Brian Klawitter

Brian Klawitter is an expert in trophy flathead catfish and sturgeon fishing. He owns and operates BrianK's Trophy Catfishing and Sturgeon Adventures. His guiding and seminars first cover safety, then education on fishing for the "monsters of the rivers."

Part Two: Rods, Reels and Locations~Trophy Flathead Catfish!

Posted by: Brian Klawitter under Fishing Updated: May 1, 2012 - 9:58 PM

Let's start off with the rod.  There's many schools of thought on what makes a great flathead rod and I'll go into that a bit

Dan Thiem of Zumbro and his 59 pounder.

Dan Thiem of Zumbro and his 59 pounder.

later. What I would suggest for the new person is to pick up a good fiberglass cat fishing rod in the $60.00 range. This price point will give you a great starter rod, without breaking the bank. The Team Catfish 7' Catfish Warrior fits the bill well. There's very few cat folks that keep using their first rod after the first year of flathead fishing. It seems we try other folks rods and end up upgrading  sometimes two, three or more times until we find one that's just right.

My boat has all the new for '12 I-Cat Carbon Fiber rods by Team Catfish. They have the sensitivity of graphite and more strength than  fiberglass. Dragging the sinker across the bottom of the river and you know with very little practice what the bottom make up is as well as knowing if your bait is gone or there's a leaf stuck to your hook. The price is higher than a starter rod, but then these American made rods are for the serious Trophy Hunter.

Then there's the choice between bait casting rods and spinning rods. You'll have to flip the coin there. I was afraid of bait casting reels until I realize I was casting 3 or 4 oz of lead along with a 7 inch bullhead. All I had to do was to put my thumb on the spool as the sinker hit the water. We aren't distance casting and you'll be surprised how easy it is. I know many folks that do use spinning reels and are very successful.

Reels. There's three factors in selecting a reel in my mind.

1. Strength.  You will be playing Tug O War with your trophy. If she makes it back to structure, you just lost in most cases.

2. Drag. A smooth drag is nice, but not totally needed to a certain degree. But it better be a strong one!

3. Line out alarm (or clicker). This needs to be tight enough to hold a live 7 to 10 inch bullhead from continually pulling out line and giving false alarms.

This year I've changed my reels over the Shimano Tekota 600's. A great looking work horse with an impressive track record. In the past, I've used Garcia 7000's and have been very happy with them. When folks step down to the Garcia 6500's I wince a little. The line out alarm is very hard to adjust and once adjusted to your bait, they need to be readjusted to cast. I feel they are just a little on the light side for continuous flathead use. 

You might be wondering how the river guys can land large flatheads while using walleye gear and 6 pound line. It's very possible to do this in snag free areas and your odds are with you if your trolling motor is keeping your boat over the fish. Toss in some wood and have your anchor out and the little walleye reel will be in need of new fishing line as the fish of your life time spools you!

Locations: In Minnesota we are blessed with the St Croix River, the world class fishing on the Minnesota River and the Mighty Old Mississippi River.  Each one has it's unique features that make them great cat fishing waters. In the next few weeks the water temperatures are going to be approaching the 65 to 70 degree range with our early spring. This is the time you want to be out looking for the trees laying down from shore into the deeper water. Piles of wood held by a bend in the river and wing dams on the Mississippi River. I should mention that any large sunken tree or large branch partially under water will hold flats. If it's an area that you would worry about your prop being bent, well that's flathead water!

If your fishing from a boat, know the area you'll be fishing by becoming familiar with it during the day light and know the way back to the launch well. A good GPS with new trails for the route home and waypoints for areas you would like to fish is very very handy. Bank fishing for flats is very possible in the metro areas as well as on many stretches of the three rivers. Check in at your nearest bait shop for the best bank fishing in your area.

A few bait shops I know of that could give pointers and have bait and the gear your looking for are

Scheels in Mankato, MN Minnesota River

4 Seasons Sports in Red Wing, MN Mississippi River

Everts Fishing Resort and Bait Shop in Hager City, WI Mississippi River

Thorne Brothers in Mpls, MN Minnesota and St Croix Rivers


Once your geared up, then the hunt begins.  It might take a few evenings out to finally hook into a flathead. It might take a few more evenings to hook in to a trophy flathead. Or you could be the one in a million guy like Dan Thiem of Zumbro MN pictured above on his first trip out hooked into a 59 pound angry flathead catfish!


