Walleye Fishing in the Detroit River
That magical time of year is upon us once again. The time of year that used to be synonymous with extended Red Wing and Piston playoff runs and the opening of the Tigers season still has immense meaning to the anglers in southeast Michigan. It’s the time of year that we don’t mind waking up well before the sun shows itself, it’s the time of year that we don’t mind braving the chill of an early spring morning even if it’s going to be that much colder on the water, it’s the time of the year that friends and family who are non sportsmen sometimes question are sanity as they spout “you’re going on the boat today? Are you nuts?” It’s time for the annual spring walleye run in the Detroit River.
Every year beginning in February millions of walleye start coming up from Lake Erie and down from Lake St. Clair to spawn in the river. Soon thereafter, thousands of anglers descend on the river to chase after the fish that can result in a fine dinner or a trophy of a lifetime. The lure of limits of lunkers brings anglers in from all over the country, lucky for us this great resource is right in our backyard to access throughout the spring. Although boats will start to hit the water in March when the river is known to give up some of its biggest fish, it’s really in April when the masses arrive (fish and fisherman). Whether it’s vertical jigging that’s done by most or handlining which is extremely effective, it is a fishery that should not be passed on and by the looks of the river on April weekends not many are missing out.
Fishing is still fishing, and even in this incredible system certain days can still be a struggle if not downright frustrating. April showers and howling spring winds often put an abrupt stop to what was super, crazy, hot fishing just the other day. The river can turn to chocolate milk or produce unfishable swells in a blink of any eye and put a halt on the bite until conditions change and allow the waves to settle and the waters to clear. Still, in less than ideal conditions we will go out on the water because we have the day off and this could be the day the bite gets going again. That’s what makes it so special, the fact that we know there is a time frame and we need to get out while the getting is good. We have all year to fish bass, pike, and even walleye but THIS run is limited.
Tactics and strategies vary from angler to angler when it comes to the spring run. When it comes to vertical jigging the one constant that everybody can agree on is boat control is critical to keep your line as vertical as possible for as long as possible, after that opinions are like you know what….and everybody has one. Some like long rods, some short. Some like heavy jigs, some like to go as light as conditions allow. Some like to tip with minnows, some curse it. Some only fish one area, other will traverse the entire 30 plus miles of the river if needed. Bow mount vs. transom mount. Deep vs. shallow. Lowrance vs. Humminbird. And the list goes on and on and on and on. Because I’m writing this article I’ll tell you what I like, and even if some don’t agree with everything it will surely give any new comers to the fishery some good food for thought and a solid base to start fishing the river.
Rod and reel
I generally like a short rod in medium or medium heavy for jigging. 6 foot is the longest I use and I also carry a few 5 footers and my go to rod is my Fenwick Elite Tech at 5’9’’. The short rod allows me to keep my line closer to the boat at all times which I feel helps to aid in staying vertical, especially in less than ideal conditions. For me a short/stiff rod is more sensitive than a long/light action. Sensitivity for me is in the feel not what I visualize at the rod tip and you feel much more with a short/stiff rod I find. Reels should have an anti reverse (for quick hook set) and a good drag. I only use spinning equipment for jigging. Line is braid always, no exceptions here in my opinion. I use 6 or 8 pound power pro and fireline on all my jigging rods. Since visualizing your line to stay vertical is critical, Hi vis line is a must for me as you will find a braid that is low vis can be extremely difficult to see against the water in certain conditions. If you want a line that’s not traditional hi vis because you need it to work for other applications beyond jigging season I like fireline crystal as it is marketed as a low vis line to fish, but the white color makes it very easy to see above the water.
What’s on the menu?
What to fish with? Jigs of course. Not so fast, today there are a number of different style jigs to choose from as well as the bodies that dress them. I generally use jigs that are 5/8, 3/4, and 1 ounce in weight with very little exception, from these I would say that I use 1 ounce jigs well over 50% of the time. I have no problems feeling bottom with smaller jigs even in very deep water, I just prefer a larger presentation generally (that is just me). Walleye sit and prey on things passing in the current, thus my philosophy is the bigger the presentation the slower it is moving and the easier it is for the fish to pick up on. Most style of jig heads people sell locally work well on the river, be it old school round ball or newer minnow styles. Everybody has their opinions on which cause more line twists and which cut currents better, but at the end of the day everybody has their favorites and you just have to find yours. We do sell a number of different styles on our website deadendtackle.com if you are interested in taking a closer look at some of the variations available to anglers.
Check out the body on that one!
So what do you put on these jig heads? Well there is no right or wrong answer, just right and wrong timing. Most anglers on the river use some type of plastic body on their jigs, this is a staple for the most part. Question is what kind to use? When the bite is hot you can catch walleye with almost any type of body, but what about when the fish are being a bit picky? I like to have everybody on the boat start the day with a different presentation to see if we can eventually narrow it down to what is working the best. Some guys open the stomach of the days catch to try and find what the walleye are feeding on to give them a head start tomorrow. This brings up the question to tip or not to tip with shiners? Some like to tip all the time every time, others refuse to tip with minnows period. I fall in between. I generally will not tip unless my fishing partners are out catching me with minnows. If I’m not convinced the walleye are feeding on minnows then why would I want to present them one? They could be focusing on gobys, lampreys, etc. this is why I don’t jump the gun on tipping. That being said, I almost always DO have minnows on the boat because although a minnow style plastic will catch them on its own, adding that live minnow adds the right shape, scent, and UV flash off of the scales that the walleye are looking for when they are targeting minnows. Old faithful Wyandotte worms, fin s minnows, and walleye assassins are staples on my boat along with various large shad and rib worm presentations.
When it’s all said and done we are so lucky to have this fishery in our backyard. As long as you make it out on the water, your better for it regardless of the haul. Talk to your fellow anglers when you are out there, most are more than willing to give you some good tips and advice. I’m very honored that I was asked to contribute this article, and I hope that if you had questions regarding fishing the river, you were able to take something away from this.