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Editor's note:
John Kolinski is the 2002 Professional Walleye Trail Angler of the Year,
last year's Illinois River RCL winner and a 13-time championship
qualifier on the PWT, RCL and Masters Walleye Circuit. His articles can
be read in numerous Midwestern outdoor publications and several web
sites. Kolinski is sponsored by Triton Boats, Mercury Motors, Lowrance
Electronics, Normark/Storm Lures, MinnKota, Lindy Legendary Tackle,
Flambeau, Tempress Rod Holders, Off-Shore Planer Boards, Berkley Trilene,
Optima Batteries and Panther Marine.

While they may seem to be discerning dieters at times to anglers, fishwill basically eat anything. Consider the largemouth bass. It is known to feast on worms, bugs, crayfish, salamanders, leeches, snakes, various fish species and even mice. Panfish eat everything from grubs and maggots to crickets andgrasshoppers. 
Muskies and northern pike often maraud marinas in the spring where ducklings become part of their menu. I even saw a photo a few years back of a northern pike that tried to eat the steel box frame of a boat trailer and impaled itself. One whiff of the things a catfish will eat is enough to clear anyone's sinuses 
Walleyes are no different. They will eat almost any fish that swims, including willow cats, as well as crawlers, leeches, lampreys, frogs, bugs, crayfish and salamanders. Sometimes, it doesn't even need to be alive. So intent are walleyes on filling their bellies that we are able to trick them into munching on everything from hair jigs and bucktail jigs to soft plastics, hard plastics, wood and even metal.  This time of year, the need to feed is the driving force in a walleye's life. While colder water temperatures and less travel reduce the amount of food a walleye needs, they hold nothing back when the dinner bell rings. 

Tommy Skarlis and John Kolinski with an Early Winter Walleye

Tommy Skarlis and John Kolinski the author with a nice
Early Winter Walley

It may be a little chilly on the water, but there are some outstanding open-water opportunities out there in early winter. While this is particularly true on river systems, it basically applies anywhere an angler can find open water. 
There are so many ways to catch these walleyes and sauger, too, that it's almost up to the angler to choose the presentation he or she prefers. 
Jigging, rigging and crankbaiting all work. The trick is matching the presentation to the structure and location that's holding the largest fish or the most active fish. 
Often, one goes with the other in December. When you find feeding fish,
you will also find big fish. Considering the things these fish will eat and their lack of regard for their figures, it's fun to try different things and different baits. You
will find that lures and baits you never considered during warmer-weather
walleye fishing can be dynamite during the final days of open-water fishing on lakes and reservoirs or the early days of winter on river systems. 
Here is a five-course meal that's sure to please a walleye's palate. Put it to use and you will also satisfy your own appetite for a meal of fresh walleye fillets. 
Good things can come in small portions, and while bigger tends to be
better as far as the main course is concerned, there are situations in
early winter when whetting a walleye's appetite is the best way to cook
up some success.  Environmental disturbances such as cold fronts and sudden changes in water levels or even clarity can push walleyes tight to structure, such
as the edges of sharp breaklines or tight against wingdams and rockpiles.

