When anglers think of premium Walleye fisheries they don’t typically think of Southern British Columbia as a fishing destination; however that couldn’t be further from the truth! The BC Kootenay region has one of the best-kept Walleye fisheries in all of Western Canada.
British Columbia is home to the headwaters of the Columbia River, the longest river in the Pacific Northwest Region of North America. The Columbia is one of the most premium multi-species fisheries in all Pacific Northwest. The river attracts anglers from afar as it provides angling opportunity for several sport fish such as Rainbow Trout, Kokanee, Mountain Whitefish, Smallmouth Bass and, yes, Walleye!
Walleye were first introduced to the Columbia River system in 1960 when they were stocked into Lake Roosevelt in the USA, approximately 200kms south of the BC and Washington border. Over the past few decades the Walleye have migrated up river into the Canadian portion of the river between Waneta and the town of Castlegar.
For years this Walleye fishery in the East Kootenay Region has been underrated, really only known to the locals. Now that the word is getting out and anglers are experiencing these fantastic eating fish for themselves, this fishery is vastly growing in popularity.
The Walleye population within the Columbia is very healthy and on a good day of fishing an angler can experience double-digit fish days. The population is so vigorous and to help manage this multi-species fishery the BC Ministry has currently set a daily limit of 16 Walleye per angler, with a 2-day possession limit. The average sizes of these fish are between 16-21 inches, (1.5 to 2.5lbs) which makes for perfect table fare.
Walleye can be found scattered throughout the section of river from the Keenleyside Dam northwest of the community of Robson, to the Canadian/USA Border. However there are some sections of river that provide superior habitat that tend to hold more fish. When pursuing these fish, one will want to target slower moving water such as deep pools and large back eddies. Walleye prefer to reside near the river bottom in slacker water conserving their energy and waiting to ambush their prey.
Access to the river is extremely easy whether one is fishing from a boat or from shore. The community of Robson offers 2 very well maintained boat launches that can accommodate majority of fishing boats. The primary area for fishing is the stretch of river from the Robson Bridge to the Keenleyside Dam. This portion of river offers slow moving water with deep pools and sandy-gravel bottoms that make it prime Walleye territory. Even though targeting these fish is most successful from a boat, shore anglers can have some success.
Best Time to Fish
There are essentially 2 peak periods of the year that this Walleye fishery becomes very productive: Early spring during the pre-spawn phase and late summer/early fall before the cooler weather approaches.
The third week of March to the beginning of May is a good window of opportunity to target the pre-spawn fish. Once the water temperature starts to warm greater than 35F the Walleye start to migrate in. During this period larger populations of Walleye tend to reside in the Canadian section of river as they travel from the upper section of Lake Roosevelt. Walleye spawn once the water temperature reaches between 43-50F. Once the spawn is completed the migratory fish will start to move back down river. Walleye require gravel and sandy areas to spawn, which makes the section of river between the Robson Bridge and the old Robson Ferry Ramp optimum spawning habitat and an excellent area to pursue them.
In the early spring months the water level on the Columbia River is low as spring freshet hasn’t occurred yet. High river flows typically start in mid-May. The water conditions from Robson to the dam are more like lake conditions rather than a river. Due to the slower-moving water in this area an angler doesn’t require a high-powered boat. A 14-foot aluminum boat powered with a 9.9hp is adequate for the section of river above the Robson boat launches. The section below Robson requires a boat with much more power as the river current becomes stronger.
Once the spring runoff is complete and the water starts to warm in late July the Walleye fishing starts to turn on again. The resident population of Walleye will start to prepare to forage for the coming cooler fall and winter months. Unlike the spring months where the fish are more locked onto one area of the river, you will find the fish scattered throughout the deeper pools. Anglers will have to cover water from the base of the Keenleyside Dam down to the Robson boat launch. Once one Walleye is located there is a good chance that there are many more within the same vicinity as they tend to school.
When fishing in the later summer and early fall paying attention to weather patterns will help improve your odds in locating these fish. The old wives tale is usually told that Walleye are lock-jawed during the day and are only active during the evening so it’s not worth pursuing them during midday. The truth of the matter is that these fish are very light sensitive and they prefer low light conditions. Yes they are more vigorous during the morning and evening; however targeting them midday in the deeper water can prove good results. On cloudier or choppy surface water days the fish can be found a bit shallower as there is less light penetration. The rule of thumb is to start in shallow water (20 feet) in the morning and work your way out until you locate fish. When the sun grows brighter work out to deeper 50+ feet of water and when dusk starts to set in move back to the shallower water.
