Patterns of the Great Lakes Walleye Spawn
July 23, 2012
In spring, mass movements of huge Great Lakes walleyes flock to and funnel through natural bottlenecks at river inlets, harbor entrances and bay mouths, within easy reach of anglers afloat or afoot. Thousands upon thousands of the largest walleyes in these huge systems may move hundreds of miles, concentrating into loose megaschools lingering at river or bay mouths, before running the final gauntlet to their spawning grounds. In extreme cases, as with walleyes moving upstream from Lake Erie into the Detroit River, it's not thousands but millions of fish, many of bewildering proportions, channeled beneath your hull.
Being in the right place at the right time to intercept such movements is a thing of beauty. Rather than pursuing monster walleyes out amidst the great void of midlake suspension, they instead have assembled en masse and come directly to you. The unnaturally high concentration of huge fish makes every bite a potential delight. Oddswise, this is about as good as it gets for catching numbers of fish exceeding ten pounds, with teens not unrealistic.
Primary Spawning Patterns
Rivers--Whenever big-water fish enter rivers, they become river fish, behaving like river fish for the short duration of their visit. Therefore treat them as river fish, regardless of their mainlake origin, immense proportions and bewildering numbers. (OK, so you can use a bigger lure to trigger bigger fish if you wish.)
River walleyes all fall under the auspices of current rules, which basically state that current rules. Walleyes moving upstream follow current edges, ducking out of the flow whenever possible to minimize effort. At harbor mouths, fish tuck behind bridge pilings, and tight along riprap and pier edges, slipping upstream through small pockets and areas of reduced flow. At river bends, they drop down into the basins of holes where current moderates, resting awhile 'til moving upstream again, dodging from boulder to log to eddy on their journey to spawning sites. Likely spawning areas feature broken rock swept by current, be they natural spots like rocky shorelines or shallow midriver shoals; or manmade areas like riprapped shorelines, bridge foundations or pier faces.
During the peak of the spawning run, walleyes relating to shoal-pool combinations lie in the basins of pools during the day, moving shallow at night to spawn. During the day, drift through pools with jig and minnow combos, or three-way rigs tipped with minnows. Troll back upcurrent using three-ways to present wobbling minnow imitator crankbaits in the flow. At night, cast or longline troll diving crankbaits across the tops of shallow current-swept rocks.
Fish manmade structure at harbor mouths and river inlets, typically early in the migration prespawn fish, and later for postspawn walleyes dispersing back to the lake. Longline troll crankbaits at night, parallel and tight to riprap and manmade structure. Corners, projections and irregularities in seawalls create current breaks where fish can lie out of the flow, yet within easy reach of a passing meal. A big crankbait wobbling through the darkness creates a perfect target for a big 'eye on the prowl. Where midriver current breaks are scarce due to dredging and channelization, fish line up along shoreline edges, in perfect position for a longline trolling presentation.
Piers and walkways permit easy foot access to the river's edge. Where prominent structure breaks current flow, walk it, cast it, wade it if you can safely do so. Be stealthy, making long casts as parallel as possible to shore, retrieving your crankbait upcurrent. With so many fish entering the river, the chances are excellent for catching multiple big fish at night, perhaps even outproducing the efforts of anglers fishing in boats.
Water clarity determines the hours of peak walleye activity. Clarity often changes at river mouths, turning from ultraclear to dingy, typical of rivers. If so, expect good river fishing during the day. If the water remains clear, however, prime activity and movement occurs at night. Tailor your efforts accordingly.
Connected Waters--Should walleyes pass upriver through connected lakes and harbors which widen out and diminish current, the effects of current on fish behavior also diminish. Walleyes now become lake fish again, subject to the same rules as lake fish elsewhere. It's tempting to say that the lake rules, and current drools, though even subtle current can have strong attracting power for walleyes, particularly at spawning time. Current oxygenates rocky shorelines and reefs, a prerequisite for a healthy hatch. It draws them shallow to feed at night. It affects the movements of suspended baitfish. So don't ignore the effects of current. Current becomes one of many factors in a lake habitat, though not necessarily the dominant one.
