PARK FALLS, Wisc. – Ask any self-respecting walleye angler which season they like best, and spring is likely to be at the top of the list. Coming out of winter, it just feels good to pitch some jigs, hit the rivers, and spend time in the boat. But springtime walleye fishing means you’re contending with mother nature’s temperaments and variable spawning activity, which affect the quality of fishing you might earn on any given day. We tapped some of the best walleye anglers on the St. Croix pro staff to offer some timely, detailed advice on the bites they’re hitting right now, as well as what’s to come.
John Balla is a household name to tournament walleye anglers. A professional angler, educator, and fishing promoter hailing from Barrington, Illinois, he travels extensively to sniff out the best spring bites on rivers like the Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri, Detroit, Fox, and Menominee each season. Balla is consistently tasked with breaking down these waters. “I’m mainly looking for fish that push to current seams caused by spring snowmelt and rains,” he says. “If water levels are normal, I start looking at the top end and edges of wintering holes and then move upstream to hard-bottom spawning areas and dams. These are the most obvious stopping point for migrating fish,” he offers. From there, Balla uses navigational buoys in these large systems to help find large, shallow flats that hold fish as water warms into the 40’s.
To get bit, Balla loves to target walleyes by pitching, casting, or vertically jigging the current breaks and deeper channel edges. Pitching rules the day when fish are shallow and flows are low, but Balla goes vertical in faster, deeper water. “With higher water levels the current also increases, forcing an angler to increase the weight of the jigs to compensate and maintain bottom contact,” he says. “I like using heavier jigs from 3/8 oz. to 1 oz., depending on depth and current speed. Fishing vertically is usually the name of the game in such conditions,” continues Balla, who likes to rig his jigs with thin-bodied paddle tail plastics, 3-4” shad bodies, ring worms, or 3-4”split-tail minnows. “I alternate between subtle lift and holds in colder water to aggressive snaps and lifts as the water warms. Saugers seem to prefer the aggressive action of rip-jigging, while walleyes demand a bit more finesse.”
Braid is the name of the game, but Balla tends to run a leader with lower flows. “I use 10-12-lb. braided line in hi-vis yellow to help with bite detection and to maintain bottom contact. In clear water, I tie a small #10 barrel swivel and attach a 2-3’ leader of 8-10-lb. fluorocarbon before tying on the jig,” he says.
Balla says the St. Croix Eyecon Heavy Metal rod (ECS58HF) is tailor made for jigging heavy spring flows. “The ECS58HF is 5’8” long with heavy power and a fast top section. The rod is perfectly matched for heavier jigs and plastics in heavy current and deeper water. The properties of the SCII carbon blank actually make this rod perform more like an extra-fast model. The heavy power allows for heavier lures and powerful hooksets, while the fast action facilitates bite detection with enough deflection to handle big fish in heavy current on braid without losing fish. The manageable 5’8” length is ideal for vertical jigging and line management, while also helping with fast, powerful hooksets in deep water with heavier lures.”