A little bit of warm weather certainly works wonders and brings anglers to spring river fishing runs in droves. For good reason, as pre-spawn movements congregate walleyes upstream through pinch-points and up to dam structures. It’s a dynamic bite that in most areas, relies on mother nature cooperating in the form of consistent temps that prevent flows from spiking too quickly. Steady temperatures or not, walleyes are continually on the move during this period as they slide up and downstream depending on a variety of variables like flow, water temperature, and spawn timing.
Fortunately, despite all the changing variables, there are a few staple ways to fish them that have worked well for years on end. Most of which include fishing jigs tipped with a variety of bait or plastic in any number of ways. A full box of jigs in various shapes and sizes is definitely a river angler’s friend, no matter how many new-fangled techniques may come about in river walleye fishing, you’re always in the game with a jig near the bottom.
If jigs are the tools, vertically fishing them is probably the most popular tactic when it comes to river angling. As spring meltwater increases flow, fish are often in deep holes directly downstream from dams, wing dams, or other current breaks in the river. To get to them, you need something heavy. To stay in front of them, it needs to be heavier yet. That’s why jigs from 3/8 oz., all the way up to ¾ oz. or 1 oz. are required for this kind of fishing. Most often, this is during the earliest part of the season, when fish are somewhat schooled, a bit lethargic, and inhabiting the depths.
To fish it well, you need to maintain a tight line at all times, preferably being directly over the top of the jig without a bow or angle to your line. That requires some good boat handling skill but also depends on the angler keeping the bait just above the bottom and constantly moving. Think about jigging down to the bottom versus jigging up from it, while maintaining that touch through constant motion. Pull it too high from the bottom and you’re out of the zone. Lay it on the bottom too long, and the boat moves while the bait doesn’t, leading to a bow in the line and missed strikes.
The best jigs here are often bucktails, with new designs like the Deep-Vee Bucktail Jig being a new riff on a proven lineup. The Deep-Vee platform acts like a keel, keeping the bait running true in river currents or when moving, while the bucktail and some bait really breathe life into the jig. Of course, the standard Fireball and Fireball long-shank have caught more walleyes on rivers than maybe any other jig in their history of them. The Fireball platform is an attractive option when minnows are needed and walleyes or saugers are short-striking. Clip on an appropriate-length stinger hook and start converting those bites, all while having plenty of heavy options and colors to choose from.
If there was ever a bite that walleye anglers dreamed of through winter, it’s the shallow jig and plastics pitching routine. On rivers like the Rainy, the Mississippi, and the Fox, pre-spawn females readily eat a steady diet of these both daytime and evening. Typically, anglers set up just downstream from a major current break along the edge of a sand or gravel flat, and make short casts or “pitches” to hungry pre-spawners that are resting or doing their biological business. During the latter portion of the spawn, males that are up-fertilizing eggs are also vulnerable to pitching, though the fish don’t tend to run as large.
For this tactic, rig any of the Northland jigs with a great wire keeper (Deep Vee Jig, Slurp Jighead, Long-Shank Fireball Jig, or Metallic Eyeball Jig) to accompany plastic. Impulse jig-crawlers, paddle tails, or smelt are great ways to add life-like action to these jigs and entice walleyes. Popular colors include a variety of basic, translucent offerings, all the way through dark earth tones, and eventually the chartreuse and other bright versions. The brighter the better with high turbidity and current levels, but the translucent and basic colors tend to work better earlier when water is clearer, and flow is down.
It can be a great benefit to try running these baits with mono and braid both as each has characteristics that, given the day, can help you excel. Braid is the ultimate in feel, but is also more visible and cuts current rather than tracks with it. Mono can perfect the “swing” of the bait as it moves downstream into the mouth of a walleye, which can make all the difference at times. Fish these baits slowly, as water temps are still low, and keep them near the bottom, opting for slow, side-ways jig sweeps rather than hops or slashes. Few bites are as rewarding as walleyes smashing jig and plastic combinations you pitch to the shallows, making this another staple presentation.
This has been more of a sleeper technique, developed and honed over more recent years and extending far into the summer period. Like all of the techniques mentioned here, dragging relies on the proper jig weight selection, such that when going upstream or downstream (may require two different jig weights), you keep the bait just nearly above or dragging the bottom. In heavy flow environments, and where laws allow, research the Miller Rig or Denver rig, as part of a two-lure system rigged on 3-way swivels to keep the entire rig down on a heavy drop bait, while another trail just behind on a short section of the tag leader line.
Cold, early season days can see success with dragging/drifting, especially using live bait, but this technique really shines as the spawn finishes up, and fish slide off the shallows just near the first break on clam beds or other river structures. Pulling with the bow-mount motor slowly upstream against the current, or when flow relaxes pulling downstream, can lead to incredible jig bites. Plastics prevail during the spawning period, making all of the Northland wire-keeper designs great options. Later, as we get into summer, I prefer to run crawlers on a variety of jigs when dragging.
As a special note, that Deep-Vee jig will be a real winner for all of the techniques mentioned. Not only because of the V-shaped keel to help it track, but because of the great hook, wire keeper, premium colors, and hard-finished eye. I’m looking forward to hitting the river just talking about it.