Winter river walleye jigging techniques
Most people are thinking rutting bucks this time of year, but world champion walleye angler Tommy Kemos still has marble eyes on the brain.
The Oconomowoc, Wis., resident invited me to fish the Rock River in Jefferson County last Monday and while we expected cold, he thought the fishing could be hot, since fish set up in the river to load up on calories before winter.
“I decided to take a break from hunting this year and focus more on fall fishing,” he said. “The tournament circuit is a lot of fun and I’ve done pretty well on it but this type of fishing, with no real pressure to perform, is really relaxing and a good time.”
And, we didn’t see another boat, despite the Rock getting a lot of pressure most of the time.
“The Rock is a draining river, so the flow is primarily dictated by runoff,” Kemos said. “In most rivers, the fish almost set up a “mock run” as they move up and set up for the winter. These fish come in from Lake Koshkonong. The Wolf River sees fish move in from Winnebago. You can find this scenario in many systems all over the Midwest.”
If there is a dam on the system, many times that will concentrate the fish because it blocks the migration. In this case, we were fishing high water conditions and the river was under a no-wake restriction, so we pretty much did what we could without the the ability to run the big motor barely above idle speeds.
“As the rivers fluctuate,” Kemos said. “As the water levels rise and fall over the course of the winter they will move into and out of current as water levels change. But there are also other factors to consider.”
For example, Kemos pointed out that Minnesota’s Lake of the Woods sees a change in winter patterns during the shiner spawn. In other systems it could be a frog migration. Another change is a water event like a lot of rain or melting snow. The walleye will react to all these things in different ways.
“Right now, we’re fishing after a ton of rain entered into the system,” he said. “I’m thinking that these flooded banks with a lot of brush on them is a good start. The key is having deeper water next to them the fish can slide into when needed.”
“You use a variety of techniques right now but we’re most going to be dragging jigs with plastics and also with some live bait,” he said. “The tough part when dragging jigs here is that with flooding comes debris like sticks and other things for jigs to snag on. Most standard jigs will tip over as soon as they hit the bottom which can lead to a snag. The problem here is that you really need to be on the bottom to get bit.”
We were using a new jig by Strike King that Kemos developed that had a concave head so when it hits the bottom it sort of “cups” the river bottom and stands the hook up.
“It’s been years of testing it to get it right, but I think we finally have it perfect,” he said. “For fishing these flooded areas, which can be good all winter because water fluctuates so much, they really will help increase your bites and decrease your snags for this pattern.”
Kemos was the first to hook up. It didn’t take me long to see why he is a world champ and that I’m an amateur. It was interesting just to watch him work, or not work, the jig.
“You’re shaking it,” he told me. “That’s not what they want right now. You’re working it more like a drop shot because you’re more of a bass angler. As water temps drop, walleyes prefer more of a steady, natural glide versus an erratic action.
“Let the walleyes pin the big to the bottom and eat it.”
He probably caught 10 more and I got a few fish and more of an education. As soon as I started to slow down, and decrease my jigging cadence, I starting getting bites. Sure, Kemos took pity on me and let me use live bait, but even with live bait I was no match for his jig and plastics option.
“The cool thing too about this pattern is that it’s just good for catching fish of a variety of species, not just walleyes,” he said. “White bass, smallmouth, crappies, almost anything in the system will respond to this so it’s just plain fun.”
We took just enough home for a small fish fry – not the all-you-can-eat variety at the local VFW, but more than enough to fill a few bellies, and we were only at it for three hours.
It’s time to get serious about deer hunting, but as long as the ice stays off the river, if Kemos calls me again, I’ll be out there learning from him.