Leave the leadhead jigs and three-way rigs in the box, boys and girls! River walleyes – and often the biggest ones a system has to offer – frequently prefer the subtle swing and swagger of a suspending jerkbait.
Now hear me out before planning an all-out assault with quarter-ounce round heads followed by volleys of three-ounce bell sinkers. Reflect on the walleye’s fancy for minnow-shaped hardbaits; ponder a suspending bait’s trait of hanging in the water column at a variety of speeds. Prefaced with such considerations, you’ll be better prepared to accept the effectiveness and efficiency suspending jerkbaits provide in oh-so-many river walleye situations.
One such scenario happened recently, when my frequent fishing partner Dave Lehman and I were plying an eddy of northwestern Pennsylvania’s Allegheny River. The sweet spot was a 100 yard long drift. In the cool water walleyes had gathered in the area, which was protected by the current-deflecting attribute of an upriver gravel bar. I held the boat along the current seam as the boat drifted slowly downstream. Lehman would make casts that quartered downriver and would then let the Yozuri jerkbait swing downstream as he imparted slight twitches. Walleye pecks would happen when the lure reached the end of the swing and straightened out. The last bite was from a 31 inch, 11 plus pounder.
“When the water is cold or cool, a big part of the presentation is simply allowing the lure to drift and swing,” explained Lehman. “Don’t impart too much action. Just keep enough tension on the line to detect a hit. Walleyes will sometimes peck at the lure and miss it, but will often come back again and take it.”
This experience illustrates several points. For one, a combination of boat control and lure presentation puts the bait right within the current seam – where slower “eddy” water meets the force of the main channel – a place where feeding walleyes often lie. Also, it’s that change of direction, when a lure swings around as the drift concludes, that’s often the trigger. The suspending quality of the jerkbait keeps it subsurface (to what degree is determined by the lure’s design), and feeding walleyes will lift up and eat it.
River walleyes will often scatter over extensive rocky flats, particularly when they exist below the protection of deeper pools that provide sanctuary when they are in a non-feeding mood. When the urge to forage kicks in – typically during twilight periods, after dark, and during dreary days – they roam the rocky shallows.
A favorite maneuver of mine is to drift slowly downriver over the flat, using a bow-mount trolling motor to slow the boat a tad. Point the bow upriver and engage a slight amount of thrust. The level needed will vary with the current. The idea is to slow the boat enough so that the current, as it sweeps by the boat, has enough speed to keep the jerkbait moving with little retrieve on the angler’s part. Make a quartering cast downstream, and work that lure as was described earlier. If no hit occurs during the drift or swing part of the retrieve, let it hang in the current, retrieving it a couple of feet, and then allowing it to hang a few more seconds. It’s sort of a version of the “backtrolling” tactic river steelheaders use on the rivers of the northwest.
When the boat’s reached the end of the drift – determined by the end of the potential habitat – I kick up the thrust on the trolling motor, enough to where it overtakes the force of the current. Then I drag the jerkbait back up the river at a snail’s pace, providing an occasional twitch with the rod tip, which results in a stop-n-go action on the bait that can be just the right trigger.
Combining the downriver drift with the upriver troll results in an efficient combination that keeps the lure in the water, an important component when the fish you are seeking are dispersed and roaming.
River walleyes aren’t glued to the bottom, particularly when they are feeding. It’s better to have the lure a few feet off the bottom rather than scraping it, so the hooks won’t pick up leaf litter and other lure-fowling debris. For depths of three to five feet I like shallow running baits like XCalibur’s XS4 Stickbait and Rapala’s number 8 and 10 X-Raps. When depths run from six to 10 feet, Rapala’s Deep X Rap is a good choice. Yozuri’s new Sashimi minnow has shown great promise in many river walleye situations as well.
Typically walleyes don’t crush suspending hardbaits with the same aggressiveness as smallmouth and largemouth bass do. The sensitivity afforded by braided superline, as well as fluorocarbon line, provides a high degree of feel for light biters.