Migration-motivation River Walleyes

Survival of the fittest is defined as “the continued existence of living organisms that are best adapted to their environment.” And when habitats are suitable, fish are prolific reproducers in rivers. Each spring, mature walleyes undergo the biological urge to undertake extensive upstream migrations to reproduce and fulfill their obligations. The spring spawning migrations take place on rivers and creeks of all sizes with the most extensive migrations occurring on major rivers of the Upper Midwest, Great Lakes tributaries and feeder streams.

Where I fish each spring in northern Illinois, walleyes migrate throughout a network of inter-connected rivers and smaller tributaries. While the river fisheries here aren’t blessed to have abundant populations and reproductive successes like world-class river fisheries in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, stocking has helped maintain the low-density walleye fisheries in Illinois. These successful efforts have given wading river anglers an opportunity to reap the rewards of some of the best, most intriguing type of walleye fishing there is.

Motivated to migrate
Typically, spawning is weather and water-temperature dependant, and occurs in northern Illinois region from early March through mid-April. During pre-spawn, spawn, and post-spawn, walleyes are programmed to complete the majority their activities at night. From migrating to feeding and homing to spawning, walleyes are restless at night. They have the nighttime advantage over other species too, due to eyesight adaptations, feeding behavior and successful strategies to lay eggs over rocky shoals and shallow riffles under the mysterious cover of darkness.

In barrier-free systems, walleyes are known to migrate for several miles for feeding and refuge until they locate an ideal range for “homing.” However, for spawning, most migrations are known to be less than 10 miles in length. Spring spawning migrations are most likely made to the nearest spawning sites, though migrations of great distances do occur. Studies presented by stream biologists indicate adult walleyes return annually to the same spawning grounds each spring, in an activity known as “repetitive migration.”

Due to the migratory nature of walleyes, adult fish have the ability to home in specific spawning sites. This is an acquired adult behavior influenced by a river’s size, shape, structure and locations suitable for spawning areas. By roaming and traversing between pools, walleyes eventually become familiar with the layout and the best areas of a river. Migrating in schools helps explain how walleyes find spawning sites and their return to these with greater efficiency each year.

Warming weather and water temperatures, in conjunction with darkness, are primary spring migration-triggering factors. However, river conditions and stream discharge-related events are important stimuli for walleyes’ spawning migrations. Evidence shows that many adult fish are stimulated to migrate upstream on spawning migrations during and following periods of higher stream flow. A spring thaw and snowmelt, as well as the rain season itself, results in an increase of river discharge and helps trigger upstream walleye movements.

Spring spawning and fishing locations
Pinpointing walleye locations correlates mostly with the progression of the migration and spawn locations. Walleyes on their spawn run require cover and resting areas while current is both their friend and foe. While currents guide them upstream, they’ll take structural paths providing them the least resistance and most resting points. Laydowns, rock piles, shoreline eddies and current breaks and bridge abutments all provide them with ideal cover while en route upstream. Throughout the day, walleyes will hold around these locations, but are more inclined to be actively spawning and feed during the nighttime hours.

After ice-out, the smaller males are the first to undertake the spring migration. They will locate their spawning grounds in shallow water and hold on them for up to a month for feeding and spawning with females. In these areas, males far outnumber the females. Large females move in and out of spawning areas quickly, and are much faster than most anglers think. They quickly vacate spawning areas in search of a nearby deep-water refuge to use for recuperation and feeding, if an immediate source of forage is present. Large females are very difficult to catch while spawning and are reluctant to bite for up to two weeks following the rigors of procreation. Therefore, pre-spawn is the most ideal time for targeting actively feeding fish.

The best walleye-spawning habitats are large, sloping, shallow gravel bars comprised of pea gravel and palm-sized rock with moderate to slower gradient current rich in dissolved oxygen passing over and through them. Walleyes disperse their eggs and milt over the shallow current-oxygenated structures.

