116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR FALLS - Every now and then, somebody offers to grab my tackle bag when we're loading the boat for a day on the Mississippi River.
Then, it's a grunt and a groan as they hoist it over the gunnel.
'Holy ----, Newhoff. You're going to give me a hernia. What do you have in here, a couple of anchors?”
Actually, it's just the leadhead jigs I can't leave home without when pre-spawn walleyes are the target in March.
It's all about having the right tool for the job, and that's a big reason I make my own jigs. I've got a deep supply in multiple styles, sizes and colors to keep me fishing effectively in the broad range of conditions and situations the Mississippi can present early in the season.
My tournament fishing partner, Neil Hammargren of Waterloo, fell in love with jig fishing at a young age. There's nothing like the distinctive thump of a walleye inhaling a leadhead, and we've pitched them, bounced them, snapped them, danced them and dragged them into some memorable days on the water.
One day neither of us will forget occurred in early March on Pool 9 out of Lansing. Large chunks of ice were floating downstream, but we found a concentration of female walleyes in the 5- to 8-pound range on a shallow sand flat 6 to 10 feet deep with mild current a mile or so below the lock and dam. We suspect they were there because the water was a few degrees warmer, which could serve two purposes. It likely attracted some baitfish, but it could be those bigger females seek out that warmer water to help heat up their bodies and jump-start the spawning process.
Whatever the reason for their presence, they were hungry. Neil caught a couple pitching quarter-ounce jigs tipped with ringworms, but they really responded when we switched to live-bait jigs with large fathead minnows threaded onto the short-shank, wide-gapped hooks. Our best five fish weighed a little more than 25 pounds that day and it could have been more if not for one giant walleye that escaped when my line got cut by an iceberg.
Another time on Pool 9 we were struggling to catch quality fish. The river was high, fast and dirty and the only winning-caliber fish seemed to be tucked into the small eddies below the concrete and steel barge moorings along the Wisconsin shore. Based on the number of anglers locked into those spots during our pre-fishing, we knew it was unlikely we'd be able to get one of those spots during the tournament.
We needed an alternative. We tried trolling Rapalas, which produced a few smaller walleyes. Then, the day before the tournament, we pulled into a 35-foot deep scour hole between two wingdams. We didn't boat any keepers, but I had one solid thump on a jig-and-minnow combo where a walleye bit the minnow off behind the head.
The next day, we tried everything else that had produced fish but we didn't have much to show for our efforts. About 2 p.m. or so, we decided to give that scour hole another try. We anchored on the upstream edge, pitched jigs with 5-inch plastic bodies into the shallow water near shore and slowly worked them down the break-line into the hole. We boated four walleyes that were all in the 3- to 4-pound range and pulled a third-place finish out of our hats.
High, fast water tends to be the norm in March, and often we've found our best bites drifting deeper, 15- to 20-foot break-lines that are at least somewhat out of the main current. Fishing those walleyes effectively means heavier jigs with more aqua-dynamic head styles that cut the current and keep your jig in the strike zone near the bottom.
Our go-to leadhead for those situations is a banana style hair jig tipped with a minnow and a stinger hook. Banana heads have some unique properties that can be helpful. Their shape and tying eye location means when they are on the bottom or fished vertically, the minnow and stinger are an inch or two off the bottom right in the face of walleyes hugging the bottom.
Sometimes, walleyes become extremely hard to catch during adverse weather and river conditions. That's when dragging jig-and-minnow or jig-and-plastic combos slowly downstream along flats and breaklines can be the answer.
Neil and I also stumbled across one other surprisingly good method during a tournament on Pool 4 of the Mississippi.
It was a tough bite and we weren't quite ready to commit to a trolling pattern. Then we drifted over a small gravel bar with quarter-ounce jig-and-minnow combos, and Neil had a bite.
'Let's get back on top of that rock and work it over,” he said.
Once we got back into position, I put one rod in a rod holder while baiting my other rig. The 'dead stick” doubled over and I hauled in a 3-pound walleye. I decided to try it again and put it back in the rod holder while I jigged with the other rod. It wasn't long before I boated another walleye.
'What are you doing back there?” Neil asked.
'Nothing,” I answered. 'Literally nothing.”
We refined that technique to what we came to call 'wiggle jigging” where we'd hold the jig about six inches off the bottom and just twitch it a little bit now and then. The end result was another solid catch that vaulted us into a top five finish during a super tough bite.
In the end, it's about having the right tool for the job at hand. Not all jigs are created equal, and desperate times can call for desperate measures.
So, whenever someone cracks wisely about the heft of my tackle bag, I smile. Some things are worth the weight.