Gary Engberg shares tactics for finding spring walleyes in high water

Mar. 18, 2014
DNR tech Rachael DiPenza with a walleye.
DNR tech Rachael DiPenza with a walleye. / Gary Engberg/For
High water on the Wisconsin River. / Gary Engberg/For


To say the least, this has been a tough winter for those of us in Wisconsin and much, if not all, of the Midwest. There have been parts of the Midwest and Wisconsin that have gotten record snowfall amounts on top of the extreme temperatures.

The southern part of Wisconsin is finally losing its snow cover, but a large portion of the northern half of the state received record amounts of snow, much still on the ground. When the snow in the north starts melting, the rivers of Wisconsin will be flowing very high with a considerable amount of flooding on most of the stateís rivers.

What does a fisherman do when confronted with this situation?

Youíve waited all winter for this special time of the year. Anglers have been to all the fishing shows, watched all their spring walleye videos, attended seminars and now it was time to put everything to use. But, the snow melt from the north has turned the Wisconsin River and all other rivers in the state into a roaring sea of water! Overnight, the Wisconsin River will rise dramatically, overflowing its banks and flooding all the sloughs and backwaters.

The Mississippi, Wisconsin, Rock, Crayfish and Pecatonica rivers are now an anglerís nightmare! What does a fisherman do in a time like this?

There is no doubt that we will face this situation this spring. Itís just a matter of when!

First, remember that the water is cool (in the 40s) and the nights have been moderate with temperatures in the 30s and 40s. The rain that we are now getting is warm and all the gates at the dams are open after being closed for months allowing fresh water (with bugs, baitfish and other organisms) into the stagnant river water. The fresh water flow has rejuvenated the whole river system.

But, where do these ready-to-spawn walleyes go in this period of high water?

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Walleyes will move into shallow flooded timber and brush during this time of high water. Instead of thinking like a normal walleye angler does this time of the year; using light jigs, light line, minnows, plain hook rigs or three-way variations.

I switch to fishing like a bass angler, using:

1. A heavier jig. Iíll use a 1/4 ounce to 3/8 ounce jig instead of a 1/8 or 1/16 ounce jig when faced with high water.

2. Iíll swim my jig a little faster just to occasionally 'tic' the bottom. Dragging a jig would constantly snag the bottom or break your line off. This is why to have to reel just fast enough to prevent the constant snags. Iíve found the Slo-Poke jig to work best under these conditions. Iíve used and lost many jigs in the river and this jig seems to work particularly well in these conditions. The third thing that I do is to switch from using live bait (minnows) to scented twister, grub, or ringworms plastics (Gulp and Powerbait) which seem to stay on the jig better than live bait and attract fish with their flash and vibration. Iíve experimented with plastics too and have found that those made by Kalins work better.They come in many great fish catching colors and a three and five inch size. Occasionally, Iíll lift and let the jig fall and your strikes usually come on the fall.

But, the most important thing that I do is to switch my line from a light six pound line to a heavier line (mono) in 10 to 12 pound test. The heavier line allows you to 'pull' out of most snags instead of losing your jig. If I used my normal size 'spring' line, Iíd be re-tying and losing most of the jigs in my tackle box. You still are going to lose a few jigs and break off on the odd stump, but most of the time you will be able to fish and catch walleyes in these adverse conditions.

I donít think that jig or tail color makes that much difference in springs dirty and off color water. The key is getting the jig in the walleyeís face coupled with the flash and vibration. I also will change jig and tail color even though Iím not sure that this makes any difference to a walleye or sauger. A different color or size may make a different profile that a walleye might like on any given day. Tactics, colors, profiles, and jig cadence can all affect what a walleye may want the day that youíre fishing. Youíre allowed to use three rods in Wisconsin, so why not try something a little different on each rod?

The walleyes will be in shallow water to escape the riverís current, to feed on the baitfish that have moved shallow into the brush and wood to get out of current, and finally theyíre looking for a place to drop their eggs and complete the spawning process.

So, remember in springís high water to move into shallow water, right into the brush and wood along the riverís shoreline; go to a heavier line and jig and use plastics in twister tails, ringworms, and grub tails till you find the right one for that day. You can anchor outside the wooded shore and cast into it or use a push pole to get back into the small openings and pockets out of the current.

The walleyes will be there and now you have the tactics to get at them.

Gary Engberg is a professional tournament angler, fishing guide, and writer. He began fishing tournaments in the early 1990ís and has fished the In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail (PWT), North American Walleye Association (NAWA), Masters Walleye Circuit (MWC), World Walleye Association (WWA), FLW, and Mercury Nationals in the years since. Gary has hosted the Outdoor Horizons radio show weekly for 14 years in Madison on WTDY 1670 AM and WTDY 106.7 FM Saturdays at 8:05 am. and is also a correspondent for the Wisconsin State Journal for the last 12 years. Visit for more from Gary Engberg.

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