Monday, February 6th, 2023
Monday, February 6th, 2023

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Targeting spring walleyes on the Mississippi River

By Lee Clancy
Contributing Writer

Time escapes us. It feels just like yesterday that I was driving all over Minnesota with my father-in-law, Gary Clancy, with a pickup full of hunting gear and a couple of dogs as we looked for our next adventure. As readers know, Gary passed in 2016, but his daughter (my wife) Katie and I try to carry on the outdoors lifestyle traditions. 

That said, nowadays my pickup is full of children’s car seats, whatever preschool artwork has fallen out of my daughter’s “packback,” and smashed-up Goldfish snacks in every nook and cranny. 

Instead of my normal pre-season fishing rituals of re-spooling reels and organizing my boat to prepare for the open-water season, I’m arguing with my 3-year-old daughter, Prairie, about why she can’t have ice cream in the bathtub. Meanwhile, my 1-year-old boy, Cass, is attempting to eat his diaper cream – I hope he thinks it’s yogurt. 

So time is a precious commodity for this 34-year-old father. And although I’m happy sacrificing time on the water to change diapers and play Barbie, a guy has to fish.

Efficiency is the name of the game to remain a committed dad and a competent angler, and few places offer as much bang-for-the-buck action as the Mississippi River downstream of the Twin Cities each spring.

Because I’m unable to scour every backwater cut, flooded timber stand, or newly downed cottonwood in the Mississippi River back channel, I now have to base my early spring game plan on generalizations instead of timely on-the-water data.

Here’s my approach to formulating a Pool 4 fishing plan while still having time for the more important things in life. 

I categorize Mississippi River Pool 4 spring walleye and sauger activity into three phases: staging, spawning, and retreat. In early March, I expect to start to see more walleyes and sauger filtering upstream from Lake Pepin. Of course, there’s always a population of homebody fish that call the upper regions of Pool 4 home year-round. But, nevertheless, more fish will start pushing upstream from the lake as the daylight hours lengthen.

In March, as the thaw begins and river levels rise, fish that began staging along the main-channel current seams tend to push outward, perhaps finding a more comfortable balance of flow, oxygen, and food in the tapering shallow flats.

This timeframe, mainly triggered by photoperiodism, also tends to coincide with the generally larger movement of walleyes and sauger upstream from Lake Pepin to prepare for the spawn. These fish will begin staging in more typical springtime spots as the month progresses – often adjacent to likely or potential spawning areas. 

By April, there should be a large influx of fish into the upper portions of Pool 4, and walleyes and sauger likely have reached their spawning locations. These spawning locations can and will change depending on river conditions. Still, this can be a time when fishing memories of years past can pay dividends. Sometimes a good spot is a good spot regardless of the changing conditions. 

Often in April, we see some of the highest river levels. It’s not uncommon to be searching for spawning walleyes in uncomfortably shallow water. Depending on how high the water gets, walleyes may find it perfectly pleasing to spawn right up in flooded stands of timber or flooded rip rap.

On the other hand, if we don’t see a large jump in river level this year, some of the more obvious locations such as large, shallow flats, shallow creek mouths, submerged sandbars, or rubble shoreline may be the most productive. 

By May, I usually assume the spawn is over and the retreat to Pepin has begun. Obviously, these are generalizations, and there will be overlap of the phases throughout the three-month period. But during this last phase of the spring run, I’ll concentrate my efforts on intercepting spawn-weary fish in locations that could possibly focus their travels to smaller, more fishable areas.

If river levels remain high during this period, many of the backwater cuts exhibit ideal level, flow, and temperature characteristics that hold fish as the walleyes eat their way back downstream.

Finally, to further maximize my efficiency, I keep my tackle assortment simple. I’ll have several rods with pre-tied setups. They include a Dubuque rig (a three-way rigged with two lures on it) on one rod, a jigging rod with an 1⁄8-ounce jig, another with a ¼-ounce jig, and finally one with a live-bait three-way rig. I’ll also have an assortment of blade baits or lipless crankbaits at the ready if I’m getting desperate.

(Reminder, anglers are allowed to fish with two lines per person on Pool 4. Because a Dubuque rig has two “lures” attached to one line (rod), only one rod per angler is allowed. Always consult your local regulations prior to fishing a new body of water.)

If you’re looking for information on how to monitor past, present, and even forecast river conditions for Pool 4 of the Mississippi River, check the U.S. Geological Survey website for Lock and Dam No. 3. Visit waterdata.usgs.gov/ then zoom in on Mississippi River at Red Wing.

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