Across their natural and stocked range, walleyes are gearing up for their annual spawning run: a time when anglers flock to rivers across the country to enjoy tremendous action and oversized fish. As the calendar shifts from late winter into early spring, walleyes will gather in large numbers and feed aggressively before engaging in their mating rituals, and during this extended window, become attractive targets as we break out the boats for another season. One of my favorite ways to target river walleyes early in the season, when the water is generally running high, fast and dirty, is the Dubuque Rig.
The Dubuque Rig is designed for trolling, generally upstream (although downstream is possible when flows are low), and is centered around the venerable 3-way swivel. Attach your main line to one of the swivel eyes. To a second and third eyes, attach fluorocarbon leaders with two different lengths: a “short” leader that is about a foot in length, and a “long” leader that is 24-30″ in length. We will use these fluorocarbon leaders to connect two baits to the rig. I tie a heavy jig (1/2-3/4 oz) to the short leader, and dress that jig with a bulky soft plastic like a 4” ringworm or a 3.5” paddletail. I tie a light jig (1/16 oz) to the long leader, and dress that jig with a low-profile soft plastic like a shortened ringworm or a small fluke-style bait. Fluorocarbon is important here, because we will be fishing the Dubuque rig along the bottom, where rocks, mussels, and other abrasive river-borne debris can put line to the test. Seaguar AbrazX in 12 lb test is a good choice for this application.
The Dubuque Rig is designed to be presented from a moving boat. Position your boat downstream of your intended fishing area, and start moving upstream at a speed of 0.5-0.8 mph. With the boat moving, lower the rig into the water, allowing the heavier jig to contact the bottom. Present the rig with a series of lifts and drops, releasing enough line to allow the heavy jig to remain in contact with the bottom during the drop. In high-flow areas, you will likely notice that most of your bites occur on the bottom jig, while the top bait, fluttering off the bottom, will be a key producer under low-flow conditions and in cleaner water.
The Dubuque Rig is quite versatile. Common modifications include using a much longer leader for the “upper” bait, and connecting that leader to a long-shank live bait hook dressed with a minnow. In some parts of the walleye belt, a trolling fly will take the place of the bare hook. Another variation is to attach a small floating Rapala crankbait to this elongated leader, allowing the heavy jig and the bottom of the rig to pull this crankbait down to depth. Likewise, some anglers will cast a Dubuque Rig to fish the front faces of wingdams from an anchored or Spot-Locked boat. Day in and day out, however, I use the Dubuque Rig as described above, with two jigs each dressed with soft plastic, presented from a moving boat.
You’ll be presenting relatively heavy baits in moving water, and as such, this is no place for a wimpy walleye rod. Whether I’m using spinning or casting tackle, I like a 6’8” rod with medium power and fast or extra-fast action. Spool up with 30 lb test Seguar Smackdown braided line in the high-visibility Flash Green color pattern, and you’re ready to fish.
Dubuque rigging is perfect for probing depths of 12-25+ feet, where walleyes and saugers will often be found during the daylight hours. As the sun starts to drop toward the treeline, it’s time to put the Dubuque rigs away and head to shallower water, from the shore out to depths of 6 to 8 feet. Here, we’ll be casting soft plastics – typically 4” ringworms, or similar-sized flukes or paddletails, rigged on light 1/16 or 3/32 oz jigs – to walleyes that have pulled into the shallows to feed aggressively as night falls. For pitching plastics, I like a slightly longer spinning rod with somewhat lighter action; a 7’6” rod with medium-light power and fast action is just about perfect. Equip this rod with a 2500-series spinning reel spooled with 20 lb test Seaguar Smackdown in the Stealth Gray color pattern, finished with a 3-4’ leader of supple Seaguar InvizX 100% fluorocarbon leader. Less is more when pitching plastics: leave the aggressive hops and jumps for summer jigging; now is the time to let the current do the work, sweeping your bait downstream to the walleyes’ dinner buffet.
Whether you pursue early-season walleyes by day with the Dubuque Rig, or at low light by pitching plastics, this is one of the best times of the year to tangle with a trophy. Treat those pre-spawn fish with care, and enjoy!