Spring is Prime Time for River Walleyes
February 22, 2018
Across the Walleye Belt, early spring is prime time to tap some of the year's best bites. Courtesy of the annual spawning migration, big numbers of walleyes roll into predictable places, offering anglers a variety of opportunities to enjoy fine fishing from the Prespawn through Postspawn periods.
Many walleyes spawn along main-lake shorelines, but rivers attract more than their share of fish. Hallowed waters include legendary Great Lakes tributaries like the Detroit and Maumee, but rivers large and small provide chances to join the game virtually coast to coast.
Motor City Madness
Waves of spawn-run walleyes flood the Detroit River from Lake Erie, boosting the river's population and offering some of the planet's best opportunities at boating behemoths topping 10 pounds. Veteran Detroit River Guide Jon Bondy says the action typically heats up in April, but varies according to conditions. "It depends when the ice leaves the river," he says. "It's amazing. Within three days of ice-out, you have a good shot at a limit of fish.
"In a typical year I start guiding the last few days of March for early prespawn river walleye, and by sometime between April 8 and 12, most of them are spawned out," he adds. "In an average spring, the last week of March and first 10 days of April offer your best chance at a giant. But the numbers of walleyes keep increasing in the second to third week of April, and the crowds build as anglers from around the state and the region hit the river.
"One negative thing to watch out for is muddy water," he says. "Not from spring rains, like many people assume, but from strong north to northeast winds stirring up Lake St. Clair upstream." Bondy advises traveling anglers headed for Detroit to watch wind conditions two to three days prior to their trip. "A south wind means you're golden," he says.
"No wind is great, too. But if you have sustained 30 mph winds out of the north 48 hours before you plan to fish, reschedule. The whole river is going to be turbid." On the plus side, Bondy says dirty water doesn't last long. "The river flushes out in 20 hours," he says. "Suspended sediments are quickly replaced with blue water from Lake Huron."
Although the walleye migration hits the lower river first, Bondy aims for the midsection. "Fish come in a day or two earlier downriver, but the middle section has fewer snags," he says.
From the early days of the run through the second to third week of May, he says few presentations equal a properly presented jig. "I've tried a lot of different things and jigging is hard to beat," he says. His weapon of choice is a 1/2- to 3/4-ounce ballhead jig tipped with a 3½-inch paddletail softbait such as a Bondy Worm, though baits such as 3-inch Berkley Gulp! Alive! Ripple Shads and Northland Fishing Tackle Impulse Paddle Shads have produced big catches in spring tournaments on the river. "I add a stinger hook after threading the softbait on," he says. "And until the water temperature hits 45°F, I always add an emerald shiner. After that, just plastic is fine."
Bondy favors a spinning outfit spooled with 6-pound braid mainline with a 14-inch leader of 6- to 8-pound fluorocarbon, to reduce line twist and limit line lost to snags. "The leader typically breaks first, so you don't lose lots of braid when you hang up," he says.
He drifts downstream at the speed of the current, hopping the jig along bottom directly below the boat, being careful not to let the jig rest on bottom. "When a jig drags, it trails behind the boat and you lose vertical contact, which costs you fish," he says. "As soon as it lands, hop the jig up 12 to 18 inches."
Conversely, the fall is slow. "They bite on the drop, rather than suck jigs off bottom" he says. "Let the jig pull the rod tip down as it falls, never allowing a bow in your line. An extended drop gives them more time to eat the jig."
While many river walleye anglers focus on deep water in the main channel, Bondy plies the edges. "More big prespawn fish migrate in 8 to 15 feet than out in the shipping lanes, so I usually fish shallower than everyone else," he says.
As May wanes, incidental catches climb. "Smallmouth bass, white bass, and sheepshead make it tough to get a good bunch of walleyes on jigs," he says. Crawler harnesses also come into play, as does casting.
It's hard to talk early season on the Detroit without mentioning handlining. "It's been around since before the Depression," Bondy says. "But you see very few young handliners today. Most are senior citizens."
An effective means of presenting lures such as floating minnowbaits at precise depths, even in strong currents, handlining typically relies on a spring-loaded reel, bolted to the boat, filled with sturdy wire line. Lures are attached to monofilament leaders tethered to a solid or flexible wire shank at the end of the wire mainline, and a 1- to 2-pound lead weight anchors the rig.
