3 Live Bait Methods for Early-Season River Walleyes
Across the Walleye Belt’s many rivers, the spring walleye bite is on. From the Rainy River in the far north, to the Detroit River, the Missouri out west, to the Mighty Mississippi, reports are popping up everywhere of a phenomenal bite happening right now.
With water temperatures reaching 40 degrees on a lot of river systems, not only are the smaller males biting, you’ve got a shot at a big female prior to spawn—which typically occurs when water temps fall between 44 and 50 degrees. And if the temperatures are reaching above that where you are, know that walleyes linger around following the spawn, which can mean plenty of bites, too—the females’ bellies just won’t be so fat for photos…
What’s the best way to catch early-season river walleyes?
Most experienced river walleye anglers have several presentations rigged as the mood of early-season walleyes changes daily, if not hourly. Any early-season river walleye angler should be prepared to be versatile and run through a lot of presentations, ultimately letting the fish reveal what they want.
What follows is a list of winning spring river walleye presentations, all involving live bait, although hair jigs, blade baits, stickbaits, and soft plastics are early-season options, too.
1) LIVE BAIT—JIG & MINNOW
Where a lot of anglers start—especially once fish are located—is with the tried-and-true jig and minnow, typically a chub or fathead.
You have a couple of choices when fishing a jig and minnow: You can fish them vertically below the boat or make short pitches to current seams, eddies, wingdams, rip rap—even wood—any kind of current break that might serve as resting points for upstream-traveling walleyes.
Fish Below the Boat
Fished vertically, you want to match your jig weight to the current speed. It’s best to carry a selection of jigheads ranging from 1/8-oz. up to ½-oz, although on most rivers, 3/16th, 1/4th, and 3/8th ounce get the most play.
However, on faster-moving waters like the Detroit and Columbia River, you may end up fishing 1-ounce—even 1-ounce and half—jigs to stay vertical.
The key is to feel the bottom and limit your movements to small pops only a few inches off the bottom. You want the walleyes to feel and smell the bait because given low water visibility in most early-season river scenarios, walleyes are not sight-feeding.
No matter what weight jig you fish, if the walleyes are short-biting and you’re missing lots of fish—or your minnows are coming up bitten in half—add an inexpensive stinger hook to the rig. That typically stops the short-biting issue and will put more fish in the livewell.
Make Short Pitches
Another way to fish a jig and minnow combo is to make short pitches and let the current move your bait slowly downstream, with a jig weight that only slightly touches bottom, moving in the current like real forage would.
2) LIVE BAIT—THE SPLIT-SHOT RIG
Many seasoned river walleye anglers will turn to simple split-shot rig when a jig and minnow fails to produce. All the rig takes is a leader of fluorocarbon (breaks off easier than monofilament or straight braid if snagged) attached to your mainline, a split-shot just heavy enough to reach bottom, your favorite live bait hook, and a minnow. Some anglers will add a green or pink chartreuse glow bead just above the hook for added appeal.
How far should you set your split-shot from the hook and minnow? Experts typically match the leader-to-sinker length to match water clarity, spacing wider in clear water and the opposite in murk.
There are a couple of ways to fish a split-shot rig: First, you can cast it to a current break and let the current move it around on and off bottom – or, you can fish a heavier split shot and just let the minnow sit in one spot just off current, often the ticket for extremely finicky fish.
If you’re fishing a rocky bottom and getting snagged frequently, take a page from the steelheaders’ handbook and use three or four smaller split-shot spaced evenly along your leader. This will reduce snags.
3) LIVE/ARTIFICIAL – SHORT DROPSHOT RIG
If the split-shot rig fails to produce, Whitewater pro staffer/professional walleye tournament angler, Jason Przekurat, fishes a short dropshot rig, typically on 10-pound braided main-line attached to 10-pound fluorocarbon.
When it comes to sinkers, bell-shaped dropshot sinkers or a couple (or a few) of the heaviest split-shots you can find are a good choice. You’ll want to experiment with ¼- through an ounce depending on the depth and current speed. Bell-shaped dropshot sinkers aren’t as prone to getting snagged in rock crevices as cylindrical drop-shot weights are. And using split-shots is an inexpensive way to get the job done, too. Snagged split-shots slide off with a little force and are easily replaced.
“First, you want your dropper as close to the bottom as possible. That’s where the walleyes are. My general rule of thumb is to match my dropper-length to the amount of water visibility. Let’s say you have 4-inches of water visibility; then I’m going to run 4-inches of line between the drop-shot weight and the hook,” offers Przekurat.
“Number two, I strictly use live bait—typically, that’s nose-hooking a fathead. The technique is not much different than throwing out a split-shot and a hook. But with a dropshot, the minnow is stuck in one spot if you don’t move that weight,” adds Przekurat.
“During early-spring cold water conditions there have been days when fishing a drop-shot was the only way you were going to get bit. What I like to do is have just enough weight to let the current move it around a little bit in the current seam. Occasionally, the rig might shift down to another rock but staying put is critical so I opt for heavier dropshot weights. It’s not something you want to work fast. It’s a deadstick technique. As the water warms up and walleyes get into post-spawn, you can work the same technique with soft-plastics, but early in the season there’s really no substitute for live bait.”
While soft plastics, stickbaits, Dubuque Rigs, hair jigs, and blade baits all have their place in the early-season river walleye playbook, sometimes nothing beats the old, tried and true live bait approaches described above—as well as a new one to most of us, Jason Przekurat’s take on the dropshot rig.
Now get out there and give ‘em a spin! The river bite is on!