Late March 2016
Cold Water Trolling for Walleye and Sauger
By Charlie “Turk” Gierke
If it is not the clumsiest looking walleye fishing presentation, I do not know what is, but make no mistake, a three way rig done right catches fish, especially this time of year when the water temperature is in the forties. Also called the Wolf River rig, it is versatile as it can be cast or trolled.
Here I will discuss the basic trolling three way rig, it starts by tying your line from the reel to a three way swivel, and then cut a 4 to 8 foot leader, tie one end of the leader to a floating crankbait and the other end to the three way swivel. Then cut another piece of line 12 to 24 inches long, tie one end to the swivel and the other to a weight. There are tackle/line and length variations.
The variables are line type, super line or monofilament, how heavy a weight, how big the lure, how long for the leader or dropper to the weight. All pertinent questions and all matter. Usually I go by the rule of four to one on leader length to dropper length (this ratio helps keep the lure near the bottom and yet mainly snag free), i.e. four foot leader to one foot dropper. Eight foot leader to a two foot dropper. When first employed this feels like a clumsy rig, at least until your first nice walleye pops the bait. I mention clumsy here because of the tackle used, a gaudy swivel, a dangling 2 – 6 ounce weight and a crankbait trailing behind. There are days a long leader is needed to turn more bites, this is when an eight foot leader would be used. Though many days a shorter four or five foot leader catches the fish.
Line. I use either six pound test Suffix Elite monofilament on the leader and dropper. For the line on the reel I use Suffix 832 superline 10 or 20 pound test. For bite detection many anglers prefer superline on the reel especially when fishing deep in 25+ feet. I do like the forgiveness of monofilament and use mono on the reel during a walleye bite where the fish are just nipping at the rear treble hook. For rods I use a Limit Creek LCC69MHF, and for reels I like Diawa and Okuma line counters.
Weights. Keep the weight just above bottom, and the amount of lead to use is based on: how fast you will troll, if there is current, and how deep the walleyes are. The deeper, more current, and faster boat speed all require more weight. In most cases weight choices from two to six ounces will work. Also I must mention, to stay near the bottom and yet avoid snags when trolling it is preferable to keep the line at a 45 to 60 degree angle (as a reference 90 degrees would be a perfectly straight up and down vertical and zero degrees is your line exactly parallel to the water surface).
Boat speed. Once the water temp dips below 45 going faster than 1.5mph is too fast. When the water temp is 32 or 33 degrees, a speed of .02 to .05 mph, then a boat hover in place fighting the current, then troll forward again at that snails pace is the speed you need. In short boat speed is water temp dependent.
Lures. I have found Rapala original floaters F05, F07, and F09 are your best bets to landing fish. These stickbait minnow imitators are from two to four inches in length, wobble slow, and catch fish. Jointed lures and shallow diving shad styles also work, though the benchmark is the thin and straight floating stick bait. Larger lures do not always mean bigger fish, many times the smaller the lure you can get away with is best, on the other hand I feel in the deep that a larger lure is easier for the fish to find.
I use this technique guiding on rivers, but this is not a river specific technique, it is a fact if the eyes are deep, three ways trolled along the breakline in lakes catches fish.
Though it looks like a joke of a presentation, facts are facts, if the eyes are deep on either lake or river three ways trolled along the bottom of a breakline catch fish. The time is right to three way up walleye gold.
The moving water plays on the jig
Hold the lure right off the bottom
Feel the fast waters raise your lure
and the slow water drop it.
Very active fishing in the flow.
Fish to feel the slightest tick. Is it a fish?
Look at the water go, it moves in sheets, and splits and turns
The dark water comes back at you
Turns in a U returning from where it came
Drum beat drum beat downstream downstream
With the wild geese chants the river flows and flows.
03/19/16 C. C. Gierke
Chironomids – A top fish forage
Upon the second crappie hitting the ice, one of my buddies noticed his fish spitting out small maggot like “grubs.” Over the years, I have noticed but disregarded these same little critters, in fact the more I recalled the more I remembered this scenario happening.
Curious about this forage, and being a pilgrim on the eternal quest to understand why fish do what they do, a search started for the information needed to identify and educate about these “grubs”.