In a connected lake environment, water color and forage location are major factors at walleye spawning time. If the water is dingy, walleyes may remain shallow during the day, relating to weeds, dropoffs, rock points, reefs or manmade structure, particularly near potential spawning areas along rock shorelines and shoals. Fish may feed day or night, during both, or not much at all. These are big animals however, seldom suffering food shortage and used to easy meals on a regular basis. The odds are they'll continue to feed and be prone to bite if you present a lure or bait in front of them.
Match your tactics to structural conditions. Shallow rocks typically call for casting jigs or crankbaits. Dropoff edges beg for backtrolling with jigs and minnows, or livebait rigging with big chubs. Probe weededges with jigs. Remember, very big fish can be caught surprisingly shallow if the water color permits.
If the water's clear, however, walleyes may not be active during the day, at least not in the shallows or on the edges of prominent structure. Odds are that big walleyes will revert back to mid-basin suspended behavior, particularly if suspended forage like smelt also are in the area. Substantial schools of walleyes may feed across the basin of a connected lake during the day, and then move shallow onto rocky spawning areas at night. Open-water trolling with planer boards, presenting either crankbaits or spinner-crawler harnesses at the proper depth, may be your most effective daytime options. At night, when fish move shallower, longline trolling or casting crankbaits in the shallows may be your best bets.
Most of the larger walleyes typically move out of rivers and harbors in summer, though sufficiently large or deep connected lakes may retain some portion of the population, at least for awhile. But as the food moves, so do the big fish. Schools of big suspended typically linger in the basin immmediately adjacent to river mouths, providing good offshore fishing for a few days to a few weeks until eventually following their suspended forage out into the great beyond.
Adjacent Patterns-- While most Great Lakes walleye areas host river spawning populations, fish may also spawn on mainlake reefs or rocky shoreline where conditions are suitable. Nowhere is this pattern more common than on Lake Erie, where untold millions of walleye spawn in the Western Basin atop shallow rock reefs a few miles off the Ohio shoreline. Many other fish swim up major rivers like the Detroit, Maumee, Sandusky, or Grand, spawning in traditional fashion atop shallow gravel shoals washed by current flow. Yet lake spawners comprise an important segment of the population.
Yet even with lake spawners, the same mass migration principles apply. In Erie, millions of fish from the Central and Eastern Basins make extended seasonal movements into the shallow Western Basin, flooding the area with a heavy concentration of big walleyes from late October thru June. When actively spawning for a short period in mid April, big walleyes move atop the reefs at night. Pitchin' jigs, crankbaits, blade baits or jigging spoons into 5 or 6 feet of water at night catches hawg females in amongst the hordes of smaller males. But during the bulk of the time prior to and after the spawn, those same big fish suspend somewhere in the adjacent basin, anywhere from belly to the bottom, to inches below the surface, depending on feeding activity and forage location. Thus anything from vertical jigging and livebait rigging, to casting weight forward spinners or flippin' harnesses, to open-water trolling with crankbaits or spinner-crawler harnesses can be fair game. Walleye depth and location dictates the most productive presentation--just like in summer, except concentrated in a limited area.
Wherever spawning walleyes gather--river, harbor, bay or adjacent open basin--the key concept is concentration. The old shootin' fish in a barrel syndrome. Put enough big fish in a small area and you perhaps don't need to be either lucky or good. Just get a hook in the water. It's hard not to get bit amidst the biggest bite of big fish in history.
Multiple Patterns in and Around Connected Waters
While few Great lakes areas feature the wealth of fishing patterns shown in this example, it's not unusual for spots to exhibit more than one type of walleye activity in fall. Might be edges of classic structure during the day and atop weedbeds at night. Could be roaming the basin of a connected lake during the day, then moving shallow onto rock points or manmade slab piles at night. Or roaming the basin outside a harbor mouth during the day, then moving into the major river mouth, along breakwalls and piers, after dark, within easy reach of shorecasters. Depends on what's available. The better you decipher what the fish are doing, the more likely you'll catch them, day or night.
Faced with such diverse habitat, versatility is necessary. The angler able to effectively fish open water, edges of structure, shallow shorelines, and specific shorecasting spots with equal precision should catch big fish, day or night. Yet even anglers fishing from shore can at times catch more and bigger walleyes than boat fishermen, if the fish move into distinct reachable spots at night. You sacrifice a bit of sleep, but the odds for success are in your favor.