Wood-hugging Walleyes

Tips for fishing the wood

7th September 2000.
By Spencer Petros

A hard spring rain had quickly pushed the river beyond its natural level. If I knew the conditions were going to be near flood stage, my assault on the mighty Mississippi’s walleye population would have been delayed at least a few days. But there I was, trying to make the best of a tough situation. Currents raged through my favorite spots, making boat control and lure presentation tough. Plus I had a feeling the fish weren’t there. Local anglers were having the same luck I was having … not very good.

Sometimes you’re just forced to punt. And after nearly a full day of frustration, I was ready to call it quits. One thing I learned during a lifetime of river fishing is “go with the flow,” or simply fish for the species you think is most susceptible to being caught under the existing conditions. In this instance, the 50 plus degrees of water temperature, and an abundance of flooded brush and wood, spelled out pre-spawn crappies to me.

Several areas came to mind. Willow-lined banks cupped around an off-current eddy seemed like a logical start. I started flipping my lightweight jig and minnow combo into 3- to 4-foot-deep slots in the brush and a light tap was felt. A quick hook-set, a brief tussle, then the head of a two-pound walleye popped through the dark water. My mind was racing a mile a minute as the fish was being landed. Within five minutes several more walleyes were boated, and for me, an era of walleyes in the wood had begun. Since that time over 25 years ago, I’ve caught thousands of walleyes out of flooded brush, fallen trees, and stumps. My catch rate per hour is higher fishing the wood than working any other type of cover. Here’s how N.A.F. anglers can also cash in on this walleye bonanza.

Rivers

During periods of higher water levels, wood is a natural holding place for river walleyes. It gives them shelter, breaks the flow of the current, and provides feeding opportunities as migrating baitfish also duck into this current-deflecting cover.

Willow bushes generally grow at the river’s edge along sand-based shorelines. When they line an eddy (area of softer, swirling currents) and have at least 3 to 4 feet of water in them, they draw walleyes big time, especially in spring.

The best possible scenario I can describe for a great “willow situation,” is a flooded willow-lined eddy just off the main current that’s adjacent to a structure such as a wingdam, rocky point, or shallow shoal. As I said previously, the cover should be in at least 3 to 4 feet of water.

During periods of higher water levels, brush- or tree-lined main river banks become inundated with water. A major key to walleye-catching success, once you find wood that had enough depth and is close to deeper water, is to work the cover that doesn’t receive the full force of the current. Let’s say a strong current is pounding a bush-lined bank where the river bends. The key spot, if all cover and depths remain fairly consistent, is where the current begins to pull away from the shore. At this point the flow will lesson, with some type of a backwash often existing. If walleyes are to be found along this cover-lined outside bend, this is where it should happen.

Feeder creeks and streams pouring into the main river often hold a multitude of wood-fishing options. When higher water conditions occur during the spring run, which is the rule rather than the exception, schools of walleyes may slide into a small feeder that may only be 20 to 30 feet wide. These waters offer a resting place with less current.

Brush or trees near the feeder mouth are the first places to try. I generally work upstream to the first hole. If I don’t make contact with fish by then, I’m gone. The ideal hole would, and usually does, occur at the first sharp bend in the feeder. Flooded wood adjacent to the deepest water in the hole would be ideal.

Due to the power of water in a major river, you won’t find many fallen trees or logs laying adjacent to the main flow. More firmly entrenched willows and other bushes can handle the current’s rage, and they generally are the hot spots for wood-hugging walleyes.

In streams, log jams along the bends in the river, at the mouth of a creek, or adjacent to a deep hole can be a key type cover for walleyes through most of the year. These waters lack the depth and power of the big rivers, and may stack cover against an eroded root system or shoreline-connected fallen tree where walleyes will congregate.

High waters easily spill over flat areas that are adjacent to the river, sometimes extending several hundred yards from the original bank. Some of these flats are sand-based and have numerous, shallow potholes that serve mostly as mosquito breeding grounds during the warmer months. But these slight depressions of only 1 to 3 feet are, at least partially, lined with bushes. And when the river spews water over these flats, I think you can guess where the walleyes will congregate.

After the waters recede in a larger river, much of the prime shoreline brush doesn’t hold enough water to harbor fish. But there are two situations I know of that need to be checked at this time. Babe Winkelman clued me into a study done several years ago in Iowa, where big female walleyes had transmitters put in them. After the spawn these big fish would go into shallow, stump-laden flats off the Mississippi River where they would hold for several weeks. The could be caught next to these stumps, but only with a finesse presentation dangled right in front of their noses. This explains why big walleyes often seem to disappear for a few weeks in May, with the action on bigger fish in the main river not really starting until early June.