Fishing Methods & Techniques
Using quality sonars that can detect contours will help improve your odds in locating these fish. To keep your lure within the strike zone it is critical to keep your presentation in contact with the river floor. The most successful way to pursue these fish is from a boat, by either bottom bouncing a spinner rig or by jigging the river bottom. Whichever lures you chose to use it is important to note that the Columbia River is a single barbless hook fishery.
Bottom bouncing is a great method to use when trying to locate active fish. This rig is a trolling sinker intended to fish slowly while keeping bottom contact. The rig is made up of wire that is bent in a 90-degree angle with led moulded on the lower section and a snap swivel connected to the shorter arm portion. Attach a spinner or lure of choice with a 36 to 48 inch leader. Since the Columbia River allows live bait, tipping your lure with a stretched out dew worm will give the fish something they can’t resist. Slow troll less than 1.2 mph up river and always keep your line 45 degrees to the boat. The bite will come as a “tap-tap” then a strike. Don’t set the hook too soon as the fish tend to short bite the end of the worm. Wait until the strong committed hit, and then set the hook in a forward sweeping motion.
Some of the best lures to use when bottom bouncing is the Smile Blade Super Slow Death Rigs by Mack’s Lure. These lures put off the perfect roll to the bait and an offset wobble that emulates a dying bait fish that the Walleye can’t resist!
Jigging has to be one of the most popular and effective methods in the Columbia River when targeting Walleye. It’s wise to have a variety of jig sizes and colours ranging from ¼ to ¾ ounce jigs. The slower the water the smaller the jig size you can use. Tipping the jigs with dew worms or scented grubs is the ticket to encourage the fish to strike.
The key to jigging for these fish is not only to keep contact with the bottom, but to also keep your fishing line directly vertical below the boat. This will help you sense strikes as well as avoid snags. Minor jigging pulls between 4 to 8 inches off bottom will provide the right action to attract the fish. The bite will be subtle and more like a weight pulling down. Set the hook with a smooth vertical sweeping action.
The biggest challenge is boat control when jigging. Position your boat with the bow facing down river and free drift with the current while jigging. You’ll often have to change between neutral, reverse and forward to make sure your line is vertical. The use of an electric motor will help you immensely to control your boat. The river current makes it challenging and some practice is needed but once you get the hang of it you will have the odds in your favour!
Anglers can experience good results in fishing from the shore for Walleye. The river area across from the Celgar Pulp Mill and below Keenleyside Dam offers superb shore fishing. The best rig to use when shore fishing is a bottom setup. Simply use a tri-swivel with a ¾ to 1-ounce weight and a 14-inch leader to a hook baited with a dew worm and small scented marshmallows. Cast the rig out and let it find bottom until it stops. Tighten the line and place the rod into a rod holder to wait for the strike. The bite will look like a tap-tap then a heavy loaded tip, at this point set the hook!
Spinners, small spoons and baited jigs casted and retrieved close to the bottom can also be productive, especially during the evening when the fish are up shallow. Cast up river towards the current and work your presentation back towards you being careful not to get snagged.
The West Kootenay communities truly make for an excellent destination for anglers to enjoy this wonderful Walleye fishery as they offer all the needed amenities. There is plenty of camping along the river from Pass Creek Campground located in Robson and Kootenay River Kampground in Castlegar.
An excellent way to learn the hotspots of the river or if you don’t have your own boat is to hire one of the many local professional fishing guides in the area. Reel Adventures Sport Fishing Charters, Chillbilly Sport Fishing Charters and Dwayne D’Andrea’s Mountain Valley Sport Fishing are excellent choices to help you get on these Columbia River Walleye.
So the next time you are looking for a Walleye fishing excursion look no further than the Columbia River. Come experience for yourself why the BC West Kootenay Region has quickly become a premium Walleye fishing destination in the Pacific Northwest.
This article was originally featured in the Western Woods & Water Magazine. For more articles like this subscribe today!