Rivers are harsh teachers. Their lessons change each day as water
level, clarity and water temperatures adjust to the unpredictable weather
patterns of Midwestern springs. Rising water one day, falling water the
next. Clean, then dirty and clean again. Rising temperatures trigger
movements upstream, toward spawning areas then back again. Severe cold
fronts seem to put a halt to the action.
John "J.B" Balla, 44, has studied
hard. After several top 20 and top 10 finishes in the Master Walleye
Circuit opener on the Illinois River every March, Balla
captured the title of "2009 FLW Walleye League Angler of the Year" for the
Heartland Division where two of three tournaments were held on the Illinois and Mississippi
Rivers. He was also
half of the "2008 MWC Central Division Team of the Year."
He has no illusion about how good fishing during the spawning period can
"After all these years of fishing the Illinois
River, I would put it up against the top sauger
spots in the country. I don't think I've gone anywhere else where
there are chances of catching so many fish over 4 pounds. And the Mississippi in spring is
awesome. Once the water temps get up around 40 degrees, the big females start
showing up in the rocks. As soon as you can get out when the ice flows
disappear, you can fish them in deeper holes. Then once they come out and
start heading to the spawning sites, it's incredible," he said.
The presence of Asian carp has changed his approach a bit. He stays
between the buoys in deeper water when he runs from spot to spot because the
troublesome fish that like to jump at passing boats seem to concentrate in
shallower water. Biologists say the jury is out on whether the
plankton-eaters are harming the fishery at all. Some scientists have seen
a decline in the health and number of gizzard shad in both the lower
Mississippi River and the Illinois River since
the carp appeared. But, the shad rebounded in parts of the Mississippi
River last year, and the fisheries experts are quick to point out
many factors other than the carp, which could be to blame for shad
Balla says he's still catching big fish and lots
of them. In fact, the high water conditions over the past few springs may
have led to higher survival rates for young sauger. He
attributes lower winning weights at tournaments to tough high-water conditions
rather than lower fish weights due to competition with food.
Regardless, everyone agrees both rivers have plenty of big fish with the
Illinois River a leader for sauger over walleye and
the Mississippi River heavier with walleye
than sauger. Though general locations for the two
species are similar, Balla has noticed differences in
how each river should be approached.
Focus On Seams
Walleyes and sauger behave in similar ways. Some fish
begin to move upstream in autumn to winter near hard-bottom areas where they'll
lay eggs. Those that didn't make the trip before the cold weather move up early
in the year as water warms.
Contrary to what people might think, not all walleyes and sauger move within a few miles of a dam.
"There are many
areas that offer places to spawn miles downstream from the dams," Balla said.
Understanding how fish adapt to living in rivers is the key to pinpointing
location. No walleye or sauger that spends all of its
time swimming against moving water is going to live very long no matter how
much it eats. Over time, they've evolved to conserve energy to grow and
reproduce. As a result, walleyes and sauger gather
behind any natural or manmade current break that offers a place to rest, to
ambush food, or both.
Movements across long, straight river stretches are
followed by rest stops at river bends where water slows on the inside turns. A
map will pinpoint those spots fast. Look for gravel, rock, sand, clay, and even
clam beds. If current or barge traffic has cut a hole in the bottom nearby
where fish can rest or ambush minnows, that's even better. Rushing water
creates rolling washboard bottoms in soft sand and mud.
What you're looking for are eddies, which are areas of slack water created
by current breaks. They can occur on both the upstream and downstream
sides of points. They can also be upstream and downstream from neckdowns where the two shorelines pinch
together. Current also slows on the upstream and downstream sides of
islands. Eddies form on either side of dams. Eddies form when current from
a tributary or a feeder creek or factory discharge meets the faster moving
water of the main river.
Don't overlook fallen trees or flooded tree roots that can slow water
enough during times of high water for walleyes and sauger
to tuck behind and rest.
No matter what forms an eddy, the critical place to note is the seam where
faster moving water meets the slower water. Fish can hold just inside the
slower water on one side of the seam and ambush food as it moves by.
Key On Wingdams
Wingdams are critical structures on the Mississippi. The
rocks stacked perpendicular from the shoreline running toward the channel help
direct current away from the bank to slow erosion. The water rolls as it
hits the face of the wingdam. Water speed slows
at the base. Walleyes and saugers can wait there
Balla uses a Humminbird
with Side Imaging which shows important features on wingdams
that can hold fish, including brush, or a hole that has opened in the face of a
boulder. Wingdams on river bends are usually best.
Where three wingdams or more are positioned in a row,
target the first one upstream and the last one downstream first. If those two
don't hold fish move on.
Precise reading of a good sonar with side imaging
or a careful analysis of one without this feature can also pinpoint transition
areas between hard and soft bottom where fish gather because of the wider
variety of food available at these spots. Balla
and other pros have seen times when adjusting a boat's path just a few feet one
way or the other can mean the difference between being a hero or zero.
Is there high water? If so, move toward the shore. Is there low water? If
so, look for places that still have current. Move out toward the channel, move up toward a dam or downstream from neckdowns.
Water clarity is another important factor. Spring rains routinely
affect it. A spot might look like it should hold fish, and Balla
said indeed, it might. But that does him little good if the water is so dirty
that fish have a hard time reacting to a passing bait
in time. Balla likes water to be clear enough to
see a jig at least 8 inches down. If not, go find cleaner water. Search
closer to a dam, at a discharge, or at the mouth of a cleaner tributary.
Please read more on presentation, techniques, and tackle to use in Part 2.
Ted Takasaki and Scott Richardson write a weekly column for sportsmansguide.com. Ted has many fishing achievements, including a victory at the FLW Walleye Tour event on the Mississippi River at Red Wing, Minn.,
May 6-9, 2009, 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.)