GUTTENBERG — Mississippi River walleyes can make fools of even the best anglers with their proclivity for playing hide and seek.
Rising water, falling water, changes in the current, water temperature, clarity, cold fronts and forage are all factors that can keep river walleyes on the move for much of the season.
April is one month when the joke is on the fish.
It’s spawning season and that means walleyes show up in large numbers in predictable and limited locations, which flattens the curve considerably for those of us who enjoy the pursuit of these marble-eyed Houdinis.
Typically, the walleye spawn in the Mississippi is triggered by three factors — water temperature, weather and the photo period (amount of daylight hours). It will take place when the water temperature reaches the mid to upper 40s, but not all walleyes are on the same schedule so the process can stretch over several weeks.
Some female walleyes set up where they can get their bodies warmed up and eggs ready to dump as soon as possible. Others trickle into the spawning areas later. It’s not unusual to catch pre-spawn and post-spawn walleyes on the same day.
Prime spawning habitat features a hard bottom such as gravel or small rock that’s out of the main current with plenty of forage nearby. Female walleyes seek out eddies or areas of minimal current so their eggs don’t immediately wash away. Male walleyes often pile up in the stronger main channel current adjacent or below these spawning areas where they pick up scent that tells them it’s time to move up and do their part.
Catching big female walleyes can be a thrill, but they also are the future of the fishery so it’s critical to release them. New regulations on Pools 9, 10 and 11 of the Mississippi will help with anglers limited to walleyes at least 15 inches in length, none between 20 and 27 and only one over 27 inches. That should protect most of the prime spawners. Similar regulations in the lower pools from Dubuque to the Quad Cities have created outstanding walleye fishing.
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Because of the mild current and typically shallower water where the female walleyes will do their business, there are several productive ways to catch them. Jigs tipped with plastic or minnows can trigger some ferocious strikes, and blade baits like Sonars are worth a try. Other anglers prefer to slow-troll (less than 1 mph) three-way rigs with big jigs (1/2-ounce or larger) and minnows. Three-ways with stickbaits like Floating Rapalas can be dynamite, too. Use a leader of 5 to 6 feet with a Rapala anywhere from size 7 to 13 and choose a dropper weight on a 12-inch lead that allows you to keep contact with the bottom.
I prefer to target the male walleyes this time of year, and that requires a bit more specialized presentation for the swifter current. My tournament partner and I have had some incredible days pole-lining with Rapalas and heavy weights to deal with the current and to keep our lures closer to the boat when traffic is a concern. We won a Walleye Anglers Trail event at Guttenberg a few years ago with five males that weighed a combined 20-plus pounds using weights as heavy as a pound on heavy-duty catfish and muskie rods, but we also won a W.A.T. tournament at Bellevue with 6- and 8-ounce weights.
It’s not the most fun way to fish and it can be a lot of work when the river is full of debris, but it’s effective and the males will hang around those spawning areas for several weeks.
There are a couple of tweaks that can make a big difference. Mix up your presentations to gauge the mood of the fish. If single Rapalas are working well, try going to a ball-bearing snap swivel instead of tying directly to the eye of the Rapala. The extra action the swivel provides can trigger more strikes.
When singles don’t produce, try doubles. Tie a second Rapala about 18 inches behind the first. That kills most of the action on the first Rapala and sometimes the fish respond better to that. We’ve even gone so far as to break the bill off completely.
There are also times when it pays to add a floating jig head tipped with a minnow behind that first Rapala. And just last week I was out with a friend below the fishing float at Guttenberg when a fly behind the Rapala produced several fish when nothing else was working.
Weather-wise, our spring is off to a slow start. I was at Lansing on Monday and the water temp on the main channel was 45 degrees. That should mean some outstanding walleye fishing the next couple of weeks. Time for some fools’ gold.