After the snow hits the ground, other motorists may give you strange looks when you drive down the road with a boat in tow. It is clear that angling has taken place after seeing the rigged-up fishing poles, balled-up used line and empty chuckwagon sandwich wrappers taking wing and circling in a wind where the dual console and walk through windshield meet.
Anglers may not know this, but most days a good bite happens on the Mississippi River all winter long and into early spring. This leaf-fallen, snow-covered, walleye and sauger scene may sound intimidating, especially on a river known to flood, flow fast and harbor people called river rats. However, when it is all said and done, it is not that different from summer-time angling.
In the 1930s the U.S. Corps of Engineers built locks and dams on the Mississippi River to create a navigational channel for barge traffic. As the locks allow commerce, conversely the dams restrict the natural migration of walleye and sauger, and act as a winter holding-ground for these fish.
There are numerous productive and trend-setting techniques on the Mississippi River for catching walleye in shallow water, casting hair jigs, jig and plastics, and blade baits. However, for newfound river anglers learning about coldwater walleye - vertical jigging - by drifting within sight of the dam outflow is the place to start.
The drift must be controlled and go naturally with the river flow. To make this happen, slowly backtroll a tiller motor into current or slowly forward troll a bowmount electric into the current. Before fishing starts, practice and learn boat control, and most importantly learn to slowly crawl forward, hover in place and gradually move with the water downstream.
Once boat control is achieved and repeatable, then you can begin to fish. The best starting technique and most popular is vertical jigging. The key is to keep the lure straight up and down. A five-sixteenths or three-eighths-ounce jig will do the job in the slower winter river current when fishing in depths from 18 to 25 feet of water. Later in the year as snow melts, heavier jigs are needed to accomplish vertical jigging, lighter ones are sufficient during the winter.
Attempt to keep the lure two to 10 inches off the bottom. The jig has reached the bottom when there is slack in the line. Keep the jig off the bottom. But how? Read the graph and adjust the depth, use feel and watch the line. Bright colored lines help enormously in seeing if the line is slack or tight, and of course watching the retrieve and lure drop on any cast can help as well.
When you start your drift, note where you are on the shoreline, and then slowly slide down stream. Note depths and locations where fish are holding and work those areas thoroughly. Repeat productive drift passes. Because of the firstclass fishery on the Mississippi, it is surprising how many fish can be caught even on an angler’s first river winter outing.
Experiment with color - chartreuse, black and orange are common jig head colors, also try tricolor jigs. Plastic tails can add a twist to the presentation and are highly effective and also widely used. Large fatheads and smaller shiners (if you can get them) are productive, and stinger hooks may be in order if the bites do not result in hooked-up fish.
There are times to be off the water, namely in the rising spring floodwaters, but follow a few simple steps for a safe open-water winter fishing experience.
The first step, as always, is to wear a proper fitting lifejacket. The second is to fish with a partner. River fishing in the winter is conducted when the water temperature is just above freezing, so safety is especially important.
Another step is understanding the navigation on the Upper Mississippi. When heading upstream (into the flow) keep the red nun buoy on the right hand (starboard) side of the boat, and when heading upstream, keep the green can buoy on the left hand (port) side. These buoys mark the main channel and will keep boats from running a ground and/or prevent prop and lower end damage.
Secondly, because of dangerous, deceptive currents, it is against the law to approach a dam closer than 150 feet from the downstream side. And it is also illegal to be within 600 feet of any dam while traveling upstream.
This next piece of advice is common sense: Stay away from all barges that are under way; they start operations once Lake Pepin thaws. The barges have a blind spot directly in front, and the towboat propellers throw a lot of water. Be aware of where and when these barges turn, and make sure to be on the inside bend side of a turning barge.
Another helpful tip: Do not anchor in an ice flow. It is possible for flowing ice sheets, to become hung up on a boat’s anchor rope. If the anchor does not give way and the ice sheet is large enough, the force of the moving ice can drag a roped boat’s bow underwater.
Clothing And Launching
Deer hunting attire from the hat down to the boots is a similar amount of clothing you will need to make your winter fishing quest. Just do not wear a jacket that is too bulky, as arms must be allowed to move and function.
Though the river flows and remains open for much of the winter, the temperature cut-off point for many anglers is 20 degrees or colder. Fishing in colder weather than that can be futile as line freezes on eyelets. I use Limit Creek LCS69MLF walleye rods for winter fishing because the eyelets are designed slightly larger in order to make winter fishing easier.
Even though water flows in the main channel, the water near the ramp may be frozen, especially if the temperature is below 20 degrees for an extended period. Also, ramp pavement can be iced over, and then sand and salt, as well as the four-wheel drive component, are needed.
Ramps located in bays and other places where there is low flow are iced-in for the season. Without a doubt, Everts Resort near Red Wing, Minn. has the best-kept winter ramps on the entire Mississippi River, plus a great bait-and-tackle shop.
Do not put water in the livewell, as complications with equipment will likely occur. Instead, keep fish in the well or cooler without water; trust me they will not spoil! When fishing is over, you must allow water to drain out of the motor by placing it in a vertical position (trim the motor all the way down) for a few minutes, then raise to travel. Some anglers also turn over the engine for a brief moment to expel water from the motor, however, this practice is becoming rare.
As always, the lower unit must be freshly lubed and inspected periodically for signs of water in the lube.
From Lock and Dam No. 1 in Minneapolis to No. 8 south of Brownsville, Minn., anglers turn heads towing water-dripping boats in the height of winter. Fishing the river some days is like shooting them in a barrel; it can be that good. Lifetime catches of 100 walleye and sauger a day have occurred for many river anglers, creating a cure for winter blues, and a warm and fuzzy feeling about this coldwater winter fishery.
Turk Gierke is a multi-species guide on the St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers. NAF Online Editor Tony Capecchi has caught many walleyes with Turk. Turk can be contacted at 1-800-929-1801 or email@example.com. Visit www.croixsippi.com for more information.