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Critical Considerations For Reservoir Walleye Fishing Success

Nomads. Roamers. Travelers. Reservoir walleyes have an earned reputation for wanderlust. Somewhere must be better than here! Even when they have ample forage, they still seem to keep moving to find even better prospects. Every day is a new day when you fish for walleyes in reservoirs!

Variability in water level and flow makes reservoir environments difficult to pattern as the fish modify locations to adapt to changing water conditions. Scott Golden, founder of the groundbreaking website, Walleye Central, has been known to say, “I always fish the point with the herd of cattle on it. But last year the lake was so high all the cattle were underwater so I couldn’t see which point to fish.” Silliness aside, developing a plan to follow walleye movements as the waters flood or drain is key for consistent reservoir success. 

Reservoir water levels vary for many reasons, including irrigation drawdowns, seasonal runoff, power generation, flood control and downstream barge traffic on big systems like Missouri and Mississippi rivers or the Columbia River out West. With so many variables, how are anglers to get a handle on it? Some basic formulas apply.

Drawdowns Draw Walleyes Down

walleye catch from drawn down reservoir

This applies in two ways. First, instincts tell walleyes and other fish that dropping water levels could leave them grounded in a slough or a shoreline puddle. So, they head for deeper water. Recognize that each water body has its own degree of “deeper.” That could be two feet deeper in a small water or back bay or it could be 30 feet deeper in a big canyon reservoir or a sprawling prairie impoundment.

The second meaning to “Drawdowns Draw Walleyes Down” is to draw them down the lake. After the spring spawn, reservoir walleyes tend to drop down from spawning gravels up a lake and feeder rivers. If this coincides with a sharp drop in water level from irrigation or drought, you may find a large portion of the population dropping into the lower reaches of the reservoir, even hanging out within view of the dam on reservoirs that are 50 or even 100 miles long. 

Conversely, rising water levels tend to lure walleyes into the shallows. Flooding vegetation, waterlogged willows and waist-deep water in bottomlands all signal anglers to get shallow! 

Years ago, in an early summer walleye tourney my teammate and I found walleyes in a multi-acre flooded hayfield and cashed a nice second place check out of nearly 200 teams. By keeping our game less than 8 feet deep and in freshly flooded grass, we were able to net a great bag. 

Current Concentrates Walleyes

fishing reservoir with low water

As important as water levels are, the amount current is also of tremendous importance for finding the bulk of the population in a reservoir. And this is where reservoirs get weird! 

Depending on the river inflow AND outflow through the dam the current in a reservoir may not match the weather or season. For example, even during strong runoff or high inflow from upriver impoundments, if the dam is holding water and releasing less water out than what’s flowing in you won’t notice much current. Conversely, sometimes in excessively dry conditions the dams need to release more water for downstream barge traffic, which creates higher flow and noticeably more current in the system, at a time when you might expect less flow. 

One of my local Missouri River reservoirs is managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Every fall the Corps drops the lake level 15-20 feet to prepare for mountain runoff coming the following spring. However, sometimes downstream issues with too much water or flooding on the Gulf Coast require my local dam to delay the usual release. A few years ago, the lake actually came up a few inches in October during the usual draining season. The walleye went berserk! I caught my personal best 16.22-pounder, and so many other trophy walleyes you wouldn’t believe me if I told you the numbers. 

This October my local reservoir again came up a few inches for the first time in five years. I rigged up my Bomber 15As and Cotton Cordell Ripplin’ Red Fins and once again hit the shallows for tremendous fishing, including a 13.25-pound fatty, before single-digit temps knocked me off the water. 

In general, when the lake level comes up, the current is reduced, and fish tend to move shallower. On many lakes that can be a good thing. It may sound preposterous, but when they have too much water in New Orleans, I get better walleye fishing in Montana! Like I said, reservoirs are weird. 

Read the Currents

rising water walleye catch

Just because my October low-current bite happened doesn’t mean less current is somehow better than more current. You must take current conditions into account as you search for fish. Normally, I seek current-swept main lake points and narrows because that current tends to concentrate walleyes and forage. I usually try to find areas with more current rather than less.

Be aware that series of points and points interspersed with small bays can create interesting currents. For example, we all know that when the dam is dumping lots of water, the whole reservoir picks up current. What not everyone knows is that on big impoundments that can create massive eddies that could be a couple miles long as the current swirls downstream of a major point. 

This year I’ve been catching some dandy walleyes in a type of current I have only recently begun to study—upwelling. Here’s how the upwellings I’ve found work. During periods with significant current, some main-lake points serve to bend the current around the point and into a downstream bay. The current basically shears past the tip of the point and meanders into the bay after it flows around the point. That current then crosses the bay and runs into shore on the opposite side of the bay. That current then must disperse, with some of it going farther into the bay and petering out. Some current runs out of the bay. But, if that bay-crossing current hits a steep shoreline it UPWELLS and brings water of lower temperature from the depths. 

I had found strange temperature differences in the past without understanding why there would be a stretch of water 3-5 degrees colder than everywhere else along that shore. And it didn’t make sense to catch so many big fish in colder water—walleyes and forage typically move to the warmer zones. It was while nightfishing on a calm night that I noticed my Bomber 15A trolling passes required a couple clicks of extra “juice” from my electric troller to maintain speed. With no wind, the only reason to adjust my trolling motor settings either up or down is CURRENT. By the time any of us find the current, the walleyes have already moved in.

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