Posted on April 24, 2015 / By Jason Wright, Co-Host with Ultimate Outdoor Adventures TV
Spring fishing for Missouri River walleyes is a tradition that many anglers in the central Midwest have cherished for many years usually beginning in mid-March through early June. It oftentimes is the much needed relief for cabin fever, and this year has been no exception as we all endured colder than average temperatures throughout the winter months. This lingering “cold spell” has slowed the normal spring migration of walleyes into the upper reaches of the Missouri River and shortened our spring fishing season. This delay of “spring-like” weather has provided better walleye angling in the southern reaches of the Missouri River stretch from the Hazelton Boat Ramp south towards the ND/SD state line. But, with warmer weather forecasted and the notion that “spring” will eventually arrive, walleye enthusiasts have changed their conversations from heating bills to spring walleye fishing.
As daytime temps begin to warm into the 50’s and 60’s pushing the river water temperature into the low to mid 40 degree range, fishermen will soon begin to fill the parking lots at boat ramps up and down the Missouri River which have remained somewhat scarce due to the unseasonably cold weather pattern through March and into early April. Finally, the conversations at local restaurants, bait shops, and sporting goods stores are all about walleyes – Missouri River walleyes. Instead of the weather, the major discussions are centered on which ramps are best to use or “Are people catching good numbers of walleyes north of town? What is the water temperature? Are you using live bait or Berkley Gulp! Alive! products? What is the average size? How has the night fishing been from shore? Are the fish looking healthy? Any fish being caught on crankbaits?” The quick trips in and out of Scheels are no longer the norm as anglers stand amongst the fishing isles sharing last weekend’s success and planning for next weekend’s outing. All this while eagerly filling their baskets with jigs, fishing line, the newest crankbaits and other new products that recently hit the shelves hoping that the forecast for spring weather will hold true giving everyone an opportunity to enjoying this incredible resource.
River Rats are blessed with this spring opportunity to catch walleyes which are quite predictable in their springtime spawning ritual, as they migrate into the northern stretches of the Missouri River reach and its tributaries between the ND/SD border and the Garrison Dam to spawn. Eager anglers search for holding and staging areas in hopes of intercepting walleyes before and after they spawn. The predictable and oftentimes incredible pre-spawn walleye fishing opportunity will begin to subside as the spawn comes to an end when walleyes encounter impassable structures in feeder creeks/small rivers or preferred spawning habitat. The female walleye then searches for the proper structure and bottom content for laying her eggs. Water temperature in the mid 40’s is sought along with a hard bottom covered with pea size rock and gravel. A slight current flowing over the eggs is preferred to help oxygenate the eggs. The male walleyes are the first to begin the migration towards the spawning areas and oftentimes have been in the “staging” area(s) for a couple of weeks. The smaller aggressive males will actively search for females and their eggs to fertilize while at the same time providing excellent fishing opportunities for both shore anglers and those in boats.
Boat ramp access is normally good, but can change depending on the river level, amount of deposited silt/sand as well as ramp repair or necessary improvements in some locations; therefore, it is always good to periodically check out the Missouri River boat ramp status which is updated on the NDG&F website or go to http://gf.nd.gov/fishing/boat-ramps.
Similar to fishing on the ice, where ice houses attract more ice houses, boats often attract more boats. Though, these areas are ok to learn what to look for as far as structure and lack of current, there are oftentimes secluded and less pressured fish in many areas up and down the river. My point is once you begin to have an idea as to what a “good” spot might look like, both above and below the surface, it’s rewarding to head off on your own. Try to find similar spots which can oftentimes provide better fishing and a sense of accomplishment. There is always something to learn while angling up and down the Missouri River in search of walleyes, so be sure to pay attention to all the details no matter how simple they may seem.
A struggle some novice river anglers have is that river fishing is a little different than lake fishing in regards to navigating, locating walleyes, and boat control with current. Unfortunately, this uneasiness for the current has kept many from enjoying this spring fishing tradition; therefore, once you hit the water take your time and be smart…learning the art of understanding, navigating and fishing a river takes time. River walleyes constantly have to fight current; therefore, energy is used, so these fish try and locate any type of structure that is breaking the current.
River walleyes have learned to adapt to structure and/or areas that provide current breaks (areas of less or no current) so they don’t have to struggle against current all the time. A current break is caused by anything that partially blocks, completely blocks, and/or diverts the river’s current allowing for less or no current. These slack current areas can oftentimes be identified by the unmistakable “oil-slick” appearance on the surface separating the main current from the slack or no-current area; hence the term current break. Most slack water areas are found behind and/or alongside exposed and underwater sandbars. However, other obstructions that can cause current breaks are rocky riprap, wing dams, stumps or fallen trees as well as man-made obstacles such as bridge pilings.
