By Nick Simonson
Dragging my jig over the subtle pull of the shifting river bottom, I felt a dead weight sensation and lifted the rod tip to see the slight bend confirm what my cold and glove-covered hands could barely detect. I completed the raise with all due haste and the point of the hook on my parrot-colored jig found its place in the upper jaw of the walleye at the other end. Soon the splashing, flipping golden-sided fish made its way to the net under the gray early-afternoon skies like the one a few minutes before it, and I knew my buddy Kevin and I were on a good set of fish. It was a solid trade to wipe the cold water of the Missouri River from my hands before blowing a breath through them and drying them off on my pantleg and rebaiting.
It’s been a tale of two springs thus far into the openwater season, with March warm and sunny, and April being cold and windy with more snow in the last two weeks than we saw in the month prior and likely in some spots, back into January. I often find myself lamenting the shift and strangely asking for the conditions from early spring instead of what we’re finding now. The fast-forward motion has suddenly stalled with running fish seemingly reversing course or at least holding still in little places like the breakline in the side channel of the river where we were finding them. While normally I’d be chasing spawning bass on the powerplant lake to the north or flipping a fly for holdover trout in a handful of select nearby reservoirs, the walleyes were a welcome break and provided a new learning experience on a water I longed more and more to know better with each hookset.
“I’ve always said walleyes are easy to catch,” Kevin advised of our situation while bringing up another one, “it’s finding them that’s hard,” he concluded with a laugh.
After a couple of stops in similar side channels, the curl between the fastest stretch in the side water – which was about a cast or two wide at best, but an amazing 22 feet deep in the middle – was the place where we found them, primarily male walleyes in the 14-to-16-inch range that provided fast action. The challenge, after locating the fish, was setting the hook. We likely booted as many walleyes as we boated, as cold fingers and attention spans distracted by sleet, rain and wind cut into the quickness in which we connected.
But a pattern emerged for me, and I reported it to my friend. Each time my jig came up out of the depths, about two-thirds of a cast length behind the boat, it stuck on a small rise in the river’s silty bottom before popping loose and scooting along the edge of the flat. There on the break the walleyes waited, and more often than not, I felt the dead weight sensation, a slight tap, or that not-quite-right feeling of a fish on the other end. While it took some time to factor the slight disturbance in the methodical retrieve, it all came together before we decided to troll our way back to the launch, first starting on the upper edge of the side channel, where my friend caught and released a larger female walleye, before I closed out the day with another fish caught on a crankbait further upstream.
While spring may have suddenly stopped in recent days and cold temperatures and wintery mixes of rain, sleet and snow have filled the air, the pause certainly produced great fishing despite the conditions. Having found what we were looking for on the break along the fork of the river where the walleyes had paused for at least an afternoon was a welcome consolation and well worth the cool down…in our outdoors.
Featured Photo: Kevin Thomas of Bismarck poses with a ripe female walleye before releasing it back into the chilly spring waters of the Missouri River. Simonson Photo.