by Jason Mitchell
Some of the earliest open water walleye fishing opportunities occur each season on river systems and flowages or bottle neck areas that open up because of current. Open seasons and open water are necessary and there are so many good early season fishing opportunities. The Mississippi River, Rainy River, Fox River and the Missouri River all come to mind. Each of these fisheries are drastically different with different terrain features, different forage and ultimately different fishing strategies. While there are differences from one fishery to the next, there are also many similarities. The beauty of fishing rivers is that fish location does get dictated by current… or a lack there of.
Across the board on a variety of river systems, we find some really big walleyes on shallow current seams. Current seams are obvious current edges that form where faster water meets slow water. Often when trying to dial in river locations, there will be a pattern as to how fish are positioned in the current.
If there is a general rule of thumb most of the time, it is this. Most walleyes will not be in dead water very far away from current and will also not be in the primary flow where the current is strongest. The sweet spot is often that edge or seam where the faster water meets slow or dead water. You can often feel the boat getting pushed in or out of this seam where you either come to a stop when hitting the dead water or get pulled through when you hit the fast water. Often, catching walleyes is a matter of getting the jig in the groove and then chasing after the jig with the boat or rod in order to keep the line vertical.
Of course there are always exceptions. We have found fish way up in real slack water a considerable distance from any current, especially big fish up shallow when the water is warming up. There are other occasions when the fish are holding in stronger current or darting in and out grabbing at food that sweeps by.
Slipping the current to keep the presentation vertical is also not the end all presentation on river systems either. Don’t overlook dragging jigs upstream or hovering back and forth cutting across the current seam. In most current, you will have to use a heavier jig if you don’t chase the jig but these different boat maneuvering options can be the ticket some days.
My favorite strategy for fishing isolated current seams is to cast or pitch my way through it because I feel like I can find fish faster and contact more fish with a cast. Where fish are positioned in relation to current flow is a moving target. I feel like I can look through a lot of water in a hurry by pitching and finally, I have a lot of confidence for big fish especially in shallow water. Drifts that enable me to pitch up into shallow water and then work back towards the deeper water underneath the boat really do cover a lot of bases at once.
This general rule of reading moving water and putting together the pattern is pretty universal but what can change drastically from one body of water to the next is the terrain and structure that causes these breaks and changes in current.
Across the Midwest, fishing with several top walleye anglers… what becomes interesting to me as an angler is that several patterns or rules of thumb often keep reappearing. Different water, different day and different angler but same story.
For example, despite the popularity for braid and super lines, many top river rats still sing praise to the virtues of monofilament for some jig fishing applications. Easier to break off after becoming snagged and easier to see were a few common reasons but the ultimate reason is how fish react to the presentation itself.
Whether pitching jigs out from the boat or fishing jigs below the boat, monofilament gives the jig some subtleness and fluidness in the water that early season walleyes often prefer. The other factor many top river anglers debate is the fact that early in the season when the water is still cold, the fish can hold on the jig without such abrupt resistance. In other words, you can feel fish more quickly and the fish can feel you when using braided line or a super line and at times, that can be a disadvantage.
If there is a general trend that really shows up on river systems it is this… many river rats still prefer monofilament and stiffer rod actions than anglers fishing still water on natural lakes or reservoirs. A perfect rod action we designed for pitching jigs in moving water is the Jason Mitchell Pro Walleye Series JM721MS which is a seven foot, two inch medium fast action blank.
Classic structure and big fish spots on rivers can also be surprisingly universal. Wing dams for example seem to attract and hold walleyes regardless of river. Stretches of rip rap are always worth checking. Log jams also seem to have a universal appeal as big walleyes love wood. Clam beds also have a certain mystique.
Across the Midwest and beyond, one theme often keeps repeating. Some of the biggest walleyes caught each season are often caught in shallow water. This big fish pattern keeps repeating from one river to the next. Often these big fish are alone and these shallow patterns produce far fewer fish than the mainstream channel patterns that are often responsible for producing numbers of fish. You won’t find piles of fish up shallow necessarily but when you are looking for one big bite, many top river anglers agree that one big bite will often come out of less than three feet of water.
Pitching jigs tipped with either hair or soft plastic has dominated the river scene for several years. For faster current, both hair jigs and ring worms fish very well. Paddle tails and fluke tails with more bulk often get preferred when fishing slower water. For casting and working a jig back through the seams where the current can change in velocity dramatically, I feel that I am usually much more successful if I error on the side of heavy in regards to jig weight.
Most days, I feel like I catch more fish if I use a heavy enough jig where I can still maintain bottom contact when the jig gets swept into the faster water. This also allows me some flexibility where I can drag or move upstream with the jig and also detect bites by watching the line. If the jig is too light where it is getting swept up off the bottom or if there is a lot of bow in the line caused by current, bite detection becomes much more difficult.
Walleye bites taking place on river systems right now offer some great fishing opportunities. Catching more river walleyes this spring is all about reading current and understanding current. Once you learn how to read water, you can not only identify key locations that typically hold fish and also repeat productive patterns.