River walleyes a different kind of game

Posted on: May 6, 2017 | Bob Frye | Comments

This is something different.

Usually, when talking about fishing for walleyes, images of trolling deep reservoirs come to mind, with boats cruising back and forth dragging nightcrawlers behind.

Not here.

It’s possible to pull the popular game fish from free-flowing rivers, and indeed some of the very best fishing of the year will come over the next several weeks. But it takes different tactics to be successful.

That’s partly a function of where the fish live.

“It’s usually deeper runs and pools where you might find them,” said Jason Detar, chief of the fisheries management division with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. “Those are the kinds of places they’re going to be hanging out.”

“Deeper,” though, is a relative term when it comes to free-flowing rivers, he admitted.

Jeff Knapp, of West Kittanning and Keystone Connection (www.keystoneconnection.com) guide service, often has his best luck catching walleyes on the Allegheny River in just three to four feet of water. It’s where that water is located that’s important, he said.

He’ll motor his jetboat up through a set of riffles, then float back down, casting along the way. Walleyes are frequently stacked up at the tail end of that faster water, where it first starts to settle down.

“It makes for a much more natural presentation when you can just drift through those runs,” Knapp said.

Don’t overlook the river’s edges, though, he added.

“I’ll pepper the shoreline as we drift back for maybe 100 yards or so, then move back up and drift it again, peppering the other shoreline. You can work the water that way two or three times to get at the fish from different angles,” Knapp said.

Jason Halfpenny of Lewistown, who operates Shallow Water Guide Service (www.shallowwaterguideservice.net) on the Juniata and Susquehanna rivers, likewise said walleyes like to hang out in the “pockets” that result when different currents meet. He looks for those edges as he moves around frequently in his boat.

Shore-bound anglers can often reach them as well, though, he noted.

“Wherever that fast water hits slower moving water, there’s a definite seam. Fish that seam,” he said.

That moving water offers another benefit.

Clifford Kirk, a fisheries biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, pointed out that walleyes are often light-sensitive, “so shady areas will be better during daylight hours.”

Moving, riffled water – which is frequently off-color in spring thanks to seasonal rains — may not provide shade per se, Knapp said.

“But I’ve caught walleyes in three feet of water on a bright sunny day without a cloud in the sky,” he said.

“I think it goes back to where you’re catching them. Those riffles create what you might call broken water, so conditions aren’t overly bright.”

The fish won’t be as concentrated right now as they were earlier in spring, like in March, Kirk said. They were grouped for spawning them.

They’re hungry, though, and typically as voracious as they’re going to get.

“The good news is they are hungry and will be much more interested in biting,” Kirk said.

Halfpenny targets them now on some standard lures.

“They’re eating crankbaits, spinnerbaits, anything a bass eats,” he said.

Knapp likes to throw Husky Jerks of around 4 inches, as well as ¼-ounce, 3- to 4-inch Storm shad swimbaits. He tosses them on 6.5- and 7-foot rods spooled with 15-pound Gamma braid, with a 10- to 12-foot fluorocarbon leader.

“I like to stick with mostly natural-looking things,” he said of lure colors. “Something perch colored or olive green. Most days I think it’s just the profile, the way it acts in the water, that’s most important.”

Reel lures in with a steady approach, he suggested. And pay attention to them all the way in, as fish often hit right at the edge of the boat, like a musky.

Live bait anglers, meanwhile, often do best on minnows and chubs – with bait pulled from the water being fished often tops – on 6- to 12-pound test, according to the Fish and Boat Commission.

However you fish, just be sure to do it often over the next few weeks, Halfpenny said. May, sometimes extending into early June, is a great time to target river walleyes.

“What you typically find is that they don’t move around much right now. If you find them this week, they’ll be there next week and the week after that, right up until they go into their summer patterns,” Halfpenny said.

“They’re very predictable. If you whack them now, you know they’ll be there, maybe all month.”

Then, though, the action can slow, so now is the time to be on the water, Knapp agreed.

“That first month of the season, maybe six weeks, is probably the best time to be out there,” he said.

Walleyes in still-water rivers

Catching walleyes on free-flowing rivers is one thing.

But what about on impounded sections of river?

Walleyes can be caught there, too, but the game is a little different.

“They’re almost like mini-reservoirs,” said Jeff Knapp of Keystone Connection guide service. “The fish will really concentrate around locks and dams and stream mouths. They create the best habitat.”

It takes patience to fish such spots, said Rob Bates, who operates Koinonia Guide Service (www.koinoniafishingguides.com) on the Susquehanna River.

He occasionally fishes stickbaits, but more often it’s a jig combined with a minnow, nigthcrawler or sometimes a soft plastic. He throws them on 10-pound braid with an 8-pound fluorocarbon leader.

How he fishes them is up to the fish

“Walleyes can be very finicky. Sometimes they’ll hit that bait on the fall or when it’s moving very slowly,” Bates said. “Other times we use what we call the snap method. You drop the jig down, snap it back up quickly, then let it fall again.

“Pay attention to the cadence because that’s important. The fish will tell you what they want.”
Either way, cover the water methodically in such circumstances, said Jason Halfpenny of Shallow Water Guide Service.

The best tactic, he said, is often to anchor, jig, then move, but only the length of the anchor rope before stopping and fishing again.

“It might take me six hours to move 300 yards,” he said.

Bob Frye is the everybodyadventures.com editor. Reach him at 412-838-5148 or bfrye@535mediallc.com. See other stories, blogs, videos and more at everybodyadventures.com.

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Bob Frye is a storyteller with a passion for all things outdoors. He hunts, he fishes, he hikes, he camps, he paddles, backpacks and snowshoes depending on the season. If he’s not an expert at anything, it’s because he’s passionate to try a little bit of everything.