Spring tactics on a falling river

By By Capn. Ted Peck

Fishing tactics on the dynamic Mississippi River change every day. Sometimes every hour. This time last month, water temperatures had warmed to the point where smallmouth bass were just beginning their semi-annual migration up into tributaries like the Upper Iowa River.

A monster cold front blew in, dumping eight inches of snow and fish behavior snapped into a case of chattering lockjaw. Since then, a major flood has made finding fish challenging. Gamefish like walleyes, smallmouth and saugers got out of the current – a pile of them moved inland over seven miles into the Upper Iowa River where a crankbait in “Rayburn Red” color pattern educated over 100 gamefish the first week in May.

Under major flood conditions fish seek edges. Until Mother’s Day practically the only edges were railroad tracks along both sides of the Immortal River and defined areas like banks of the Upper Iowa. More edges are beginning to poke out of the steadily falling River, making it easier to find fish. Hopefully, the river level will continue to drop back toward “normal” pool levels. Fish will go with the flow, following migration corridors with grow increasingly smaller as the Mississippi retreats within established riverbanks.

Essentially, this is the finned counterpart to whitetails traversing a well-worn doe trail. Find a “stand” by a fallen tree or big rock which fish must swim past as they meander back into the mainstream, and you can catch fish all day long.

Water temperatures are now in the mid to upper 60s. Bass are actively feeding ahead of moving to shallow spawning areas where females will drop their eggs after fanning beds in quiet waters on the bottom.

Peak of bass spawning occurs when water temps are sustained at about 70 degrees, with crappies spawning about the same time and bluegills after that – usually right around Memorial Day weekend.

Many pike and walleyes are in shallower water, too, comfortable with the water temperature. But their main drive in locating in less than 10 feet of water is the readily available source of food. Northern pike are primarily sight feeders with binocular vision scanning the water column for easy prey. Water clarity is key in finding both pike and bass most of the time in the Mississippi. Anything greater than two feet of visibility is good—usually.

A tandem spinnerbait with a little orange and chartreuse with a yellow or white plastic fliptail is often more than a pike can resist. Often they will follow this lure back to the boat, turning away at the last instant. Executing a “figure L” by turning the rod tip left or right before pulling the lure out of the water to make another cast often results in a violent strike at boatside.

When river levels are both rising and falling there are areas where visibility can be over five feet. If there is a breeze causing a ripple on the water to diffuse sunlight, gamefish will be more aggressive.

Walleyes feed most effectively under low light conditions. Right now, you might find them swimming in less than two feet of water if there is easy food present. In conditions where there is little current soft plastics like a wacky-rigged senko or Ned rig with a TRD or crawfish trailer are effective on all gamefish species.

Lipless vibrating crankbaits like the Rat-L-Trap or B-Fish-N Tackle Big Dude work well under both these conditions and where there is a degree of current. A bladed jig – commonly called a “chatterbait” may be the best May walleye-catching weapon on backwaters and running sloughs of the upper Mississippi between now and arrival of serious summer in early June.

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