I landed at The U of M Chironomidae Research Group website midge.cfans.umn.edu headed by Dr. Len Ferrington Jr., Ph.D., Professor, Department of Entomology at the University of Minnesota. This site for the layman and the academic was most helpful, especially the Volunteer Stream Monitoring Interactive Verification Program used to identify aquatic insects was of particular interest.
Using the site I was able to identify the “grubs” as larvae of Chironomids, commonly called “midges,” they are a family of small flies whose larval and pupal stages are mainly aquatic. They are so diverse and widespread that they can live in most climates and a wide range of water qualities.
I contacted Dr. Ferrington late last winter. He says, “Most sport fish in Minnesota eat chironomid larvae at some point in their lives. Even fish that are carnivorous (and consume other smaller species of fish) benefit indirectly from Chironomids because many of the non-sport fishes such as minnows, chubs, darters and even young carp tend to eat large numbers of Chironomid larvae.”
He goes on to say this important key for ice anglers: “The Chironomids are not physically the largest aquatic insects available to fish in winter, but they are certainly the most abundant group. Sometimes they can be 5-50 times more abundant than the second-most abundant group of aquatic insects during winter. “
5 – 50 times more abundant! This would likely make midges the key forage in winter. The wintering larvae – as eggs would have been laid in late summer or early fall.
My mind next shifted to the age-old adage of “find the forage and you find the fish.” I wanted to narrow them down more and see what type of bottom they prefer, I did read that high organic matter was important but I questioned did they prefer high organic matter on a sandy, silty, or mud bottom? To this question Dr. Ferrington replied: “The larvae live in all three types of substrate, but tend to be more in dense silty areas with higher organic content.”
Narrowing down specific lake bottom habitat even more the Ph.D. Entomologist said: The larvae tend to be more abundant in silty areas near the deeper-water edges of beds of floating and submerged aquatic plants. However, in some lakes the increase in abundance is not very striking.
Going back to the day my buddies were putting crappies on the ice, The fish being caught were just off of the bottom in 28 fow. The fish had clearly just consumed the Chironomids and so my educated guess is they came from this depth. Then needing to know about depth distribution (location) of the larvae I asked Dr. Ferrington how midges are located across the deep water, he said: “Midges are usually not evenly distributed versus depth. In very shallow depth (1-1.5 meter) ice drag and or wave action in summer affects their abundances. At deeper depths organic matter may be more abundant but dissolved Oxygen can be reduced to the point where their abundances drop-off or they shift to species that can persist a lower dissolved Oxygen.”
I needed to know how far theses immature midges moved, Dr. Ferrington said
“ In some of our lakes there are more than 70 different types (or species). Some species stay relatively sessile and either crawl or undulate over the bottom. Other species, however, are known to periodically swim in the water column for short distances. In addition, when larvae metamorphose to pupae, the pupae then swim to the surface of the water so the adult can emerge. So, the pupal stage does actually swim through the water column in all species.”
From the website: Midges try to avoid predation by limiting their activity during daylight, and larvae and pupae take refuge in tunnels that they build in sediment.
This explains much fish activity in the lowlight periods at the end of the day. I can just imagine those “grubs” undulating over the bottom undoubtedly the fish would find them pretty quick.
Another interesting fact about midges: we now know that more than 183 species occur in the Saint Croix River from headwaters in WI to confluence w/ the Mississippi River! Several of the species have only been detected in the Saint Croix River, and some of them may be undescribed species.
In conclusion, given the abundance of Chironomids as a forage under the ice for panfish, anglers clearly need to hone in on this plentiful forage and fine tune angling location near these essentially site specific larvae. This scenario is far different than finding pelagic minnows as forage as fish are highly mobile; the Chironomid larvae on the other hand are not. Dr. Ferrington said distribution is not condensed in all lakes, he did indicate in certain lakes the larvae are more condensed or certainly more abundant on certain specific lake bottoms. Fishing in areas with high abundance of Chironomids certainly can only help angler catch rates.
Open water winter river fishing
Many anglers know about the fantastic coldwater bite that happens on the Mississippi River from St. Paul on south to the Iowa border. Most though have never taken part in this walleye and sauger scene. With the 2015 El Nino weather pattern in place providing above average temperatures this winter is an excellent for this open water fishery.
