Reading the Water for Walleyes

By Nick Simonson

Fishing great Al Lindner once said, “Ninety percent of the fish occupy ten percent of the water.”

As spring river walleye angling goes, that is often the truth.   Isolating productive areas of moving water is what turns spring fishing into catching.  Reading the water and focusing on prime spots puts more fish on the end of the line.  It is the best skill an angler can have on a river of any size.

There are many good ways to read a flow.  My favorite, the shorthand method, is to look for areas that are similar to ones where fish have been caught before.  The eddies and side currents where water goes slack are classic places to find walleyes.  Slack water directly adjacent to fast water produces fish.  Add in some structure, like a steep bank, a few larger rocks, or maybe a sunken tree and that is an area that must be fished.

A second step in finding fish is to lay out “the grid.”  Draw a mental image of lines running vertically and horizontally and lay it over the water.  Cast to each mental square (I like them to be about two feet by two feet in size) and feel things out.  Hit the bottom, bounce off some rocks or some sticks, and vary your retrieve from that point through the next few casts.  If you get a strike, or better yet catch a fish, from a certain square or a point in between, cast to that spot again and duplicate the action.  Explore each area, locate the productive ones and examine what makes them so good.  Fish the spots behind the places where strikes come as well, as other fish may be holding just downstream in the same current break.

If there is slack water there, make a note of it.  The grid is a great way to help identify areas fish love, especially if you are new to the sport of angling or just new to a river.  Once you have that first grid on the water and have figured out where the fish are and what they relate to, you can apply that knowledge elsewhere.

Many bass anglers use crankbaits to feel out bottom composition by bouncing their hard-bodied lures off rocks, deadfalls and other structures. This same process works for walleyes and can be done with less expensive tackle, like jigs.  Use your lure to investigate the bottom of an apparent spring walleye haunt.  With superlines and graphite rods, it is easy for anglers to feel bottom structure and identify it.  When rock turns to gravel, or gravel to mud, that is where the fish will be – in the transition areas.  Using your lures to search out and examine an area of water in conjunction with the grid will help you find more fish.  Locate obstructions such as boulders by bouncing your jig over or around them and focusing on the eddy behind each rock hidden under the surface.  Slow water behind these obstructions is appealing to every species, especially walleyes.

Reading the water is an art, and the canvas of a river changes from day to day in spring with fluctuating water levels, changing water clarity, and varying weather patterns.  These tactics for reading the water come in handy on every trip to a river, no matter what the conditions are.  Learning to focus on what is important to walleyes – be it food, structure, or flow in a certain area – will put more fish on your stringer and help you master any stretch of running water.

Featured Photo: Learning to read the flow of spring rivers and streams will help you find more walleyes. Simonson Photo.

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