Hall of Fame Legendary Anglers Keith Kavajeca and Gary
Parsons share a few tactics for catching walleyes when the rivers run high.
Fishing moving water for river walleyes can be intimidating enough even with normal water levels. Add to the equation the conditions of high water due to extensive rain and/or run-off, heavy current and water color resembling chocolate milk and the idea of catching fish with any kind of consistency can be down right scary. These are precisely the obstacles many anglers are forced to deal with every spring on many of the countries most famous walleye rivers.
Our goal here is to share a few of our techniques for fishing heavy current and high water, realizing that although this situation isn’t always the best walleye fishing in the world…fishing “heavy water” is often the best walleye fishing available for the time of year.
Against the Flow:
The first technique we’ll talk about is fishing “upstream”, or against the current. We have used this technique of fishing on the Mississippi River on a few occasions. While high water is notorious for pushing fish shallow, most walleyes will be set up along the same old channel breaks that we’d normally fish during lower water, but due to the heavy current these “high flow” areas are tough to fish.
One deadly technique here is to run heavy bottom bouncer rigs. Two and three ounce Rock-Runner Bottom Bouncers trolled very slowly upstream against the heavy current. The bottom wire of the bouncer should just tick bottom as you move along. Behind the bouncer we’d run a rig known as a “Dubuque Rig”. It consists of a 3 foot snell, a red bead, a Mustad #2 gold Aberdeen hook on which is threaded a twister tail style grub like the Berkley Neonz Power Grub adding both scent and bright color (important factors when fishing dingy water). The hook is then dressed with a piece of night crawler, a minnow or a leech. The key is to move this rig slowly along the contour of the channel break, keeping it in the strike zone. Use thin diameter, no stretch FireLine for this technique (in this case 10-4 FireLine) because it has an incredible amount of sensitivity and very little water resistance allowing you to use the lightest bouncer necessary while maintaining bottom contact.
A good trick to keep in mind is that when you do hook a fish; let your boat drift back with the current during the fight then pull the boat right back through the same area for another pass. These fish will often run in little “rat packs”, and you’ll be able to pick off two or three before spooking the pack. Then it’s just a matter of covering water again to contact the next bunch of fish.
Wing Dam Savvy:
Wing dams are also important river structures to key on in heavy current situations. These man-made obstructions are designed to alter the flow of the current, and are often good spots for attracting walleyes in rivers. Most anglers fishing wing dams for the first time tend to fish the side of the structure. You may think that the back side of the current break would be where the fish would be. In reality, the upstream face of most wing dams harbors a pocket of dead water where the current rebounds off the front of the dam, giving the fish an ideal spot to wait for food flowing downstream with the current.
The best set up we’ve found for working wing dams is a “3-way rig”. Here, use a 3-way swivel with a short dropper (6 to 9 inches) to a “pencil” style lead sinker (these tend to be more snag-resistant in rocky areas) and a 3 to 4 foot snell to a 1/16th ounce FireBall jig tipped with half a crawler or a minnow. The small jig works nice because it’s light enough that the current can still move it around, yet heavy enough that it stays near the bottom where the fish are. On the jig we do like to add a stinger hook when using minnows to cut down on short hits.
Just like with the Dubuque Rig technique, boat control plays an important part of fishing wing dams. Although covering water is not the goal, boat position is vital. Whether using your bowmount trolling motor, kicker motor or both, the key is to position and hold the boat just upstream of the wing dam. Work your rigs so that you can feel the transition from softer bottom to rock bottom (at the base of the dam). Keeping the sinker right on that transition will allow the small jig to dance along the rock face of the dam where the fish are holding. From there it’s just a matter of slipping the boat back and forth along the face of the wing dam until fish are contacted.
Although thought of as a technique for more slack water situations, vertical jigging can still be very effective in high water-heavy current conditions. Fast current vertical jigging works best when the fish are shallow (typically 8 to 10 feet). Using either a Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Jig or adding a Buck-Shot Rattle to a jig like Bass Pro’s XPS Walleye Jig, gives off a little extra sound that is a big advantage in dingy water. This is also a time to use a more aggressive jigging action than you may normally use. Give the jig a sharp pop off the bottom and hold it a couple heartbeats before slowly lowering back down. As soon as you feel bottom, pop it again. Don’t let the jig sit on the bottom very long at all…it will drag in the current and snag.
Due to a more aggressive jigging action, live bait doesn’t always work well. More durable soft plastics, like the Berkley Power Jig Worm or Power Minnow work great because they have good actions and the added scent is a plus in off-colored water.
Go With The Flow:
In any river, fish are accustomed to seeing their food float past, with the flow of the current. With that in mind we’d like to point out one more technique that can be very productive in heavy current scenarios. Again, a bottom bouncer is put to use, this time coupled with the old stand-by spinner rig. But instead of presenting this rig against the current, we’re going to run it with the current…in fact even slightly faster than the current, in order to get the spinner blade to spin. When you do this it’s going to feel as though you’re flying down the river, but the system works. Moving with the current allows the use of a slightly lighter bouncer (usually 1 1/2 ounce to 2 ounces) and keep the snell on the spinner short…about 12 to 18 inches. There’s no need to worry about spooking fish with all the hardware…with the rig moving just faster than the current, the fish has but a split second to react to your offering or miss out on an easy meal.
Areas where this works especially well are really quite common in many larger river systems…hard bottom areas that resemble a “washboard” or series of small “dunes” created by the current running over a flat sandy bottom. The “dunes” built up by the current action offer a bunch of small current breaks that fish settle down into. These areas can be productive any time, but seem especially good in high water. Other hard bottom areas like clam beds can attract fish much the same way, but are much more difficult to locate.
While these are techniques were honed on larger rivers and used primarily in high water brought on by spring rains and run-off, weather patterns over the past couple of years have had us witnessing high water and heavy current in all sorts of rivers all fishing season long. Don’t be intimidated by fast running rivers…the walleyes are there and are still catchable if approached with the right tactics. Take our word for it, learn to catch “heavy water” walleyes consistently, and you won’t be intimidated by any walleye water, any where, any time!