For many anglers a river is intimidating, it need not be. Here I will note basic where to and how to fish, plus safety and equipment considerations.
The United States Corps of Engineers built locks and dams on the Mississippi River to create a navigational channel for barge commerce. As the locks allow commerce to flow the dams restrict the natural migration of walleye and sauger creating a winter holding ground.
There are numerous productive techniques on the Mississippi River for catching walleye in shallow water on cast hair jigs, blade baits, and plastics. However for newfound river anglers learning about coldwater walleye – vertical jigging – by drifting with the current is the place to start.
The drift must be controlled and naturally go with the river flow. To make this happen, face forward into the flow with a bowmount electric, and allow the boat to glide with the current in this controlled manner. This is easy now that electric trolling motors are so advanced. Note – an upstream wind can slow the boat and make the lures drift downstream ahead of the boat (you are not vertical now), then you need to turn the bow into the wind.
Once boat control is achieved start to fish. As suggested before the best starting technique and most popular is vertical jigging with minnows (walleye style soft plastics are interchangeable here with minnows). A 3/8-ounce jig will do the job in the slower winter river current.
Drop the jig into the water and watch the line drop, know the depth from the depth finder, keep the lure 2” off the bottom. Any slack in the line indicates one of two things, a fish hit the lure on the fall or the jig is on the bottom. Keep the jig off the bottom through feel, and sight (slack line). Bright colored lines help enormously in seeing if the line is slack or tight.
With low flow winter conditions start the drift up near the dam in a 25 to 35-foot area and slide down stream until shallower water is reached. Note depths where fish are holding and work those areas thoroughly. Repeat productive drift passes. Because of the first class fishery on the Mississippi, it is surprising how many fish can be caught even on an angler’s first river winter outing.
Experiment with color - chartreuse, green, orange, are common jig colors. Soft plastics such as ringworms, flukes, twister tails, paddletails are productive and need not be tipped with a minnow. If they won’t touch plastics and all minnow bites continuously result in missed fish you can use a stinger hook.
There are times to be off the water for safeties sake, namely in the rising spring flood waters. Follow a few simple steps for safe open water winter fishing:
- Always wearing a proper fitting lifejacket; also fish with a partner.
- When heading upstream (into the flow) keep the red nun buoy on the right hand (starboard) side of the boat, and keep the green can buoy on the left hand (port) side of the boat. These buoys mark the main channel.
- Because of dangerous deceptive currents it is against the law to approach a dam closer than 150’ from the downstream side, and it is illegal to be within 600’ from any dam on the upstream side.
- Do not anchor in an ice flow. It is possible for flowing ice sheets, to become hung up on a boats anchor rope and sink a boat.
Do not put water in the livewell as complications with equipment can occur, simply place kept fish in the well without water, they will not spoil!
When fishing is over, you must allow water to drain out of the outboard motor by keeping it in a vertical position for a few minutes, then raise to travel. Some anglers also turn over the engine for a brief moment to expel water from the motor.
Fishermen turn heads towing water-dripping boats in the height of winter. Fishing the river some days is like shooting them in a barrel, it can be that good. Catches of several dozen walleye and sauger a day occur for many a river angler creating a warm and fuzzy feeling about this cold water winter fishery.
My guide service uses these highly specialized river rigs for walleye on the Mississippi:
Vertical jig with bait
Vertical jig with plastics (
such as ringworms, paddle tails, fork tail, etc.
Dubuque rig vertical jigged
This rig is a walleye slayer with both a jig and a long leader to a plain hook, here we use a combo of plastics and bait or both bait or both plastics.
Drag the above three presentations upstream or downstream
Dragging is absolutely deadly and it is one of my best presentations I employ in my guide boat to put customers on fish
Troll floating Rapalas on a 3-way rig
This set up is normally later in late winter early spring such as March. This trolling is best when the current starts to flow fast again and water tmps rise. The fish fight like whales against the flow here and it is a blast to get them the net.
Pitch (cast) Jigs with plastics
Lunker sized fish tactic. 8, 9, and 10+ pound fish are caught this way
Pitch blade baits
Lunker sized fish tactic. 8, 9, and 10+ pound fish are caught this way