The other wood pattern would be in secondary current areas such as side channels are off the main river. Fallen trees and log jams in these channels will often be in deep enough water to attract walleyes, even under normal water levels. They may hold fish much of the year.

Lakes

Fishing for wood-hugging walleyes in lakes can be terrific, especially in waters where the weeds have yet to mature, or if a lake has a minimal amount of vegetation.

A great bite that can last throughout most of May and well into June is walleyes in the channels. I learned this one from my good friend Joe Bucher. The first day it was tried, my partner and I caught and released over 75 walleyes. Needless to say, I was hooked on this pattern.

There are hundreds of “chains of lakes” that are connected by some type of channel or extended necked down area. After the spawn, these sheltered areas warm up quickly, often having water temperatures at least 3 to 5 degrees warmer than the main lake. Fallen trees in these channels are almost always a sure bet to attract walleyes, as long as they extend deep enough (3 to 4 feet minimum), and have adequate cover.

Trees on one side of a channel are often better than those on the other side, even though there may be little difference in overall depths. Wood located on a slower tapering bank usually won’t be as productive as trees across the channel that have a slight lip or breakline near their outstretched limbs. Walleyes tend to move along these lips, even if these edges only drop a foot or two.

Fallen trees near the spawning area can hold walleyes just prior, during and immediately after the spawn. Expect 1- to 2 1/2-pound smaller male fish to be caught in trees that have a relationship to a little deeper water. Shoreline-connected fallen trees that are on slow-tapering flats will see little use by walleyes.

A spring-summer sleeper for walleyes is a beaver hut. Some are constructed on faster breaking shorelines and may attract walleyes from the post-spawn period through summer. Fish often hold tight to the wood when it borders deeper water. Some huts are constructed in soft, fertile bays with slow tapering bottoms. While these huts may not appear to be good holding areas, they could be hot spots when hatching insects from the soft bottom bay are making up much of the walleye’s diet. When working huts on slow tapers, expect to find walleyes out from the main dwelling. Look for scattered wood along the bottom in adjacent, deeper water, and a deeper, secondary wooded entrance where the beavers enter the hut.

The algae-covered sticks and branches around a hut soak up the warm spring sun, plus hundreds of minnows may be holding around every hut for protection and to feed on the moss-covered branches. Stump flats are another type of wood condition that attracts walleyes. Stumpy areas in soft-bottom bays may harbor walleyes that are feeding on hatching insects. But during summer main lake stump flats can also be productive. The keys to productivity is their closeness to deeper water, and the depth of water above them. If a flat only has 4 to 7 feet of water over it, and it’s on a slow taper into deeper water, the best action will usually occur very early or late in the day or at night. If the flat is deeper and the drop near the edge is pretty abrupt, this could be a summer hot spot.

On many lakes, anglers tend to fish deeper and deeper as the seasons progress. While this often works, sometimes it’s not the answer to catching larger walleyes. It’s common to make contact with walleyes throughout most of July in deeper water than they were in June, but watch out when the big ones seem to “disappear” in late July and August. Small walleyes on the deeper edges do not mean the larger fish are deeper. During the hear of summer the biggest fish may be on the deep stumps, while the “cigars” are on the classic, deep water edges. This big fish shallower/smaller fish deeper, summer scenario often occurs in rivers, and on lakes where the larger walleyes move into the weed beds.

On fairly sterile sand and rock-based lakes lacking a lot of outstanding structure, we’ve encountered numbers of nice-size walleyes in summer and early fall along chunk-rock shorelines that had thin, stick-like remains of birch or pine trees. I’d prefer to fish a large hardwood with limbs shooting out in various directions, or even a pine tree that still has some needles to provide cover. But walleyes make due with what’s available, and when these long, skinny, straight limbs intersect with a rock-studded bank, and hang into the deeper water, they can be productive, especially if a wind is blowing into the bank.

Although most of my wood fishing is done with jigs, this condition is tailor-made for crankbaits. The walleyes don’t seem to be hanging tight around these thin, coverless limbs, but rather cruising the area looking for a meal. A deep-diving, thin profile crankbait on 8-10 pound test is ideal.

This one is a no-brainer — a multi-limbed hardwood tree (two together is even better) extending sharply into the water, a good indication deeper water is nearby. The vast majority of the walleyes in the lake may be using other structure, or cover, and there may only be a few good-looking trees available, yet they can be “automatics” for a few walleyes just about every time they are fished. Heavily-limbed trees that are situated near prime deep water haunts can be successfully visited a number of times each day. I’ve had several occasions where a couple of fallen trees in the lake were the only spots that produced any walleyes. A visit to a tree every few hours, a fish or two per trip, and by the end of the day a decent catch was accumulated.

Wood can play an important role in finding walleyes in rivers and lakes. And the great news is that you often have this fishing all to yourself!


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