Winter has disappeared. Ice has turned to water. The days are getting longer. New life is evident everywhere.
For those of us who love to fish for river walleyes, it’s a time when we can escape like Houdini from our daily routines for a few hours on the water. We can turn a few months worth of dust into solid gold. We can make walleyes seemingly appear from thin air. If our heads were big enough, we might even be able to pull a walleye out of our hats.
Truth is, catching April walleyes or sauger isn’t all that tricky. It’s one time of year when nature concentrates these species in predictable locations as they prepare for and then carry out their annual spawning ritual.
These are hungry fish. Their metabolism is increasing as the water temperatures slowly climb. Instinctively, they eat more to build strength in the weeks leading up to the rigors of procreation. And with all those fish packed into relatively small areas, there is plenty of competition for food.
Exactly when the spawn occurs depends on water temperature and the length of the days, and it varies from one body of water to another. However, all walleyes and sauger in a given system don’t spawn at exactly the same time. One river can produce pre-spawn and post-spawn fish on the same day.
With all of these factors at work, all an angler needs to do is wave his or her magic wand, whether it’s a spinning rod, a trolling rod or a live-bait rod.
One of the unique aspects of fishing for walleyes at this time of year is that no matter what your favorite presentation, you can usually make it work. You can jig, rig, cast, drift, troll or anchor. You can fish with hair jigs, plastics, live-bait rigs or crankbaits.
The Magic Touch
Vertical jigging is probably the most popular method for catching April walleyes. Done properly, it allows the angler to keep his or her bait in the strike zone without requiring much energy from those big, lazy female walleyes to track it down and eat it.
Prime locations for vertical jigging are current breaks, eddies and the edges of sand flats.
In most river systems, there is abundant forage, especially in the tailwaters below the dams where walleye and sauger congregate in the spring. Because they are lazy by nature, especially larger walleyes, they seek out slack-water areas from which they can easily ambush prey with little physical effort.
While smaller males tend to roam the shallower sand flats, it’s been my experience that the most active larger fish can usually be found near the upstream edge of a current break or eddy where they get the first crack at any forage that passes by.
After an active feeding period, they likely slide back into the middle of the eddy or find something to rest behind along a current break (such as a rock, a sand hump or a stump) where they can still be tempted to eat if you make it easy enough for them.
River systems hold many species of fish and while the X111 HD can’t tell me for certain what species I’m watching below, the detail, definition and separation a quality unit provide usually tell me what I want to know.
Don’t overlook the shallow slack water, either. In some systems, the best place to get out of the current is along the shoreline where the high water that typically occurs in spring creates all kinds of hiding places. I’ve pulled some of my largest April walleyes from water less than six feet deep.
The key to vertical jigging is staying vertical
Current flow will dictate how heavy and what style of jig to use. In general, I use the smallest jigs that the situation allows. It’s imperative that you are able to maintain contact with the bottom and feel everything going on at the end of your line.
Once you start a drift, stay on top of your jig. Many anglers believe they’re fishing vertically, but in fact are dragging their jigs around and missing bites they never feel because of the bow the current is creating in their line under the water’s surface.
If your line is angled more than few degrees upstream, you either need to go with a lighter jig or slow down your drift until you can get over the top of your jig again. I use my MinnKota Maxim bow-mount to slow down my Triton 215X. If your line is angled more than 45 degrees downstream, you need to try a heavier jig and/or speed up your drift. Sometimes, all it takes is trimming up my Mercury outboard to pick up the speed necessary to stay on top.
Jig and plastic and/or minnow combinations can target a walleye or sauger’s senses of sight, scent and sound. In moderate current, a quarter-ounce Lindy Max-Gap jig with the bleeding red hook in one of the Techni-Glo colors is about as visible as a jig gets. Add a Munchies Thumpin’ Ringworm or Thumpin’ Grub for vibration and more visual appeal. Tip the rig with a minnow for scent appeal.
Especially strong current dictates changes in size and head style. Switch to a more aqua-dynamic jig head that cuts the current better like Lindy’s Jumbo Jig.
Another way to make your jig more visible is to add one of Headlight Lures’ fiber-optic bodies. They attach to the collar of the jig and have protruding extensions that create the appearance of glowing eyes. By using natural light for energy, they don’t need batteries or recharging.
April river fishing attracts plenty of anglers, and can create a lot of pressure and boat traffic in small areas. Sometimes, it’s better to pull out of the pack, anchor up and let the fish come to you.
As with vertical jigging, the best place to start is on the upstream edge of an eddy, washout or current break.
One advantage of fishing in this manner is that it allows an angler two presentations. You can dead-stick a live-bait rig while casting a jig-plastic or jig-minnow combination to seek out those active fish. Fan-cast as much of the area as you can, then pull up anchor, relocate 20 or 30 yards downstream and work that area over.
Wingdams offer another anchoring option. The physics of moving water create a dead spot along the face of the dam similar to an eddy, and there are usually scattered rocks and boulders where fish can wait in ambush, too. Another hotspot can be found on the downstream side of a wingdam just inside the tip where a current break is created as the water rushes past.
Sleight of Hand
While everyone else is doing the jigging thing, it’s also possible to catch April walleye and sauger trolling crankbaits.
Forget about the traditional belief that these fish can’t be caught on hard baits when water temperatures are less than 45 degrees. It’s been proven many times over the past 10 years that they will, indeed, respond to cranks.
April isn’t immune to cold weather, and that’s one advantage of cranking. You can set your lines and go without reaching into a minnow bucket or exposing your hands to the elements in the interest of maximum "feel" when jigging. You can also cover more water and sometimes find pods of fish away from the crowd that you can go back and work even more effectively with a jigging presentation.
For me, April trolling usually means lead-core line that keeps my baits in the strike zone along breaklines and edges where the bottom is irregular. Inside and outside river bends are likely areas to target, as well. I identify the stretch I want to troll by exploring it while watching my Lowrance. Because the X19 is also a GPS unit, it allows me to plot a trolling course that will keep my lures in productive water.
Another pattern that can pile up some fish is to line up a series of wingdams and troll across the tips.
If the fish seem to be fairly active, one of my favorite baits is a Storm Hot ‘N Tot. If they seem a little fussy, I turn to a Thunderstick Deep Jr. The new MinnowStick is another excellent option. In states where the law allows two lures per line, I like a three-way rig with a Lindy Jumbo Jig or Storm WildEye soft-bodied bait as a dropper and a small Thunderstick as a trailer.
Without a doubt, April is a great time of year to be on the water. It’s a great time to test your equipment to make sure it’s ready for the heart of the open-water season. It’s a great time to show family and friends what walleye fishing is all about.
It’s a great time to work your walleye magic.