Monday, January 30th, 2023
Monday, January 30th, 2023

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Spring river walleyes: Six things you should know

Rivers in springtime can be the most productive – but most frustrating – of places to fish for walleyes. But if you know what to look for and what to avoid, catching can be accomplished. (Photo courtesy of

By Jason Mitchell
Contributing Writer

River systems offer some of the earliest spring walleye-fishing opportunities across the Midwest. When it comes to catching river walleyes, nothing is more important than water visibility. Heavy runoff, ice jams, and snowmelt can muddy and raise the water level. When river fishing, the best-case scenario is when you can see your prop. 

Here’s a look at six consideration for when looking for river walleyes this spring.

1) Avoid muddy water

When you encounter muddy water in river systems early in the spring, the best thing to do is to try to avoid it. Sometimes you can find pockets of cleaner water above incoming tributaries. There are other times when you can get ahead or behind the debris and dirty water by traveling far enough upstream or downstream.  

There’s no doubt that muddy water loaded with debris is one of springtime walleye fishing’s toughest situations. Put in the work to see if you can avoid it, but sometimes you just can’t. 

2) Try backwaters

When you can’t find good-looking water, there are times when we can still find and catch walleyes by making some adjustments. 

During high water, don’t be afraid to get off the main channel and target backwater areas away from the current early. I often find that the water clarity improves in some of these back-channel locations. This slack water is often a brief opportunity in spring when a river runs high, and fish will sometimes pile into these locations.  

A back eddy or some type of current seam will make these locations even better, but current isn’t always necessary. 

My favorite places to check out are backwater locations with depths of at least 6 feet, next to willows or some type of brush. Find this in 3 to 8 feet of water with at least 6 feet of water next to it and add a little bit of a back eddy and you might find that these locations are walleye magnets during high water in the spring.

3) Use heavier jigs

When water visibility is less than a foot, don’t be afraid to use heavier jigs and bulk up the profile of your jigs with larger soft plastics.  

In really turbid water, my favorite colors are black and dark purple. 

When rivers are muddy, I’ll sometime catch fish by slowly dragging jigs upstream or by simply hanging jigs below the boat when it’s locked in position. The lure is presented by simply dragging it methodically. There’s not a lot of snap jigging or lifting the jig off the bottom. Just drag it and let it hang. Heck, you could even put the rod in a rod holder if you want. 

4) Use oversized plastics

I like to “oversize” my soft plastics when fishing rivers early in the season, and that requires using a heavier jig to fish the current. 

Something that works well is to combine soft plastics with a tipped minnow. I believe the plastic adds some additional profile and perhaps vibration so that fish can find it more easily. The minnow adds the taste and scent component that seems important at times in cold, dirty water.  

I’ll also add a stinger hook at times. I find they’re important with the plastics/minnow combo.  

The key for stinger hooks to work is to keep them free from debris. A little trick that seems to help the tiny treble hooks on stingers hook get through debris is to hook the treble on the side of the minnow instead of the top. 

5) Hang jigs

Something I do a lot when rivers run high and muddy is anchor and basically just hang jigs below the boat. It sometimes seems like my best days are when I can sit on key locations and hit waves of fish as they move by.  

To identify these locations, use your electronics. You’ll be able to watch fish move through. Side-imaging is a great tool to locate fish.

6) Avoid debris

Poor water clarity makes river walleye fishing tougher in the spring, but what also makes fishing difficult is a lot of debris floating downstream.  

I have a theory about walleyes. They absolutely hate anything touching or bumping into them. Have you ever noticed how you can have a pike in your livewell and you can touch the fish and it justs seems to lie there? Have you ever noticed walleyes in a livewell and how crazy they act when you touch them on the back with your finger?  

Some fish are more sensitive than others.

So it seems to me that debris hitting walleyes and getting into their gill rakers is something they despise. And thus, debris will absolutely ruin spots.  

If you see a lot of debris in the water, move around and try to find the right flow and circumstances to get out of it. Floating debris is fine but submerged stuff will kill you. 

Water clarity is by far the most important factor during spring when you’re fishing river walleyes. If you can’t avoid muddy water and debris, try to make some simple adjustments to catch more walleyes.

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