Throughout their range, which is roughly the northern two thirds of the continental United States and most of Canada, walleyes are found in streams ranging in size from a drainage ditch to the Mississippi River; in all, about a half million rivers hold fishable populations of walleyes. You won’t find many walleyes in a mountain brook or a sluggish bayou, but just about anything in between can harbor these golden-flanked, pop-eyed predators.
The typical walleye river has a year-round flow of cool, but not cold, water. It has places where walleyes can hide and a good supply of food: crayfish, shad, shiners, suckers, chubs and the like.
As a rule, river walleyes are smaller, leaner and stronger than their lake-dwelling counterparts because they have to contend with a constant current and because food is generally more limited in rivers. For these same reasons, river walleyes tend to be more aggressive and easier to catch. When a food item or your bait drifts by, they have to strike quickly or let it go. If you can locate walleyes in a river, you can usually catch some. This isn’t always true on a lake or reservoir.
Tailrace areas provide walleyes with current, food and obstructions, and are usually accessible to wading.
The two most important factors for locating walleyes in a river are current and cover. Walleyes like to hang out where there is enough current to bring food to them, but not so much current that they have to expend a lot of energy fighting it. An ideal stretch of river has a moderate current, along with lots of obstructions (rocks, logs, pilings, bridge abutments, wing dams, sandbars) that break it up and provide walleyes with cover. Most of the time, river walleyes feed via ambush. They wait in the cover of obstructions and dash out into the current to grab a passing morsel.
Water depth fluctuates markedly on most rivers. Levels rise quickly during spring run-off, heavy rains and water releases at power dams. Long dry spells, regardless of the season, cause water levels to drop, and walleyes move accordingly. You won’t find them in the same place day after day if conditions have changed. During high-water periods, they hang out closer to shore. When the water level drops, they usually move deeper. In each case, they will seek whatever cover is available and try to stay out of heavy current.
River walleyes also move great distances during their spring spawning run or in response to fluctuating water levels, yet they have strong homing instinct as well. Tagging studies have shown some walleyes travel hundreds of miles up or downstream, often to return to the same stretch of river where they were tagged.
On northern rivers, walleyes begin their spawning migration in late winter, often under the ice. In early spring, they spawn on shallow rocks and gravel bars. On some rivers, like the Wolf River in central Wisconsin, walleyes spawn in flooded marshes, where spawning success depends on several weeks of sustained high-water levels. After spawning, walleyes swim back downstream to their summer haunts. Come fall, they begin staging for another spawning run.
River-Specific Location, Presentation
The principles of river fishing are the same regardless of the size of the river. On smaller rivers, you can wade or fish from shore. On larger rivers, a boat lets you fish more effectively. Your offering will look more natural if you cast upstream and let it tumble down toward holding fish. River walleyes rarely move more than a foot or so from cover to grab a bait, so it is critical to cast close to rocks, logs and the like.
River 'eyes may lack the size of their lake and reservoir brethren, but they make up for it in strength.
Moving water is forced up and over an underwater obstruction, creating a pocket of slack water on both the upstream and downstream side of the rock, log or bar. On smaller structure, like a single boulder or log, walleyes tend to hold on the downstream side. On bigger structure, like a wing dam, they will hold on both the upstream and downstream sides. The largest walleyes usually take the upstream position above or below any piece of structure, which gives them first crack at food washing downstream.
During seasonal migrations, walleyes are concentrated in schools, so large catches are possible. Look for pre-spawn fish in shallow, slack-water areas just downstream of spawning gravel or marshes. A slow presentation using a jig tipped with a minnow or plastic tail is effective in early spring.
The stretch of water immediately below a dam or waterfall often holds high concentrations of walleyes just before and during the spawning period. Work the side currents, eddies and other slow water in these places with jigs or diving crankbaits. The largest fish—generally females—are often found in shallow, warmer water, so be sure to cast to such spots and cover all the likely water you can reach.
Wing dams and large gravel bars on big rivers like the Mississippi attract schools of walleyes year-round. With your boat positioned to the side of the structure, cast crankbaits across the current and retrieve them parallel to the structure, working both above and below it.
In a river environment, walleyes won't move far to take a bait or lure, but when found, they tend to be cooperative.
To fish deep water, point the bow upstream and use a trolling motor to keep your boat stationary in the current while you fish vertically with jigs or vibrating blade baits. If this doesn’t produce strikes, reduce your motor speed just enough to let your boat “slip” downstream slower than the current and bounce a jig or live bait off bottom as you go.
On large, deep rivers like the Columbia, Missouri and Mississippi, trolling deep runs and tailrace water below dams is a good tactic. Tie a floating minnow imitator on a five-foot leader behind a bottom bouncer and troll this rig both upstream and downstream. When trolling downstream, pump your rod forward a yard or so in constant strokes to keep your line straight so you can feel a strike.
As they do in some lakes and reservoirs, river walleyes often hold in deeper holes during the day and move at night to shallow flats, gravel bars, sloughs and backwaters, where they feed on crayfish and baitfish. At times, big walleyes will chase minnows in the shallows with their backs out of water. Under cover of darkness, you can get close to fish without spooking them. Casting cross-current in these areas with shallow-running crankbaits or inline spinners will often take good fish at night even in the middle of summer.
You’ll have your best luck with river walleyes if you stay alert to changes in water levels and fish movements and then adapt to those changes. If a spot that was productive two days ago is a bust today, try new spots until you find fish, rather than staying in one place hoping something will bite. Finding river walleyes is the real challenge. Getting them to hit is usually the easy part.