Ed Iman is a walleye angler’s angler. A big man, Iman, a life-long resident of Oregon and currently residing in The Dalles, has been guiding on what he refers to as “his backyard,” the Columbia River, for over four decades now. His target is huge walleyes—not just big walleyes, but huge fish. In fact, Iman once held the Oregon state record in the walleye category with a monstrous fish in excess of 17 pounds. Recently, he caught, weighed, and released a Columbia River ‘eye that pulled his scale down to just a shade over 11 kilograms—that’s 24.25 pounds, to you non-metric folks. What’s the big deal there? The current world record walleye weighs in at just over 22 pounds.
Is the big fish controversial? Yes, but we’re not here to talk about what may or may not have been. We’re here to discuss Iman’s backyard, the Columbia, and the fact that it’s the only waterway in the U.S. that both contains an incredible population of walleyes and, twice daily, is affected by the tides. The stretch of the Columbia below Bonneville Dam, the first dam upstream from the Pacific on the big river, is tidally influenced and harbors a fine number of walleyes.
So how does a walleye angler contend with not only the size of the Columbia, but the twice daily ebb and flow of the tides? To Iman, it’s all about knowing one’s quarry.
“The single most important thing that anglers need to know about walleyes is that they are schooling, nomadic, contour-oriented, predatory fish. And with that one single statement, anglers can begin to figure out and understand the walleye fishery in the Columbia River, and anywhere else for that matter,” Iman said.
Iman makes it seem simple enough, but the question remains, how does the constant ebb and flow affect the walleye fishery in the Columbia? Fish movement and tidal influence.
“When you get into the tidal action of the lower river,” Iman said, “what you encounter is this. When the tide is running out (ebb tide), the fish will hold tighter to structure. They’re looking for food being washed to them. Oppositely, when the tide is coming in (flood tide) or hits slack, the fish move out onto the flats. Now you have packs of fish roaming the flats looking for food rather than waiting for the food to come to them.”
Incoming or Slack Tides
Once an angler understands how fish react to the ebb and flow of the river, it becomes elemental that the two tidal periods on the Columbia be treated differently. “When the walleyes are moving out onto the flats during the incoming or slack tide periods, trolling spinner rigs or crankbaits is the way to go,” said Iman.
The reasoning is simple. Once out onto the flats, the walleyes spread out, often over an extremely large area. When this movement away from structure occurs, techniques such as spinner rigging and trolling crankbaits allow an angler to cover large stretches of water. Once a school is located, anglers can then drop a marker, and concentrate their efforts using the same hardware used to locate the fish, or a more precise presentation like jigging.
Although Columbia River walleyes fall victim to a number of lures, some of the most productive baits include STORM Lures’ Hot-n-Tots, Wiggle Warts, ThunderSticks and ThunderStick, Jr. Such lures can be worked over the flats in 12 to 24 feet of water on simple flatlines of 12 to 15-pound monofilament or a small diameter braid. In snag-filled or weedy waters, Iman will often run his baits behind a bottom walker ranging from 12 to 30 inches in length, and carrying from one-half to two or more ounces of hollow core lead weight depending on the current.
Outgoing or ebb tides, and their associated increased water velocity will find walleyes hugging structure, be it a trough on a sand flat, gravel hump, or the upstream head of an island. Under such conditions, anglers should take note of two variables. The first, electronics or depth finders allow an angler to initially locate suitable structure, structure where walleyes should be. The second, a precise vertical presentation like that afforded by a leadhead jig tied with a No. 6 stinger hook and tipped with a ‘crawler, keeps in the bait in the strike zone.
Unlike spinner rig blade-and-bead combinations and crankbaits, neither the color choice nor the head style of leadheads seems, to Iman, to make as much difference on the Columbia. More important is to match the head weight to the current and depth.
“Too little,” said Iman, “and you won’t find and stick the bottom. Too much, and you’re spend most of your time hung up. Typically speaking, my leadheads will range from 1/2 –ounce on low-flow days to 3/4-ounce or more on those fast currents. The jig, really, is little more than a vehicle used to get your nightcrawler to the bottom. The single most important thing to remember about jigging walleyes is to use good, quality hooks, and sharpen those hooks frequently.”