How to Fish for Walleye In a River: Learn from a Pro

October 14, 2021

Walleye can typically be found in large numbers in the rivers of regions they inhabit. Rivers can be challenging for many anglers due to being affected easily by weather conditions like heavy rainfall or the lack of it. In this post, we will look at some strategies and tips you can employ on the river while in search of walleye. 

 Potential Seasonal Walleye Locations 

 Walleye can be found in many areas of a river depending on water level, weather conditions, and season. 

You can find walleye congregating around holes throughout much of the year. The depth of a hole is relative to the average depth of the particular river you are fishing.

For example, the small river I fish in has an average depth of around 4 feet, so a good hole could be anywhere from 8 to 12 feet deep. Many outside corners and bends in a river will feature a hole, and while some of these are great fishing spots, many will have high amounts of current flowing into the outside corner, and in high water situations, this could be tough to fish, find the corners that consistently hold fish and work them hard. 

In the spring months, particularly when the spawning migration is underway, you can find walleye pretty much anywhere in a river. Due to the sheer volume of fish moving upstream, the main river stretches, flats, corners, and holes will all have fish moving through it. 

Fishing rivers in summer can be a challenge depending on the river, and in many cases, the fish will be spread out and not congregated in a single area. Good places to search for them are dams, water discharges like culverts and creeks, and, if you are fishing at night, shallow flats. 

How to Fish for Walleye In a River: Rivers Change 

caught walleye

The topography and makeup of bodies of water like lakes change very little, and flats, drop-offs, and sandbars are likely always going to be there from one year to the next, with the only real change being weed growth, which can fluctuate in density and depth from one year to the next due to seasonal conditions and weather which can change the water clarity and thus affect weed growth. 

Rivers a very dynamic when compared to lakes, and a high amount of flow due to heavy rain can change the layout of a river from one year to the next.

You might find a sandbar or trough in the riverbed that consistently holds fish or a log jam that is a great sanctuary to walleyes seeking a break from the current. If heavy rains and flooding occur and the current is heavy and fast, you might find these spots simply cease to exist, and the fish that would hold in those areas are now gone. 

If the weather can take away spots on a river, it can also create them, and typically when these changes occur, you will find new spots that the walleye are now frequenting.

Keeping close tabs on the makeup of a river from one year to the next will keep you in touch with the environment and thus the fish and will lead to consistent success. 

How to Fish for Walleye In a River: River Water Flow and Clarity 

The biggest impact to river fishing for any species, including walleye, is the flow and subsequent impact on water clarity. 

A large amount of rainfall and the run-off that occurs from it will cause the water to be high, fast, and dirty. These conditions can be incredibly challenging for even the most seasoned walleye angler. 

Walleye tend to spread out far and wide, venturing into areas that aren’t accessible during normal water levels, and the fish can have a tendency to feed less in the cloudy water conditions that can look like chocolate milk.

Sandbars that are out of water most of the year are now underwater, and trees on the banks may be a foot or more under the surface. 

If you are fishing in these tough conditions, the sandbars that are now submerged could be a good place to start, as are other areas that are inaccessible to fish but provide a good sanctuary. 

When water levels start to drop, and water clarity starts to increase in the days that follow, you will see a change in fish activity, with walleye tending to feed heavily due to not feeding much in the near-zero visibility of the river in the days or week prior. This is a great time to get out and fish. 

Overall, normal water levels with slightly stained water clarity are preferred for river fishing walleye and are typically when feeding patterns and locations can be found.

As with any fish, stable weather is key to establishing a pattern, and the time before or after changes such as weather fronts, barometric pressure, and temperature are signs that there could be an increase in feeding activity. 

Lures for River Fishing Walleye 

walleye with lure

The lures you would fish in a lake will work just as well in rivers with maybe a few exceptions. 

While you can troll rivers, it can be difficult on smaller ones, and crawler harnesses might not be the best option. 

When casting rivers you have to take into account the current, but for most lures, this isn’t an issue, and like fishing for walleye in lakes and other bodies of water, it’s hard to beat a jig presentation with live bait or soft plastics. 

Speaking of live bait presentations, when the fishing gets tough on a river soaking minnows in an area where fish hold to get out of the current can be a great tactic, with places like eddies where the water swirls and creates pools being great places for slip bobber fishing or other live bait fishing methods. 

Using crankbaits can be great in almost any spot on a river, and if you are fishing flats and timber-filled banks, a crankbait can be deadly, just be careful not to lose too many due to snags. 

Here’s an outside-the-box tactic that not many anglers do that I have had success with. Flats with large amounts of “grass” weeds that grow very dense in shallow rivers, and in most cases in water that is only 2-3 feet deep will hold walleye.

And I have encountered a spinnerbait pattern for walleye on multiple occasions in these areas, casting small spinnerbaits typically reserved for bass through the dense grass and catching walleyes in late spring and mid-summer periods. 

Casting Techniques

A good tactic to use when casting in rivers is to cast upstream and work the lure back downstream to you. This isn’t necessarily always the best option, and there is nothing wrong with casting across the current, particularly when fishing the bank or a piece of structure, but for mid-river structure, this can be key. 

Fish in rivers have the bodies facing the current with their heads pointing upstream, the obvious method for fish to use with swimming or holding a position in the current.

When casting upstream, you are bringing the lures directly towards their eyes and the fish will be able to see the lure coming at or near them and potentially trigger a strike. 

Casting downstream means that your lures will be coming up behind the fish before passing it and will only give the walleye a brief amount of time to react, or they might not react at all. 

Small Vessel and Shore Fishing Opportunities 

Rivers are great for shore fishing, and for those of us that don’t have a boat to fish from, you can still be very successful and consistent fishing from shore. 

Places like culverts that empty into holes, bridges, river bends, and in particular, dams, are all great locations that can be fished from shore, and man-made structures like dams and bridges almost certainly hold fish throughout large portions of the year. 

Rivers are also very accessible with typically a large number of public access points such as boat landings, but even with the absence of boat landings, you can still access these waterways legally at bridges, making it great for angling with a kayak, canoe, or even a small flat bottom boat and engine with you can mount once you drag the boat to the bank.  

Kayak and Canoe fishing 

walleye canoe fishing

A good tactic to use when fishing from kayaks and canoes, especially if you are using paddles or a trolling motor, is to go upstream from where you launched. 

Fishing all day and using a paddle can wear you out, and if you are miles downstream at the end of the day, the last thing you are going to want to do is paddle against the current back to your vehicle. 

The same is true if you are using a trolling motor. If you are far downstream and have been fishing all day, you might not have the battery power to go against the current for long distances back to your vehicle. 

Traveling upstream means that if you have an issue or just want to take your time, you can let the current do all the work for you to get back to the launch and use your trolling motor or anchor to hold you in place on key fish-holding areas. 

Final Thoughts 

Once you dial in the art of fishing for walleye in a river, you might find that it is more productive for you than lake fishing. Rivers can pose a challenge to even the most seasoned angler, but some anglers have an easier time dissecting a river than a lake, and in many instances, the walleyes are crowded together on key spots, making it ripe for epic fishing trips. 

Happy Hunting!

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