Melting ice and snow doesn’t just signal the end of winter and the beginning of spring--it also means that it’s time to hit the river for walleye. And when temperature begins to dip toward freezing again, it’s time to give the river a second look.
While you can generally find bigger wallies in still, deep lake water, every veteran walleye angler can tell you the tale of a hard-won fight in heavy current, and for many fishermen in the northern US, spring and fall mean taking to cold rivers in search of big females with massive appetites.
But river walleye are a different game than their lake-bound kin, and a few tips can help turn the odds in your favor.
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Table of Contents (clickable)
- 1 River Walleye 101
- 2 Gearing-Up for Early River Walleye
- 3 Early Spring River Walleye Tips
- 4 Fall River Walleye Tips
- 5 Final Thoughts
River Walleye 101
On either side of winter, Mother Nature prepares a bounty on big rivers: monster walleye!
In spring, warm water and the spawn drive walleye into riverine systems, and in fall, you’ll find them seeking out the deep spots for a last good meal.
And both seasons promise outstanding fishing--if you understand walleye behavior.
Massive walleye wait for those brave enough to face cold water and frigid weather.
Sander vitreus, as the walleye is known to science, is a strong-swimming predator native to North America. At home in cold water and foul weather, the walleye relies on exceptionally effective low-light vision to hunt its prey, preferring active swimming to ambush.
Spring finds big females hungry after the long winter, looking to gain weight quickly before the spawn. And fall triggers an instinct to feed to pack on the pounds for the lean times ahead.
What more needs to be said?
Gearing-Up for Early River Walleye
River wallies don’t typically run quite as large as their lake-kin, but when you combine their weight and strength with the power of the current, you get more than your fair share of a fight!
For that reason, I strongly recommend medium power rods with enough backbone to really pull.
Among our favorites, you’ll find St. Croix’s Eyecon Walleye Spinning Rod. For river walleye, I’d select the medium power, extra-fast action, though I’m agnostic about the difference between the 6’3” and 6’8” options. Both have the power you need to muscle a big female, and both offer the sensitivity you’ll want to feel the bottom and detect a strike.
For the full run-down, check out this article:
For jigging, it’s very hard to beat a good spinning reel like the Cadence CS8. In the 2000 and 3000 sizes, it offers plenty of capacity and more than enough smooth drag to cushion your line and prevent a break-off.
To check out our full review and recommendations, look here:
Walleye lures and live bait
Jigging with live bait like a fathead minnow is always a solid choice, but in heavy spring currents, a slip float just won’t get the job done.
Instead, you’ll want larger jig heads that are heavy enough to buck current.
Soft plastics like Gene Larew’s 3 ½-inch Rock Banger are simply amazing when worked properly. The trick is to be truly vertical and never drag your jig behind your boat.
There are many good choices for walleye, and if you want a closer look, check out this article:
Early Spring River Walleye Tips
While it’s no surprise that the tried-and-true jig will get most of your walleye work done on cold spring rivers, there are a number of tips that’ll dramatically improve your odds.
Don’t ignore shallow water
Most anglers hunting a river for walleye are looking for deep holes that may hold clusters of fish.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s worth reconsidering that option when it’s pursued to the exclusion of all else.
Changes in the bottom composition attract hungry walleye!
Three simultaneous effects will drive walleye shallow in the spring, and all three should tell you that skinny water can be fat with fish.
First, all that meltwater will drive water levels up and strengthen currents. As Bill Shimota, a professional walleye angler explains, that’s not something walleye like. They’ll move shallow, looking for easier swimming as well as eddys and other current breaks where baitfish will collect.
Second, river walleye are going to start staging for the spawn, and anywhere you find a staging area near a spawning shallow, you can expect to find big females.
Third, while cold water may not bother walleye much, the prey items they feed on need warmth. As always, where you find the food, you’ll find the predators! Look for shallow areas that get a lot of sun, as well as large heat sinks like rocks.
Where there are active minnows, there’ll be active walleye, too!
Even small differences in water temperature can matter, and it pays to look for pockets of warmer water, even if it’s just a degree or two difference.
One tip that really helps: look for shallow flats adjacent to the main channel. The water there will be warmer, attracting walleye.
Walleye are sight predators that swim in search of prey. And while their eyes are well adapted to low light, they’re not magic.
When the water turbidity has your river looking like your morning coffee, they just can’t see well enough to home-in on your lure.
Pros like Mark Courts look for clear water offering a minimum of 6 inches of visibility.
Turk Gierke, a legendary fishing guide hailing from Minnesota, likes to look for rising or falling water that changes visibility. After a few days of murky invisibility, he likes to turn his clients on to newly clear water and the hungry walleye that hunt it.
Generally speaking, lower visibility tends to spread the walleye out, making trolling the go-to approach. But when the water clears, the bite will improve dramatically, and vertical jigging deep holes and staging areas really shines.
Search current breaks
Spring currents can be fierce. Prey items like minnows need a break from being swept downstream, and even strong-swimming wallies can’t work a constant current.
Anywhere you find a break, whether that’s caused by a big rock, a downed tree, a shift in the contour of the bottom, or anything else, you’ll find walleye.
Fall River Walleye Tips
Fall may not produce quite as many fish as spring, but you’ll also find fewer anglers and less pressure.
There’s no magic to fall walleyes on a river, just a few solid options that produce year after year.
Find a Hole
In autumn, the walleye are looking for deep holes and hunting areas where the bottom changes from gravel to rock or sand.
Anglers with quality electronics should put them to good use to locate these key spots, and the tried-and-true vertical jig is just as effective in fall as it was in spring.
For anglers working from shore or a boat not blessed by the latest offerings from Humminbird or Lowrance, a clear understanding of river currents helps.
Brad Fenson has worked his fair share of rivers for walleye, and he suggests that you “Start by searching for the confluence of two rivers, or where a creek or stream meets the main river. The water flowing in scours out the bottom of the river and produces prime fish-holding habitat. The other obvious place is on outside riverbends [sic], where the current digs away at the bank and bottom as it’s forced to turn.”
Clear Water Calls for Natural Colors
The spring thaw brings plenty of silt, sand, and dirty with it, muddying waters greatly. But fall offers no such challenge, and the water in most rivers will run clear and cold.
For savvy anglers, that signals a change in lure color.
Put away the chartreuse and white and throw soft plastics that mimic minnows in the two- to three- inch range. That’s a common prey item for hungry walleye in the fall, and while it’s not “hatching,” you should still be “matching!”
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