River systems offer some of the earliest walleye fishing opportunities across the Midwest for many anglers in the spring. When it comes to catching river walleye, nothing is more important than water visibility. Heavy runoff, ice jams, and snowmelt can muddy and rise the water. There is an old adage with river fishing where the best-case scenario is when you can see your prop.
Avoid Muddy Water
When you encounter muddy water in river systems early in the year, the best advice is to try and 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 up or downstream. No doubt that muddy water filled 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.
When we can’t find good-looking water, there are times when we can still find and catch walleye by making some adjustments. During high water, don’t be afraid to get off the main channel and target backwater areas outside of the current early in the year. We often find that the visibility often improves as well in some of these backchannel locations. This slack water is often a brief opportunity when the river gets high, but fish will sometimes pile into these locations. A back eddy or some type of current seam will make these locations better, but current isn’t always necessary. My favorite locations to look for are backwater locations with a depth of at least six feet next to willow or some type of brush where there is a high stem count. Think of the types of bushes or shrubs that deer would eat… that is what you are looking for. Find this in three to eight feet of water with at least six feet of water next to it and add a little bit of a back eddy, these locations are walleye magnets during high water in the spring.
Use Heavier Jigs
When the water visibility is less than a foot and visibility is measured in inches, don’t be afraid to go heavier on your jigs and bulk up the profile of the jig with larger soft plastics. In really turbid water, one of my favorite colors is either black or dark purple. When rivers get muddy, something I have had a lot of luck with is slowly dragging jigs upstream or simply hanging the jigs below the boat as we are spot locked. The presentation is often simply dragging and methodical, the snap or cadence is slow and small. Not a lot of snap jigging or lifting the jig off the bottom. Simply drag and hang… you could even put the rod in the rod holder if you want.
Use Oversized Plastics
I like to oversize the soft plastics in this situation so that also requires going heavier on the jig to fish the current but something that works well is to combo up soft plastics with a tipped minnow or shiner. I believe the plastic adds some profile and perhaps vibration where these fish can find it better while the minnow adds the taste/ scent component that seems important at times in cold, dirty water. We also add a lot of stinger hooks at times and find stinger hooks important with the plastic/ 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 a stinger hook get through debris better is to hook the treble on the side of the minnow instead of the top.
Something we also do a lot of when rivers run high and muddy is to anchor or spot lock and basically hang jigs below the boat. It sometimes seems like our best days in these situations are when we can sit on key locations and hit waves of fish as they move by. We simply sit in one spot and run traffic. When identifying these locations, use your side imaging. You will be able to watch the fish move through. Normally when spot locked with side imaging, you simply cast to where you see fish swimming through but when water visibility gets poor, I find for some reason that I have to often anchor and fish vertically on the fish. If you see fish passing to the side, move the boat and hang the jigs over the side. When you are anchored or spot locked, fish on side imaging will look like small worms crawling up across the screen.
Poor visibility makes river walleye fishing tougher in the spring but what also makes fishing tough is a lot of debris floating downstream. I have a little theory about walleyes just from my own observations. Walleye absolutely hate anything touching or bumping into them. Have you ever noticed how you can have a pike in your live well and you can touch the fish and they just seem to lay in the live well? Have you ever noticed walleye in a live well and how hyper they are where you just hit them on the back with your finger and they try to swim out of the live well? Some fish like pike and bass don’t seem as sensitive to something touching them whereas walleye seem very sensitive. It just seems like debris hitting the face of walleyes and getting into their gill rakers is something they hate. Debris will absolutely ruin spots. If you see a lot of debris in the water tumbling downstream, move around and try to find the right flow and circumstances to get out of the debris. Floating debris is fine but submerged stuff will kill you. The higher the water and the more debris, look for the backwater areas, marshes, or sloughs that are connected to the river.
Water clarity is by far the most important variable we keep an eye on each spring when fishing river walleye. We avoid some of the factors listed above whenever possible and when we can’t avoid them, we try to make some simple adjustments and find that they can be really important for catching walleye in these challenging situations.