A glance through a list of state-record walleyes reveals that a large number were caught in rivers. There is no doubt that rivers offer some excellent walleye-fishing opportunities. One reason that rivers support good walleye populations is that they generally are not fished as heavily as nearby lakes.
Versatile walleye anglers spend their time fishing in rivers when cold fronts have slowed the action in their favorite lakes. Cold fronts do not seem to have as much effect on river walleyes. Rivers are also a good bet in late summer, when lake fishing may be poor due to high water temperatures and hefty crops of forage fish. When lake walleyes are scattered because of the fall turnover, river walleyes continue to feed in the same places where you found them in summer.
In the North, portions of many big rivers stay open through the winter months. Walleyes congregate in the tailwaters of dams and around warmwater discharges all winter long, offering the only open-water fishing opportunity.
Inexperienced anglers have more trouble learning to fish in rivers than in lakes. Many do poorly on their first trip to a river, so they do not come back. The secret to catching river walleyes is knowing how current and fluctuating water levels affect their behavior, and adjusting your tactics accordingly.
CURRENT. Walleyes will tolerate a slight current, but seldom will you find them in fast water, unless there is some type of cover to serve as a current break. When searching for walleyes in rivers, you can immediately eliminate a good share of the water because the current is too swift. Just how much current walleyes will tolerate depends on the season.
You can find river walleyes in slack pools, in eddies, or downstream from some type of current break like an island, a bridge pier or a large boulder. But many anglers make the mistake of fishing only the downstream side of obstructions. For instance, walleyes usually hold just upstream of a wingdam, a rocky structure intended to deflect current toward the middle of the river to keep the channel from silting in. Current deflecting off the face of a wingdam or other current break creates a slack pocket on the upstream side, providing an ideal spot for a walleye to grab drifting food.
Current edges are to a river what structure is to a lake. Walleyes will hold along the margin between slack and moving water. This way, they can rest in the still water and occasionally dart into the current to get a meal.
FLUCTUATING WATER LEVELS. Most good river fishermen prefer low, stable water for walleye fishing. Under these conditions, the water is at its clearest, and the walleyes are concentrated in well-known spots.
A rapidly changing water level caused by a heavy rain or release of water through a dam can turn a productive walleye hole into dead water. The increase in flow changes the current patterns and drives the walleyes to different areas.
But if you know where to find walleyes when the water is rising, fishing can actually be better than when the water is stable. Rising water often triggers a feeding spree because of the worms, insects and other foods that are washed into the river.
Rising water also causes walleyes to move shallower. They often feed near the base of flooded willows or brush, sometimes in water only a foot deep. If current in the main channel becomes too swift, the fish move into backwater lakes, oxbows, sloughs or cuts where there is practically no current. Or, they may swim into the mouths of feeder creeks that are normally dry.
If the increase in flow causes the river to become extremely muddy, walleyes cannot see well enough to find your bait. In many cases, the muddy water comes from a tributary stream. You may be able to find clearer water by moving upstream of the tributary or far enough downstream so the mud has a chance to settle out.
Walleyes continue to feed as long as the water level is rising or stable. But when it begins to fall, they immediately sense the change and move to deeper water to avoid getting trapped in a dead-water pool. Once they move deeper, feeding slows and fishing becomes much tougher.
River walleyes are predictable in that they generally move to the same areas at a given water stage. By keeping a log book, you can look back to see where you found fish at a similar stage in previous years. Most sizable rivers have water-level gauges that will give you an exact reading.