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River Fishing
Winter River Walleyes by John Campbell


 One of the downsides to being a professional fisherman is that you donít always get to do what you want when you want to do it. One of these examples is winter walleye fishing in rivers. Although itís a great diversion for a guy like me who really needs a regular fishing fix, giving presentations and seminars at sports shows takes up almost all my free time. Donít get me wrong, I love teaching fisherman new and better ways to catch more fish, and Lord knows the time I spend talking fishing with people at these shows is great. I just wish I could sneak out more than I do and satiate that fishing itch in the middle of winter because it can be so much fun and youíre pretty much left alone on the river. All that being said, I do manage to get out there occasionally, although not as much as I used to. If you want to cure the fishing bug in the cold of winter, river walleyes is one great way to do it.

Lets try to understand a little about winter rivers and walleyes in them so once you hit the water youíll be ready to encounter them on the right terms. First of all, river water in winter tends to be the clearest of the year. The flow is generally steady and because itís so cold, there are no microscopic blooms to diminish visibility. The fish have moved to deep wintering holes and because of the increased visibility, can see your baits very well at depths of between 15 and 40 feet. The key is to find those deep wintering holes.

Most fisherman look towards washout areas beneath dams as they will contain sufficient current, deep washout holes, the water stays open, and usually plenty of bait. Dams are not the only place in the river that walleyes will winter however. If you have downriver deep holes you may find that you have concentrations of walleyes all to yourself that other fisherman never consider. If you can locate these holes, and there is bait in the area, you are almost assured that walleyes will be using those areas as their winter homes.

All my deep winter presentations revolve around jigging. There are distinct differences though between jigging in winter and other times of the year. I recently became number three on the all time winning list of money in professional walleye fishing and one of the things I attribute this to is that I generally fish faster than most of my competitors. Winter however, is not one of those times when speed is an asset. It can be one of those times where you can employ some non-traditional techniques to your jigging strategy to put more and bigger fish in your boat.

The first thing I do when I drop my Ranger 619VS in the water is power up the big 225 Merc Optimax and try to find the holes the walleyes are using. Once I find a prospective area, either beneath the dam, or in a downstream hole with bait, then I need to figure out what depth level of the hole the active fish are using. Although my Bottom Line NCC6500 is the best depthfinder on the market for locating fish, these fish are usually so tight to the bottom that it becomes difficult to mark them when going over them at the speeds my big motor travels.

The technique for locating and catching these walleyes is to start at the upstream head of the hole and drop my Motor Guide Tour Edition trolling motor in the water and slip downstream, matching the current with my boat speed and maintaining a totally vertical presentation with my jig. The starting setup consists of a 6 foot Shimano VSA-60MH medium heavy spinning rod teamed with a Shimano Stradic 2000 reel and spooled with 6 pound test Stren Golden Hi-Vis line. These components are especially adept at this presentation due to the balance of the rod, smoothness of the drag and instant anti-reverse of the reel, and the ability to line watch easily to detect light bites. Because we are fishing fairly deep, we need to use fairly heavy jigs, one quarter to one half ounce. You want the jig to be light enough to not thump hard, but be heavy enough that you can maintain its vertical position and still maintain positive bottom feel and contact. My favorite jigs for this endeavor are Lindy Fuzz-E-Grubs and color is important. I stay away from the neonís and brightís at this time of year and use dark colors like, blacks, blues, greens, and browns.

Bait size can be the most critical aspect of this combination. A half-inch in minnow size can tip the scales in favor or against you pretty dramatically. I favor river shiners and fatheads at this time of year and keep it on the smaller side, about two and a half to 3 inches in length, almost crappie minnows. Although I always have higher confidence with live bait trailing my jig, this is the one time of year that you can get by with only a twister tail or Fuzz-E-Grub body without any meat on the back of the hook. One other thing that I recommend is to always use stinger hooks at this time of year; they can make a huge difference between short bites and caught fish.

Our game plan for finding these fish is to work the breakline around the hole at precise depths. I generally start on the high side, around 15 feet and make my way through the hole maintaining that depth. I use one rod in each hand and keep my eyes glued to the Bottom Line NCC5300 on my bow. At this slow speed the depthfinder will show those fish that are belly to the bottom very quickly. Assuming that the first depth level was unsuccessful, then I move down several feet and make another pass through the hole. I continue to do this until I contact fish, either by catching them or marking them.

The jigging cadence you use at this time of year also needs to follow in the theory of slowing down to the fishís activity level. We want to maintain the bait in the fishes strike zone as long as possible. Most of my jigging cadences revolve around the use of a four count. In this scenario the most common cadence is to hover the jig and inch or two off the bottom for three counts and then lift for one count and drop the jig on controlled slack until it makes bottom contact. Then you lift the rod an inch and hover for another three count beginning the 4-count cadence again. Normally your hits are either going to be detected by a jump in your line or more likely you will just feel weight when you begin your lift. An alternative to this is what I term the vertical drag. Quite simply, this has no lift drop and you simply hover the bait in one position as you move downstream through the hole. You want to hover it in that one to two inch range off bottom and every now and then drop slightly to assure yourself that you are maintaining that distance but bring it right back and just hover.

Once I do make contact with the fish, then itís time to go to alternative techniques to maximize the catch. One of the patterns youíll notice is that once you locate the fish they will all be holding at a specific depth level in the hole and usually pretty tightly congregated. Although many of the fish youíll catch will be of the cigar variety, the eaters and trophies will be mixed right in with them. There are two things we want to accomplish when this happens. We want to hover longer over the congregation of fish and we want to trigger the larger fish. Both of these can be accomplished simultaneously by stepping up our bait size.

I switch tackle at this point to a baitcaster. I use a Shimano six and a half foot CO-66MB medium action Compre rod teamed with a Shimano Castaic reel spooled with 8 lb. test Stren Magnathin line. The Castaic reel has an instagage thumbar that allows me to release more line and engage the reel with just one hand. This allows for more precise amounts of line out while fishing one rod in each hand.

The jig I step up to is a one-ounce Lindy Fuzz-E-Grub. I remove the Fuzz-E-Grub body and replace it with a 6-inch creature or lizard and I also step up my minnow size. This size bait will allow more weight so that my slipping downstream will be at a slower rate and I can hover over the school longer. The larger profile also attracts more attention from the larger fish in the school who would rather spend less energy to eat more.

This technique does not require my line to be totally vertical either since I will be able to maintain perfect bottom feel with a line angle of up to 30 degrees. This also means that I will spend more time hovering over the school as I can actually move upstream with this rig and maintain that line angle.

Well, thereís my game plan for those times when I can sneak away in winter and scratch my fishing itch. Dress warm and get out there and experience a major river all to yourself and catch a bunch of walleyes in the bargain. Stop by and say hi at one of the upcoming sports shows and lets talk fishing. Maybe you can even tell me about your winter experiences on rivers and at least I can live vicariously through that! Perhaps I can even sneak away, and in that case, Iíll see you on the water


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