Fishing small river systems in the fall

by Steve Carney
Contributing Columnist

As much as this writer enjoys the fall hunting seasons, the small river systems of the central part of Minnesota have been calling my name.

Upper Mississippi River walleyes caught in five feet of water on jerk baits southeast of Hill City.
Upper Mississippi River walleyes caught in five feet of water on jerk baits southeast of Hill City.

The past few weeks have been awesome and the fishing has been so good it has cut into my time in the bowstand. Right now the small river systems in the central part of our state are at very low water stages and ideal for smacking walleyes, smallmouth bass and northern pike.

Here is a primer on the things I look for on our small river systems.

1. Small boat only

Most of the stretches of the Mississippi, Rum, Snake and Boy river systems are extremely low right now. This means these upper stretches of river are small craft only meaning you better be using a 14 to 16 foot craft with a small outboard with a short shaft. These upper stretches of river are unlike the southern stretches where deeper depth is more common.

Typical depths I have been fishing lately have been two to five feet max. The beauty of this shallow water is the gamefish have very little chance of retreating to deeper water because there isn’t any. They are there and you need to first find them initially and then work them.

2. Boulder strewn

The common denominator of these upper, small river systems is the boulder factor. They are everywhere. These rivers demand a lot of attention and I spend more time trying to navigate safely than actually fishing. This means I am putzing up river at a snail’s pace and in no hurry to make time.

These rivers have indicators such as “boils” on the surface which indicate rocks and boulders below – always be watchful of those. Expect to hit a rock or two as you navigate but at a slow pace you will get the job done.

3. Techniques

Because upper stretches of these small river systems are so boulder strewn you can pretty much refrain from any livebait presentations. The rocks will eat your jigs and bottom rigs within minutes.

My best presentation is the basic jerk bait which I troll upstream. These jerk baits are actually floating style baits that dive about 4 feet. They tend to just bounce off the rocks and provide a great target for gamefish.

You can experiment with other crankbaits until you find what works. Color doesn’t seem to matter but rather the action and depth is the critical piece.

4. Trenches

The key to these river systems in the fall period is paying attention to the trenches or troughs in the center part of the channel. These small rivers have a typical depth of one to three feet but the fish seem to always congregate in the deeper water such as five feet. Yes, five feet is considered deep in these rivers and most of my gamefish have been coming from any water that is typically deeper than the average depth. Once you make contact with the first fish just repeat the process and pay attention to the depth.

5. Current

Many of these smaller, northern river systems had high water all summer and were unfishable. Now the current is gentle and easy to navigate and fish properly. Some areas of these rivers the current is so gentle you can even troll downstream with the help of the current and present the bait properly – not so when the water is high.

Steve Carney is a frequent contributer to the Outdoors page.

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