In the heart of the information age, with GPS satellites positioned overhead and hyper-accurate digital depth contours below, there are precious few untapped walleye fisheries left for the contemporary angler to enjoy. Canadian wilderness lakes represent one possibility, but how often can we cross the border after work to wet a line for a few hours?
Perhaps you’re lucky enough to have a friend-of-a-friend with a private stocked lake, but friends like that are few and far between. The Internet swirls with tips and rumors of hot bites and uneducated fish, biting eagerly on the simplest of presentations, but how many of those fish will be swimming when you finally arrive?
Take heart walleye anglers, because unpressured fish are within your reach: not thousands of miles away or behind a locked gate, and not in a fabled “hotspot” that has the web forums abuzz. No, these fish are swimming in a small river near you, perhaps even in your own backyard.
Walleyes are, at their most fundamental level, a fish of rivers. Small, large, and even the Great Lakes can certainly host phenomenal walleye populations, but even in such places, walleyes are inexorably drawn to rivers for spawning and feeding opportunities.
For this exercise, let us turn our attention away from large, famous rivers like the Missouri, the Mississippi, the Detroit, and the Maumee. Rather, let’s focus on the smaller rivers that coarse through the heart of the Walleye Belt. But how do we center our attention on a select group of walleye waters with so many to choose from? This is a great opportunity to tap the information superhighway, and refer to walleye population data from your state department of natural resources. Identify lakes with healthy walleye populations that are supported primarily by natural reproduction. Now look for small rivers that feed those lakes. If these rivers lack accesses suitable for large watercraft, or boast sufficient sand bars and rocky rapids to keep the big boats away, you’re well on your way to unpressured walleye bliss.
Although we’ll be leaving our traditional deep-V walleye boat in the garage for these trips, we still need a way to travel away from the access and frequented shore areas. The best option for these circumstances is the Old Town Predator XL, equipped with a Minn Kota console. This incredibly stable, well-appointed watercraft is easy to manage on land and offers unmatched fishability on the water. The Predator’s Minn Kota trolling motor console is an integral component of our arsenal for small river walleyes. The saltwater-grade propulsion system moves us effortlessly along the river, to places where uneducated fish reside, and lets us hover in position against the current so we can saturate casting targets. Indeed, the Minn Kota motor console provides the type of precision boat control that we are accustomed to in our traditional walleye boats, but in a much more compact package that is perfectly matched to the Old Town Predator XL.
Where do walleyes live in skinny waters such as these? Ultimately, walleye habitat options are limited in small rivers, making these fish easy to locate and catch. Your primary locations will be outside river bends, where the current has scoured out a bit of additional depth. In a small river, an outside bend that features four to six feet of water, while the rest of the river is two to three feet deep, can hold substantial numbers of all gamefish, including walleyes.
Current obstructions in these outside bends, cover like fallen trees or rock bars, will be the primary fish concentrators. While some of these zones may be visible above the surface, a Humminbird Side Imaging fishing system mounted on the Old Town Predator XL is an indispensable tool for identifying subsurface cover and marking its position with GPS precision. In the absence of a major flood, these fish concentrators will remain in place for years, and their GPS locations will quickly become included among your favorite waypoints.
Remember that the water, even in these outside bends, remains relatively shallow, so lightweight presentations will dominate our skinny water walleye arsenal. In fact, I only bring a single waterproof Plano box with me, stocked with just three styles of baits: bucktail or marabou jigs in 1/16 and 1/8 oz weights, undressed Custom Jigs & Spins H20 Precision leadhead jigs in sizes between 1/32 and 1/8 oz, and small crankbaits, especially minnow or shad styles in sizes no larger than #7. The plain leadheads are quite versatile, and can be dressed with soft plastics like a 4” ringworm or fluke-style bait, like Z-Man’s StreakZ, or live offerings like the front half of a ‘crawler or perhaps a minnow during cool water periods.
These light baits demand a long rod for precision delivery to snaggy river cover, with a medium or medium light power rating to enjoy the tussle from these skinny water fish. Rods like the St. Croix Avid X AXS70MF or the St. Croix Legend Tournament Walleye Series LTWS76MLXF are great choices.
Unlike their pressured cousins, uneducated walleyes from small rivers typically reveal their presence with reckless abandon. Using the Minn Kota motor, position the Predator XL even with, or perhaps a bit upstream, of your casting target. Let the current do the work during the retrieve, delivering the bait in a completely natural way. If walleyes are present in a particular piece of cover, you’ll often find out within the first two or three casts. Remember, these fish may not have seen a bait all season, so they have no reason to be wary of your tempting offering as it sweeps in front of their hiding place.
Small rivers are one of the last great frontiers in modern day walleye fishing. Such rivers are widely distributed throughout the walleye belt, too, but see limited, if any fishing pressure. Go off the beaten path as you search for these untapped populations of skinny water walleyes, and once you find them, take an eater or two, but do your part to protect them for the future.