Winter walleye and sauger fishing is not for the faint of heart. Ramps are icy. Temperatures brutal. And if the wind is blowing, the cold will gnaw, layer by layer, through the warmest of clothes until your icy flesh begs for mercy.
At times, even diehards question the sanity of a winter foray. But, if you’re up to the challenge, the rewards can be amazing. Following is a cherry-picked handful of some of North America’s choicest spots for ice-water ’eyes. From the mighty Columbia, Detroit, Mississippi and Ohio rivers to lesser-known waters, these are must-fish destinations for those with a Jones for some hot winter action.
Last Of The Mohicans
Mohawk River, NY
While most of the Empire State’s fisheries freeze over, the mighty Mohawk offers great open-water action. But don’t delay, the season closes March 15.
The Mohawk holds ’eyes year-round, but winter is an especially good time to fish because dams on the river’s lock system are removed, thus lowering water levels and concentrating fish in what deep water remains. Pools below the dams, which run from 14 to 20 feet deep, are prime lies, but don’t overlook deep runs between the locks, either.
Walleyes in the 3- to 4-pound class are common, and fish up to 8 possible. Jig leadheads tipped with minnows or plastics, or troll minnowbaits like Rogues and Husky Jerks. Be forewarned, the bottom is a gnarly mix of rocks and wood, and the fish may suspend.
Contact the Department of Environ-mental Conservation’s Region 4 Fisheries Office: (607) 652-7366.
Columbia River, WA/OR
Mid-February through mid-April is trophy time on the mighty Columbia, as egg-swollen females gradually shift toward shallow spawning flats. Few waters can rival its sag-bellied ’eyes; 10s are ho-hum and 15s or bigger are possible.
Guide Bob Roberts plies the stretch from Irrigon to Boardman, targeting edges of the main channel from 32 to 44 feet. “Look for deep breaks adjacent to a spawning flat with gravel and submerged timber,” he advises.
When the wind allows, Roberts goes vertical. “Fish a blue-and-silver, 5/8-ounce XPS Lazer Blade or big Northland Tackle Whistler Jig,” he says. Fish blades plain, but with attitude. “Drop your blade to bottom and rip it upward, hard, about five inches,” he explains. “Let it drop back down on a tight line. This is key, because if you let it flutter on slack line, you’ll miss 95 percent of the strikes.”
Tip jigs, which run from 3/8 to 1 ounce depending on how much lead it takes to bounce bottom, with a whole nightcrawler (don’t forget the stinger hook), then slowly raise and lower them. Fish blades and jigs on a 2-foot leader of 10-pound Berkley Big Game mono, tethered to a four-bead bead-chain and 14/6 FireLine main line.
When the wind howls, Roberts trolls ’crawlers up- and downcurrent on spinner rigs anchored by 2- to 3-ounce bottom-walker sinkers. “I prefer a size 2 Colorado blade, firetiger or chartreuse,” he says.
Columbia Basin Guide Service: (541) 276-0371. Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife: (503) 947-6000.
Watauga Lake, TN
Nestled in the Appalachians, 64,300-acre Watauga holds one of Tennessee’s premier walleye fisheries. And according to state biologist Doug Peterson, there’s no time like winter to go after its marble-eyed bounty.
“Prespawn walleyes begin staging in tributary mouths toward the end of February,” he explains. “The Watauga River is probably the best, but the Elk River and Rome Creek also draw runs.” The spawn peaks around mid-March, after which walleyes gradually scatter.
Another fishing peak occurs during the alewife spawn, as water temps reach 65 degrees (usually in mid-April). “Walleyes follow alewives shallow to feed,” says Peterson. “Nightfishing under a bright moon can be fantastic. Cast shad-pattern minnowbaits.”
Before the spawning migrations, winter ’eyes are scattered. Often, they can be found off creek mouths, chasing alewives and gizzard shad. Fish deep with jigs or spoons.
Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency Region 4 Office, (423) 587-7037.
