Some anglers are focused on catching walleyes through the ice at this time of year, and that makes sense. Throughout what is often thought of as walleye country, most lakes are ice-covered. But there are many, many places where anglers can get in on some outstanding open water walleye fishing right now. In rivers from Minnesota and Wisconsin downstream to Iowa and Illinois and continuing to Ohio and Kentucky and Tennessee, walleyes and sauger can be caught right now. If you’re interested in getting in on this action, here’s how you do it.
Almost all of our open water walleye fishing this time of year will be within a couple miles of a dam. In some regions the water much farther than that will be frozen, but almost everywhere, walleyes and sauger will be drawn into the vicinity of the dam.
Most of our fish are going to be caught using a jigging presentation, but we won’t always be using what are considered to be open water jigs. Depending on where the fish are holding, we’ll be using different types of jigs.
We’ll be casting some of the time to shallow water areas, maybe wingdams or sand flats on the downstream side of islands or other land masses, but much of the time we’ll be in deeper areas away from shore. This is where large, really large, schools of walleyes and sauger will gather and hold. When they’re in this deep water, say deeper than twenty feet but all the way down to forty or fifty feet, we’ll sit directly over the top of them and jig vertically. Select a jig that is heavy enough to go all the way to the bottom without having the current wash it downstream too much. You want to be as straight up and down as possible. This is the land of at least three eighths ounce jigs, and sometimes in some places you’ll be using three quarter ounce jigs and maybe even heavier.
A Fire-Ball jig tipped with a minnow will be a top choice. Start with a bright color, but keep changing until the fish show you what they want. Fire-Ball jigs have a quick-attach stinger system: Add the stinger if you’re missing fish.
More and more, even in cold water, plastics on the back of jigs are doing a good job. Use a jig with a long shanked hook, something like a Slurp! Jig, and thread on a three inch Impulse Swim’n Grub tail. This tail will wiggle in the current, so you can hold it motionless but the tail will still move.
Lots of anglers are using ice-fishing baits for open water walleyes. If you think about it, that makes sense. If a walleye will hit a bait under the ice, they’ll hit it in open water. Vertically jigging for walleyes in open water is almost exactly the same as vertically jigging down an ice hole. The only difference is that you’re sitting in a boat instead of on the ice. Buck-Shot Rattle Spoons and Puppet-Minnows are perfect for this technique. Add a minnow head, shake the bait in front of a walleye or sauger, and you will get bit.
There you have it: If you want to catch walleyes and sauger right now in open water, you can do it. Head to a river, find some deep open water, and put a bait in their face. Fishing for walleyes in rivers right now is a great way to break up the winter. Do it once and you’ll do it again.