Walleye and Sauger Fishing Tips

The River In February

 One of the very overlooked bites of the year is the early pre-spawn of walleyes and saugers in rivers. In the right conditions, the fishing can be fantastic. February can be one of those fantastic months because the snow has yet to melt and the rivers are usually very fishable. Knowing your quarry, a few basics about movement and migration, and having a good game plan for dissemination of patterns will help put you all over these fish like white on rice.

 

Because the snow has yet to melt, and there typically is not a lot of precipitation in February, the river currents tend to be very stable. Therefore, the fish will be in very predictable locations; itís just a matter of figuring out their particular preference for that location. Two items of preference need to be figured out. One is the depth they are holding at, and two is how much current are they looking for.

 

Walleyes and saugers will not necessarily hold at the same levels, so know which you are after. Typically, sauger hold deeper than walleyes. Both will probably be using deep holes somewhere near spawning areas. Look for holes below dams in washouts, on outside bends of rivers, and scour areas where current, either manmade from tugs or pilings, or natural from current washouts.

 

Within those holes there are areas of slack water with current rushing over or next to them. Look for the fish to be using these as ambush points where they can dart out into the current and pick off a quick meal as it washes downstream. These slack areas are typically at the head and tail of the holes and along the sides. Any irregularity in the hole, especially something that could have been swept downstream and landed in the hole as an obstruction, will also serve as a vital current break. Most times you will not visually detect these anomalies, but I use my Bottom Line NCC 5300 to detect them and then punch in the quick save on the unit so it is stored in my GPS log and I can go right back to it in the future.

 

Holes with current and slack water are classic holding spots for pre-spawners. For saugers in particular, a locking system in a river usually has a washout hole below it that will hold numbers of fish. Most fisherman tend to concentrate on the dam area, but besides being a barrier to migrating fish and stopping their upstream movement, it really serves no better purpose than any other downstream hole. Most of the time, Iíll kick the 200 horses of my Mercury Optimax in the rear and head my Ranger 619 downstream to find a hole of my own rather than fight the pack of boats.

 

Once I find a hole that looks fishy, Iíll start at the head of the hole, drop my MinnKota Maxxum trolling motor and slip downstream vertical jigging the hole. To slip properly, you need to move downstream at the same rate as your jig so that you maintain a vertical position over the jig at all times. It is imperative that the jig be directly beneath your rod tip. To accomplish this, just place the bow of your boat into the current and tap the trolling motor every now and then as your boat will usually want to travel downstream faster than your jig.

 

For vertical jigging, I use a 6í Shimano V rod model VST60M, medium action, fast taper, teamed with a Shimano Stella STL-1000F reel, spooled with 6-lb test Stren Gold line. The rod offers me a sensitive tip with a lot of backbone, and the reel is anti-reverse for quick hooksets. The line is highly visible so that I can detect the slightest bump of the jig by a fish and then set the hook instantly.

 

The jigs I use are one-quarter to three-eighths ounce Lindy Fuzz-E-Grubs tipped with a minnow. Minnow size can be critical for this time of year, so I always have a mix of different sizes from two to four inches; it really depends on how aggressive the fish are. In murky water, go with colors like chartreuse, orange and pink, and in clear water the blues, blacks, charcoal and motor oils seem to work best. This time of year I am almost always using a stinger hook in the minnow, as the bites can be non-aggressive at times.

 

To slip and work the hole properly, I place one rod in each hand and face forward in the boat. Pick a depth level to work the hole through and try to stay at that level. Drop the jigs to the bottom and then engage your reels so that your rods are held out to your sides at about 4 and 8 oíclock. You should develop some kind of cadence in your jigging to be effective. My cadence usually revolves around a four count. Either it is three counts hovering a couple inches off bottom and drop on the four, or visa versa, three counts dragging on the bottom and rise on the four. When you drop your jig to the bottom, you probably wonít feel the jig hit, you need to line watch and determine by the slack momentarily introduced into your line that your jig has hit. This is called acknowledging bottom, and once you have acknowledged it, bring the jig right back up and hover it for your three count again. Look for many of your strikes to occur as the jig is falling, so any interruption in your cadence should immediately alert you to set the hook.

 

Since saugers hold deeper than walleyes, look for them to be in ranges of 20 to 30 feet deep, while walleyes could be as shallow as 10 feet in the hole. Also walleyes have more of a preference for rock substrate while saugers prefer sand. Both however are still looking for slack water holding areas next to current to ambush prey.

 

Work through one depth level of the hole and see if you encounter fish. If there are no fish at that level, drop down or raise up a couple feet and go through again. Once you determine the depth the active fish are holding at, you can pretty much find fish in every similar hole on the river holding at the same depth. Thatís when you can really start to bang some fish.

 

I remember back in 1995, I was fishing an MWC tournament at Red Wing in pre-spawn conditions. During pre-fishing we figured out that the bigger female sauger were relating to 19 foot of depth in the slack water. At that point it just became a matter of finding the areas that had 19 feet of water that was slack, which amounted to three areas in the system. Being able to pattern those fish like that meant a second place finish in the tournament for me and my partner. My friends Carl Kaufman and Curt VanLanken wound up winning the tournament fishing the exact same pattern on the exact same spots. The difference was that they happened to bang a 10-pound walleye on day 2 of the tournament and eclipsed our two-day weight by one pound.

 

Just remember to find holes with slack and current and donít be afraid to leave the comfort of the pack and strike out downriver on your own. Many times this has paid huge dividends for me, as the pack winds up sharing a bunch of fish while I wind up with the whole group to myself. Dress warm, and Iíll see you on the water!

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