Locating High Water River Walleye
This time of year customers want to shake off cabin fever by landing some nice walleye and sauger, but some are concerned that finding walleye in the high Mississippi River water will be a difficult task. I tell them finding fish in high water and fast flow is not as hard as it may appear. In fact locating walleye in high and near flood levels is actually straightforward. Here is why, fish like all animals, need to conserve energy. So when the middle of the river (the main channel) is roiling and churning and flying downstream at over 90,000 cubic feet per second, ask yourself, “If you were a fish would you be out there?” No, you would not. By deduction, the main channel can be eliminated.
With the main channel eliminated an angler is then forced to look to the edges. However when the river is high, the flow may be fast from bank to bank, with no heavy current relief at a particular cross section of the river. So not just any edge or bank will do, this is where reading water comes into play. You need to read the water and find and find a stretch of river where the flow is not fast near the bank or shore. You are looking for a current break.
Current breaks are areas where the water is flowing slower than the main channel. Eddies, Back flows backwater bays, lock channels, running sloughs are all current breaks. These areas can have moderate or low flow and this is where most often you will find the fish.
Eddies are circular water flows, like a whirlpool. Eddies are created when water turns away from the main flow at a right angle, then turns again flowing upstream, then turns toward the main flow, and finally turns a fourth time near the main flow to complete the circle. Eddies are created by an object such as shoreline points, extended riprap, bridge abutments, and near the shore of wing dams. If the object creating the eddy is large the eddy will be proportional in size.
Back flows are areas where the main channel is flowing so strongly that a portion of the water breaks off and makes a right angle turn away from the main flow, then this water continues flowing and turns again at a right angle now flowing upstream. Back flows are oval shaped instead of tight circling like an eddy; the water in a back flow reverses direction and flows in line upstream for a ways like a running track around a football field. Back flows can be as large as 100 yards or the size of a long driveway.
Backwater bays are also current breaks; these bays have a dead end where flow does not reach. Backwater bays are normally best fished on the interface between the slow bay water and the fast main flow. This interface is called a current seam, a seam between fast and slower water.
Lock channels (of the lock and dam systems) are very similar to backwater bays these are areas out of the main flow.
Running sloughs are side channels and smaller than the main channel, they are often cut out of the sand shoreline in areas where the river makes a right turn to shore, but over a long period of time the water cuts through the sand and makes its own channel. Often in high water running sloughs are areas where the entire water in the slough is substantially slower than the main channel. Many times the flow is nowhere near as fast as the speed of the main channel and is ideal flow for walleye, and then walleye will locate on the bottom and are not pushed to the edges.
I mentioned current seams, the interface between fast and slower water. Current seams are paramount to river walleye fishing, and a whole other topic altogether. I will say this though, current seams are often where the fish are located in current breaks.
Briefly, vertical and dragging jigs, pitching jigs and blades, trolling stickbaits on three ways, are all very effective in these areas depending on the exact details of the current break you are fishing. Although this article is written from my guiding experience on the St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers, the theory here has proven good on any river I have fished. Keep any eye on the water levels because as long as the water stays high and does not drop or rise much, the fish you found will hold in that same location until conditions change. Some of my very best river fishing experiences for getting the net wet has taken place in the high water.
Fundamentals of fish holding depths based on light penetration and water clarity - Part 3
(Parts 1 and 2 below)
Wing dams. These man made linear rock structures are fish magnets, and generally lay perpendicular to the rivers current flow, they are placed in series to speed water flow to help fight sedimentation of the main river channel.Wing dams are a joy to fish, the thrill of working a perfectly weighted jig on light line along the face of a wing dam, detecting a bite, and setting the hook into a solid head shaking walleye is a thrill river anglers live for.
Light level and water clarity factors comments on wing dams
Fish move shallow onto wings dams when:
Current flow increases – higher current decreases light penetration, lower light penetration means fish move shallow.
Water clarity decreases as a result of darkening water clarity associated with water inputs (rain, melt).
Baseline water clarity decrease is a real time issue; the baseline or starting point water clarity needs to be known. As a general rule the darker the water the shallower the fish locate.
Light levels affect wing dam fishing as well, in the late fall when the water is clear as no recent rains have raised the water level and decreased the water clarity; fishing wing dams is very productive but not in the day, but at night.
As a rule 4 feet of water going over the top of the wing dams is when you should target these rock structures. The fish can be on top or on the face (front edge). You need to understand water clarity decreases as rivers rise, once rivers crest the clarity stabilizes darker than the rise, and when the river falls the water slowly clears. This water clarity decrease or dirtying plays just as much a role in fish locating shallower as does the increased current flow.
How to catch fish along the face of a wing dam
Anchor within casting distance of the wing dam. Actual boat placement depends on how fast the river is really flowing, but that is a topic for another time.
Sweep cast. Here is how to sweep cast. Cast a jig just in front of the wing dam towards the shore side of a wing dam. This cast has a cross current angle away from the boat. The fishing line will soon catch in the water flow and become pulled straight back behind the boat. The jig and fishing line is now inline with the current flow. The jig just swept the face of the wing dam; at any point of the sweep you can get bit. Now let the jig sit straight behind the boat for a little bit and see if the fish come get it. Recast.
Here the bottom the depth would be approximately 6’ to 14’ feet deep. To heavy a jig will not move and become easily snagged, too light and it will not skip the bottom. A split shot weight and plain hook/bait is also an excellent way to fish.
