Go With the Flow
Feb 27th, 2006 by OutdoorsFIRST
Modified Feb 27th, 2006 at 12:00 AM
Winter can wrap its fingers around the upper Midwest tighter than Paris Hilton’s grip on her credit cards.And for those of us with a burning passion for open-water fishing, that can make for some long months between that last outing in November and the first trips to our area rivers in March.Ice-fishing is a great alternative, but I don’t get the same thrill looking down an eight-inch hole or concentrating on a flasher for hours on end as I get pitching jigs onto a shallow flat or working a breakline from the comfort of my Ranger boat. Why settle for Swiss cheese when you can have a solid block of cheddar? Fortunately, there is usually a significant area of open water immediately below the dams on most major river systems and western reservoirs. Two of my favorites, in large part because of my location in northwest Iowa, are Chamberlain and Pierre on the Missouri River system in South Dakota and the Mississippi River anywhere from Minneapolis to Lake Pepin. Walleyes and sauger concentrate in these open-water areas below the dams because there’s an abundance of food and because their natural instincts tell them to migrate in preparation for spawning. I’ve always marveled at a walleye’s innate ability to seek out the current necessary to hatch its eggs and to travel as far as it can so that the newly hatched fry can be dispersed and carried downstream to reduce the threat from predators.Where dams are present, that’s as far as the fish can go, and once the walleyes get there, they have no reason to leave given the easy access to food.Huge numbers of fish congregate in a relatively small area, and that can make for some of the fastest and most consistent action of the entire year. Best of all, there isn’t nearly as much competition from other anglers as there will be in a few weeks.Pre-trip planning is one key to success. It can be downright miserable on the water in February and March when the temperatures are in the teens and a frigid wind is cutting through you. Boat control becomes next to impossible, as well, when the wind is howling.I keep a close eye on the weather forecast and try to time my trips with mild temperatures and little or no wind.Secondly, I like to fish during the week whenever possible. It seems like the Corps of Engineers, which manages most of the dams on our major river systems, releases water through the dams during the week, but often close down the dams on weekends. It’s been my experience that the fishing is much better when there is water moving through the dam, probably because it stirs up the water and disorients baitfish.Besides the immediate tailwaters below the dam, there are specific structures and habitat that offer the best chances for success. Areas I look for are creeks and small rivers that flow into the main reservoir or river, along with main-channel breaklines that fish use to migrate upstream.As winter progresses and the spawn nears, I seek out gravel flats, rockpiles and rock reefs that walleyes will eventually use to spawn. Transition areas where sand or mud meets with gravel or rock are also good locations and are easy to identify with my Hummingbird 987c SI sonar unit, which features side-imaging technology, a seven-inch color screen and doubles as a GPS unit.That GPS function is important because moreso than at any other time of year, walleyes seem to relate to the same areas during the winter and early spring. Spots I’ve found over the years continue to produce, and when I find a new one I add it to the list so I can revisit it the following year. The more spots you have, the more fish you will catch.Presentations don’t have to be complicated. I love to fish jigs, so whenever conditions allow, that’s what I do. And everyone knows how walleyes love jigs!There’s usually no need for live bait, which scores big points with me because I don’t have to get my hands wet reaching into a minnow bucket. I rarely tip my jigs with anything other than a three- or four-inch Berkley Power Minnow, Power Grub or Gulp! Grub.A good place to pitch jigs is along the edges of the old river channel. Because the water is often crystal clear during the cold-weather months, a degree of stealth is critical. I don’t motor into these areas with my Mercury outboard, but slip quietly into position using my MinnKota Maxxum bow-mount trolling motor.Stay 20 to 30 feet off the break, cast your jig into the shallows and slowly retrieve it while letting it fall down the break. Most of the hits will take place when the jig is falling or when it is laying on the bottom. Watch your line closely, and if you see any movement, set the hook. Remember, fish don’t pick up a bait with their fingers. And if you feel any pressure when you pick the jig up from the bottom, set the hook. It’s probably a walleye.Your choice of line will help you detect some of those more subtle hits. I’ve become a big fan of Berkley’s Transition line, which disappears under the water’s surface (a distinct advantage in extremely clear conditions), but turns gold above the surface when subjected to light. Six-pound test seems about right for my purposes.A quality rod is just as important. I’ve found that Berkley’s Series One or Fenwick’s TechnaAV models in either six- or seven-foot lengths with medium to medium-light action provide the sensitivity to feel everything that’s happening on the bottom and the slightest of hits.Crankbaits will work, too, and they are a better option on those days when the wind makes jig-fishing a challenge. The old adage that you can’t catch walleyes on cranks in the winter is simply a myth. During mid-January this year, I was fishing jigs below the dam at Chamberlain and watched one of my partners for the day match me fish for fish casting a Berkley Frenzy crankbait. I’ve also trolled Frenzy baits on lead-core line during the winter months with good success. It’s a very productive search method when you are on new water.Open-water fishing in the winter can be phenomenal, but you also have to be prepared. After all, it is winter and things can change in a heartbeat. Keep an eye on ice flows and don’t get socked in by ice. Stay close to your boat landing and keep an eye on the weather.I also like to keep a few emergency items stored in my Ranger, such as extra rope, a portable heater, flashlights, flares, a blanket or two, some water and some snacks in the event I do get stuck somewhere for a few hours or even overnight.Keep a shovel in your rig and a couple of bags of salt in case the ramp ices up. And when you pull your boat out of the water, don’t pull all the way up the ramp. Keep it at a steep angle for a few minutes to allow any water inside to drain. Make sure your livewells and baitwells are empty and lower your outboard so it will drain. A few precautions at the time will save you a lot of potential problems and headaches later.So get those batteries charged and start watching the weather. There is some outstanding fishing waiting for you. It’s just a matter of going with the flow.Editor’s note: Bill Leonard is a professional walleye angler from Estherville, Iowa, with 16 years of experience on the Professional Walleye Trail, RCL, FLW and Masters Walleye Circuit. His career includes 14 championship appearances and 27 Top 10 finishes. Leonard is sponsored by Ranger Boats, Mercury Motors, MotorGuide, Berkley, Lindy Legendary Tackle, Off-Shore Planer Boards, Aqua Innovations, EnTycer Spinners and Soo Sports. His articles are printed in a number of outdoor publications and on many web sites.