dressed with a medium or large fathead minnow. If the fish are biting lightly, you may want to try adding a stinger hook to your jig.