The nights are cold, but the days are getting warmer. Lakes are opening and the rivers are swollen with runoff from melting snow and ice. It’s springtime, which to many midwestern anglers means some of the best fishing of the season is about to kick-off. With water temps moving into the high 30’s to low 40’s, walleyes and jumbo perch are beginning to stage for the spawn in area rivers.
While the walleye runs are prominent across most well-known river systems throughout the upper Midwest, there are few that match the incredible perch fishery of the Mississippi River between Red Wing, Minnesota and Dubuque, Iowa. Lock and Dams between these start and end points are sure bet spots to catch massive perch returning below the dams to spawn each spring when the water temperatures rise to the magic 40-degree mark. Although, where you find the perch, expect to find the people, too.
Fisherman will stand shoulder to shoulder along the lock walls and river banks for a chance to fill their baskets with these gorged out perch. Boaters should be reminded to be mindful of river currents and potential for drifting with anchors down; the risk of tangling anchor lines with other boaters can be cause for a life-threatening scenario.
Rigging for River Perch
The standard perch rig designed for the rivers are conditional to where you’re fishing and come down to two distinct applications. For shore fisherman along lock walls, a standard slip bobber rig with a gold Aberdeen hook tipped with a redworm or fathead minnow will usually do the trick. The water is typically slacker in the locks and will allow you to keep your presentation slower and stable. Boaters and shoreline fishermen face different current conditions and demand a custom application designed to keep their baits in the strike zone for as long as possible. The size of the weight will vary depending on the strength of the current, but coin weights are key to keeping your rig stationary. The flat shape of the weight allows it to sit on the bottom with minimal rolling in the current, as would be the case with some other weight shapes.
You can see how the shape of a coin weight is conducive to lying on the bottom of a river without tumbling around in the current.
There are three methods of rigging a coin weight to fish near the bottom in river conditions: (1) a three-way swivel; (2) a ball bearing swivel; (3) a small split-shot. My personal favorite method is the three-way swivel because it allows me to save my hook if my weight becomes snagged, or my weight if my hook becomes snagged or gets bit off by a predator fish, like a pike, or, walleye. For this application, I’ll tie a twelve-inch mono leader from the coin weight to the three-way swivel, and then an eighteen-inch fluorocarbon leader from the Aberdeen hook to the open end of the three-way swivel. I want the line connecting to the weight to be easily broken if I get stuck in an unforgiving snag. Weights are cheap and it’s easy enough to tie a new one on. The fluorocarbon leader to the hook leaves no room for stretch, so even the lightest bight should tap the tip of your pole. Fluorocarbon is very strong and Aberdeen hooks will bend, so if your hook gets caught in a snag the fluorocarbon will usually allow you to muscle the hook out of the snag by straightening it. Don’t worry, you can easily bend the hook back without sacrificing too much of its integrity. The fluorocarbon is also harder to bite through, so when the inevitable happens and a fish with teeth decides to chomp your perch bait, you’ll have a better chance of getting the fish in the net before it cuts the line.
A jumbo perch the author caught near a Mississippi River dam.
If I don’t have three-way swivels with me on the river, my next best option is a ball bearing swivel. The purpose for ball bearing swivels is to reduce line twisting. Naturally, as your bait dangles in the current it propels and spins. Over time, the massive twist in your line can reduce its strength integrity and the risk potential for breaking off on fish increases. To rig up, I’ll slip the tag end of my line through the eyelet of the coin weight, followed by a small bead, and then tie on the ball bearing swivel. The purpose of the bead is to protect the knot from fray as the weight eyelet slides into the knot repeatedly. From there, I’ll tie a twelve, to an eighteen-inch mono leader with a plain Aberdeen hook to the other end.
Now, if I’m without any type of swivels, I’ll resort to using a small split-shot as a stopper to prevent my coin weight from sliding down to the hook. This is my last resort because crimping the split-shot onto the mono line will inevitably weaken it, thus making it more prone to breakage under stress from a big fighting fish. Remember, just because you’re perch fishing in the river, it doesn’t mean you’re going to catch strictly perch. Walleyes, northern pike, sheepshead, bass, and even catfish will add some excitement to the occasional hookset.
Finding the Walleye
River walleyes are relatively simple to understand, they relate to depth, structure, and current based on the time of year and respective weather and water temperatures. But understanding walleye behavior, especially in river systems, only makes a difference if you understand the river you’re fishing.
The author holds up a nice walleye he caught during the spring spawning run.
