Growing up in Ottertail County, Minnesota, I have to admit that river walleyes were a bit off my radar. Sure, in spring during the shiner run we’d find some fish in the local rivers and the mouths of rivers entering and exiting local lakes, but that was about it. Years later, in my 20s I moved to the Minneapolis area and started fishing Pool 2 of the Mississippi; the learning curve was steep after years of fishing walleyes on West Central Minnesota lakes. Yes, there was a lot to learn, but with the help of fishing buddies, web resources, and studying magazines like In-Fisherman, over time I was able to figure out how, where, and when to fish river walleyes.
When it comes to river walleye fishing, early spring and fall are prime times, but there’s a good deal of action to be had in the summer, too. The fish behave differently but there are still lots of great opportunities to catch walleyes in rivers during the heat of summer. One general rule of thumb, though, is rise early and or plan to fish later in the day; given the heat and sun during midday during the summer, prime times are mornings and late afternoon/evening hours.
I talked with several in-the-know river rats for the purpose of cracking the code on summer river walleyes. The info gleaned is invaluable and should help you catch more ‘eyes on rivers where you live. For the most part, it all comes down to wing dams, wood, current seams, and some pretty skinny water—shallower than you might expect.
Walt Matan – Southern Walleye Belt
Bait designer and marketing manager for Iowa-based BFISHNTACKLE and Custom Jigs and Spins, angler Walt Matan has spent his entire life fishing rivers.
“I would say that with summer walleye fishing on rivers you really need to focus on your location. Not all rivers are alike. For example, walleyes react a lot differently on the Mississippi than they do on the Wisconsin River, both rivers I fish quite a bit. I fish the Davenport and Quad Cities area on the Mississippi and up north around Petenwell and Castle Rock,” said Matan.
“One of the most effective baits I use up north on the Wisconsin River is the BFishNTackle Draggin’ Jig. A lot of the walleyes there like to relate to wood, downed trees, stumps, and all kinds of stuff like that. There are other weedless jigs out there but it’s essential that you use some kind of weedless jig that you can pitch right up there where the walleyes hide and you’ve just got to experiment with whether you’re going to use half a ‘crawler or a piece of plastic,” he said. “I like an AuthentX 4-inch Ringworm, AuthentX Pulse-R, or AuthentX Moxi in the summertime. The walleyes just seem to hang around the wood a lot more than they do on rivers down here in southern Wisconsin and Illinois. Down here it’s a lot more fishing around wing dams. The 1/4-ounce Draggin’ Jig works on the wing dams also because you can pitch it right up into the rocks. The 1/4-ounce is pretty universal for anywhere you’re going to fish on the river for walleyes in the summer. This time of year, if you can find little bullheads for bait that’s really good or half a ‘crawler. These are great things to start with.”
Matan continued: “When it comes to wing dams there’s lots of talk about fishing the upside current area and the tips, but I try to work the entire stretch. Usually the up-current and top—because that’s where the active fish are—seems to be the best. And the tip is always good for something. A lot of guys are using big crankbaits—especially the Berkley Dredgers—you find a lot of tournament guys covering wing dams with that presentation. But I don’t really do that much. In terms of locating wing dams, most are included on today’s Navionics and Lakemaster map cards and you can visibly tell the whereabouts of a lot of them by how the current behaves or rocks sticking out of the water or on shore.”
In terms of gear, Matan likes the St. Croix Eyecon Snap Jig rod because it comes in at just under $150, which is rare for a quality walleye rod.
“The Eyecon has good action and an extra-fast tip. I use light 10-pound Fireline braid and a rod that has a real fast tip so you can feel the bite. In terms of reels, I like a 3000 size for its slightly larger arbor and casting distance,” he said. “Daiwa makes a good one in the Daiwa Tatula LT 3000. It’s lightweight and has good drag. I don’t generally use a fluorocarbon leader given the water clarity.”
In terms of jig and plastics colors, Matan gravitates to white, gold, orange, chartreuse, and sour apple.
“The bubble gum colors also work well. Fire and Ice, which is kind of a purple with a chartreuse tail, also catches a lot of fish. Oystershell is another good color,” he said.
Although a spring, fall, and winter river walleye presentation, Matan will also fish ringworms in the summer.
“With ringworms there are all kinds of retrieves you can use. One of the big deals is when you’re casting cross current and you get the jig to kind of bounce down the river and then it swings and you bring it back to the boat. You toss it out there, let it kind of bounce downstream, wait for that swing point, and I’ve found that if you let a ringworm stop and just sit a lot of times a walleye will pick it up off the bottom when it’s not even moving,” he said. “That was kind of the big discovery this spring. I thought that was kind of weird. I’d make twenty casts with my typical retrieve and catch nothing. Then back to letting it stop and I’d get a fish. The walleyes would follow the bait and pick it up when it wasn’t moving. “Another really good presentation is a Bomber Slab Spoon or Wolf’s One Eyed Spoon, just jerking those along the rocks of the wing dam. I like white and gold.”
Boat Control and Technology
Matan said Side Imaging technology has become essential to his river walleye fishing.
“Up in the Wisconsin River I can identify the sunken trees and the walleyes around them. You look to whether they’re behind, underneath, or to the side of the trees and position your casts that way,” he said. “You can identify the guys using Side Imaging on the river. Everyone is kind of putting along in their boats and then they stop. Having a trolling motor like the Minn Kota Terrova with Spot-Lock which allows you to stop and hover in these areas is also huge. I still carry a river anchor as backup, but I haven’t used it in five years. A lot of guys will anchor around wing dams but with Spot-Lock you can reposition yourself really easily. You’ve got to be right there in the zone. You might be pitching in 8 feet of water or 16 feet of water and depending on how the current is you’ve got to be positioned perfectly so there’s a lot of sliding back and forth.”
In the Mississippi River the walleyes are feeding on shiners and shad and on the Wisconsin River they’re feeding on a variety of things—white bass, bluegills, perch, minnows—whatever’s available in the river.
Matan is also a big proponent of ripping hair for summer walleyes, a technique that originated with Mississippi River and greater Minnesota walleye guide Dick “The Griz” Gryzwinski more than 30 years ago. Now 80 years old, The Griz is still guiding clients on the Mississippi River and can be found at Blue Ribbon Bait most early mornings. Although he’s still ripping hair behind his tiller upriver along the bank, he said it’s hard to beat a simple jig and fathead in most situations.
“I catch loads of fish on an 1/8- or 1/4-ounce Northland Fire-Ball jig and fathead hooked through the mouth and the back of the head so it don’t spin—and 6-pound mono,” said The Griz.
“Wayne’s Bucktail Jigs work well on river walleyes. I tip them with minnows, but a lot of guys will just snap them. It’s a real good technique all year ‘round. What’s nice about BFishNTackle’s hair jigs and our H20 jigs is we have a variety of weights,” he said. “When you’re using plastic any time of the year and you’re using the tumbling down method it’s got to be just the right tumble which can take experimentation in jig size to get right. Let’s say you’re using a 1/4-ounce jig and a minnow and it’s tumbling down nice for you and everything works if you switch to a piece of plastic it’s going to tumble slower or faster. So you have to adjust the weight of the jig to whether you’re using plastic or live bait. We’ve got a 1/16-, 3/32-, 1/8-, 5/32-ounce, etc. so all the bases are covered. A lot of times I’ll use a 3/32- or 5/32- as opposed to a 1/4-ounce jig.
“The other thing is both the H20 Precision Glitter Jig and Wayne’s Bucktail have the weight stamped on them so if you’re fishing with other guys in the boat you can communicate what’s working to everyone and get everyone fishing the same thing. You wonder why the guy up front is catching all the fish it might be jig size—he could be using a 3/8 and you’re using 1/4,” Matan said.
He said he didn’t used to believe in the importance of jig color but says over the years his experience on the river with finicky walleyes has proved otherwise.
“Sometimes there’s no rhyme or reason to it. I might be using white and catching fish and then the bite stops. So you put on purple. I really believe color makes a lot more difference with walleyes than any other species.”
Bro On River ‘Eyes
Before moving to Northern Minnesota decades ago, Brian “Bro” Brosdahl spent his youth and salad years exploring the Mississippi, Minnesota, St. Croix, and Rum rivers near his Twin Cities home. He still fishes these rivers—as well as the Rainy—every chance he gets, despite an active guiding, tournament and promotions schedule.
Bro said that wing dams are one of the primary locations to look for summer walleyes.
“As walleyes move from the backwater areas—or the dam—they start hitting the main stretches of river and wing dams, he said. “Wing dams help walleyes evade the current and they can chase bait. They can just sit in the current seam and grab bait as it goes by them in the current.”
But not all wing dams are created equal and hold fish.
“A good wing dam has a little structure to it—it’s broken in the middle or has something different to it—whether it’s on a curve or straight-away—and changes in the water depth nearby. It might have some broken rocks from a barge or ice dams; that’s always something good to look for.
“I like the up-current side and the tips, but for the most part it’s the up-current side and the features on it,” he said. “If you drive around it with your boat like you would a sand bar on a lake you can look with your eyes for features in the current—how that breaks and changes direction—and also look at your Side Imaging on the screen. No two wing dams are the same. Any differences in the structure will hold fish. A lot of times—on shallow-water wing dams—the walleyes will sit right on top but most of the time they’re up current and the big fish are on the tips. They’ll be less fish on the down current side.”
He will use Side Imaging to examine broken wing dams where a barge may have hit or ice pushed the rocks over.
“I’ll then Spot-Lock 40 feet up or down current so I don’t blow the fish out of there,” he said. “If I have to use high-speed with the trolling motor I’ll stay even farther away. If the current isn’t too fast—like 1 or 2 mph—I’ll use my 15-foot Minn Kota Talons to hold me in place and fish the wing dam. Then I can pitch quietly. If the fish are in 7 feet of water and you’re sitting in 10 or 12 you can pitch right up there.”
In terms of presentations, Bro is typically pitching a Northland Fishing Tackle Deep-Vee Hair Jig or Deep-Vee Jig dressed with a soft plastic like the Impulse Smelt. He admits, though, that some days minnows are key, so he always picks up a couple scoops of fatheads on the way to the river.
“I pitch right up to where the current seam changes and when the bait gets to the top of the wing dam you stop just before that current gets faster on top. And then give the bait a side sweep and the action is right now unless the fish are a little bit off,” he said. “If they’re off I’ll use an egg sinker and Northland Gumdrop Floater with a leech, fathead minnow, or willowcat if I can get them, and pitch that into the zone and slowly drag it. The leader is about 16 inches to 2 feet of 10-pound fluorocarbon tied to 12-pound braid with a 1/4- to 3/8-ounce egg sinker. I’ll pitch it in there and follow with a slow pull, stop, slow pull. Drop the rod tip ever so slightly and set the hook. Leeches work great on the river. They’re a big fish bait. If there are willowcats and they’re not too expensive I’ll use those. Creek chubs work great on a size 2 hook. They get bit fast. Everything in the river eats creek chubs and redtails.”
When it comes to rods and reels, he uses a 6-foot, 3-inch to 6-foot, 8-inch medium extra-fast St. Croix Legend Elite or Walleye Tournament Series Walleye Series Snap Jig rod with a fluorocarbon leader.
“I like a place where you can break off if you do get stuck and that’s hard to do with straight braid,” he said. “There are times on the river when you don’t even need a leader. But you do need a breaking spot.
“When walleyes are in the wood that’s when you want to throw Mimic Minnows or a Rumble Shiner or Rumble Bug. A lot of times you use just braid and you can pull the bait with braid and bend the hooks to free the snag. Depends on the body of water and how skittish the fish are.
”The Rumble Bug is nice because it wobbles through the wood,” he said. “The Rumble Shiner is nice for big fish. I always start with a perch pattern anywhere in the Midwest. And you have to try the Great Lakes colors like Purple Wonderbread and Sneeze.”
Wading and Fishing From Shore
30-year-old river rat Nolan Schroeder of Waterloo, Iowa, has been a student of river fishing walleyes since he has six or seven years old. He’s done the majority of his fishing standing on rip-rapped riverbanks or in waders.
“I grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and went fishing with my dad a lot,” he said. “We’d fish the interior rivers—the Wapsi, which runs close to Marion on the north of Cedar Rapids—and I fished the Cedar River extensively when I went to college in Cedar Falls. Along the way I learned a lot about fishing river walleyes all season long.
“It’s been difficult to learn the ropes of river walleye fishing but once you start figuring out it can be really fun and you can get on some pretty good fish consistently. First of all, rivers and lakes are totally different. In the river, sometimes you have figure out if you’re using the wrong presentation or it’s a low walleye population area because the rivers in upper Iowa are shallow, strong, and fast so the fish can be pretty concentrated. Down toward Cedar Rapids the rivers are bigger and wider and you have to search for the walleyes a little more. I had to run through a lot of different presentations to get my walleye game together, from jigging to cranking and all kinds of live bait tactics.
“During the summer I really love fishing a plastic paddletail and a rattling jighead like the Kalin’s Google Eyes. They work really well,” he said. “The water’s pretty dirty in the summer so I like the added rattle in the head and thump of the tail; it seems to draw fish to the bait.
Conversely, in the fall and winter you have less rain and field run-off, and the waters tend to be clearer, but in the summer you have to deal with turbid water. I like Hank’s Bait Walleye Slayer paddletail in a blue sparkle body with chartreuse tail. You can fish them aggressively with sharp pops, alternating rips and letting the bait hit the bottom. We have a lot of sandbars that the walleyes like to hang out on and shallow- to deep-rock ripples off of drop-offs. These smaller rivers don’t really have wing dams, so these are the kind of areas I try to find.”
Schroeder fishes two different river walleye rod and reel set-ups.
“I always like to have two options with me as I’m fishing from shore or wading. I have a jigging rod—a 6-foot, 9-inch medium-light, extra-fast action Fenwick HMX rod spooled with 10-pound PowerPro and a 10-pound fluorocarbon leader,” he said. “It’s great for throwing everything from 1/8- to 1/2-ounce jigs. Then I have a medium power 6-foot, 6-inch that I have 15-pound braid and 14-pound fluoro for heavier bladebaits, rattlebaits, and Rapala Husky Jerks. Those two pretty much get me through any walleye scenario.”
