UPPER MISSISSIPPI RIVER: WALLEYES & SAUGERS
Each spring, Mississippi River walleye and sauger fishing makes the news as anglers record spectacular catches below the dams. When the spring spawning run is over, fishing interest shifts to the lakes, and the river is all but forgotten. But those who fish the river regularly enjoy good walleye and sauger action throughout the season.
In the Upper Mississippi, as in most other midwestem mainstem rivers, saugers outnumber walleyes by a wide margin. They are better adapted to turbid, moving water. Walleyes are considerably larger, however; they run 2 to 3 pounds and reach weights over 14. Saugers run 1 to 2 and occasionally reach 6. In 1988, the river produced the Minnesota record sauger, 6 pounds, 2-3/4 ounces.
Starting as early as mid-September, walleyes and saugers begin moving upstream toward the tailwater areas, where they will spawn the next spring.
They feed sporadically through the winter, mostly in water from 15 to 25 feet deep. Anglers catch them by vertically jigging in the tailwaters, working the edges of the fast water with 1/4to 3/8-ounce chartreuse jigs tipped with minnows. The fish, particularly the saugers, tend to strike short in the cold water, so you may have to add a stinger hook to your jig.
As spawning time approaches and the water warms into the 40s, the fish move shallower and begin feeding much more heavily. The two-week period before spawning offers the fastest action and the best opportunity for big fish.
Big walleyes congregate in eddies near the rock or gravel shorelines where they will spawn, usually at depths of 2 to 8 feet. Many walleye anglers make the mistake of fishing too deep in this pre-spawn period. Saugers stay 5 to 10 feet deeper than the walleyes.
If the water is high, as it often is this time of year, walleyes leave the main channel and move to the backwaters, where finding them is next to impossible. Saugers are less likely to leave the main channel.
You can catch walleyes by anchoring and casting into shallow brushy or riprapped shorelines with white or chartreuse jigs, from 1/2 to 1/4 ounce. Saugers are best taken by vertically jigging in deeper water with 1/4- to 3/8-ounce jigs. Some anglers prefer to tip their jigs with small minnows, but tipping is seldom necessary when the water temperature tops 400 F For best results, work the jig very slowly, with small hops.
Spawning begins when the water reaches the upper 40s, usually in mid- to late April. Saugers start to spawn a few days later than walleyes. Once spawning is under way, fishing turns sour. You may catch a few small males, but the big females don't start to bite until at least two weeks after they've finished spawning.
Starting about the first week in May, big walleyes go on a feeding spree that produces plenty of trophy fish for fishermen who know where to find them. Most of the fish have moved away from the dam, although a few remain all summer. The best spots are backwaters with moving water and current-brushed points in the main channel several miles downstream from the dam. You'll find most of the fish at depths of 8 to 12 feet. Productive techniques include anchoring above the points and casting with 1/4-ounce chartreuse bucktail jigs, or trolling diving plugs through channels in the backwaters.
Saugers are not far away, although they normally hang at least 5 feet deeper than the walleyes.
Over the next few weeks, the fish scatter throughout the pool. As the water drops, most of them abandon the backwaters and take up residence in the main channel, usually near wing dams or along riprapped shorelines. Some hold in eddies in cuts leading into the backwaters. Typical summertime depths for walleyes are 10 to 15 feet; for saugers, 15 to 25 feet. The fish stay in these areas into September, then start working their way back toward the dam.
In summer and fall, most anglers fish with chartreuse or green bucktail or twister-tail jigs, from 1/4 to /8 ounce. Effective jig-fishing techniques include jigging vertically while drifting with the current, anchoring and casting in an eddy or above a wing dam, or jig-trolling. Slip-sinker rigs baited with nightcrawlers also work well. Simply lower the rig to the bottom and drift with the current, keeping your line as vertical as possible. Another productive walleye-sauger bait is the willow cat, or madtom, a small, bullheadlike fish found in weedy sloughs.
One of the oldest walleye-sauger techniques on the river is trolling with lead-core line. Anglers use short, stiff trolling rods and level-wind reels spooled with 25- to 40-pound lead core. A crankbait, minnow plug or vibrating plug is attached to a 3-foot leader of 10- to 14-pound mono. The plug is trolled upstream along the edge of the channel or along any lengthy drop-off. The lead-core line makes it easy to get the plug down in the current. Lead-core trolling may not be the most sporting method, but it's certainly among the most effective.
A 5-1/2- to 6-foot spinning outfit with 6- to 8-pound mono is adequate for most other walleye and sauger fishing. Select a fast-action rod for jigging and trolling; a medium action for live-bait fishing.
Because of the murky water, walleyes and saugers in the Mississippi generally bite best in sunny weather, and midday is often more productive than morning or evening.
How to Jig-Troll for Walleyes and Saugers
FLIP a 1/2- to 1/4-ounce jig a short distance from the boat, keeping the bail open as the jig sinks. Or simply lower the jig vertically until it hits bottom.
BACKTROLL slowly with an electric motor while jigging. Always troll with the current; if you troll against the current, you'll have trouble reaching bottom.
KEEP your line as close to vertical as you can while twitching the jig, then lowering it to the bottom. If you let out too much line, the jig will drag along the bottom with no action. Set the hook when you feel a tap.
LURES AND RIGS for walleyes and saugers include: (1) Fire-Ball Jig and minnow, with the removable stinger hook clipped to the rear eye of the jig, and one prong of the treble hook inserted into the minnow; (2) 1/4-ounce Mister Twister Meeny Jig; (3) Mirrolure; (4) slip-sinker rig tied with a 2-to 3-foot leader of 6-pound mono, a /8- to 1/2-ounce egg sinker, and a size 4 hook baited with a nightcrawler.
How to Lead-Line for Walleyes and Saugers
TROLL upstream when lead-lining. Water resistance gives the plug its action; if you troll downstream, water resistance is much less.
LET OUT enough line to reach bottom. Because the line is color coded, you'll soon learn exactly how much line to let out to reach a certain depth.
REEL IN a few turns when you feel the plug bumping bottom; let out more line if you haven't felt it bump for a while. Continue to adjust your depth as you troll along. When a fish strikes, it usually hooks itself.