The key to locating river walleyes is to start by finding the river channel and then begin looking for areas of slack current and/or the “oil-slick” on the surface nearest the channel. Walleyes will be using the channel to migrate in the spring and slack water provides staging opportunities as well as areas to ambush prey. Look for areas/spots that might jut out towards the channel or hard bends in the river which might act as a funnel or magnet for both baitfish and walleyes funneling them into the slack water and thus possibly narrowing your search.
These slack current areas allow the fish to rest and feed without fighting the current. Walleyes can dart out, feed quickly, and then return to their holding spot while conserving their strength for spawning. Good spots can be located up and down the river, so the wise angler will leave the pack and begin learning how and where to locate these spots. It may take some experimentation, but if you take your time you should be able to find these pre-spawn fish. Once you learn to read the river, finding walleyes becomes much easier, and when you find these prime locations you’ll most likely choose not to fish in a pack of boats again. Finding fish is the hard part. Catching river walleyes is much easier than locating them!
The equipment needed to get started is relatively simple. First, a good fishing rod to feel that light tap of finicky spring walleyes is a must. A quality graphite rod between 6 and 7 feet is preferred by most and my first pick is a 6’10” medium light Elite Tech walleye series by Fenwick. Then incorporate a small open face spinning reel spooled with 6# or 8# blaze orange or solar Berkley Sensation or 8# test high vis chartreuse Berkley NanoFil (uni-filament fishing line). I’ve found that Pflueger has a great line-up of reels and a variety of models that will exceed your expectations. Remember, you will spend most of your time fishing in water less than 15 feet deep; therefore, a small reel capable of holding 100 yards of 6# or 8# test is sufficient and will help keep your setup light.
Next, have a good supply of jigs ranging in size from 3/16 oz to 3/8 oz in a variety of your favorite colors. Jig shapes vary, but for most applications, you can get by with a typical round-head jig and then begin to experiment with different shapes as you begin to get more proficient. The majority of the time I use a 3/16 ounce jig tipped with either a live fathead minnow or Berkley Gulp! Alive! 3” or 4” minnow. The important thing is to maintain bottom contact whether vertical jigging, casting, or dragging your jig. Sometimes, as was the case this past week, we found that a slower jigging presentation was out-fishing a faster or more aggressive presentation telling us to keep it slow and simple. When you notice this, try a plain light wire hook with a colored bead and split shot above the hook. The distance between the hook and shot varies with the structure and amount of current. A great starting point is to attach the split shot about a foot above the minnow tipped hook and lengthen or shorten the distance based on success. Changing the color of the bead attractor can make a difference too when fish are less active and sluggish. The bait of choice is a good, lively fathead minnow.
A product I truly depend on during the spring bite is the Berkley Gulp! & Gulp! Alive! products which can turn a tough bite into an extremely successful outing. Besides, it gets exhausting always having to re-bait when the weather is cold or immediately after missing or catching a fish. This biodegradable non-plastic soft bait comes in many colors, shapes, sizes and is well worth having in your arsenal of walleye gear.
Boat control is another key to river walleye fishing, but with todays advanced 24v and 36v electric trolling motors, such as the Minn Kota Terrova, boat control doesn’t have to be difficult. Whether you’re simply allowing the boat to drift downstream or using your electric trolling motor to slip slowly with the current, you can vertical jig or cast jigs into shallow water using your jig as a probe to help visualize the bottom contour and locate fish. Another method which can be deadly is to what we refer to as “horizontal jig” which is to slowly troll upstream with your Minn Kota while your jig is behind the boat just far enough to make contact with the bottom while sweeping the rod forward and then dropping the rod tip backward until making contact with the bottom.
Nighttime wading can also be deadly during the spring because walleyes will move shallow to feed as well as search for a place to rest providing excellent opportunities for those that choose to fish for walleyes via moonlight. The stealthy night angler can catch big fish this time of year by casting jigs or shallow running stick baits with a tight wobble such as an Original Floating Rapala size #11 or #13. Similar to fishing in a boat, it is important to be mobile and look for those areas where walleyes can get into the shallows along sandbars or rocky rip-rap with reduced current.
It was a long cold winter even though it appears spring has sprung, and chances are that Walleye Fever continues to have a tight grip on you too. But the cure is as simple to swallow as a minnow dipped in olive oil. The prescription is easy, locate your jigging tackle, hook up your boat and head to a Missouri River boat ramp and participate in one of the best springtime traditions. Once you feel the unmistakable “tick” and hook into a few dandy Missouri River walleyes, your adrenaline will soar and you will be on the road to recovery. However, it has been my experience that it can take several successful trips to actually be cured!