See you on the river!



Trophy Catfishing Time is Coming Soon!

Posted by: Brian Klawitter under Fishing Updated: April 5, 2012 - 9:54 PM

As a Trophy Catfish guide, I field many of the same questions each year. Although I love talking Big Flatheads with anyone, I thought I would type out a "how to" on some of the more important portions of Flat Fishing that might help someone new to the sport get started.

Part One: Terminal Tackle for the fish of a life time...the Trophy Flathead Catfish!

First off, we have to keep in mind that we're talking about 30, 40 and even 50 pound fish that love the snarreled mess of tree roots and underwater logs. Getting a bite is only the first portioin of getting your photo taken with The Minnesota River Monster!

My terminal tackle starting from the hook end consists of a 8/0 Team Catfish Super J  hook, 80-pound Team Catfish Tug O War braided line for a 8 inch leader, an 80-pound  swivel, Team Catfish Sinker Bumper to protect the knot, a 4 oz no roll sinker and finally more 80 pound Team Catfish Tug O War Braided line in high vis Nuclear Yellow spooled on a winch type reel like a Garcia 7000 or a Shimano Tekota 600.

I typically will use a 4 oz weight all year, since a no-roll sinker is a flat sinker with the line runing through it's center, the fish isn't going to feel any extra weight. Plus the 4 ounces should keep the live bait from moving into unwanted places like the tree snags we often fish around.

I choose Team Catfish Tug O War 80 lb test because it's tough as cable which is needed for playing Tug O War with a big cat. Tug O War doesn't fray or loose it's Nuclear Yellow color as other lines I've tried do.  Dragging a pig out of the woods requires a strong line…if the cat makes it back into a wooden snarly snag, we lost!  I normally have a few wooden dowels along to break off the line when it becomes snagged and I can’t get it loose any other way. It’s impossible to break this stuff with your hands…you'll draw blood trying.

Remember to keep the leader short. Six to eight inches is pleanty. Flatheads like a livly bait...but the don't like to have to chase it down and a short leader gets tangled less!  There is a school that believes you should go with a lighter test leader or even mono. The lighter leader will break saving you the cost of the swivel and the sinker. The mono does that and works as a shock absorber. They all work…take your pick.

I prefer a Berkeley swivel in the 80-pound test category…no weak links.

To tie this all together I use what is known as a Uni knot.  Most folk use the Palomar, which is a good strong knot. I chose the Uni  because I’ve used it on mono for years and can tie it with my eyes shut (this comes in handy in the dark). Use what you're most comfortable with.

By using the above, I can keep a very small, but heavy tackle box for chasing the big ones.

I should add that using the above rigging but changing the hook to a Team Catfish 3/0 Double Action hook works exceptionally well for using cut up sucker for channel cat or sturgeon fishing as well.

As prime time Trophy Flathead fishing approaches, I hope this answers a few of the rigging questions.

Next topic, Rods, Reels and locations for Trophy Cats.

Ice out Walleyes & Saugers on the Wisconsin River

Posted by: Brian Klawitter under Fishing Updated: February 15, 2012 - 10:38 PM

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 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 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:

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:

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.

Locating Early Ice Slabs

Posted by: Brian Klawitter under Fishing Updated: December 8, 2011 - 11:21 PM

Over the next few months I'll be spotlighting interesting and different pieces written by some of our areas top guides along with other people of interest.

Today, fishing guide Matt Johnson to help you with...


Locating Early Ice Slabs

By: Matt Johnson

Crappies are a sophisticated fish, especially those slabs, and at times it can be rather confusing and frustrating for ice anglers to pinpoint slab patterns. Some lakes are abundant with slab crappies, while others are more inclined to hold smaller fish, and then you have those lakes where you can catch a mixed bag. Regardless of the lake or body of water, location is important when it comes down to being a successful crappie fisherman during the winter months. Flashers allow ice anglers to quickly determine whether or not fish are in the area and locating the elusive slab crappie is more than half the battle. If you can establish a pattern of where these fish will be holding then the rewards will come.