The free-flowing rivers of northern Illinois have a fairly low to medium gradient of flow, with an average discharge rate (under normal water levels) of 80 to 500 cfs (cubic feet per second). In these streams, long deep pools are often linked together with sections of shallow riffles and current runs that feature a moderate current and depth. A lot of structural obstacles are located in between, which are rest stops and early-season magnets for migrating fish. These rivers are best fished when current flow is stable and water levels are consistent. But in spring, higher water levels are beneficial in activating walleyes and increasing their aggression as long as water clarity isn’t turbid or poor. Under spring-like conditions and the season’s typical water levels, walleyes are on the move and feeding and not homing in any specific hole or place unless nearby a spawning site. Being a mobile angler in waders will allow you to catch fish in spots where their spring spawning migration route offers them ideal feeding opportunities.

Channel edges, current breaks, deep holes formed by their spawning gravel bars and slack-water pools are used as their resting areas and ambush points. Having spent a considerable amount of time on rivers in the spring, dams are the last place you will ever find me wade fishing for walleyes. Every angler seemingly flocks to dams during the spring because these locations are the end of the line for fish migrations. Additionally, most northern Illinois dams and tailraces seem to contain the highest level of silt deposits in the river, which suffocates eggs, and all but assures an unsuccessful walleye spawn. And not all walleyes spawn at dams. Only a small percentage of the population will ever travel to these to spawn.

I’ve observed whenever I’m within a few miles downstream I tend to catch bigger pre-spawn walleyes that are staging and beginning to set up near gravel bars. Additionally, walleyes will use slack-water pools, sand flats, rock and rubble flats, deep shorelines and undercut banks, laydowns and logjams. The downstream region from dams offers a greater wealth of habitat for feeding, staging and spawning.

Some of my best walleye locations now are shallow gravel bars with an immediate drop into deeper water. Gravel bars are a favorite natural walleye habitat, and can be mid-river islands or shoreline extensions that have been washed out into a river from floods and high-water periods. The hard bottom substrate and depth fluctuations they create often concentrates walleyes downstream of them in holes and sometimes upstream. Walleyes will often use these areas as their spawning grounds if substrate is ideal, and current oxygenates over them. Depths are fairly shallow, often 1 to 3 feet, before sloping into the deeper pools, which typically averages between 5 to 10 feet. On most of my wade-accessible stretches of a river, a hole greater than 5 feet is considered deep.

Learn a small section of your favorite walleye river and pick out some of its best features. Is there a point, current break, gravel bar or piece of underwater terrain concentrating them? Start on those locations and focus all efforts on these features. When you find walleyes from natural structure, you will have gained confidence and acquired skills to never again fish the over-pressured dams again.

Spring techniques
Most standard river-walleye methods will produce during the early spawn run. With the primary objective being reproduction, eating is least important, but males will be aggressive. Select lures that garner the attention of walleyes and invade their territory. Also, think slower speeds, but aggressive action to entice these walleyes. When wading, you’ll be casting 100 percent of the time, but if a deep hole is located immediately near a shallow area, some variations of jigging and bottom bouncing will be acceptable.

During the spring runs, wade fishermen often overcomplicate their approach. For simplicity and effectiveness, limit your spring river-wading tackle selection to three main categories: jig and plastics/thumper tails for slow, subtleness to maintain bottom contact, deep-diving crankbaits to probe deep holes and medium-sized minnow baits to power through mid-depth currents. Maintain the philosophy that these baits serve as functioning tools to get the job done.

Midsize minnows
Lure profile, speed of retrieve and lip vibration (good tuning) are important properties of a good minnow bait than the color and appearance. In spring, my minnow baits are typically small and compact, at 2 to 4 inches. Walleyes will often strike minnow baits in a mid-retrieve as the lure is being cranked past the hole and through the current. Jerks and pauses can be used in mid-retrieve, but the technique seldom works because feeding walleyes in rivers don’t tend to follow minnow baits without a strike. When they cross paths, walleyes will slam them under a steady retrieve.