"Handlining is best in dirty water," he says. "It's not as effective in clear conditions, so it's primarily relegated to early season and night-fishing during the summer."
The Mississippi Scene
Veteran Guide Marty Hahn wouldn't miss Pool 4 of the Mississippi River in spring for anything. Schools of walleyes and saugers congregate in a 3-mile section below the Red Wing dam, offering winter-weary walleye anglers their first taste of open-water paradise.
"A bunch of fish come up in the fall, in what I believe is the start of the run," Hahn begins. "As we get into March, we typically see water temps from 36°F to 38°F, low flows, and clear water, with visibility up to 8 feet. Although people fish deeper, it's not uncommon to find walleyes in 8- to 14-foot holes."
When river walleyes play hard-to-catch in these conditions, especially on sunny days, he uses a splitshot rig. "A 3-inch lip-hooked fathead on a #2 Aberdeen gets them when nothing else does," he says. "Drift with the current, allowing the sinker to tap bottom. When a fish bites, follow it back with the rod, then set the hook. There's usually no need to fish with an open bail and feed them line."
He also slips downstream with a 1/4- or 5/16-ounce, oval-shaped leadhead like a Hutch's Jig tipped with a 2½- to 3¾-inch plastic. "This prespawn pattern is especially effective on saugers in main-river holes in depths from 18 to 25 feet," he says. His top tipping is Hutch's fluke-style Sauger Slayer, but again, options abound. "Ringworms work well, too," he says. "Whatever you like, fish it."
Active jigging is out. "Move the jig and you won't get bit," he says. "Tap bottom and raise it 6 to 12 inches, then hold it as motionless as possible. The clearer the water, the higher fish move up to hit the jig."
As water temperatures warm into the 40s and runoff from snowmelt reduces visibility to a foot or two, Hahn runs a classic Dubuque Rig in current seams below the tips of wing dams and points, or in slower stretches of the main current. His typical setup consists of a three-way swivel with a 1/2- to 5/8-ounce jig on a 12- to 16-inch dropper, with a 4- to 6-inch soft-plastic ringworm on a 2/0 Aberdeen hook trailing 4 to 5 feet behind. "Both dropper and lead are 12-pound Berkley Trilene XL," he notes. "Troll upriver at speeds of .5 to .6 mph, tapping bottom every four or five seconds, then holding the dropper jig an inch or two above it."
Hahn says he recently switched from 6½-foot, medium-power rods to a new 5-foot 10-inch medium-light power, fast-action model (LCS510MLF) from Limit Creek Rods for pulling Dubuque rigs. "The shorter rod is lighter, so it's easier to hold all day long, but has enough backbone to handle heavy droppers," he says. "It's my go-to for vertically fishing plastics as well."
Dubuque rigs put big numbers of fish in the boat, but if trophies are your goal, he suggests pitching oval- or roundhead jigs tipped with plastic. "Pitching plastics to current seams in 3 to 15 feet of water is the way to go for big prespawn females," he says. "Match jig weight to the situation. Jigs must be heavy enough to contact bottom on the drop, yet light enough to bounce downstream with the flow."
Casting angles hinge on bottom composition. "Cast upstream on sand," he says. "Cast perpendicular to seams over rocks or you snag. Either way, when the jig touches down, hold the rod tip high, then raise the jig slightly so it sweeps downstream. "Watch your line," he says. "And don't impart too much action. Let the current do the work."
When the spawn kicks in, he looks for the first postspawn fish on main channel edges and back channels downriver. "A variety of presentations come into play from here on out," he says. "Trolling jointed Rapala Shad Raps and Berkley Flicker Shads is hot. Or pitch jigs, pull Dubuque rigs — you name it."
In-Fisherman friend John Cooper has fished coldwater walleyes in the mighty Missouri River since 1973. "It's still one of my favorite things to do," he says. "Tailwaters below dams offer opportunities from January to April."
