It’s hard to beat moving water for early-season walleye fishing. In both small, free-flowing rivers and large river systems altered by navigation and wing dams, walleyes begin their annual upstream spawning migrations when water temperatures reach the upper 30s and low 40s. Best of all, the fish congregate in predictable locations and are especially susceptible to jigs.
In small, shallow rivers, walleyes gather near drainages from swollen marshes, rock and gravel shoals, shell beds, and riprap banks. In larger rivers, key places to fish include shelves near deep holes below dams, and the mouths of feeder creeks. Slack water often forms near heavy current flows, and these eddies are walleye magnets.
Presenting the Jig
Shallow-water conditions-like where marshes seep into rivers, along riprap banks, and over hard-bottomed shoals-call for 1/16- to 1/8-ounce jigs and a casting presentation. Cast across the current and drag or slowly hop the jig over the bottom. In murky spring water, short casts are the rule.
When fishing near regular spawning areas, such as wing dams and the tailraces of navigation dams, search downstream for shallow eddies adjacent to deep water. Often, heavy females stage here when water temperatures are too cold for spawning.
In deeper water, say 10 feet or more, vertical fishing produces best. However, the boat must drift along with the current. After positioning the boat up-current from your chosen fishing area, drop a jig straight down to the bottom and allow the boat to drift with the flow. A boat that drifts unabated, however, soon slides away from the jig, because the current is slower near the bottom than on the surface. A bow-mounted electric motor lets you stall the boat’s drift and keep close to the jig. Some anglers refer to this as following the line.
Use a jig just heavy enough to get to the bottom. In swift currents, this could require a jig weighing 1/2 ounce or more. Drop the lure straight down to the bottom, lift it up a few inches, and then slowly jig or just barely move it. The biggest mistake anglers make when drifting and jigging vertically in cold water is working their lures too aggressively.
Vertical jigging also works well near the deep mouth of a feeder stream. Here walleyes may relate to the upstream point, the downstream point, or the deep hole between the points. Be sure to check all locations, since walleyes sometimes cluster in small areas.
Size, Shape, Color, and Bait
For casting, fish 1/16- to 1/4-ounce jigs on a sensitive, medium-action spinning rod spooled with 6-pound-test monofilament. Jigs as light as 1/16 ounce work well in extremely shallow conditions; you’ll sometimes take springtime walleyes in less than 2 feet of water. A 1/8-ounce jig serves well in light currents where the water is up to 15 feet deep, and also in stronger currents in water up to 10 feet deep. For deeper water and swift currents, jigs from 1/4 to 1 ounce may be necessary to stay down near the bottom.
Vertical jigging calls for heavier jigs, 8-pound mono, and a medium-heavy-action spinning rod. In areas strewn with riprap, flooded stumps, timber, or other snags, step up to 10-pound line. All jig hooks should be honed to needle sharpness.
Some walleye anglers prefer flat jighead designs that cut the current and are less inclined to spin in the flow. This reduces line twist, provides better control, and allows for a more natural presentation. Chartreuse, hot orange, and other bright or fluorescent colors provide an edge in murky water, which is common in the spring. Blue or sparkle are good bets in clear water.
It’s important to remember that most forage is large early in the season, so walleyes are accustomed to feeding on minnows or perch 6 to 8 inches in length. A big walleye has a hard time resisting a jig tipped with a large minnow and bulked up with marabouu, bucktail, or a plastic body. When fishing big minnows, use a jig with a wide hook gap. To compensate for light bites that often occur when fishing large baits, add a stinger hook.