I always pay close attention to fall patterns, especially at late fall as the water plunges into near freezing temps. Crappies will begin staging for early ice towards the end of summer, and as fall approaches they will begin to stake out areas that they will utilize at early ice. The turn-over period is where I start. This is when the thermocline diminishes and the cool and warm water start to mix. The typically deeper water crappie patterns of the hot summer months will turn into shallower water patterns. (Keep in mind that rivers will be different and not every lake will experience the same effects either, every body of water may be different from the next). When the water mixes you will typically find the crappies in some sort of migration stage (in lakes) and they will start to slide to the initial breaks and suspend off shallow water edges instead of constantly roaming the deeper depths.

The turn-over period might not last too long. Once the water turns over and the temps drop more and more, you will begin to find fish staging in their early ice locations. Summer and late-summer crappies will stage, often times, suspended in deeper water at the same level of the top of the initial break line (flat). So if you have the top of your break reading at 10 feet on your flasher, and you drop into about 25 feet at the basin, you will find crappies suspended 15 feet off the bottom out on the basin. These fish will roam and you will often times mistake them for baitfish, or when you try to pinpoint them they just keep moving (that’s part of the reason it can be tough to find the big slabs in the hot summer months). These fish will begin staging for the winter once fall approaches and will feed on whatever is in front of them if the opportunity presents itself.

Intercepting these fish can be tough on lakes with large basins and limited structure.

I don't typically heavily follow the crappie movements during the hot summer months since they are so sporadic, but once they begin moving into winter patterns that’s when they get my attention (I'm an ice fishing geek). Learning the fall (turn-over period and into early ice) patterns has a lot to do with finding the slabs at early ice. Smaller crappies will stack up in obvious shallow(er) spots at early ice, but you will still find some of your larger fish off the "so called" prime hotspots at early ice.

Early ice crappies will relate to the weeds, at least as long as they provide oxygen (which may last quite a ways into winter or even throughout winter in some cases). I personally don't think that the larger crappies need to relate to those weeds, I'm not saying that you won't catch slabs in the weeds at early ice, but I'm just saying that those weed areas tend to draw in more smaller fish as well as potato chip bluegills and hungry roaming pike. The larger crappies (concentration of fish) that I do typically find in the weeds are located in lakes where the weed line pushes out into deeper water, say 12-15 feet or even more, and I find the slabs right out on the deeper portions at early ice. Meanwhile, the smaller fish are holding shallower. Once the thermocline does a flip-flop (and disappears) and you complete the turn-over, you will notice that the crappies adjusted to a whole new area. During this time you won't find the crappies suspended over the deeper water 24 hours a day, or even at all anymore. They will somehow relate to shallower water, whether it’s off the break, or along the deep weed edge. Once they move up into the weeds they will relate to the shallower weeds until they die off (assuming that they do in a typical lake situation), then they will cling to the oxygen-rich (slightly deeper) weeds until those are gone. Now, this is a general crappie pattern, and not true for every lake and not always true for all the larger fish. This is, how should we call it... "Crappie intuition"

Here's how I pattern crappies throughout late summer and into early ice

  • Deep Water Patterns
    Your summer to late-summer pattern. Crappies will roam deeper water.
  • Turn-Over (thermocline dies)
    Crappies move from deeper water and stage off shallower water. Keep an eye on areas where you know the crappies where at during early ice in the past and move out from there. (In between this period and the next is where I find my larger crappies at early ice)
  • Thermocline is Dead...Full Turn-over
  • Full Turn-Over
    Crappies are holding off shallow structure, more tight though. Weeds are dying and fish gradually slide deeper. This can also be an early ice stage on occasion.
  • Early Ice
    Shallow, oxygen rich weeds and primary breaks. Look for depths anywhere from 3-15 feet. Weeds will die as ice thickens and crappies will gradually move deeper. Narrows can be good too.

This is my view of a typical crappie movement from late summer to early ice for your typical lake. I have some lakes where the pattern is very different, and some lakes where you catch your early ice crappies in deeper holes. Keep in mind that these crappies that are found in the deeper holes at early ice might have already migrated shallow and already moved back out into deeper water (crappies will move back out as ice thickens, oxygen diminishes and light penetration gets worse…).

So, with that being said, where are the crappies at early ice?

