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 The Mighty Mississippi - The Jewel of the Midwest for Walleye

By Ted Takasaki and Scott Richardson

Here's great news for walleye anglers from St. Paul to St. Louis - the Mississippi River is home to more walleyes and sauger now than ever. ``It's excellent, it's just flat excellent,'' said Dan Sallee, head of the Mississippi River Project for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.  ``The river is looking darn good.'',  Sallee's counterpart in Wisconsin, Ron Benjamin agrees. ``The river has improved dramatically,'' he added.  Some of the credit must go to high-water years following the Great  Drought of the late 1980s. Walleye and sauger found suitable spawning areas plus plenty of hiding places for young-of-the-year fish as the waters rose. At the same time, some Northwoods walleye and sauger rode the crest far southward where they are setting up permanent shop. ``There are huge numbers of young walleye as far as St. Louis,'' Sallee said.  Benjamin is satisfied that more than enough walleyes and sauger remain in the upper reaches of Ole Miss so the migrants will not be missed. ``Everybody is a winner,'' Sallee said. The upswing may also be due, in part, to the fact state conservation authorities are giving Mississsippi management greater emphasis. For example, the Fish Illinois Initiative made the "Big Muddy" the sole responsibility of Sallee, who previously oversaw the Missisippi along with other river fisheries in the state.  In addition, Wisconsin established a 15-inch length limit on Mississippi walleyes in 1989 to stop premature harvest.  The result?  Biologists from Minnesota to Illinois predict 1997 will be a banner year for walleye, if Mother Nature cooperates. Floods are always the unpredictable X factor.
More good news is that an ever-increasing percentage of the river's  perch population is comprised of the larger walleyes rather than smaller sauger.  This is due, primarily, to improving water clarity and aggressive stocking programs like Commonwealth Edison's intense effort in pool 14. The power company is adding 140,000 to 500,000  two-inch, marked walleye fingerlings each year. Branded so they can be identified later, the stocked fish are being found both upriver and down. Walleyes accounted for 15 percent of the Mississippi River's perch in the Illinois section during the early 1980s.  They now account for twice that.  Reports of 10 pounders have been frequent. Sallee's heard of fantastic winter catches in dam tailwaters, where one angler reported boating a limit of 10 walleyes and sauger within 70 minutes. Tales of catches of 50 or more fish per day per angler were often told. Sallee, himself, had no problem shocking 25 walleyes over 3 pounds to the surface, including three 9 pounders.  This was for implanting radios for a tracking study.  One of the big ones was recaught on hook and line within 10 days. It's reports like those which led In-Fisherman's Professional Walleye Trail to choose Dubuque, Iowa, for the1997 Stren Pro-Am season opener May 8-10, said PWT Executive Director Jim Kalkofen. Though other events have been held on systems which featured rivers, Kalkofen noted the Mississippi tournament was the first-ever PWT event to be held on a ``river-only'' fishery.  PWT contestants fished on the 56 miles between the Iowa towns of Guttenberg and Bellevue, Iowa. ``According to the biologists, the fishery is way up on the upside of  the curve right now. The year classes and sizes are good for both walleye and sauger,'' Kalkofen said. The Dubuque pool should see spawning take place in mid-April, but
Sallee and Benjamin warn river walleyes are far from predictable. Timing and spawning locations varies with conditions from year to year. As Benjamin said; ``You can read all the books on walleyes you want to, but walleyes don't read books.''   Walleye tend to wait until two factors are right - high water and temperatures from 45 to 50 degrees.  The fish will often spawn on hard-bottom river bends in mid-pool regions, with rock 10- to 12 inches in diameter mixed in. During floods, walleyes will easily utilize flooded marshes such as the walleyes in the Lake Winnebago/Fox River system in Wisconsin. Last year, radio tracking revealed that when the water level  remained down, the fish in the study finally moved to spawning areas on April 22 after the temperature rose well above 50 degrees. Sallee said scientists were surprised to find them laying their eggs in 20 feet of water on the border of the main channel on rock rubble within a mile of the dam. That's far closer than previously thought. It's unknown, however, if that's a normal location or the one picked during an unusual year. Perhaps no one knows the Mississippi's quirks from season to season like Jimmy Oberfoell of Jimmy O's Bait Shop in Dubuque, IA. He has guided in that area for a quarter century.  Walleyes and sauger tend to mass at the base of the main lock and dams during the winter, where anglers can take their share when the ramps are free of ice.  Lower stretches of river can also hold fish in the deeper holes at the same time. The ice will break up in March, but water temperature can move up and down for a time with the introduction of snowmelt runoff from upriver. Conditions are usually right for spawning by April 15. Look to the downriver sections of the major outside river bends, preferably with rocky, hard bottoms. ``But, I've seen them spawn on mud and even in flooded trees,'' Oberfoell added. During the post-spawn conditions like the PWT pros will face in May, Oberfoell expects that fish will be found resting in areas of slower current, but near sources of easy meals. Pay close notice to mud flats on the back side of wingdams and the downriver sections of inside bends.  Use a fast-tipped spinning rod, such as Pinnacle Rods and Reels Ti66SPMH or Ti62SPM, with 8-pound test Stren Fishing Line Magnathin.  Watch your line carefully for light biters. Fish shallow water and use the lightest jigs that the current will allow.  The best weight is the one that will let your jig float to the bottom, not drop like concrete, for a more realistic look.  "Do it the natural way. You will catch more fish.'', Oberfoell comments.  Jig sizes will normally range from 1/16th-to 1/4 ounce.  Toss your jig at the shoreline and reel the bait back to the boat as you slowly slip past likely spots, such as rocks breaking up the current.  Anchor once fish are found to give greater control to your jig and to avoid spooking fish. Another tip, watch for birds on the shoreline. They will indicate the location of bait fish and the walleyes will not be far away.When Oberfoell uses live bait, he chooses river shiners, not the more-common fatheads in order to match the primary river forage. He also has had good success with Lindy Little Joe Fishing Tackle systems Fuzz-E-Grub jigs.  He'll often use scent when he fishes with curly tails and will sometimes use just the curly tail body and live bait. Another choice - cast #5 or #7 Rapala the lures of choice.  Water is stained, so color is usually unimportant at this time of

year. Remember, fish scatter in high water to escape fast current. Search backwaters and even the marina coves. The majority of fish caught will be in the 2- to 5-pound range, but hold tight, there's an occasional 10-pounder mixed in. Jimmy Oberfoell can be reached at 319-552-1424. He guarantees fish or you don't pay!  That's how good the Ol' Mississippi can be!

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