Whether you are going fishing for the first time this year or getting prepped for a tournament, having a game plan is a major factor in the success of your outing.
As we transition into spring, many of us hit the tailraces below the dams along the Missouri River to get our open water fix while we are patiently awaiting the upper portions of the lakes to open up. Sometimes this early season fishing can be fast and furious while at other times can keep you wondering what you are doing out there. Many walleye anglers anticipate this early season ritual as time to dust off the ol' gear and try out the new in pursuit of Mr. Marble-Eyes himself. Unfortunately, many anglers show up to these areas without a game plan and spend much of their first trip of the year working out the kinks that could've been taken care of back home in the comforts of their garage.
Preparation starts long before I hit the water as it does for many professional anglers. Typical early season preparation for fishing the tailraces along the Missouri river includes checking river flows and ensuring the discharge rate is manageable with a boat at that particular location. This usually is not a problem early in the season but it can change overnight, so always check before heading out. You always want to ensure there is an open boat ramp, many times the docks may not be in place yet but the ramps are free from ice and usable. Just because you may have heard of other boats being out does not necessarily mean you can launch your 20-foot fiberglass beauty. Many of the locals venture out in their smaller aluminum boats that may be launched from non-typical locations enabling them to get out earlier than others and into spots larger boats cannot due to ice buildup. A quick call to the local bait shop should be able to answer these questions as well as if the bite has turned on.
Do your research, especially if you are heading to a new location. Review the area's forage base, size regulations and water temps for the time of year and with the internet you should be able to find several historical reports that may help you determine which method of fishing you should perform and where.
Your boat and fishing gear should be in great condition considering you had all winter to get them ready for this moment. However, if that is not the case, the day you finally get out on the water is not the time to do it. The last thing you want to do is be stuck at the dock with a boat that won't start due to dead battery or bad/old fuel or trailer issues, holding everyone else up trying to launch their boat. Make sure your boat and trolling batteries are fully charged, you have good clean fuel and all your trailer bearings have been serviced.
Perhaps you have done your research and the boat and gear are ready to roll. I prefer to have my rods already rigged up for the type of fishing I plan on doing so when I arrive I can go straight to the water. Early spring is typically a standard jig and minnow bite so that's pretty simple but I will always have my trolling rods ready and some three-way rigs tied up as well. Much of your presentation may depend on the crowd and the current flow. With your research, you should be able to determine many of the factors you will face upon arrival however the amount of other anglers present changes daily.
During the early season, the bite can be a very light the majority of the time. Current flows will dictate the size of jig I can use, as will the speed I want to present it. I will typically find myself using a ½-5/8-ounce standup jig with a Matzuo Sickle hook (long shank) allowing me to move downstream vertically and as slow as possible while maintaining contact with the bottom regularly. A jig with a long shank for vertical jigging allows me to add a grub or slip on a 4-inch+ gulp minnow and still have enough room to hook a live minnow or chub. The longer shank gives the fish more time to hit it on the fall and the bait can move around a little more freely than on a short shank. A stinger hook can make or break your day at this time of year with this presentation, so if you find yourself missing bites add a stinger hook to your bait and that should help pick up those light biters.
Your rod is the most crucial part of your arsenal when doing any type of jigging, whether it is vertical or pitching. For vertical jigging, I prefer a St. Croix, Eyecon 6' or 6'6 Medium light with a fast action tip. A shorter rod will let you feel the bite sooner enabling a quicker hook set and better control of your line that is straight below the boat. You can usually count on clear water early in the spring, especially in the river, so adding a floral carbon leader to your Berkley fire line or Nanofill is paramount. The braided line is something I will always use while jigging as I can feel every little nip and bump that my jig comes across. There is a time for monofilament, for sure, especially when the walleye are being finicky but I like to overcome that issue of the fish feeling the resistance by using a good rod with a soft tip to allow a little give.
Don't be afraid to use large baits this time of year as any of the bait fish that made it through the winter are now fairly large with very few small bait fish left in the system. If your pulling crank baits on lead core or using three way rigs don't hesitate to go big and show the walleye a #12 or larger Husky Jerk, #13 Floating Rapala or #9 Berkley Flicker Shad. Stick baits can be the game changer on some days and a three-way rig is a great way to get them down near bottom.
You may find yourself catching good numbers of fish, as the pre-spawn stage can create a feeding frenzy but these fish will usually be the smaller males that have moved upstream first. Once the larger females have arrived, then you can be in for a real treat and quite possibly hook your walleye of a lifetime. Without proper preparation, you could just as easily miss that prime fish, so take a few hours each week and get yourself prepared for success.
Be that guy that makes it look easy while others are doing what could, and should, have been done at home.