Well, for one, we have the weeds, an obvious option for a good number of crappies at early ice. Shallow bays on large bodies of water are good early ice locations. Any depressions in the bays should be marked on a map and checked out as well. These are “pockets” in the weeds. I also like to find the weed edge and punch a line of holes across that as well. Breaks just off the weed edge will also hold crappies at early ice, both suspending and bottom hugging. Some of these areas will have no weeds on the actual slope, but once it flattens out again you will see more weeds, this is a prime example of an early ice slab spot. Work those deeper weeds and stay moving until you locate a school of fish. Depths of 10-15 feet are not uncommon. Also check out humps and saddles too. Weeds are good, but don’t only judge early ice spots by where the weeds are, stay open minded. Wooded areas can also hold a good number of crappies at early ice, same with rocks and muddy areas.

I also like to find spots where there is a narrow area between different portions of the lake, like “bottlenecks” and deeper channels (deep could only mean 6-7 feet). These channel areas often times freeze first and the crappies fishing can be excellent during first ice. These spots are short lived though, and the bite might only last a week or so. If you find the crappies holding in these areas at first ice, than there’s a good chance that those fish will relate to adjacent deeper water once they move towards the main lake basin.

Mouths of shallow bays are good areas to target too. Crappies will relate to the transition areas in these mouths, and once they move out from the bay these areas might be the new hot spot.
Early ice crappie locations are going to be different from body of water to body of water, but the general principles still apply…

  • Look for shallow green weeds
  • Focus on “structure” in the weeds (pockets, humps,edges, etc…)
  • Search the primary breaks just off the shallow weeds (deeper weed lines)
  • Look for any flats just off the weed line, as well as off the first break
  • Narrows
  • Also check deeper holes in the lakes where the average depth is shallow

Location is number one for most of the winter when it comes to crappies. Locate the aggressive school of fish and then figuring what they want is the easy part. If you find fish but there are negative than move, there typically are some active fish somewhere, and often times they won’t be far.

Early ice can produce some nice catches, and hopefully some of this will help you ice more slabs this winter.
Good Fishing,
Matt Johnson

Matt Johnson owns and operates Matt Johnson Outdoors ( where he enjoys taking people on guided ice fishing trips and providing information about his favorite sport—fishing!
***You can contact Matt at


Wintertime Fishing On The Open Water

Posted by: Brian Klawitter under Recreation, Fishing Updated: November 30, 2011 - 8:23 PM

Over the next few months I'll be spotlighting interesting and different pieces written by some of our areas top guides along with other people of interest.

Today, Capt Turk Gierke of the Croixsippi Guide Service.

Wintertime Fishing On The Open Water
Walleye Tactics, Safety And More
By: Turk Gierke

After the snow hits the ground, other motorists may give you strange looks when you drive down the road with a boat in tow.  It is clear that angling has taken place after seeing the rigged-up fishing poles, balled-up used line and empty chuckwagon sandwich wrappers taking wing and circling in a wind where the dual console and walk through windshield meet.

Anglers may not know this, but most days a good bite happens on the Mississippi River all winter long and into early spring.  This leaf-fallen, snow-covered, walleye and sauger scene may sound intimidating, especially on a river known to flood, flow fast and harbor people called river rats.  However, when it is all said and done, it is not that different from summer-time angling.


In the 1930s the U.S. Corps of Engineers built locks and dams on the Mississippi River to create a navigational channel for barge traffic.  As the locks allow commerce, conversely the dams restrict the natural migration of walleye and sauger, and act as a winter holding-ground for these fish.

There are numerous productive and trend-setting techniques on the Mississippi River for catching walleye in shallow water, casting hair jigs, jig and plastics, and blade baits. However, for newfound river anglers learning about coldwater walleye - vertical jigging - by drifting within sight of the dam outflow is the place to start.

The drift must be controlled and go naturally with the river flow.  To make this happen, slowly backtroll a tiller motor into current or slowly forward troll a bowmount electric into the current.  Before fishing starts, practice and learn boat control, and most importantly learn to slowly crawl forward, hover in place and gradually move with the water downstream.

Once boat control is achieved and repeatable, then you can begin to fish.  The best starting technique and most popular is vertical jigging.  The key is to keep the lure straight up and down.  A five-sixteenths or three-eighths-ounce jig will do the job in the slower winter river current when fishing in depths from 18 to 25 feet of water.  Later in the year as snow melts, heavier jigs are needed to accomplish vertical jigging, lighter ones are sufficient during the winter.

