Don’t get me wrong … when fall comes I love to hunt … deer, pheasants, deer, grouse, deer … did I mention I like hunting deer? But some days it’s tough to decide whether to hit the woods or hit the water, because this time of year can yield some of the best walleye fishing of the season, especially on rivers. It’s a sportsman’s paradox … so much outdoors to enjoy, so little time. That’s why it helps to understand the fall movements of river walleyes so you can get in on the great fishing and still have time to put in a few hours hunting before the day ends.
When it comes to locating fall river walleyes, it helps to think "Up River". Walleyes will move up river as the water cools. This is also true for reservoir walleyes as well as fish in large lakes with connecting rivers, as the walleyes will begin migrating to the upper river sections of the reservoir as the fall progresses. All this movement however is dependant on one thing … current. If it’s been a particularly dry fall and current is way down, the migration may be minimal and locating good concentrations of fish may prove more difficult. But in most cases, with reasonable current, the fall run is pretty predictable, and as the walleyes start bunching up, the fun really begins!
Great areas to find concentrations of fish are places that the bottom current is deflected or turned. Good bets would include man-made jetties, humps in the main channel, or even deltas formed by in-flowing tributaries. What you’re looking for are irregularities in the channel. It’s these irregularities that will ultimately hold fish as they make their way up river.
One of the best methods I’ve found for finding such irregularities is to work a likely area by vertical jigging. In the fall it’s hard to beat a jig tipped with a minnow to entice biters. Vertical jigging allows me to cover water as I keep my eyes glued to the sonar display. The current will flow over the irregularities so you’ll want to pay close attention to places that get shallower. The leading edges of these spots are what is referred to as "the face" of the structure. Often, while jigging through a spot, catching a fish will be the best indication of a key honey hole … just pay close attention to the spot the fish came from and what makes it different from the surrounding area. We recommend the use of "combo" sonar/GPS units like the Lowrance LCX-26CHD on the bow because once a good spot is located, you can mark it with a waypoint or icon making it easier to orient yourself to the spot.
OK, so you’ve found a "face" that’s holding fish. You could continue to circle the spot and vertical jig through it again and again, but we feel a better option is to concentrating your efforts on the up-current side of the irregularity. There are a couple of ways to do this. The first is to use your bow mount trolling motor to hold you in the current while you work the face of the structure. The biggest advantage to this tactic is that it allows you to move horizontally back and forth across the face covering the entire spot as you hunt for the walleyes. The second method is to anchor your boat up stream from the spot. This keeps you from having to worry about boat control and lets you concentrate fully on putting your offering in just the right spot to get bit.
Two tried-and-true river presentations will be your bread-and-butter tactics for coaxing these walleyes hanging on the face … jigs and 3-way rigs. Since you’re targeting fish in relatively deep current areas, jigs in the three eighths to half ounce sizes will work well most of the time. As for 3-way rigs, a typical set-up would include a one ounce weight with a one foot dropper to a 3-way swivel, combined with a two foot leader to what we like to call a "D-Rig" which consists of a red bead ahead of a long shank Aberdeen style hook dressed with a three inch Berkley Power Grub (chartreuse and white are favorite colors) which is then baited with a minnow or piece of nightcrawler.
Hanging upstream of the spot and "walking" the jig or 3-way along the face of it will keep your offering in the fish zone while the boat is kept upstream to prevent spooking. This is where that waypoint or icon will really come in handy. GPS is getting so accurate these days that with a little practice, you’ll be able to hold precisely upstream of a key area by looking at your boat position in relation to the icon on the GPS display to stay on key structure, whether that’s with the use of your electric motor or from an anchored position.
Two other options for targeting fish on this type of river structure have you positioning your boat parallel to the "face". In light current, casting smaller jigs upstream of the face and working down current into the spot can be a deadly presentation. The other option would be to cast crankbaits, which can be especially effective in shallower water where you have a long face such as you might find on a wing dam. Just make sure you’re working the crankbait so that it ticks along the face of the structure for best results.
I understand that the hunting season is a big deal … but the hunting can be just as exciting in the river as it is in the woods this season. Spend time in the woods this fall, but don’t neglect the great opportunities for fast walleye action that the fall of the year provides. After all, what could be better than a "surf and turf" meal of venison back straps and golden walleye fillets? Sounds like the perfect Thanksgiving feast if you ask me!