A spring walleye from the Mississippi River

All across the walleye belt, anglers wait with supreme anticipation for the arrival of the spring “run”, as walleye and sauger transition up rivers to participate in their annual spawning rituals. Many anglers are drawn to the tailrace areas of river-spanning dams, which interrupt the upstream movement of fish and hold catchable numbers of walleye and sauger throughout the spring movements.

However, not all fish move up to the dams; many underpressured fish can be found miles from these obstructions, holding in areas that provide them with feeding opportunities as well as shelter from the strong river currents associated with spring conditions. For example, shallow sand “flats” found along the inside bends of river channels often hold large numbers of pre- and post-spawn walleye and sauger. Far from flat, however, these areas are often composed of an extended series of sand “dunes”, with a washboard-like bottom created by the action of swift river currents over long periods of time. The depressions between individual dunes provide reduced current areas in which fish can hold, sheltered from the main brunt of the flow, while sampling the moving water above them for tasty, energy-sustaining morsels. In this article, I’ll demonstrate how you can find these shallow sand dunes using Humminbird Side Imaging, and then target the fish holding within them by using Trigger X soft baits and VMC jigs.

Walleye scattered over sand dunes

On the right is a Humminbird Side Image (left side image only) of a fish-filled shallow sand dune area. River flow in this area is from the bottom of the image to the top. The washboard bottom texture in this area is indicated not only where the bottom meets the water column (the darker blue area at the right side of the image), but also by the alternating dark ribbons and lighter blue highlights that extend across the width of this area. Resting fish will tend to hold in the troughs behind the dunes (close to the dark ribbons), while active fish will be prowling the entire area. Large numbers of active fish (the white spots) are found in this area; at only 11 feet deep, this is a shallow, fish-filled area with very little fishing pressure. Quite often, shallow sand dune areas will contain one of more “sweet spots” that will produce trip after trip, year after year. When holding at a cast’s distance, it can be difficult for an angler to understand why fish hold in these areas. However, the secrets of these sweet spots are often revealed by Humminbird Side Imaging. For example, such sweet spots might include a significant depression, an isolated rockpile, or a collection of sunken timber. While invisible from the surface, these features will be quite obvious using Humminbird Side Imaging.

Pre-spawn saugers from the Mississippi River

Once you find a shallow sand dune area, and perhaps even identify the sweet spots that you want to target, it’s time to start fishing for the walleye and sauger prowling these areas. While trolling can take fish from the shallow dunes, particularly when high flows pin the fish into the troughs and make them less likely to scatter due to boat noise, I prefer to deploy mankind’s oldest boat control tool…the anchor…and saturate the productive areas by casting.

Setting the proper anchor position can take a bit of practice, as current and wind act together to swing the boat into different dune areas. In general, I anchor upstream and off to the side of the sweet spot that I intend to target; if the spot is to the left of the boat, I will try to get that sweet spot somewhere around the 7-o’clock position relative to the boat. My casts will be almost directly across current (to 9-o’clock); I then allow the presentation to fall to the bottom, and have the current sweep the bait through the sweet spot. Ideally, you will employ sufficient weight to keep the bait close to the bottom, yet still sweeping though the strike zone with the help of the current.

I always attack these shallow sand dune areas with three rods rigged with different presentations. My first choice is a Trigger X soft plastic (either a Trigger X walleye paddletail or a Trigger X aggression swimming grub) rigged on a VMC Neon Moon Eye jig. The flat-sided heads, wide gap hooks, and soft plastic “keepers” on these jigs are absolutely perfect for fishing soft plastics on rivers. Walleye olfactory systems are particularly sensitive to pheromones during the spawning season, and Trigger X baits release fish-triggering pheromones while in the water, eliciting aggressive strikes from hungry pre- and post-spawn walleye and sauger. These soft plastic presentations are often best received by aggressive fish on the prowl; less active fish can require a more subtle approach. If fish aren’t responsive to a soft plastic-tipped jig, I’ll back off to a VMC Hot Skirt jig tipped either with a Trigger X 3″ minnow, or a live fathead minnow. The undulating fibers of the Hot Skirt jig are often all that is required to convince a neutral fish to take a swipe at the slowly drifting presentation.

Among the family of Hot Skirt jigs, I prefer the Purple Albino pattern when spring river waters have reasonable clarity; when snow melt and run off cloud the waters, I favor more vibrant patterns such as Hornet or Chartreuse Lime Green. I will begin by tipping my Hot Skirt jigs with a Trigger X 3″ minnow to get the pheromone advantage; if fish are still reluctant, I will switch to a fathead to tip my Hot Skirt jig. Finally, if negative fish somehow resist a minnow-tipped Hot Skirt jig (caused by harsh post-frontal conditions or sustained fishing pressure), then I will provide them with an ultra-simple presentation: a very lively minnow rigged on a VMC Hammerhead jig, the ultimate short-shank live bait jig. Don’t leave the sweet spot until you have worked your way through the entire progression of baits; something will very likely work along the way!

Humminbird Side Imaging will help you to identify key, away-from-the-dam areas that are holding aggressive walleye and sauger during the peak of their spring runs; Trigger X soft baits and VMC jigs will ensure that these fish spend a short time flopping around in the bottom of your nets. The spring walleye run provides us with the opportunity to target the oldest, largest fish in the system, so please handle the future of our resource with care!