Motor City Madness
Detroit River, MI
As a former United Auto Worker, I have a soft spot for the Motor City and American iron. But my passion for the hungry ’eyes that surge into the Detroit River this time of year runs deeper. Big fish and numbers of 2 to 3 pounders are the rule late February into early summer.
“If you want a 10- to 12-pound walleye, fish the lower river the last two weeks of March,” says Gary Towns, a Michigan fisheries biologist who works on and fishes the Detroit.
On the lower Detroit, the deep trough near Elizabeth Park is a hot zone. So is the trench near Humbug Island. Most anglers focus on 10- to 20-foot depths, but warm shallows near Horse Island also attract fish. The bite moves upriver by May
1. Then the Upper Detroit and Lake St. Clair take center stage; the St. Clair River in mid-May.
2. Heavy jigs are tools of the trade. Use a bow-mount with plenty of power to make controlled drifts with jigs up to 1 ounce, tipped with minnows or plastics. “Handlining,” born on the Detroit, is another top method. For the lowdown on handlining, call Off Shore Tackle in Port Austin, Michigan, (989) 738-5600.
For fishing info, call the Department of Natural Resources, (734) 953-0241; or DNR Fishing Hotline, (517) 373-0908.
Pool 2 Monsters
Mississippi River, MN
On most places I fish winter walleyes in my home state, it takes the cold steel of a churning ice auger to get my jig to the fish. Not on Pool 2. Its wing dams and channel edges offer an open-water oasis for walleyes and saugers all winter.
Big ones, too. An average walleye is 2 to 4 pounds, and monsters topping 12 are taken. Saugers are similarly stout; 2s to 4s are common. “The main concentrations of fish are from just below the Interstate 494 bridge upriver to the Ford Dam,” says regional fisheries supervisor and NAFC Life Member Dave Zappetillo.
To work a wing dam, anchor a short cast upstream and toss a jig-and-plastic combo to the top of the dam, then fish it down the face with lifts and flutters. Any time of day can be good, especially when it’s cloudy. On a sunny day, though, low-light periods are prime.
Channel edges are another hotspot, especially for big saugers. Tip a short-shanked, wide-gap jig with a minnow and add a stinger if bites are short.
Contact guides Steve DeZurik, (612) 860-9329, or Dick “Griz” Grzywinski, (651) 771-6231. Or, call Zappetillo at the Department of Natural Resources, (651) 772-7950.
Winter Walleye Ways
Walleyes are walleyes, wherever you find ’em. We offer local tips for each destination, but truth is, the same basic strategies will produce fish. NAFC Fishing Advisory Council Member Ted Takasaki outlines his winter game plan, which holds water from Arkansas to the Allegheny.
Lakes—In midwinter, walleyes school on deep flats, points, humps and drop-offs near spawning areas, typically fast warm-ing, hard-bottom areas with current or along a wind-swept shore. As the water warms, fish move shallower, closer to spawning areas. In reservoirs, this often means they’ll stage at consecutive points leading into a creek arm.
“Start in shallow water and work deeper,” says Takasaki. “Pitch a 1/16- to 1/8-ounce Max Gap jig tipped with a minnow, a Munchies Thumpin’ Grub or both. Use a subtle lift/drop retrieve with an occasional quick jerk.”
If the fish are in deeper water, Takasaki trolls a small minnow behind a bottom bouncer or, in the spring as the water temperature climbs above 50, he’ll pull a spinner and ’crawler combo. If the fish are active, a crankbait may get the nod.
Rivers— “Start at the dam and work downstream,” he says. “Wall-eyes migrate upstream in late fall and winter, and they stop when they hit a dam. They’ll hold in pools and other current breaks below the dam all winter.
When the water temperature hits the low to mid 40s, they start moving onto shallow, hard-bottom flats in shallower water (such as inside bends or sluggish backwaters) to spawn.” Be sure to check out the bends in the river downstream in addition to the current breaks near the dam. Post-spawn river fish will disperse throughout the tailwater.
Takasaki positions his boat over fish-holding areas like pools or eddies and slips downstream while vertically jigging a Max Gap with a minnow or grub body. “A lift/drop is generally best, but sometimes dragging is better, so it pays to experiment.”