The Basics of Fishing Walleyes in Rivers

I can remember as a kid growing up in the upper Midwest, my first exposure to fishing was in a little creek that ran by my house. Something about the river always stuck with me; the constant change, new fish entering holes, and I suppose a dream of rafting with Huck Finn.

Rivers are everywhere, and most of them have a good population of fish. Most anglers live close to a river, therefore it’s easy to get onto a good bite when the urge strikes you.

In fact, some rivers that border states have no closed season on a variety of species. This enables the angler to get out and do some fishing even during the cold winter months. Fish can be located below a lock and dam on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, off the tip of a big sandbar on the Missouri or Minnesota, or off a log jam on the Des Moines River in Iowa. Or they might be in a bridge hole on the Red River of the North.

Other spots may be structure like gravel or sandbars, shallow rocky shoals near drop-offs, wave-washed points, deserted sandy bottom beaches, or bottlenecks between two different land masses.

Rip-rap is also good, particularly where current hits the rock, such as on a windy point with deep-water access, or near a culvert where fresh water is filtering through a rock causeway.

Feeder streams funneling into a river represent yet other spots fishermen should check out. The mouths of these tributaries often turn into fishing gold mines, especially after a heavy rain washes fresh food and fresh water into the river. Depending on the force of the current and the water clarity, fish may be as shallow as a couple feet deep or in the bottom of a washout hole or river channel 15 to 20 feet deep. If the current is stronger than normal, the fish probably are hunkered in a slackwater area.

All anglers must learn that "current" sets the rules for location and presentation when fishing rivers.

When anglers learn this simple rule they can explore the tailout area behind a sandbar or a depression in a long stretch of river channel. Or they may find fish behind a "break or barrier" such as a point or wing dam or a log or group of rocks. A group of fish could be scattered on a big bar (flat) on the slackwater side of the river (the side opposite an outside river bend where the channel runs against the bank).

A "break" is anything that will slow down or divert the current. Fish will be located behind such structure as rocks, wingdams, logs, and stumps. A "barrier" is anything that will stop a fish from moving on, such as holes or depressions in the floor of the river, a dam, or a breakwater structure for harbors or the narrowing of the river into a channel. When fish are on the move, concentrate on these structures. Fish will usually lay in ambush waiting for food to swim by. Usually fish (and large ones) will be in the warmer water less than 12 feet deep, chasing baitfish.

When looking for those baitfish, I recommend using a good electronic unit. It will allow you to see the difference in the hard and soft transition areas. Since river fish rarely suspend, the resolution on a good unit (I use the Lowrance 350 A) allows you to locate and see fish that are tight to the bottom.

Vertical jigging is very popular, and the key to fishing a jig vertically in current is boat control. Work these areas over with a controlled drift. The control comes from positioning your boat sideways into the current and using your trolling motors or a "drift sock" to slow down your drift and your presentation.

Another structural element that I key on are the wingdams. In most of the pools on the Mississippi River there are several wingdams either near the tailwater area or down river from the dam. When fishing a wingdam, I concentrate on the up current side of each wingdam or the flats between them. An angler should look for the boil line (disturbed water on the surface) that signifies the presence of a wingdam and check out the scour hole behind the wingdam to see if it is large enough to hold inactive fish. Wingdams hold fish all year long, but I like to fish them in the spring and the summer.

Fish are unusually spooky along wingdams and noisy gas engines will spook the fish. I prefer to use quieter electric motors. The key element here is presentation–to keep the bait in front of the fish. Point the bow into the current and "slip" down at about current speed. Keep baits in the strike zone longer by sweeping the baits across the structure, allowing the bait to fall at a slow rate to naturally present the bait to the fish.

It is essential to slow down your drift with the electric motor as you go over the structure and watch your depth finder for breaks and barriers. You might have to run your big motor or a kicker motor in reverse to slow the presentation even more if the current is increased. If the fish are shallow, you might want to anchor and use your bow-mount motor to swing your bait and change your position on the face of the wingdam.

When you are in search of walleyes, look for breaklines and barriers and you will be more successful.