In the spring, it’s a sure bet that walleyes will migrate upstream toward the dams or marshes looking to spawn. Springtime is a weird time, the weather can fluctuate from one day to the next, which has the potential to raise, lower, or stabilize water temperatures. The sun might be out and warming the water a couple of degrees for a few days, bringing the walleyes in shallower during that time, but overnight lows combined with cloudy, windy, and downright uncomfortably cold daytime weather can return the water temps to frigid 30’s and the walleyes may slide out into the deeper holes where the warmer water can be found.
The first two weeks of April are far and wide some of the most productive weeks you’ll experience on the river with respect to spawning activity and an aggressive walleye and perch bite. Most fishermen don’t live local to their favorite rivers, so if you fit in with the majority, pick your day(s), then pick your water.
Once you’ve narrowed down the river, or more specifically, a dam to fish below, do some homework to learn the water there. Trust me, free data exists on the web that will show you general contour depth mapping, so run some searches on the internet and see what you come up with. You’re looking for wing dams and holes visible on those contour maps and aerial imagery zoomed in tight will reveal rip-rap and dam wall structures that you’ll want to take note of.
Rigging for River Walleye
Spawning walleyes aren’t often finicky eaters, more so opportunistic and reactive strikers. One of my favorite techniques for catching walleyes during the spawn is vertical jigging. You want to find a jig head shaped to cut the water because you’re always fighting current in a river. If you use a basic round jig head, the surface area is great enough that the current will prevent you from ever having complete control of your jig presentation. Another key concept to consider when selecting a proper jig for vertical applications is picking a weight that’s heavy enough to sink fast to the bottom and hold its own against the aggressive current.
My favorite jig (shown below) is an oval head with a tapered body that’s narrow in width from top to bottom, dressed in a bucktail skirt with strands of flashabou, a wide shanked hook, and equipped with a trailer hook. These jig heads are designed to carry weight and slice through the current, making them the ideal candidate for river conditions – especially below a dam where current is the fastest.
There are so many other baits and rigging options for spring walleyes, that I could go on and on. Each application serves a purpose under certain conditions, but not many will outperform the vertical jigging approach in the dark river waters of spring.
Rigging and Action for Vertical Jigging
The bucktail skirts dressed on the Killer Jigs creates a streamlined profile that compliments a live minnow, or river shad, and I’ve found that I’ll get bit without live bait as frequently as someone who’s tipping their jig with a minnow from the same boat. We fishermen are a funny bunch, however, and I’d be telling a fisherman’s tale if I didn’t include that sometimes I prefer to tip with a minnow because that’s what my confidence was telling me to do that day.
Because spawning fish are mainly reactive strikers, they don’t always hit aggressively, so don’t be surprised if half the fish you catch are hooked by the trailing stinger hook. This is a vital complement to your jig – don’t sell yourself short of opportunity, make sure you rig up with stinger hooks.
If you’ve ever watched the “Live Streaming Wolf River Underwater Cameras”, you’ll notice the fish hug the bottom and their tails are always moving as they progress forward against the current. This is one of the main reasons I’ve grown so attached to vertical jigging presentations in the spring because I want to keep my hooks in the strike zone for as long as possible. When a school of fish moves through, you’ll notice multiple people around you, yourself included, catching fish left and right before all goes suddenly quiet. This is the essence of river fishing – there’s always new fish moving through as they work up against the current, then back down, and around, only to work back up again.
My favorite technique for vertical jigging is what we call snap-jigging. It’s likely called something different amongst different groups of fishermen and is pretty basic, but that’s the name we’ve always used. We flip the jig upstream a short distance, allowing enough time for the jig to sink to the bottom, then snap our wrists or forearm upwards to lift the bait a foot or so off the bottom. I always maintain a tight line because even on the drop you’ll get bit and if you don’t feel it you will likely miss it, especially with light reactive short strikers.
Future of our Fisheries
The spawn is a fun time to be on the rivers as the opportunity to catch trophy-sized fish is better now than any other time of the year. The egg mass that swells the bellies of massive perch and walleye are reminders to be selective when harvesting fish during the spawn. Cell phone cameras and replica taxidermy are incredible these days, and in most cases, a replica mount will capture the true look, size, and features of your trophy better than a skin mount will. Besides, it’s the little ones that taste better, anyway.
The author releases a big walleye so that it may have the opportunity to be enjoyed by other anglers in the future.
As citizens of our states, we have rights to stay within the limits of regulation set forth by the Department of Natural Resources. Keeping trophy-sized fish is our choice, so long as it is legal, but I do want to stress that for the benefit of our generation and the future generations that we do our best to practice catch and release of trophy-sized fish. Of the trillions of eggs deposited each year, only a small fraction of those survive to adulthood and provide us with more hook setting opportunities in the future.