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Fishing Articles by John Campbell

Open Water Winter Walleye Fishing
By John Campbell

As winter gains its icy grip on the Upper Midwest most anglers are looking for an escape from "cabin fever" and are heading for open water areas in rivers. The key to locating walleyes in the river in the winter starts with locating a series of obstacles. Then allowing your bait or lure to present itself in a natural manner so the walleye can race from behind the obstruction to acquire the offering and then race back into the slack water area to digest his meal and await another.

The slack water areas are found below the dams where an eddy is formed by the water being drawn over the dam and rushing downstream causing a slack water area on each side of the dam. Other obstructions that cause slack water might be below wingdams, behind rocks, a depression in the floor of the river, a stump or fallen tree, or man made obstacles such as bridge abutments.

Look for breaks in the current. They may be behind islands, points, and below bars in mid channel. In strong current, walleyes group tight to structure. In softer current or low water periods, like winter, they often scatter, and hold on edges of barriers or current breaks.

This "hole" below the dam is not just for resting, but also is a major feeding area for those walleyes that have migrated to this area. This area is high in oxygen and fish migrate to this area to rest before starting the spawning cycle. Their body metabolism is slow, but they still have to eat. Therefore, they simply watch the offerings float by them or be carried downstream via current.

The middle of winter finds most walleye fisherman heading for the river to do some walleye fishing. Especially if the weather has been nice for days and the wind is warm you usually can find some out of the way areas that will hold walleyes.

One of the first places I look for walleyes is along the northern portion or sunny side of the riverbank. This area usually is a little warmer than the area right below the dam and it will attract baitfish sooner and of course hungry walleyes. I like to look for small pockets formed by the riprap that break the current.

Walleyes like the slack water areas to feed and rest from the force of the current. The metabolic rate of the walleyes is very slow so they don't want to move to fast to get food. They also like to be in shallow water where most of the food supply is at during the winter months.

Natural livebait presentation is a must at this time of the year. I will tip a 1/8 oz. Lindy Fuzz-E-Grub with a fathead or river shiner minnow and flip it out above the slack water area. Then I let it settle and work it down stream in front of the pocket. If no success then I flip the jig in the upper corner of the pocket and work it out to the outer edge. Often times I will attach a VMC stinger hook in a number 8 or 10 size to my jig. Remember, catching fish is the reason that you are out on the water and usually they bite rather light at this time of the year. I usually give it about four or five tries and then move on to another good looking walleye area. Fish are sluggish and they may not attack your bait. Many times it will feel as though there is a heavy sweat sock on the end of the line. That is the time to set the hook and keep it coming to the boat.

The technique for locating and catching these walleyes is to start at the upstream head of the hole and drop my Minnkota 101 Maxxum, 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 presentation are Lindy Fuzz-E-Grubs and color is important. I stay away from the bright colors and glow in the dark at this time of year and use dark colors like, blacks, blues, greens, and browns.

Locating active fish can be done in a two step approach. One approach allows you to look for shore related structure. The same principle applies to sunken islands; many points, stair step ledges, and a variety of bottom conditions are generally better than a smooth, gradually breaking sand hump. I might also mention that an already good island is made all the better by the presence of a saddle. This saddle is a dip between two higher spots of land. If this saddle area is connected to a prospective point all the better, because it is a fish magnet.

Don't forget to check out some other productive areas such as roadbeds, riprap, creek channels, stump fields, or isolated rock piles, bars and rockslides.

The other approach allows you to use your depthfinder. What I do is map the hole first by getting just enough speed out of my Mercury 225 Optimax to keep my Ranger 620 up on plane and find the edges of the hole and the contours within the hole. The entire time I am doing this, I have a feature called revelation turned on, on my Bottom Line NCC6500 depthfinder that will allow me to actually see these river fish even when they are hugging tight to the bottom and sides of the holes. This will give me the data as to what depth I want to begin working at through the hole. Your approach should be systematic in working the area. If I choose to start in 12 feet, I'll work the hole trying to maintain that depth throughout the pass. If fish aren't contacted, then I will make a 2-foot depth move and take another pass. Eventually, I will wind up with the optimum depth that the active fish are using. Open water winter walleye fishing is waiting for you at a river near you. Get out and enjoy the outdoors. I'll see you on the water.

This Fishing Article is brought to you by John Campbell

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