Ice out Walleyes & Saugers on the Wisconsin River.
After another long Wisconsin winter, most walleye guys are more than a little bit anxious to get the boat out on the water. Rivers will generally become ice free long before natural lakes and reservoirs. Where I live in south central Wisconsin, come late February or early March, the running waters of the Wisconsin River will lose enough of its icy cover to permit hardy anglers to launch a boat and begin fishing for spring run walleyes & saugers.
How I target walleyes and/or saugers at this time of the year can and does vary from year to year. Most of that is based on the conditions of the river when ice out actually occurs. High water conditions are definitely going to see me using completely different tactics than low water conditions.
Easy pickings at ice out:
On an average year, the ice will open up enough for us to start fishing in late February to early March. Under normal river levels & flow rates, the first place to check for some fairly consistent action is the deepest water available. We generally are not going to see a lot of big fish at this time but that doesn’t mean you won’t catch a trophy either. Normally, what we see most of in the deep holes are plenty of short fish with some decent keepers mixed in and the occasional upper slot size fish. Most of these fish are males with the occasional “hen” mixed in here and there.
There are certain times of the year where I will ignore small to keeper size fish just so that I can have a crack at a big girl. This isn’t one of those times. I want my line stretched and I want to take home enough fish for a fish fry. After a long winter of “not” fishing from a boat, getting my line stretched and consistent action rank pretty high on my fun scale.
Quite frankly, this early, open water fishing doesn’t require a ton of skill. Minnow rigs, whether delivered via a 3-way or sliding lindy style sinker work well. Anchoring above the hole or slipping the current downstream while staying vertical works also. Slowly back trolling upstream will also put fish in the boat. A bare jig tipped with a minnow will many times work just as well.
Same goes for a ringworm, paddle tail, twister tail or a 4” moxi from B’Fish’N Tackle. I usually start out with a jig/plastic combo and see what the fish want. Many times, that jig & plastic or some variation of it, never comes off.
Unfortunately, there aren’t many other options for fishermen at this time of the year. Most lakes are not only still covered by ice, but walleye fishing season is closed on inland lakes until the first Saturday in May. So the rivers really are essentially the only open water option, which means we usually have plenty of company. And that kind of pressure can turn the bite from fairly easy to pretty tough after the first couple of weeks. The rivers around these parts are not big and with more than a hundred boats per weekend day running up and down the river, bouncing jigs, minnows & plastics thru every hole, it tends to have a very negative effect on these fish in a relatively short time.
The easy pickings of dumb fish that haven’t seen a fishermen’s bait in several months is usually over by early March and most years, it’s certainly over by the middle of March.
Catching better fish between ice out and spawning time:
One of the best ways to improve your walleye & sauger catching skills is to join a good website where other anglers are willing to share their tactics. One of the best I’ve ever found is IDOfishing.com. Here on the Wisconsin River, after the first couple weeks of open water have passed, we find ourselves fishing for “educated” walleyes & saugers. These are the fish that didn’t get caught during the early rush of anglers and the newer, migrating fish that are just arriving from down river.
These fish will continue to move up from down river along with a big push by the larger females just before spawn. By mid-March, the only reason I might still be fishing in the deeper, middle of the river holes is if the flow is really low.
Under very low water conditions, the fish will generally not feel the urge to move up river. High water has the opposite effect causing more fish to move up and sooner than they may have otherwise. Under low water conditions at this time of the year, I do tend to find myself targeting middle of the river spots more than the edges. I don’t usually fish the deepest holes anymore though and the only reason I would still be using a plain minnow rig is if the bite was especially tough.
Under low water conditions, the tactic that has been the most consistent for me has been dragging jig & plastics. I prefer either a 4” ringworm or a 4” moxi from B’Fish’N Tackle.com but there are times when the fish seem to want a paddle tail instead. Water depth could be anywhere from 8’ to 20’ deep.
The one thing I’m really looking for under low water conditions is moving water. Back eddies are almost non-existent under these conditions so if you want to fish in current, the middle of the river is usually your best option.
Dragging downstream is my favorite way to go but here again, it’s best to see whether the fish prefer dragging upstream or downstream. Check both ways and give them what they want. For downstream dragging in 10-15’ of water, I usually find myself using a 1/8oz Precision H20 jig if it’s not to snaggy. Jig eating rocks and other snags will quickly have me tying on a Draggin Jig instead.
These jigs do a great job of sliding thru the rocks, wood and old discarded line. And although they may cost more up front than a regular jig, under snaggy conditions, they easily pay for themselves in a hurry. My typical downstream run has me making a short to medium cast behind the boat and using the bow mount electric motor to pull the boat downstream at about .5mph.
Adjust the amount of line you have out behind the boat so that the jig isn’t constantly in contact with the bottom. I want my jig to suspend a few inches off the bottom from time to time, then fall back and hit the bottom again before lifting off once again.
The more you do it, the better you will get at this.
That .5 mph down river dragging speed is not a hard and fast rule. What is important is what you’re feeling at the business end of your line. Speed is important but it’s not the primary factor here. Not that you want to go flying down river but if it feels like your jig is doing all the right stuff, lightly ticking the bottom here and there, and you find yourself going .7mph plus your getting bit, don’t stop or slow down just to hit some imaginary magic number.
The objective is to bring together and balance all the factors necessary for the dragging technique to work its magic. Boat speed, jig weight, current, depth, length of line behind the boat, line diameter & the lift created by it are all factors that can affect how far off the bottom you’re jig ends up on the dragging run.
