---- — This has been a good winter, as far as cold and snow goes. We’ve had plenty. Even spring has been stubborn, evidenced by a mean March. It was just last weekend we were greeted with more snow. Although we were graced with ample ice fishing opportunities, I’ve had my fill of staring down a 6-inch hole.
But finally, it’s here! The long-awaited chance to begin plying vast amounts of open waters and the first fish to scratch that itch are walleyes. And the best places to find them after ice-out are the “races.”
“It’s about time!” Dave Theall said as he threw his duffel bag and rod in the back of my truck. A trip to the races has always been a sure cure for someone stricken with a severe case of “fishing fever.” No matter the ailment an angler may claim, a visit is always the perfect prescription.
What Theall was referring to is what some call “tailraces” or “tailwaters,” the area on the immediate downstream side of dams. It is these areas that fill the gap I call “limbo” the time between the end of ice fishing and the beginning of hot open water season. That small tract of time can bring you down, making you feel like you’re not living life to the fullest. By calendar days, it’s relatively short but can drag on for what seems like eternity. Once water temperatures top the 40-degree mark, the excitement begins.
“It’s a beautiful day,” Theall remarked, pulling on his neoprene waders after arriving at our chosen location on the Tippecanoe River below Oakdale Dam. I admired his positive attitude considering my truck’s thermometer still read only 39 degrees.
It felt good easing into the slow current. We were joined by several others. Some stood on shore and a few had waded out, like us, in the hopes of getting into the best position. Even though everyone staked out their own personal space, an infectious positive attitude was shared by the entire group. The cold water and fresh air stirred by a cool breeze entered our souls, beginning to heal winter’s anguish. Maybe it was the raucous flocks of sandhill cranes heading north or the eagle gracefully soaring overhead. Regardless, it felt good to be out.
Tailwaters may not be the most scenic areas, or most secluded, but can be the most productive in terms of the season’s first open water fishing opportunities.
After a dozen or so casts I soon felt the pleasant “tick” of a fish sucking in my lure. “Fish on!” I mouthed to Theall, leaning back into my arched rod. After a short battle, I eased the undersized fish from the river, removed the hook and let it slip from my hands back into the olive green water. Fish always feel bigger when taken from areas of fast current. In Indiana, walleyes must measure 14 inches or more before gracing the frying pan.
In this part of the state walleyes are the first to start their annual spawning cycle. When the water begins to rise above the freezing mark, these fish begin moving upstream in search of suitable habitat to lay their eggs, which normally means gravelly stream beds.
Knowledgeable fishermen know that tailrace fishing is key when it comes to early spring walleyes. In this part of Indiana, just about any concrete structure that holds back flowing waters is a great bet for walleyes, and with good reason. These areas below dams have highly oxygenated open water. There is also a constant supply of food being washed over, through or churned up by electrical turbines, depending on their type of construction and use.
Dams also block the natural upstream migration of river walleyes, forcing them to congregate in these areas. While not every walleye in the river system will stack up in tailrace areas, I can guarantee there will be sizeable numbers.
Another factor to fishing tailwater areas is water flow. In high water conditions, walleyes will congregate close to the dam. Often times large numbers will lay within 100 yards of the steel and concrete structures. In low water, the productive runs can be over a mile long. The key is to move around until you locate them.
Walleyes are caught on a variety of live bait and artificial lures and everyone has their favorite. But by far the most productive choices are jigs dressed with a soft plastic, bucktail, minnows or combination of the three. This set-up has accounted for more walleyes taken during this time of year than any other offering.
When fishing tailraces reading the current becomes important to catching fish. Rocks, points, islands or gravel bars can alter the current creating seams, which are where two different currents meet. These can be great locations to catch staging fish.
Eddies, on the other hand, is where the water is twirling around which is another spot not to overlook. The downstream sides of rock piles are also great fish holding areas.
Another place to target is where feeder streams or ditches funnel into the river system. The mouths of these smaller tributaries can be a fishing gold mine, especially after a recent rain has washed food and clear water into the river.
So if you’re looking for a respite from cabin fever, and yearning for a pleasurable outdoor activity, maybe it’s time to head to the races and try some early season dam fishing and hope that spring has finally sprung.
John Martino is the Tribune’s outdoors columnist. He may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.