Early Open-water Opportunities

So far, this has been the winter that has not really happened—with a vengeance.

Sure, we had some real cold spells, but for the most part, I think you would agree that it has not really been too bad to date. Even snow amounts are way behind where we normally are this time of the year. To sum up the way I feel about this, all I can say is “wonderful.”

Now, granted we still have some late winter ahead, so maybe I’d better not speak to loud just yet. I surely don’t want to make the Storm Gods mad and have them bring us the snowstorm of the century or something like that. So for now, I’ll just keep thinking about spring to myself.

One thing that has happened with the mild weather is that we sure have experienced a lot more open Mississippi River water to fish in the Midwest. And this is allowing the anglers to really expand the areas they can cover. Normally at this time of the year, you will find the rivers socked in with ice. Well, not this year. You’ll see some ice on the river, but for the most part there is much less than expected.

What does this mean for you? Well let’s talk about it.

As a rule, most open-water fishing in the winter months along the Mississippi is done in areas known as “tailwaters.” These are directly below the dams that do not freeze up, due to the constant mixing of the water coming through the dams. Hearty anglers tend to flock to these areas in search of the fish that use them to feed. You will find that most are looking to catch some of the walleyes and saugers that swim here. Most cold winters, anglers will have an open stretch of water that may extend up to one-half mile or so to fish in. After that, the river turns to ice, making downriver travel impossible by boat.

This winter, anglers are able to travel farther downriver in certain pools and enjoy some of the great fishing available. Spots that were previously not accessible have for the most part have remained open to fish from last fall up through now.

With the milder weather, I have enjoyed many early opportunities already to check out a few of my favorite springtime spots out of the tailwaters. I’ve found a large variety of fish were available. The river was in great shape with good water clarity and the fish did cooperate. Both walleyes and saugers were found to be plentiful, and along with them, some truly great crappie action was also going on. Even though the water was still very cold and many backwater areas still had ice, the warmth of the sun above was enough to trigger these open-water fish into feeding.

Now, this same scenario is not just available in the river pool that I fished, which was Pool 13, near the Illinois and Iowa state line. But it is also available in the numerous pools that have more open water available in them due to this mild weather. One thing though—the farther north you head on the Mississippi, the more likely you are to hit ice. So this month, I’m concentrating in the area of the river here in the Midwest from Guttenberg, Iowa and southward.

When it comes to tactics to use in these areas that are open now, I find that there are many that will work for you. But for the best, overall success, nothing beats a nice big minnow. In winter, I like to use large minnows, especially if I can find them in the 3-inch range. Also, if I can find shiner minnows, I prefer them to fatheads that most bait shops carry. You will find that without a doubt, shiners will catch more and also larger saugers and walleyes on the river during the early season.

When fishing these minnows, there are two rigs I will use exclusively: The first one is what I like to call the DJR or Double Jig Rig, consisting of a three-way swivel with a 3/4-ounce lead head jig replacing the standard dropper weight. A lively minnow is attached to this and kept in contact with the bottom. Off the other eye, I run a 3-foot leader with a floating jig head and attatch a minnow too. By fishing this double jig rig, I am giving the fish two different looks. The most effective way to fish this rig is to slowly back-troll upstream, making sure the lead head is making bottom contact. Try and keep your line as vertical as possible for the best bait control. If the current warrants, you may have to increase the weight of your dropper jig. This is a simple on-water adjustment you can make, depending on the current in your area. The other very effective method is to vertically jig a plain jig and minnow combination over structure. Simply slow-troll or slip with the current using a very slow lift and fall motion of a foot or so. Again, it is important you keep contact with the bottom. Watch your line as you let your lure fall. Try and follow it down, keeping as tight a line as possible, since you will find that 99 percent of your hits will come on the fall; learn to control your line.

A little trick that works well during winter is to bulk up your jig by adding some type of plastic tail. I have found that 3-inch twister-type tails work well. As for colors, white, yellow and chartreuse seem to work the best. Also, on occasion, black can be very deadly. Work these rigs near the downstream sides of long wing dams that drop off into the main river channel. Start deep and progressively work to more shallow shoreline water while searching. This method also works well this time of the year when used in deep river bends where fish rest and feed during their upstream migrations.

I know that there are other methods that will take walleyes and saugers, but for overall success this time of the year, the two rigs I’ve mentioned are hard to beat.

As far as the aforementioned crappie bite, a simple slip float rig fished close to in-water structure with some depth nearby took the most fish. Both crappie minnows and waxworms took some nice big slabs. Keep in mind that this crappie “pattern” will change as the season progresses. You will also have to change your tactics accordingly, but the fish are there and hungry.

So come on folks, how about it? The river is open much more than usual for this time of the year. Get away from the tailwaters and check out some of the fantastic open-water fishing available downriver now on the “Mighty Mississippi.” You’ll shed those winter blues in a hurry.

     E-mail your outdoors questions to Mike Cyze at: lastcast13@yahoo.com. You can also check out his blog at: lastcastoutdoors.com or listen to him on ESPN Radio.