Springtime Detroit River Walleye

For those of us that call Metro Detroit home, we many times over look some of the best fishing in the country just outside our doorstep. The annual spring walleye run on the Detroit River is just such an instance. Each year, on any of my many trips down to the river, I’m reminded of the outstanding fishery we have. License plates from all over the country denote visitors at every launch site from St. Clair to Lake Erie. Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, Kentucky are the norms. Add to this a few odd ball ones I’ve seen from such far off states as Wyoming, California, and Hawaii and you’ll start to understand just how good we have it here.
The Detroit River is a wide and powerful “river”, actually classified as “straights”. Mid- February marks the start of the spawning run. An estimated 10 million Walleye come up for Erie, and some down from St. Clair, in search of shallow rocky humps, shorelines and reefs on which to complete the life cycle. While there’s no shortage of these spots throughout the river system, some are known to be better than others. If you’ve never tried your hand at this, it’s easy…just follow the crowd! It’s not uncommon for every launch to be completely filled by 8am on the weekends, and during the peak times they can be full every day of the week as well. Typically the launches start to clear out by around 11am with coolers full and yet one more set of memories burned into the mind. If you’re not an early riser, hit the launch just before lunch and you stand a pretty good chance of finding room.

Techniques are a little off the norm on the big river. Most will chose one of two styles of fishing; vertical jigging or hand lining. Vertical jigging is a productive, and at times very frustrating, choice. The just of it is to point your bow upstream and set your motor, typically your bow mounted trolling motor, at a speed that matches the current of the river, all the while jigging the bottom with your choice of lead heads. On windy days this can be difficult at best, and at times all but impossible. Hand lining is a specialized technique that is basically trolling, but with a twist. A small reel, similar to an automatic fly reel, is used, and no rod, and typically wither steel or braided line. The angler holds the line in his hand and either trolls upstream slowly or gradually slips down stream allowing the plug to run just above the bottom. The plug is held near the bottom with weights up to 3 oz. Both can be very productive methods, each in its own way and under specific conditions.

Most anglers prefer to vertical jig their offerings. Each year someone comes out with a new “Super Bait”, while some of these work little, if any, confidence should be placed on items like this. Year in, year out, the most commonly used combination is an unpainted lead head jig, in either regular ball style, or the sliming river style, tipped with a shiner. A subtle addition to this would be the use of a “stinger” hook to increase ones’ odds of hook ups on those light bites that walleye are notorious for. A small selection of stingers is in varying lengths will be needed in order to accommodate varying shiner lengths. During peak times, and as most guides run, the shiner is replaced with a plastic of some sort. Pretty much anything works, from 8” purple worms, to 4” Sluggo’s and most things in-between. Guides, and lazy people like myself, find it a never ending and boring task to repeatedly replace the little helpless minnows that constantly and continually get suck off your hook; stinger too! Most bait shops, and some marinas, have and sell shiners during the run, although slow shipments and shortages will inevitably lead you to do some traveling on occasion in search of a shop that has stock.

Location is perhaps the least, and at the same time, most important decision the angler must make. With an estimated 10 million walleye running the river between February and April there’s no shortage of fish in the system. Most shallow gravel, rock points, slots, and humps will hold fish throughout the run, but as I stated prior, some places are better than others. My best advice on how to pick a spot would be to talk to the people at the tackle shops, or boat launches, or grab a hot-spots map and try your luck. The last and perhaps best hint would be to follow the crowd. Water conditions, weather, temperature, and wind will move these fish all over the river day to day, but hot spots are relatively constant from year to year barring any drastic change to the river structure.

A few parting comments to keep in mind on your venture down to the river. Please plan on fishing with many, many other boats. The spring run is a very popular event and tempers sometimes flair. Fishing is supposed to be a relaxing past time. Please Try and keep a little room between boats and watch your drift. The river flows rather quickly; a moments inattention you can be on top of someone else. Watch your wake! You’ll find some very small boats, like less than 12’ and even the slightest wake can capsize these small craft. I’m not sure what the people in these tiny boats are thinking? Watch the freighters!!! They can’t maneuver as quickly, and in the river channel they can deviate at all! Give em a wide berth. If you’re going to troll, or hand line please don’t try and troll thru a dense pack of jiggers; the two methods don’t mix. When running back upstream after a drift please idle to the outside of the pack, then you can crank up and go upstream; please idle back down when coming back through the crowd in to fish.

One last item that deserves special attention; the waves. The river isn’t a terribly wide flowage so many don’t even think about the possibility of waves larger than a ripple. All who have fished the river more than a few times will attest to its power to conjure up some rather large waves; 4’s are not uncommon on windy days in certain locations. When conditions are favorable you can find yourself in for a very long, wet ride back in 2-4’ers very easy; surprisingly common. Please keep and eye on the weather, it’s no fun picking up swamped craft and cold people. The water temps are typically between 50-55 at that time of the year, not enough to pose immediate life threatening conditions, but if you’re in the water for any period of time it can.

The annual spring Walleye run is truly a ritual to participate in; millions of tasty Walleye and all those boats and people in one common Quest!

Good luck to all!
Eric Z.
Staff writer