Attempt to keep the lure two to 10 inches off the bottom.  The jig has reached the bottom when there is slack in the line.  Keep the jig off the bottom.  But how?  Read the graph and adjust the depth, use feel and watch the line.  Bright colored lines help enormously in seeing if the line is slack or tight, and of course watching the retrieve and lure drop on any cast can help as well.

When you start your drift, note where you are on the shoreline, and then slowly slide down stream.  Note depths and locations where fish are holding and work those areas thoroughly.  Repeat productive drift passes.  Because of the firstclass fishery on the Mississippi, it is surprising how many fish can be caught even on an angler’s first river winter outing.

Experiment with color - chartreuse, black and orange are common jig head colors, also try tricolor jigs.  Plastic tails can add a twist to the presentation and are highly effective and also widely used.  Large fatheads and smaller shiners (if you can get them) are productive, and stinger hooks may be in order if the bites do not result in hooked-up fish.


There are times to be off the water, namely in the rising spring floodwaters, but follow a few simple steps for a safe open-water winter fishing experience.

The first step, as always, is to wear a proper fitting lifejacket.  The second is to fish with a partner.  River fishing in the winter is conducted when the water temperature is just above freezing, so safety is especially important.

Another step is understanding the navigation on the Upper Mississippi.  When heading upstream (into the flow) keep the red nun buoy on the right hand (starboard) side of the boat, and when heading upstream, keep the green can buoy on the left hand (port) side.  These buoys mark the main channel and will keep boats from running a ground and/or prevent prop and lower end damage.

Secondly, because of dangerous, deceptive currents, it is against the law to approach a dam closer than 150 feet from the downstream side.  And it is also illegal to be within 600 feet of any dam while traveling upstream.

This next piece of advice is common sense: Stay away from all barges that are under way; they start operations once Lake Pepin thaws.  The barges have a blind spot directly in front, and the towboat propellers throw a lot of water.  Be aware of where and when these barges turn, and make sure to be on the inside bend side of a turning barge.

Another helpful tip: Do not anchor in an ice flow.  It is possible for flowing ice sheets, to become hung up on a boat’s anchor rope.  If the anchor does not give way and the ice sheet is large enough, the force of the moving ice can drag a roped boat’s bow underwater.

Clothing And Launching

Deer hunting attire from the hat down to the boots is a similar amount of clothing you will need to make your winter fishing quest.  Just do not wear a jacket that is too bulky, as arms must be allowed to move and function.

Though the river flows and remains open for much of the winter, the temperature cut-off point for many anglers is 20 degrees or colder.  Fishing in colder weather than that can be futile as line freezes on eyelets.  I use Limit Creek LCS69MLF walleye rods for winter fishing because the eyelets are designed slightly larger in order to make winter fishing easier.

Even though water flows in the main channel, the water near the ramp may be frozen, especially if the temperature is below 20 degrees for an extended period.  Also, ramp pavement can be iced over, and then sand and salt, as well as the four-wheel drive component, are needed. 

Ramps located in bays and other places where there is low flow are iced-in for the season.  Without a doubt, Everts Resort near Red Wing, Minn. has the best-kept winter ramps on the entire Mississippi River, plus a great bait-and-tackle shop.

Other Tips

Do not put water in the livewell, as complications with equipment will likely occur.  Instead, keep fish in the well or cooler without water; trust me they will not spoil!  When fishing is over, you must allow water to drain out of the motor by placing it in a vertical position (trim the motor all the way down) for a few minutes, then raise to travel.  Some anglers also turn over the engine for a brief moment to expel water from the motor, however, this practice is becoming rare.

As always, the lower unit must be freshly lubed and inspected periodically for signs of water in the lube.


From Lock and Dam No. 1 in Minneapolis to No. 8 south of Brownsville, Minn., anglers turn heads towing water-dripping boats in the height of winter.  Fishing the river some days is like shooting them in a barrel; it can be that good.  Lifetime catches of 100 walleye and sauger a day have occurred for many river anglers, creating a cure for winter blues, and a warm and fuzzy feeling about this coldwater winter fishery.

Keep Catchin.’

Turk Gierke is a multi-species guide on the St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers.  Turk can be contacted at 1-800-929-1801 or

. Visit

for more information.


Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters