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How to Fish for Columbia River Walleye: Crankbaits! When, Where, Why and How to take your Walleye game to the next level. Part 1: Winter – Early Spring

Welcome to our second installation in our how to fish for Columbia and Snake River walleye series. Our first article titled “How to Fish for Columbia River Walleye: The Easy Way” was a detailed introduction to what we consider the easiest, and most basic way for the beginning Walleye angler to get into fish. All that information is still valid and the things we discussed there are still very much part of what we do. This part and the following articles are meant to add more tools to your walleye fishing toolkit and give you an added advantage over the other anglers around you. The following is Part 1 on how we approach fishing crankbaits for Columbia River Walleye. This is the hard earned knowledge we have gained from running a full time guide business, and you will often find us utilizing these techniques to put fish in our boats even when the bite gets tough.

When talking about fishing crankbaits on the Columbia River for walleye the four seasons of the year dictate when, where, and what style of baits we fish. Our approach in the winter will be very different from July and the baits we use will vary as well. The following is part one of a four part series breaking down how we fish crankbaits throughout the year. Welcome to the insanity inside our brains.

Part 1: Winter – Early Spring

This period of the year is often referred to as the pre spawn. During this time of the year large female fish will be traveling to, and staging in, areas adjacent to where they will spawn later in the year. Walleye on the Columbia River spawn in the spring of the year when the water is between 42 and 48 degrees. Spawning often occurs in April and is done in areas of current over rocks. Walleye are broadcast spawners and spawning most often takes place at night in shallow water. During the pre spawn the smaller males will stage near the large females, but won’t necessarily be with the large female fish. Fishing for the smaller “eater” size fish takes a different approach than fishing for large “trophy” fish, as they are often in different locations. The one constant during the winter is cold water. When the water temps are in the low to mid 30’s the overall objective is to go SLOW.

During the cold pre spawn period you will generally find “eater” size fish grouped up in areas of deep water. January – early March we often find these fish in 70+ feet of water. It is possible to fish stickbaits, such as the Rapala F11, on three way rigs, but there are other more effective methods for fishing these cold water walleye in deep water. January, February, and March are arguably the absolute best months of the year for a chance at catching a true Columbia River giant, and this is where we focus our energy in the early season.

Large pre spawn walleye (mostly females) will be found much shallower than their smaller male counterparts. The large fish are still actively feeding on whatever food sources are available to them as they try and pack on as many calories as possible to support the growth of their eggs. The predominant food sources during this time of year are the young of the year minnows from the previous year, including suckers, juvenile shad, juvenile Pacific Lamprey, and the ever present sculpins that inhabit the rocky areas of the Snake and Columbia Rivers. These minnows have had an entire summer and fall to grow, and by January – March most of them are 3-5 inches in length. During winter and early spring we find large mature females in less than 20 feet of water. During daylight hours most of these fish will be in the 12-20 foot range, and at night they often move very shallow to feed. Our preferred method to target these fish is to SLOWLY troll with our bow pointed upstream against the current. The goal here is to troll upstream at less than 1 mph, and oftentimes as slow as .6-.8. Remember that on the Columbia we are fishing in areas with current and if your speed on your GPS says anything less than .5 mph there is a good chance you are actually drifting back with the current. The goal here is to present our crankbaits as slowly as possible while still being able to cover some ground in search of fish. In this situation we favor long bodied deep diving walleye plugs such as the Bandit Walleye Deep, Bay Rat LXD, #11 Berkley Flicker Minnows, as well as #10/#12 Rapala Deep Husky Jerks. Not only are these plugs an almost exact size match to most of the available forage present, but they are also all capable of diving to our targeted depths when flatline trolled. Our standard procedure is to troll these plugs with long setbacks with 30# power pro braid to get them to run just above the bottom. Resources such as the Precision Trolling APP which can be downloaded on your IPhone or Android device really help in knowing approximately how many feet of line to run using a line counter reel. Remember that when targeting trophy walleye it’s not a numbers game, but at any time a rod goes down during the winter / early spring it has the chance to be a giant. Walleye in the 12-16 pound class are common on the Columbia, and fish over 18 pounds are caught ever year.

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