Three-way rigs with small crankbaits or small jigs are a great way to test the mood of your dinner date. Depending on state regulations, you may be able to use a Lindy Jumbo Jig for a dropper with either a Floating Rapala or a 1/16h-ounce Lindy Fuzz-E-Grub for a trailer. 
Whenever possible, I keep a rod in my hand, too. It's been my experience
that far more strikes are triggered when an angler can pull the presentation forward a few feet and slowly let it back while trolling.  Wingdams are another area where three-ways excel. Expect to find the most active fish along the face of the dam or just off the tip, although fish holding in the scour holes immediately below wingdams can also be enticed with a finesse three-way presentation. 
MinnKota Maxxum 101 bow mount trolling moto4r
Minnkota 101
When working the face of these rockpiles, the key is to use only as much
weight as it takes to tick along the tops of the rocks. Go too heavy and
you will spend more time retying rigs than fishing. Keep the rod in your hand where you can feel what's going on beneath you.  Since you will be typically working water ranging from 8 to 12 feet deep with moderate current, the quiet propulsion of an electric bow-mount trolling motor is preferable to running an outboard. It's a situation where my Optima-powered MinnKota Maxim 101 excels. 
It's hard to beat a good chowder with a pinch of appropriate seasoning.  This is where live-bait presentations come into play during those periods when the majority of the walleyes aren't actively feeding. In December, that's often during the day when they're waiting for the main course at dusk.  Set the table the same way you did for appetizers along breaklines and structure. The difference with live-bait rigs is that they can be trolled or drifted to reach fish in almost any location.  Two of the most popular three-way adaptations for slow-trolling live bait are a dropper jig tipped with a fathead minnow or a plastic grub tail and
a floating jig head or a plain bait hook on the trailing leader with a fathead. Don't rule out crawlers, either. While minnows or chubs will probably be a more productive option, there is no truth to the old school of thought that says walleyes and saugers won't eat crawlers once the water temperature dips below 50 degrees. 
Mercury Marine 4-stroke 9.9 .  Keeps me on the fish quietly and efficiently
Mercury 9.9 h.p
Before I begin a troll, I always hold the rig in the water at boatside and find the speed at which my Mercury four-stroke kicker pulls me along without making my bait spin.
Add a barrel swivel between the three-way and the bait to help with this condition. Another option is drifting Lindy rigs. 
Winter usually means low water levels, closed gates at the lock and dams and moderate current in the rivers. That means it's possible to drift downstream with bait rigs, then troll the area back upstream. Look for irregularities such as humps or bumps on the bottom and work them over in both directions.
On lakes and reservoirs, drifting live bait is always a good cold-weather presentation and is one of the best ways to get to those fish that lurk in the 30- to 40-foot depths waiting for the dinner hour to arrive. 
Fish enjoy a little fiber in their diets, too.  For early winter anglers, that means hair jigs and bucktail jigs fished vertically over deep-water structure or along breaklines, whether you are on a lake or a river.  Many times, the profile and action of a jig is all that's necessary. Leave the live bait at home.  One advantage hair jigs have over other jigs is the way they maintain a somewhat bulky profile underwater. Since winter walleyes don't eat as often, they tend to prefer baits that appear somewhat larger when they do step up to the plate. Bucktail jigs provide profile, too.  It never hurts to add a few carrots, cucumbers or tomatoes to a salad, either. In this case, that would be jigging spoons. It's hard to believe
a walleye will eat something made of metal as readily as they do, but I've seen it happen too many times to not be a believer.  One reason spooning works is the clear-water conditions that usually exist in the winter. Another reason is the dying baitfish action that occurs when the spoon is fluttering back to the bottom after a sharp upward stroke. 
It's a tool that should always be in your arsenal. I have experienced situations where walleye and sauger showed no interest in live bait, crankbaits and jigs, but could not resist the temptation to attack a jigging spoon. 
Dim the lights. It's time for the main course.  There is no question that winter walleyes feed very actively for brief periods, usually during low- light conditions in shallow water. Many winter anglers on Midwestern rivers don't even hit the water until dusk, and they are still home by 9 or 10 p.m. It's far easier to stay warm for
a few hours than an entire day, and the walleyes will usually keep you busy enough that you forget about any chill in the air.  These areas are always worth a try during daylight hours, as well, especially during dark, overcast conditions, and I like to try them in the early afternoon on sunny days when the shallow water warms up a few degrees and attracts fish that aren't satisfied to eat just one big meal a day. 
The best place to find the fish is on shallow flats adjacent to deep water, and the best way to catch them is to sneak up on them with your bow-mount and cast jigs or crankbaits up onto the flat. 
Berkley Power Minnow
Berkley Power Minnow
Think big and forget about live bait. You won't need it. A four-inch Berkley Gulp! grub tail, a Power Jerk Shad shad-bodied plastic, a four-inch Power Minnow or a Power Pulse Worm on an eighth- or quarter-ounce jig head will do the trick, as will a Shallow Shad Rap or a large stickbait such as a Floating Rapala. 
Use the bow mount to maneuver along the edges of the flat until you contact fish. Then slip an anchor over the side and have some fun!  Another main course option on river systems is willow-catting on wingdams. There are walleyes, especially large ones, that seldom leave their rocky hangouts, and with all the baitfish present in the stretches of river immediately below the dams, it takes something different to please their palates. 
Few things are as different as a willow cat, which despite their distinct scent and evil barbs, are deadly on wingdam walleyes. Anchor upstream of the dam just inside the tip. Rig the cats on a three- to four-foot leader on a floating jig head or a plain hook. Slip an egg sinker or walking sinker onto your line ahead of the leader and use a barrel swivel to connect the two. Then toss the rig out and let the current work it across the face of the dam. If you are consistently hanging up in the rocks, go to a lighter sinker. 
When the dishes have been cleared and appetites largely satisfied, it takes something subtle, yet light to cap the dining experience.  Most walleye anglers don't consider tube tails, but they are missing an opportunity that sometimes takes fish when few other things work. Fish them vertically on a jig head along current breaks, structure or dropoffs. 
If you suspect there are shallow fish in an area that just aren't biting, try casting tube tails to them on light jigs. You may be pleasantly surprised.  It's been said that the best way to a man's heart is through his stomach.
It's also the best way to will a winter walleye into your livewell. Take a five-course approach and you'll be sitting down to a delicious December dinner. It's all about table manners. 

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