Tailwater Walleyes

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By Dylan Tramp

Regardless of whether spring marches in like a lion or a lamb, my thoughts soon become consumed with chasing turkeys and fishing for spawning walleyes.

Today, I’ll focus on the latter as I spool up my rods for walleyes throughout the many tailraces of the Missouri River. While I won’t get into the nitty-gritty details of walleye spawning habits, I will dive in and explore where to find early spring walleyes and how to catch them.

While walleyes can find suitable spawning habitat throughout most of the Missouri River system, a likely place pre-spawn walleyes congregate each spring is within eyesight of the river’s many manmade dams. Two keys to finding pre-spawn walleyes are to locate deep water and water that is relatively slack, or lacking river current. Most manmade dams provide fish with both of these features, making the tailraces below them a perfect spot to start your search.

Tailrace Setups

One thing I always check before wetting a line is water clarity, which can change quickly this time of year. Water clarity plays a key part in determining what tackle I will use. More specifically, it dictates what line type and jig color I use in specific locations.

Generally speaking, the water is very clear this time of year, so I incorporate fluorocarbon line into my setup. However, if the water is notably stained or dirty, there is nothing wrong with using a braided superline such as FireLine, Power Pro or Suffix 832, to name a few.

In the past when I’ve used braided line for spring walleyes, I have had great results. As most anglers know, braided line is stretch free and offers unmatched sensitivity, and I’ve had great results in the past when I’ve been able to use it. With walleyes being very docile this time of year, they often bite very softly, and a bite can easily go unnoticed if you’re not paying close attention.

My go-to setup for spring walleyes is a braided superline in 6- or 8-pound test with an 18- to 24-inch fluorocarbon leader tied directly to the braided line utilizing a double-uni knot. For the fluoro leader I typically use 8-pound Berkley Vanish.

This combination seems to offer the best of both worlds in regard to maximizing sensitivity while keeping line visibility to a minimum. Of course, monofilament fishing line can also be used, but I prefer the benefits of nearly invisible fluorocarbon.

When it comes to choosing a jig, the long-standing rule of thumb is to use the smallest and lightest jig that enables you to maintain constant contact with the bottom. Because current and depth can vary quickly in a tailrace, I usually start with a 1/4-ounce jig head. If there isn’t much current to contend with, I will often downsize to an 1/8-ounce jig.

If I fish for walleyes from shore along a tailrace, I actually prefer starting with with an 1/8-ounce jig. This seems to minimize snags when fishing riprap or other submerged structures that like to claim your jig.

There are many theories out there on what color of jig or lure will work best on any given day, but I tend to keep it simple and use bright jigs in dirty water and a more natural looking jig in crystal-clear water.

Don’t be afraid to try an assortment of jig colors while spring walleye fishing. During this time of year walleyes are about as picky as they ever will be, and sometimes a simple color change will work wonders. I can think of numerous spring days when someone in our fishing party will find the magical color and out fish everybody else.

If that ever happens, hopefully that individual angler is a good sport about it and is willing to share that magical jig color with the rest of the group. In cases like this, it pays to pick your fishing partners wisely.

A jig’s shank size is equally important as its color. The shank is the length of the hook from the jig head to the end of the hook. If you are going to tip your jig with a fathead minnow, choose a short-shank jig to optimize both the look of your presentation and your hookup success rate.

However, if you are going to be using plastics, such as a classic twister tail, Gulp! minnow or a longer walleye grub, a long-shank jig is usually a better choice. This puts the hook further toward the tail end of your presentation and will be more likely to hook up on days where the fish are being extra timid and biting short.

While on the topic of jigging for cold-water walleyes, another thing I should point out is that jig cadence also comes into play. With water temperatures often below 40 degrees, slower presentations fished with a little more finesse are key.

River walleyes tend to spend most of their lives tucked close to the bottom of the water column. Keep your bait in the strike zone by lightly bouncing your jig off the bottom. Feel free to get a little more aggressive with your jigging action as the water temperature increases, but during early spring start things off very slow while keeping close contact to the river bottom.

Other options to consider include using a live-bait rig such as a Lindy rig tipped with a fathead minnow or crimping a couple split shots about 18 to 24 inches above an octopus hook tipped with a minnow. These presentations are about as simple as it gets, because all you have to do is lower your line into the depths and let it be.

In fact, there will be days when these setups will produce more action than even the most tempting jigging presentations. Plus, they work equally well whether you are fishing from shore or drifting around in a boat trying to locate a school of hungry walleyes.

Off to the Races

When searching for pre-spawn walleyes, remember that slack water is often the key. Ideally, tailrace anglers should hope to find slack water that is moderately deep or at least in close proximity to deep water. Below Missouri River dams in South Dakota, you will typically find yourself fishing anywhere from 10 to 30 feet deep.

Because walleyes are fairly docile throughout the winter months and into the spring, these slack areas provide them with an area to escape the current, hunker down and wait to ambush prey. This doesn’t mean that you won’t find fish in the current, but a good place to start your search is these slack areas.

Most dams along the Missouri River have gated spillways which create a perfect slack area where walleye tend to stage during this time of year. These tailwaters directly below the dam usually have great shore fishing opportunities as well. Key in on a slack area and throw out a Lindy rig or creep a light jig along the bottom.

On a bluebird spring day when the fishing report is hot, it isn’t uncommon to see 20 or 30 boats stacked below a dam. If you are a person who likes a little solitude, don’t be afraid to venture downriver to find your own little honey hole. I also tend to head downriver on days when the fish right below the dam aren’t cooperating and bites are hard to come by.

These small, out of the way areas have often produced well in the past. In fact, some of the larger springtime walleyes that I have caught have come from these spots located several miles from the dam.

In these downriver scenarios, the same basic principles apply. Depending on what stretch of river you are fishing, the amount of current will vary. Some stretches of river have significant current, making finding slack water even more important. In these areas, key in on features such as backwaters, dikes, pillars, sandbars, river bends or anything else that will slow down the flow of water. These meandering stretches of river will naturally be shallower than the tailwaters immediately below the dam. In these types of places, 10 to 15 feet of water will be plenty to house outcast walleye.

No Limits

If any of this has you wanting to wet a line this spring, get out and do it. Don’t think that you need the best fishing gear money can buy. The fish don’t care what boat you’re in or what kind of electronics you have mounted in your boat. It’s all about getting out there and having fun.

Don’t be intimidated by the $50,000 boats at the landing. You can be just as effective with a 16-foot aluminum boat that didn’t break the bank. With an electric trolling motor and simple electronic fish locator, you are as well equipped as you ever need to be.

No boat? No problem. Heck, the state-record walleye was caught from shore below Fort Randall Dam.

The water temperature, spawning phase and changing of the seasons all play a factor in what tackle to use and how aggressive your presentation should be. Put some of these techniques to use this spring, and hopefully you’ll be happy with the results.

In closing, remember these pre-spawn fish are only days away from laying their eggs and repopulating our public waters, so always let those fat females go to swim another day.

About the Author: Dylan Tramp is an avid angler, public-land bowhunter and freelance writer from Rapid City, S.D.

Line type and jig color depend on water clarity. In stained or dirty water, use braid and bright jigs. In clear water, it’s wise to use a fluorocarbon leader and jigs with more natural colors. Photo by Dylan Tramp
If the bite is on and you don’t feel like playing bumper boats beneath the dam, head downstream to find your own honey hole. In these areas, key in on backwaters, dikes, pillars, sandbars, river bends or anything else that will slow down the flow of water. Photo by Dylan Tramp