— Text and photos courtesy of Traditions Media
Whether you’re talking the expansive rivers and reservoir systems of the Dakotas and Nebraska, or the skinny waters of rivers cutting through parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, prime-time walleye fishing is happening right now. In all these places, springtime walleyes often hang out close to narrows and dams, making them quite uncomplicated to find and catch.
A kayak is a great alternative to fishing walleyes by motorized boat or from the bank. Specific models such as Hobie’s Mirage Pro Angler and Mirage Pro Angler with 360 drive technology are ideal, because they employ pedal-drives to make navigation and boat control infinitely easier in river-current areas favored by spring walleyes.
Across the board, sales of all manner of kayaks are booming, because the versatile, affordable and easy handling crafts allow anglers of all walks and interests to make the most of fishing opportunities. Even better, they even abide by today’s new social-distancing norms.
Kayak fishing — especially in springtime’s faster currents and cooler temperatures — requires thorough consideration of on-the-water safety. Always wear a personal flotation device (PFD) and exercise caution.
“With frigid springtime water temperatures, it’s imperative to wear a PFD and even a dry suit if possible. Also, letting someone know where you’re fishing and when you’ll return is a good idea,” says Hobie pro Kristine Fischer. “Navigating and fishing current can be tricky, so it’s important to exercise respect for the waters and keep safety first and foremost.”
Some of the best rivers for spring walleyes feature hydroelectric dams that release water and increase downstream flows when generating power. Areas just downstream of natural falls and water retaining dams can be productive as well.
While fishing from a kayak, it’s essential to know the discharge and generation times at dams upstream so you’ll know how much water is coming and when. Moving water is an absolute walleye magnet, and when the switch flips the bite can heat up instantaneously.
One caveat, however, is making sure you’re not too far downstream when dam gates open. The current’s sudden acceleration means that it will be more than a workout kayaking back upstream. Whether you’re paddling or pedaling, it pays to be plan for and be aware of all current factors that could come into play.
One of the best methods for targeting spring river walleyes is slipping the current.
Find a stretch of river with plenty of classic features — points, bars, current seams, etc. Start at the top and begin drifting downstream. It’s really no different than how you’d operate a motorized boat on the drift. Simply point the bow toward shore and crank the rudder so the kayak travels at the optimum angle to cast toward shore and drag a bait along the bottom.
On a controlled slip for walleyes, primary presentations are long-lining a jig behind the kayak and casting crankbaits and jerkbaits off the bow. Both techniques can be employed simultaneously where multiple lines are permissible.
Watching over your shoulder, adjust the boat if there’s a shoreline point gravel or sandbar, or a windfall with an eddy that demands your attention.
Again, pedals makes it much easier to fish and control the boat because you are not constantly shuffling hands between fishing rods and a paddle. Simply pedaling in forward or reverse adjusts the drift to stay clear of any obstacles while remaining within casting distance of premium spots.
A couple particular baits are exceptional for active jigging or dragging jigs for river walleyes — the Z-Man DieZel MinnowZ and Slim SwimZ. Shiner and shad patterns produce best when matching native baitfish in clear to moderately clear water. The exception, of course, is in dirtier water where brighter whites and patterns with vivid hues and contrasts can pay off.
For casting, work hard-bodied jerkbaits inside a 90-degree window off the bow, hitting targets that you aren’t sliding by on the slip. A bait such as the LIVETARGET Rainbow Smelt Jerkbait Shallow Dive is a river walleye slayer. Many rivers crown in the center and attract migrating walleyes, too, so test the center with a jerkbait if the banks aren’t producing.
Watching the river for surface irregularities can also be key. Any redirection of the current or place where ripples signify a transition to shallower water are must-fish areas.
Manmade wingdams are premium features, too. Look for actively feeding walleyes finning on the upstream side.
Spring is also the perfect time to throw lipless crankbaits such as the LIVETARGET Golden Shiner Rattlebait. Spring discharges often flood tailraces with shad, and the LIVETARGET Golden Shiner imitates them ideally. Snap the lure with intermittent free falls to mimic a shad that got cycled and spit out by the turbines. Tailrace walleyes are well accustomed to devouring dead bait tumbling in the water.
Another kayak tactic is pointing the bow into the current and slow-trolling with the same jerkbaits and lipless rattlebaits. Inch along slowly and let the current take care of the bait’s action. Letting the kayak stall — falling back a foot or so — gives curious fish a longer look. Then speed-pedal ahead and prepare for a reaction strike. This is similar to bumping the throttle while trolling from a motorized boat. The difference in speeds can often be the selling point fish need to strike.
The mouths of creek channels are high-probability spots, too. Watch for schools of bait rippling the surface. In some regions, it’s possible to see seagulls diving on bait.
Another popular kayak-fishing method is pedaling up to the discharge area of a dam and fan-casting the edges of slack water, as well as current seams where water passes at two different speeds. When the water is discharged, walleyes will sit right on the edge of the fast water waiting for the influx of shiners and shad. This is a highly productive technique, but just be mindful of safety, respect all posted signage and maintain a safe distance from the discharge area.
The Hobie rod holder is an indispensable accessory for river walleye fishing. If you’re jigging with your right hand, place a stickbait rod in the holder, or vice versa. It’s a great way to do double duty on the river when regulations allow for more than one line in the water.
In terms of rods, St. Croix Mojo Bass glass casting models are fantastic for trolling hard-bodied baits, in part because their moderate action flexes optimally in the current and sets the hook fluidly.
Both the 7-foot, 4-inch medium-power, moderate-action Crankster and the 7-foot, 8-inch Big Crankster are solid models to consider. The combination with Daiwa J-Braid x8 line works well to drive baits deeper and keep fish pinned.§
A long, 3-foot fluorocarbon leader is recommended to avoid spooking fish in clear waters. Common line weights are 15- to 20-pound braid with 15-pound fluorocarbon leaders.
For jigging, a longer spinning rod over 7 feet lets you work a hooked fish around the bow and aids in the overall playing of river walleyes. Models such as the 7-foot, 6-inch medium-light, extra-fast Eyecon and the 7-foot, 6-inch medium-light, extra-fast Slip-n-Rig Legend Tournament Walleye are great choices.
While bass — largemouths, smallmouths and stripers — often get the attention on river systems coast to coast, there’s an exceptional walleye bite right now just begging for exploration, and one of the best ways to explore that bite is from a pedal-driven kayak. You’ll enjoy all the nuances of boat control you’d find in a motorized boat with a trolling motor, but kayaks provide the additional conveniences of being able to launch almost anywhere and accessing waters the big rigs can’t.