A Plug for Big River Walleye

Water temperature hit 68 degrees, Fahrenheit, this morning as my friend Chuck and I motored his modest 15-foot Smokercraft east on the lower Snake River. Winds were calm and the intense sun rays promised a scorcher, triple digits. Approaching a hydro-power dam operated by the US Army Corps of Engineers, a brilliant rainbow prism appeared in the high mist of the spillway. The central bay was open to facilitate downstream passage for juvenile salmon. But it wasn’t salmon we were after.

In the frothy toss of the dam tail-race, the little Smoker bobbed and dodged like a duck floating down a river rapid. Luckily, the dam was spilling only a minor volume, so conditions were still safe. The game plan was to drop a couple plugs behind the boat and troll across of the unique terrain that lay below the surface of the conflicting currents.

What to Look For

On the big river, walleye are generally structure-oriented in the sense that boulders, rock piles, troughs, and other terrain variations provide velocity breaks and concealment that fish can use to their advantage as forage passes by with the flow. Our target habitat was shelves and drop-offs in a depth range of 18-25 feet.

We trolled across the river, parallel to the dam. A shallow shoal came up 4-6 feet deep, producing a few incidental smallmouth bass as we maintained course for a ledge that would drop into 35 feet. Approaching the ledge, we watched our rods intently as they vibrated with the motion of the plugs and the occasional collision with a boulder or two. As the depth finder announced our arrival over the abyss, our anticipation welled. And then it happened.

About the time our plugs found the edge, my rod doubled, followed by a few deliberate jerks. Springing from my swivel seat under the refuge of the boat’s canopy, I snagged my rod from the holder and adjusted the drag. Chuck jerked the motor into neutral as the full weight of the fish became apparent. And just that quickly, I felt the vibration of the plug again, the fish lost.

Beautiful Walleye


I started with a smaller Rapala X-Rap. I then switched to a ThunderStick, then a Rattling Rogue to hone in on the bait ideal for the depth range. I caught fish on each bait, while Chuck fished only the Rattling Rogue, and did just as well. The Columbia River Basin has juvenile anadromous fish runs (salmon, steelhead, American shad), basically year-round, so our patterns were kept similar to what juvenile fish and walleye could expect to see.

Chuck fished a black and chrome pattern that was similar to a juvenile fall chinook salmon, which migrate to the ocean mid to late-summer. I fished a dark purple and white, a blue and chrome, and a juvenile steelhead pattern. My first 18-inch eye to hit the cooler came on the purple and white X-Rap. We repeated our trolling line near the dam several times, then hit the north shoreline for a while, enticing a fish about every thirty minutes. But as we worked downriver, Chuck suggested we “go big or go home”.

Big Plugs = Big Fish

Tying up a steelhead pattern Rattling Rogue, we trolled a stretch of shoreline incomprehensibly familiar to few. The bathymetry was virtually flat at 22 feet deep with a random boulder hump here and there. I could tell by the black lines of a trolling superhighway on the fish-finder that Chuck knew the reach. The action slowed significantly with the bigger plugs, but the takes were incredible.

As friends and coworkers do, we immersed ourselves in conversation while the plugs bounced along. On several occasions, a sentence was cut short by the thump of a rod slamming against the rod holder and stripping drag. Had I not known better I would have thought we were hooking sturgeon. We never boated a big fish but lost several between 6-10 pounds; not an unusual size for the Snake.

The fights were intriguing; the heavy weight and slow head shakes of a big fish coupled with that typical walleye complacency. But when a fish gaining on 30 inches sees the boat, they tend to get feisty. Consequently, we lost them all before we could get a net under them. Although we couldn’t seem to close the deal, Chuck lands a handful in the 10-pound range each year.

Trumbo Rod & Reel

Tips on Rods and Reels

When trolling plugs, a medium-heavy, 8 to 9-foot casting rod, a quality casting reel (I am partial to Diawa), and 30-pound braid is preferred. You will bang plugs off of rocks and logs all day, so tough line is critical. Braid is also beneficial as your plugs may be a fair distance behind the boat. Therefore, taking the stretch out of the line provides better hook sets while the rod length absorbs some of the shock on the strike, and if you happen to hang up.

Choosing When and Where

Fishing early, late, and at night during the hot summer months can provide some fine walleye fishing, but we catch fish all day long on the Snake River. You need a boat with a canopy and cooler of beverages to survive a full day on the water, but it’s a day well spent, even when the action is slow.

I recommend using Google Earth to study the land form along the river and NOAA’s nautical maps to study the bathymetry. The nautical maps (see link below) are available for download, standalone use, or display in ArcMap and Google Earth. If it looks fishy, give it a shot. Worst case is that you find a new smallmouth fishing shoal.

If you are a worm harness walleye fisherman enticed by a somewhat simpler method, kick back with your fishing buddy, give the plugs a chance to work their magic, and fire up the grill for some dynamite fish tacos.

NOAA Nautical Charts

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About Brad Trumbo

Brad Trumbo lives in southeast Washington State serving the public as a fish and wildlife biologist. Hunting, fly fishing, and writing are his passions. In his spare time, Brad volunteers with Blue Mountain Pheasants Forever, builds custom fly rods, and pens tales of his outdoor pursuits.