In the early prespawn, as water temps hover around 38°F, he looks for sweet spots tucked between main current and backwater areas. "Behind wing walls is good, but the best place is a flat just off the main current on an inside turn," he says. "Most people target 18 to 20 feet of water, but there are days fish slide onto 5- to 8-foot sandflats close to deeper water."
Cooper favors a jig and minnow fished with a slow hand. "Strike windows are small and the fish aren't moving much," he says. "Use your trolling motor to point the bow upriver while slowly drifting downstream. Cast into slower water and let the current carry the jig down until it's below you in the seam. Don't lift, jerk, or jig. Use the rod to drag the jig slowly upriver about a foot, let it fall back, turn the reel three to four times, and repeat."
Cooper says the fall-back phase is critical. "In clear water, you can watch walleyes shadow the jig as it moves upstream, stopping when it stops, moving when it moves, never closing the gap," he says. "Letting the current carry the jig back to the fish is key to making it bite."
He spools a 6½- to 7-foot medium-power spinning outfit with a light braid, tipped with a 4- to 5-foot, 4-pound mono leader. Eighth-ounce jigs are standard. "If it's windy, you might bump up to a quarter-ounce, but no heavier," he says. "I like a standard roundhead in shades of chartreuse, orange, and pink." He threads a soft-plastic body onto the shank, then adds a 1½- to 3-inch minnow, hooked upward through the chin so the point emerges between the eyes, without killing it. Where water depth or clarity allows, he also drags the jig on a longline downstream behind the boat while drifting with the current.
Just before the spawn, with water temps running 45°F to 47°F degrees, Cooper speeds up his presentation. "More fish venture shallower, and you can move the jig a little faster when casting into 10- to 12-foot depths," he says.
During the spawn, river walleyes move even shallower and the fishing gets tough. "You hit a wall until postspawn males move back out to the seams we fished first and become aggressive," he says. "The same jig-and-minnow combo is deadly, although a few anglers drag 3-foot Lindy-style rigs with a 3/4-ounce walking sinker or small bottom bouncer and a minnow. This is a great way to fish for people who aren't comfortable with jigs."
Few fisheries produce walleyes in sizes equal to those in the Columbia River, and prespawn is a top time to take a trophy. Many giants are landed from mid- to late January into February, but fishery biologist and avid angler Paul Hoffarth says early March holds potential as well.
On February 28, 2014, local river rat John Grubenhoff landed a 20.32-pound monster that shattered the Washington state record, and it remains the benchmark today — though Hoffarth says challengers surface each season.
Grubenhoff was fishing the McNary Pool section of Lake Wallula, located between the McNary and Priest Rapids dams at the confluence of the Snake River. "It's a transition area where the free-flowing Columbia meets Wallula," he explains. Confident the river's walleyes stage adjacent to spawning areas, Grubenhoff targeted a breakline and current edge a short cast from a rocky, windswept shoreline. "It was the perfect scenario," he says. Indeed, he landed a 14-pounder minutes before hooking the record.
A fan of beefy minnowbaits, Grubenhoff was pulling a 5¼-inch, silver-and-black J13 Jointed Rapala when the big fish struck. The lure trailed 6 feet behind a 2-ounce bottom-walking sinker in 22 feet of water, as he trolled upstream along the break at .8 mph. He was using 17-pound-test monofilament mainline and leader.
His approach works in the prespawn. As March progresses, however, Hoffarth says fish location becomes problematic. "Once they get into spawning mode they're more difficult to find," he explains. "By late March into April, flows increase, which help flush juvenile salmon downstream. Postspawn walleyes are pushed to river edges farther below dams, and into sloughs and other off-channel areas."
Hoffarth reports anglers fish prop jigs like Northland Whistler Jigs, tipped with a nightcrawler or soft-plastic trailer, as well as bladebaits and crawler harnesses. Catches are dominated by smaller males, with the occasional big fish. Numbers of fish improve until peaking from June through September.
While these patterns were forged on diverse rivers, they offer insights for plucking spawning-phase walleyes from rivers across the country. Factor them into your early playbook to make this your best spring yet.
*Dan Johnson is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and director of All Creation Outdoor Media. Guide contacts: Jon Bondy, 226/ 346-1748; Marty Hahn, 612/875-8848; Jason Muche, 920/210-0181.