To fish the tops of the wing dams I prefer about four feet of water, and I believe the best way to fish the top of the wing dams is to cast crankbaits like the Rapala Jointed Shad Rap. Here either a sweep cast or a straight retrieve works.
Fundamentals of fish holding depths based on light penetration and water clarity - Part 2
(Part 1 below)
Part one spoke on the principle of fish holding shallower as light penetration and/or water clarity decreases. This is first in a series showing this principle in action.
Rock piles, points, islands, and reefs.
Starting with the least complicated scenario, it is clear fish move shallower onto these structures when the wind increases and/or the light penetration into water decreases (such as a sunset or heavy clouds), this is an ironclad rule proven time after time. The important rule to remember here is fish location or movement is determined by the degree of light penetration change. So moderate to light winds do little to move fish shallow, but strong heavy winds will flat out put fish on top of shallow structures. Also cloud cover obviously differs from a setting sun for fish movement.
How to: Two proven techniques amongst many techniques that work on any lake with shallow rock piles, points, islands, and reefs is to anchor up within casting distance and cast cranks and slip bobbers. For bobbers bait choices are leech, night crawler, or minnow, cast to the top or lip of these structures. Make sure the slip bobber is weighted with split shot so it will easily sink upon a bite. For solid hook sets on slip bobbers and crankbaits (where fish easily throw the hook) use Limit Creek extendable smoothie model LCSE83MLF. When slip bobber fishing let the bobber sink, reel in the slack line and when you feel the weight of the fish set the hook with hands at forehead level. This rod simply brings fish to the net when fishing bobbers or cranks better than any I have ever seen.
Fan cast original floating Rapala’s or Husky Jerks to the same area, be sure that your crankbait hooks are sharp you would be surprised how fast hooks become dull. When setting the hook sweep sets to the side at the angle of the retrieved line work best.
Next I will discuss wing dams.
Fundamentals of fish holding depths based on light penetration and water clarity - Part 1
My outdoor thermometer is pegged at -20 degrees below zero today; I feel worlds away from being out in my boat, but in my mind I am not too far away. I figured I would spruce up an old article of mine on how light levels and water clarity are large factors in fish location. I present this from a walleye angling perspective as the walleye is by far the most negative phototactic fish I angle for; if you understand how light and specifically light penetration affects marble eye movement the rest of the fish we have in the upper Midwest are understood.
Anglers know that walleye have unique eyes allowing them to see particularly well in lowlight. This eyesight creates a well-proven pattern of walleye being caught in shallower depths as light penetration decreases. There are three factors that determine light penetration into water; light intensity, current, and wind.
Light intensity - The actual amount of sky cover and rain affect the amount of light. The other main factors are a setting or rising sun, a full or new moon. Simply heavy clouds, rain, or a setting sun decrease light penetration.
Current - Fast water flow decreases the amount of light penetration into water.
Wind - Strong winds drive walleye shallow, the more wind, the higher the waves, and the higher the waves, the less light penetration into the water.
It is important to note that all three factors presented above are temporal, meaning they relate to time situationally as these factors change from minute-to-minute or hour-to-hour. Usually current flow will not change from hour to hour, unless you are on one of the Mississippi River fishing below a lock and dam and the Corps of Engineers open or close the dams.
The second leg of walleye depth location is water clarity. The darker or dirtier the water the less light penetrates into the water. Like a shade on a lamp or dirt, grime, and salt spray on your cars headlamp, waters with low clarity diffuse the light and reduce its penetration.
There are two factors determining water clarity on lakes and rivers:
Baseline Water clarity. Each lake or river has differing water characteristics of suspended and dissolved particles and may have tannins as well. These suspended and dissolved particles and any potential tannins derive a waters baseline water clarity that from my estimation is usually static or similar from day to day. Waters high in suspended and dissolved particles or tannins and lignins have low water clarity.
Temporal water clarity. Rivers and streams water clarity varies and differs over time thanks to their tributaries. When the snow pack melts, and April showers come, the creeks, streams, and small rivers contribute suspended load and dissolved load of eroded sediment into the now darkened water. The result is water that reduces light penetration. Algae blooms occurring in the summer are another factor to darken the water clarity. Lakes or rivers with heavy algae blooms present at the time of fishing present poor catching.
To put this together conditions change, daily and hourly observations need to be noted to help you get the net wet. When the winds pick up the fish move, when the clouds roll in movements happen again. Heck now best lure colors choices might change as well. I am not trying to frustrate anyone but to open up the fishing rulebook as I see it. River fishing has taught me fishing is not hear today gone tomorrow, but hear one hour gone the next. To sum this up the theory here is fish are caught shallower as light penetration decreases either by the reduced penetration of dark water or wind as an example. Now let me talk about some specific situations I have encountered over the years fishing… part two to be continued next week…
The Mississippi River from Prescott, WI all the way down south to the Iowa border is open year round for walleye and sauger fishing. In other words the season for walleye never ends here on the mighty Miss! Once the weather breaks and gets in the high 20′s, 30′s, I conduct guide trips down on the Mississippi.
Generally speaking there are windows to do this in January and February. The fishing can be fantastic, we fish light lines on Limit Creek medium light rods (LCS69MLF) mainly employing jigs and plastics and/or minnows. The fish are delicious from the frigid waters, and consumption advisory differ little from the rest of the Minnesota inland waters, and for the general population the river is listed as ” a meal a week is safe for consumption.”
This open water bite for good numbers of 1 to 3 pound walleye and sauger during the height of winter is a fun adventure for those never experiencing it, and treat to return to for those that have.