Finesse Rig for Finicky Walleyes
Angler and self-professed river rate, John Vandercook of Minneapolis, Minnesota, has been fishing the nearby Mississippi River Pools 2 through 4 for decades. I’ve fished with him off and on for the past 15 years and each outing learn something new from the river expert. Most recently, it’s his use of an ice fishing tackle favorite to tap neutral to negative walleyes in skinny water.
“There are times when the walleyes are literally right up on the bank in a foot or two of water where there’s back current. And in a lot of these places there are actually undercuts to the bank where the fish can position themselves and ambush minnows,” he said. “These fish can be hard to catch but I’ve found that a finesse set-up of light, 6-pound leader material or straight 6-pound mono and a fathead threaded on a 1/8-ounce JB Lures Gem-N-Eye Jig will seduce these finicky feeders.”
Vandercook doesn’t use anything more than the teardrop-shaped ice jig tied straight to his line with a fathead hooked through the mouth and out the back of the head just like veteran guide and walleye expert, Dick “The Griz” Gryzinski recommends keeping the minnow and jig from spinning.
“I like how the jig has a big eye on one side and is hammered gold or silver on the back,” he said. “I usually opt for the hammered gold models and like a pink, chartreuse, or gold eye on the other side. JB Lures’ new Wonderbread pattern has caught some of my bigger walleyes, too.”
Vandercook positions his boat 20 to 25 feet from the riverbank and casts inches from shore, following the jig and his rod tip in the nearshore back currents and eddies he finds. He’s constantly on the lookout for small changes in shoreline rock or anywhere water might be entering the larger river—as well as the surface activity of native minnows.
A River Walleye Must-Have: Jigs with Spinners
Years ago, I discovered the benefit of fishing jigs with spinners for river walleyes. I had heard wind of walleye tournament pros fishing Al Patterson’s Reel Bait jigs and had to find out what that was all about. Available in sizes 1/8-ounce through deep-water hammering 1-ouncers for use on the big walleye factory Lake Winnipeg and Columbia River out west, Al’s jigs can be fished countless ways, the underspin, hammered metal willowleaf always flashing and vibrating to draw in fish.
While there are a number of jigs with spinners available on the market, Al’s are the original and simply work the best. Short-shank purple and black with a fathead have been winners for me, although he offers a Super Glow series, too—in both short- and long-shank versions. I like the 1/8- to 1/4-ounce for most situations but will occasionally tie on a 3/8-ounce or larger to thump bottom when the current’s racing. The jigs feature a shovel-nose design that sits upright on the bottom with the minnow at a 45-degree angle and then the spinner engages when it’s lifted.
An entire column could be devoted to what’s called rip jigging, snap jigging, and pop jigging. In a nutshell, legendary Minnesota walleye guide Dick “The Griz” Gryzwinski invented the tactic with his hand-tied, undressed chicken feather jigs some 30-plus years ago and the technique has become a staple of walleye anglers from coast-to-coast—both with hair and plastics.
There are two basic ways to rip hair for summer ‘eyes—by casting behind the boat and motoring upstream between .8 and 1.8 mph—ripping the rod forward and then letting the bait fall by dropping it back, repeating as speed permits—and pitching hair jigs and snapping them back to the boat with an aggressive rip, drop cadence. Unlike the fathead and jig routine—rip jigging is pure power and draws hard, instinctual, reaction strikes from walleyes—sometimes bigger fish than finesse tactics of simple minnow and jig presentations will produce.
No matter which way you choose to rip jig, the tactic simply catches fish. In recent years there’s been a rebirth of ripping hair jigs on lakes and rivers and VMC offers the MTJ Moontail Hair Jig and Northland Tackle the Deep-Vee Bucktail Jig. Both work extremely well. You can also tie your own without a huge expense in materials and experiment with hair length, materials, and how the bait flows in the water. But the Griz was right, chicken feathers seem to be the deal and should play a part in your rip jig design.
Although it’s easy to join the spring and fall river walleye bites, which are predictable and comforting, don’t overlook summertime river ‘eyes. On rivers small to large, there are some great opportunities to catch fish across the Walleye Belt when most anglers are trailering to lakes “up north.” You’d be surprised, sometimes there are good walleye bites closer to home than we might think… Hopefully the tips shared by the above river rats get you into more river walleyes this summer.
Looking to stock your box with the right baits to catch more summer river walleyes? See the photo below for a selection of winning lures that do just that.
Summer River Walleye Trips on the Mississippi: Contact Dick “The Griz” Grzywinski at (651) 771-6251