Catch More Tailwater Walleye

In late February of last year, I made a pledge to get smarter about catching walleye. I’d spent far too much time being net man for my fishing buddy Bob, wondering what he was doing that I wasn’t. It had nothing to do with my gear and our technique was similar. Yet time after time, he out-fished me. Was it his midwestern heritage? His so-called secret bait scent? After all, he grew up in Minnesota thinking about yellow perch and walleye while I spent my formative years chasing trout in northeastern Oregon. One thing for sure, I needed to spend more time on big water.

I swept my busy retiree plate clean, charged my trolling batteries and spent the following spring and summer on the Snake and Columbia Rivers. I visited locations where I had seen walleye caught and I captured bottom images with an underwater camera. I analyzed aerial photos and bathymetric maps to identify potential habitat. I trolled upstream and downstream with worm harnesses. I jigged with soft baits and I blade-baited. I fished morning, noon and evening and over a wide range of flow conditions. Practice did not make me perfect but it did make me smarter about technique and where walleye live.

Hanford Reach: 40 Miles of Tailwater

            In the Hanford Reach, walleye can be found the main river channel off the mouth of backwater sloughs and in deep swirl holes, such as those adjacent to the basalt cliffs downstream of Priest Rapids Dam. They reside downstream of gravel bar islands and shoreline points that provide shelter from strong current. Midchannel refuge habitat for walleye includes the 100-D pool at the upper end of White Bluffs, the deep hole near the White Bluffs boat launch and the off-channel trough upstream of the wooden powerlines at the Hanford townsite.

A special challenge for the Hanford Reach and other tailwater fisheries is regulated flows that often change markedly over the course of a day. Under certain discharge scenarios, water surface elevation might change as much as six vertical feet over a 24-hour period. One key is to success is having several locations on your dance card. What rarely works is staying in the same place waiting for walleye to swim your direction when flows are not in your favor.

What makes the Hanford Reach unique is diversity of habitat. Its expansive waters provide a wide range of depths, velocities and bottom types, thus serving as a model of where to find walleye in other locations where high velocities are in play.

Dam Tailwaters

Upper Rufus Wood reservoir, a scaled-down version the Hanford Reach, supports a sizable walleye population. Although not considered tailwater regions, two popular areas include Buckley and Nespelum Bar, and for similar reasons. Both stretches of river have gravel bars providing shallow water habitat for prey fishes, in addition to soft bottom and deep-water refuge regions for walleye. Walleye distribution is not limited to these locations, however. Side pools between the Seton Grove boat ramp and Rufus Woods net pens also hold springtime walleye.

Moving further downstream to Wanapum Dam, you might jig or work blade baits in the “toilet bowl” that sockeye salmon anglers favor near the east shore boat launch, back channels upstream of the railroad bridge and soft bottom areas near the Crab Creek confluence. Common features for these locations include an abundant prey base.

Last year brought great success to walleye anglers in the McNary Dam tailrace. These fish were generally small in size, ranging from 12 to 17 inches, but plentiful enough to divert angler attention from spring Chinook salmon. 2017 was also a year of above average runoff. High flow and strong currents pushed walleye close enough to shore to make them susceptible to jigs and soft baits tossed by bank anglers on both sides of the river upstream of the I-82 Bridge.

In early September of last year, double-digit catches were observed for local anglers who fished deep eddies downstream of John Day Dam and “soft pockets” near midstream islands. Although high winds and variable currents can challenge boat control here, additional weight helps keep your lure in position.

Walleye Live Where They Eat

Over the past three decades or so, walleye have moved into the niche vacated by native northern pike minnow, whose numbers have declined dramatically in the Columbia River system as a result of the sport reward, a.k.a. bounty, program. Favorite prey species of walleye include three-spined stickleback, sandroller and yellow perch. Obviously, spines do not deter the crunch of hard-mouth walleye. Juvenile lamprey and sculpin are another favorite food. Does walleye diet tell us something about what kind of habitat they prefer? You bet it does. Each of these prey fishes are soft bottom dwellers that favor low velocities.

Low velocity habitat is not limited to backwater and nearshore areas, however. Because velocities are generally about 40% lower at the bottom of the river than the surface, fine sediments are readily deposited in deep pools. Drop your underwater camera down and look for sand-gravel pockets adjacent to where cobble has been scoured clean by current. The odds are good a walleye or two will be in the vicinity.

There’s considerable debate whether piscivorous (fancy word for fish-eating) predators prefer live versus moribund (fancy word for comatose or dead) prey, but one thing is clear: injured fish attract predators whether due to erratic motion or emission of scent. Knowing this, what better place for a walleye to live than downstream of a hydroelectric project where turbines chew up and spit out a fair number of fish (including juvenile salmon, sucker, minnow and shad)? The same deep pockets and divergent currents that deliver food to walleye make it difficult to control boat speed and position, however. Be prepared to lose gear in uneven rocky bottom.

Tailrace Tactics

Mid-Columbia guide Bruce Hewitt ( trolls big lip plugs, such as the Rapala Husky Jerk or Hot Lips in an upstream direction when he targets dam tailraces, using a reel counter to ensure 75 feet or more of line is out. “Select plugs capable of diving to 20 feet or more,” he advises. Hewitt sometimes swaps out a worm harness for a shallow-running plug off 6 feet of leader, using a 3 to 4 ounce bottom walker to keep line angle at 45 degrees or steeper.

Walleye don’t like strong current and will move to edge habitat when dam discharge increases. As guide Jeff Knotts ( professes, “at really high water you have to get out of the current.”

Both guides agree that it’s best to use braided line when jigging and that you strive for a vertical presentation to keep your jig near the bottom at all times. Dragging a jig head slowly along the bottom also attracts walleye partly because it helps dislodge insect larvae, including bloodworms, one of their favorite foods. Hewitt recommends a fast action rod that will telegraph changes in bottom structure and allow you to detect the subtle bite of a feeding walleye.

I’ve found it easier to control my boat speed and direction by working target areas from the slow side of a current edge. Knotts switches to a shorter stiffer rod and a 20-pound test fluorocarbon leader when he works deep eddies and uneven bottom with blade baits. He also favors 5/8-ounce “Spectrum lure” jigs, usually tipped with a crawler, to get his offering down to the strike zone.

Most anglers target walleye in deeper water. However, walleye often move to the shallows under conditions of low light. So don’t be afraid to change it up now and then. As for me, my New Years resolution is to be less of a net man and more of a walleye angler when I fish with Bob this year.