Get it right and your day on the water has a chance to be something special. Get it wrong and you can be right on top of fish and never know it. Hits can be quite aggressive but they can also be little more than the classic “tick” of the line. The hard hitters are easy to catch. It’s a little harder learning to set the hook when you sense that classic “tick” of the line but with practice, setting the hook does become second nature.
Regardless of how the hit feels, by all means set that hook the second you feel the bite. Fish that bite while dragging a jig & plastic tend to get the bait well into their mouth and normally, there is no need to hesitate. When dragging or casting plastics, my rule of thumb is to set the hook at the first indication you’ve had a hit. If you find your missing fish, then start hesitating or even allowing the rod tip to drop back a bit before setting the hook but always start aggressively with hook sets and then slow down if necessary.
Dragging upstream will usually require a jig roughly twice as heavy as what it takes to go downstream. Here again, let the conditions of the situation your fishing dictate how heavy your jig is. When going upstream, the combination of current, speed and jig weight must come together in a way that allows you to keep that jig & plastic combo within a foot or so of the bottom. The only way of knowing if the jig is close enough to the bottom is to let your rod fall back several feet and watch your line. You should be able to see some slack in your line when the jig hits the bottom. If your line never goes slack, it means your jig is too far off the bottom. In this case you need to let out more line, tie on a heavier jig or slow down.
Dragging upstream usually requires you to move the boat considerably slower than downstream. GPS speed going upstream is usually around .1 to .2mph but can vary depending on current, jig weight, amount of line behind the boat, depth of water, wind and how aggressive the fish are. Dragging upstream takes more practice to get good at in my opinion so if you’re just starting, you may want to try perfecting downstream dragging first.
One thing I love to do when dragging upstream is to zig-zag. Another words, don’t pick a line that takes you straight upstream. Intentionally slide cross current as you move up. This works going downstream as well but I’ve had more luck zig-zagging on the upstream runs. High Water: Under high water conditions, my favorite technique is to anchor on the edge of a current eddy and fan cast jig & plastics.
I usually have at least two different rods rigged and ready to go with different size jigs on them. One for casting to the deeper faster water and another for the shallower, slower back eddy current along the shoreline. When casting plastics latterly across the current, my goal is to have the current wash the jig across the bottom of the river. If the jig is too heavy, it will sit on or get hung up on the bottom. To lite of a jig and it may never reach the bottom. I like my jig to occasionally get hung up but not constantly.
For the most part, the current against my line should cause the jig to gently bounce over the rocks without constantly getting hung up. Casting upstream and retrieving with the current is kind of tricky but always worth doing simply because you just never know where the fish will be laying for sure. Here you will need to retrieve line at a rate approximately equal to the current in order to keep the jig from getting hung up on the bottom.
Quite often, the upstream cast is done parallel to the current seam. Make sure you cast to both sides of the current seam. The current seam is one of the most common spots to find active fish. Regardless of which side of the current seam you’re jig is, take up line at a rate which will keep slack out of your line but not so fast as to lift your jig well off the bottom.
By doing this, you will be able to feel the classic walleye “tick”, which of course means you need to set the hook asap! Be sure to watch you line closely. Some people are better at detecting hits by watching the line and some by their sense of feel. Sounds tricky but with practice, it’s really not all that hard. The quickest way to learn how to do this properly is to fish with someone who is good at it. Watching another person in the boat pull in walleye after walleye has a way of making the other person learn faster.
Much faster in most cases! I always make a few cast downstream at an angle that will land my jig well out into the faster, deeper water. You will need to wait while your jig sinks and travels downstream as is sinks before beginning the retrieve. Once your line becomes tight, if your jig weight is right it will be either on or very close to the bottom and hopefully, right alongside the current seam. Now you can work that jig slowly back to the boat. Typically I will pump it forward a foot or two, stop with my rod pointing at about 10 o’clock and hesitate until I feel the jig hit bottom again. Many times it’s slack in the line that tells me the jig is now once again on the bottom. Hold for another ten seconds or so then repeat.
Continue this retrieve until the jig is close enough to the boat that it’s no longer possible to keep the jig on the bottom.
Don’t be lazy - change your bait!
The biggest single reason why people don’t catch more fish is they get lazy. Good fishermen don’t get lazy. When the fish don’t bite they change things. They change locations. They change tactics. Most of all they are constantly changing the plastic on the back end of their jigs. Good walleye fishermen will never stop changing the color they are using. If that doesn’t work, they’ll change to a plastic with a different profile.
They never tire of retying jigs that don’t work well enough for what they expect. If you look at the dash board of there boat, you will see a huge pile of jigs tipped with a wide variety of ringworms, paddle tails, moxi’s along with an assortment of hair jigs and perhaps blade baits. They just never quit and because of that, sooner or later, they find what the fish want on that particular day. In the end, it’s all worth it. Especially when you come back to the boat landing and repeatedly hear how tough the fishing was and you’re not one of them. Some will say it’s just luck but more often than not, good fishermen create their own luck!
Joel “Boog” Ballweg
Ballweg’s Guide Service, LLC
Specializing in Walleyes, Saugers & Crappies on Lake Wisconsin & Wisconsin River Boog's been guiding for over 9 years and fishing Lake Wisconsin and the Wisconsin River since he was old enough to hold a pole.