For much of the year, walleyes and sauger spend their time in rivers huddled in small schools that are spread out over miles in the search for food. This can make them tough to find.
But, early in the year when water temperatures begin to rise, the urge to spawn causes great migrations upstream where huge numbers of fish congregate downstream from obstructions, such as dams, to lay eggs. As a result, springtime is one of the best times to catch them, said walleye pro John Balla.
Known simply as "J.B." to his friends, Balla, 40, utilized his extensive knowledge of river tactics into two top 10 finishes in the Masters Walleye Circuit event held on the Illinois River at Spring Valley every March.
Try A Three-Way Rig
The old-standby method to catch walleyes and sauger in moving water is slip-jigging downstream. Lead core trolling sometimes gets the nod, too, at places such as the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. But, Balla's favorite method is the three-way rig.
"It's absolutely the No. 1 presentation in the Midwest," said Balla, who is sponsored by Gander Mountain and Lindy Legendary Fishing Tackle.
He learned the basics of the technique from walleye pro, John Campbell, on a trip to the Illinois River, which Balla believes is the top destination in North America for numbers of big sauger.
True, jigs, such as the Fuzz-E-Grub or Max Gap Jig from Lindy, are still popular, and Balla agreed jigs will always have their place in his river arsenal. That's especially true when extended cold fronts lower water temperature a few degrees making a slower presentation a necessity, he said.
But, Balla's strong faith in three-way rigs is based on the fact that active walleyes and sauger face upstream as they wait for food to drift by. They're probably less likely to turn and chase a jig downstream (if they miss it) than they are to swim upstream to catch a bait as it passes, he said.
Two Chances To Strike
A three-way rig also offers fish two chances to strike. The big jig on a dropper line passes by first followed closely by a floating lure or floating jig head, or hook dressed with a minnow. If a fish misses both opportunities, it can still lunge forward to snap at one or the other, Balla said.
When 90 percent of the other boats on the water are using jigs, three-way rigs show fish something different, he said.
In addition, Balla said three-way rigs allow anglers to move faster than jigging, especially when walleyes and sauger are grouped together to spawn on long, hard-bottom flats.
"What an awesome way to cover more water with two rods and with two baits on each rod," said Balla, describing his strategy on the Illinois River where two rods and two-baits-per-line are legal.
If you're unsure of the rules in your state, check with the Department of Natural Resources to learn what's allowed on the waters you plan to target.
Use A 7-Foot Rod
Balla's three-way rig presentation starts with a 7-foot baitcasting rod. The baitcasting reel he uses features a flipping switch that allows him to let more line out with the push of a button.
His main line is 10-pound super line that offers a thinner diameter. Thicker monofilament would create more resistance as it moves through the water. Braided line also lends more sensitivity.
He uses lighter 8-pound monofilament for the dropper line to the big jig and 6-pound monofilament to the trailer. Weaker than the main line, they both permit him to break free of snags without losing the entire rig.
Balla uses a tiny three-way swivel, a No. 10 or No. 12. Again, the purpose is to reduce water resistance. Less water resistance means he can move faster upstream without having as much line out. Less line means better "feel" of what's happening with the bait, better hooksets, and less chance of losing a fish once it's hooked. He can also let out less line and move faster when fish are shallow where faster presentations generally match the more aggressive mood of the fish, he said.
Keep Jig On Bottom
The business end of the presentation is big jig heavy enough to maintain bottom contact given the speed of the current and the depth being fished. In slow current, he prefers a Jumbo Fuzz-E-Grub, which come in two sizes, 5/8-ounce and 1 ounce. As water speed increases, or he goes deeper, he steps up to custom-made jigs of 1-1/2 ounces, which feature flat sides. The importance of color may be overstressed in spring, when water is murky, he said. Stick with chartreuse, orange, pink, or blue. Offer fish two contrasting colors in the event that light penetration reduces the visibility of one color or another.
When deciding how long to make a dropper and trailer, the goal is to keep the bait or lure in the strike zone near the bottom. The dropper is generally 6- to 10 inches. The trailer is usually 30- to 40 inches with live bait on a floating jig or a plain hook with a red bead in front. A shorter trailer is also best when fishing deeper or in stronger current. The trailer may reach four to five feet with a floating shallow running crankbait.
Whether he's using live bait or artificial, Balla always uses a snap swivel to attach the hook, floating jig or lure.
"It helps with the action," he said
He also advised adding a Thumpin' Grub to the big jig, and a rattle for more action and sound when water turns murky with spring runoff -- as it will.
Balla sometimes aggressively pumps the rods. At other times, he is more subtle. Let the fish tell you want they want.
Replace Live Bait
Pay attention to what's happening underwater. If the fluttering stops when you move the rod back and let the live bait move near the bottom on slack line, the minnow probably is exhausted. Replace it.
Where to target? The short answer is that Balla looks for current seams that coincide with breaks on hard-bottom areas. The primary challenge in rivers is that the location of current seams can change hour by hour, day to day, week to week, month to month, and season to season. In slow moving current, he may focus on depths up to 16 feet. If water rises, that seam could move up to eight feet.
"The water is always changing. The fish will respond," he said.
In rivers, such as the Illinois, check out flats and inside turns with hard bottoms comprised of sand, rock rubble, or clambeds. Don't overlook tributary mouths where the collision of current creates slack water where fish can rest. Look for holes in the river bottom near spawning grounds. In the Mississippi River, check out similar spots plus wing dams, which can hold fish anytime water reaches 50 degrees or higher, Balla said.
Most anglers head to the nearest dam during flood conditions. But Balla said not all fish move upstream in those conditions. Instead, some hug the bank seeking any current break offering protection from rushing water. In the Mississippi, they've been known to move into backwaters and hold under fallen trees such as bass, he said.
Super Braid Cuts Resistance
When a cold front settles in and lowers the water temperature, or Balla wants to fish a school that several other boats are targeting with jigs, he'll switch to a jig to cause less traffic congestion. Use a super braid to cut water resistance, and use enough weight on the jig to reach the bottom. Usually 1/4- to 3/8-ounce Max Gaps work well. Add a Thumpin' Grub for more action and color. Always add a minnow and a stinger hook to nab the short biters.
Balla also likes to troll using lead core when water is relatively clear and free of debris. He uses No. 27-pound lead core and a good barrel swivel to attach a 3- to 6-foot leader made of 20-pound no stretch super line. That allows him to pull lures free of snags rather than having to turn the boat around to retrieve one. Stick with No. 5 Shad Raps or Wally Divers.
Don't miss the spawning run in spring, or you might miss some of the best walleye and sauger fishing of the year!
For a fine assortment of Fishing Gear, click here.
Ted Takasaki and Scott Richardson write a weekly column for sportsmansguide.com. Ted has many fishing achievements, including a victory at the 1993 Mercury Nationals and the 1995 Professional Walleye Trail Top Gun award. He reached the pinnacle of both angling and business when he was named PWT Champion in 1998 and president of Lindy Little Joe, Inc., of Brainerd, Minn., a year later.
(Ted's sponsors include Ranger Boats, Mercury Outboards, Pinnacle Rods and Reels, Bottom Line Electronics, Minn Kota, Stren, Normark, Flambeau, Master Lock, Gamakatsu, Aqua Vu and Nautamatic TR 1.)