My lure of choice has been a number 8 and 10 Husky Jerk in an assortment of fluorescent and natural colors. Frequently fishing depths of 3 to 6 feet, they’re versatile and effective at powering through resting holes and ticking over shallow gravel bars with a slow to medium retrieve. They produce a more compact, tight and powerful wobble during the retrieve. This triggering mechanism is the most important feature of the Husky, and both sizes of Jerks run about the same depth.

Suspending jerkbaits cast far and allow me to cover a lot of area and distance. I cast 3-inch Dynamic Lures J-Specs and moderately crank them with a straight retrieve through tail-outs and along deep edges of gravel bars that form pools. A steady retrieve will allow a J-Spec to dive between anywhere from 2 to 4 feet depending on speed. With a wide wobble, loud internal rattle chamber and suspending style when paused, these provoke strikes from lethargic and aggressive walleyes. And conditions might be tougher on some days. In response, fish might want something a little different. Consider the properties of depth control with a Countdown Rapala or the slender subtleness of an F9 or F11 Floating Rapala or 3 1/2-inch Rebel Minnow.

Crankbaits and divers
With holes being ideal resting spots for large females, crankbaits and deep divers allow casting anglers to probe through the depths. They’re an overlooked lure category for spring, but are perfect on Illinois’ rivers due to the abundance of shad forage. Most anglers turn to Shad Raps for long-line trolling by boat, but for river wading they’re perfect for casting and cranking through deep pools. Speed isn’t as much of a factor as running depth. With a slow retrieve I’m able to run size 06, 07, and 08 Shad Raps through most deep holes. Whether fished daytime or nighttime, if you’re not grazing any rocks or making at least some bottom contact with these baits, they aren’t being applied properly. Have some of the Silver and Shad colors, as well as the standard Firetiger.

Jig and thumper plastics
Another lure category mandatory for spring wading is a 1/4-ounce jig rigged with a large curly-tail or thumper-tail shad-style plastic. Jigs and plastics are my most reliable producers in spring. When walleyes display lower aggression, jig-and-plastic combinations outproduce minnow baits and crankbaits. They can be bounced along the bottom or steadily retrieved through current. I fare best with plastics during the daytime. They work especially well in post-frontal conditions and when the fish are tight-lipped either due to weather factors or if they grow conditioned to certain lures and angling pressure. I prefer rigging my thumper plastics with cone-shaped darter-style swimming heads. The head design allows plastics to cut though current easier so they can be retrieved at any depth and maintain it. The shape also minimizes snags when hopped and pounded on the bottom.

Most river terrain is abusive and gnarly to gear; wade anglers can expect to lose a few baits to shallow rocks. But fishing with proper equipment will minimize your spring-season donations to the bottom. Braided superline such as a hi-vis. yellow 10- and 15-pound-test Cortland Masterbraid has become mandatory on my size 20 and 30 Quantum spinning reels that are fished on medium-action spinning rods. Whether jigging or casting, they help prevent breakoffs when snagged. But most importantly, the sensitivity and high-visibility of a yellow line greatly improves catch rates and helps detect bites from passive or aggressive walleyes. Besides a rod and reel, all you need is a set of waders, a landing net, a headlamp and a small box of baits like these above.

Spawning fish are extremely vulnerable to harvest and exploitation. Please use restraint if intentions are to harvest some for a meal. Even though special spring regulations at many walleye fisheries tend to favor reduced limits and promote conservation, the best regulation to enforce is releasing all the females. Lower in abundance to males who fertilize the eggs of many females, the female walleyes are the necessity to reproductive success. Once they’re removed from this fishery, a river loses a lot of its reproductive success and long-term sustainability. Far from revolutionary, but an effective and engaging approach few are doing, catching spring river walleyes doesn’t require anything more beyond an understanding of spawning location, timing and walleye behavior.