Jigging Great Lakes River Walleyes

For all intents and purposes, Great Lakes tributaries are a study in contrasts. Despite seemingly similar big-water destinations, there are manic rippers (the Detroit and St. Clair) and mellow ramblers (Green Bay's Fox and Minnesota's St. Louis). In either instance, the whys and wherefores of walleye location--and, thereby, presentation--are dictated by depth and current flow, which is why predictable, established patterns that prevail in one don't hold water for the other.

"In strong current, fish always seem to be away from the edge--30 to 40 feet away from the edge of the channel and even farther," says In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail (PWT) pro Daryl Christensen, Montello, Wisconsin. "The difference with slow current, surprisingly, is that the fish aren't in the middle where you'd expect them to be. They're on the channel edges."

The differences don't end there. Channel-dwelling walleyes in the big brawlers love plastic tails. Edge-inhabiting 'eyes in the easy riders gravitate to bait. In spring, or in anticipation of it, on Great Lakes rivers, the jig is up with methods that match the current, depth, and water clarity.


Heavy current the likes of the Detroit and St. Clair tends not to put the river walleyes on the channel edge in any considerable concentration--possibly the current is too strong where the flow has its great smashup with the break. A better bet, then, is the channel itself, where the treacherous underwater terrain of the decidedly urban Detroit, for instance, consists of slag, rock, rebar, and whatnot.

"You need a heavy lure, jig or handline to bust through that strong surface current," Christensen says. "But when you get down there, the current's not as strong, because rocks and submerged cars are knocking that current down."

Nevertheless, a heavy jig is what it takes to get to the bottom and, importantly, to drop it in pockets behind obstructions, where fish lie in slightly slack water but are impossible to reach without the quick reaction time of a big jig that plummets back to bottom. Because of jig size, sometimes up to 3/4 ounce, a baitcasting rod with a reel with a flipping switch to pay out line in a flash is entirely compatible with heavy current.

If that is one no-holds-barred approach Christensen takes, 2002 PWT Champion Keith Kavajecz seldom exceeds 3/8-ouncers in the Detroit.

"People get a little carried away with supersizing," Kavajecz says. "There's a point of diminishing returns. A lot of people say they can't fish the Detroit with 3/8-ounce jigs. One of the biggest mistakes people make is going to 3/4- to 1-ounce jigs because they can't stay perfectly vertical due to poor boat control."

That's why when vertical jigging in heavy current--and vertical means vertical, not off on even a slight angle--it helps to point the bow of the boat, maneuvered with a bowmount trolling motor, straight into the wind. Beyond that, Kavajecz favors a momentary setting on a trolling motor of 70 to 80 percent for quick bursts to chase after the line and stay perfectly vertical.

Pinpointing the walleyes, meanwhile, is more about the fish-holding depth du jour than anything else.

"In order to find them, you've got to fish," Christensen says. "That's the whole concept guys can't figure out. You can't run around marking fish. You have to fish them. But then those fish move. One day they're in 24 feet. The next day they're in 18 or 30."

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Wherever they are, plastic often rules in heavy current for action that stands out in the face of turbulence--and due to the walleye's now-or-never need to take the bait when it's whisking past them, with little opportunity for inspection.

"In a current situation, they don't have time to size up and study that thing," says PWT pro Mark Gwizdala, Kawkawlin, Michigan. "If they don't get it, a buddy is going to get it. Zap, he hits it."

A number of soft plastics, however unorthodox at times, are top choices for rivers. It's hard to beat a Berkley 3-inch Power Minnow in chartreuse and pearl or black and pearl. If the walleyes seem to bite short, pinch off an inch of the head to shorten it a bit. A Berkley Gulp! crawler cut in half also does the job in cold spring rivers. Meanwhile, my pal Greg Yarbrough, a PWT pro from White Lake, Michigan, who grew up fishing the Detroit, is partial to Mister Twister 3-inch Sassy Shads--silver or gold fleck on an unpainted jighead when water clarity reaches two feet, chartreuse fleck on bright days, red-and-orange crawfish in darker water. Then again, almost anything goes when a plastic salamander gets bit; check out the 5-inch Yum Zellamander, a bass bait, for instance. I've even seen a bass-style Yamamoto Hula Grub with a minnow catch one big walleye after another.

Which brings us back to bait. One of Kavajecz's favorite tricks is to pinch off the tail of a twister, then tip it with a minnow, to provide size and bulk. Just don't limit yourself.

"Some days livebait will kick butt," Kavajecz says. "Other days, they want plastic."


For rivers with slower flow, livebait returns to the forefront. One of the main reasons is that walleyes in more moderate current have more time to check out a jig and are less willing to lash out at the soft plastics that whip by in speedier rivers.

Consider, too, the more precise holding locations. Walleyes in slower flow set up on outside bends of rivers, on channel edges and at the front of and in the middle of holes instead of down deep in the straightaways of the Detroit or St. Clair.

"When you get beyond the industrial part of the rivers, where do you look?" posits Christensen. "The fish are pretty much holding on every bend."

Prime examples of such rivers include the St. Louis between Minnesota and Wisconsin and Michigan's Muskegon, where vertical jigging is not the be-all and end-all of catching spring walleyes. Water temperature can play a role in drawing fish into a few feet of water, where pitching much lighter jigs of perhaps 1/8 ounce and swinging them in the current targets fish focused on riprap or near warm water discharges. On a river running east-west, the sun-warmed north side, too, will often be more protected from cold north winds and have slightly warmer water with more aggressive walleyes. (Warmer pockets of water are one reason you might catch a spawned-out female when the rest of the river is a frigid 38F.)

Another prime example of shallow water entering the picture is on Michigan's Tittabawassee River, a tributary to Saginaw Bay where Gwizdala tosses jigs, especially a Northland short-shank Fire-Ball jig with a minnow, to as shallow as six inches to two feet. (It's never too cold for crawlers in a river, Gwizdala says.) The Tittabawassee is a shallow river in direct opposition to the neighboring Saginaw, where the shipping channel tends to focus fish in deeper trenches. Where shallow water dominates, holes and bends are the focal points.

Shallow and moderate versus deep and fast--the makeup of a Great Lakes river influences the where, why, and how of spring walleye action. When the river's going slow and shallow, you'll live on the edge; when the water's ripping, you'll live beyond it. All of which is why, when predictable, established patterns that prevail in one don't hold water for the other, it's time to go with the flow.

*Dave Scroppo, a freelance writer from Traverse City, Michigan, often covers In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail tournaments for Walleye In-Sider.

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