The words “March Madness” scream college basketball to most. Around the Romanack household March Madness better describes the mad dash involved in getting boats and fishing gear ready for the first open water of the season. Sometimes our first open water trip comes in March and sometimes not until early April. The weatherman holds those controls, but always getting back on soft water after a long winter is something worth celebrating.
The Great Lakes region is rich in fishing opportunities and some of them are red hot even when the water is ice cold.
March On Lake Erie
If March comes in like a lamb, there will be good fishing on Lake Erie’s Western Basin spawning reefs for pre-spawn walleye. The Western Basin is chuck full of rock and gravel strewn spawning reefs, but some of the most popular fishing spots are located near the David Besse Nuclear Plant, just west of Port Clinton, Ohio.
In part these reefs are popular because there is a conveniently located launch site at Fenwick Marina on Route 2, just a couple miles west of the Davis Besse plant. Secondly, there are several reefs in this general area helping to spread out the boats a little. Thirdly, finding these spawning reefs is really pretty simple.
The major reefs are clearly marked on the mapping pages of most GPS units and also on printed maps produced by Fishing Hot Spots,
www.fishinghotspots.com. If you fish Lowrance Electronics Lake Insight Pro is a premium mapping chip that covers more than 5,000 US lakes, the Great Lakes and major rivers. The cost is about $100, but the amount of information contained makes this product worth every penny.
Once you’ve arrived on a reef, pitching jigs tipped with live minnows is going to be the most productive way of putting fish in the boat. Most of the fish caught are smaller males in the 17 to 20 inch range, but larger females are also taken.
I’m a big fan of the Bait Rigs Odd’ball jig for walleye fishing on rock and gravel. This stand-up style jig does an outstanding job of keeping the hook point positioned upwards and away from snags. When a walleye slurps up an Odd’ball, the hook point ends up in the roof of their mouth every time. Compared to ball head jigs, the hooking ratio of the Odd’ball is off-the-charts good.
New for 2014 Bait Rigs has a new version of the Odd’ball that will immediately be popular among anglers who target walleye in turbid water conditions. The FinSpin version of the Odd’ball features a small Colorado blade on the bottom of the jig that flips, spins and flutters creating all kinds of attention. Ideal for early season fishing when the water is typically milky or off color, these jigs are so new they are not in bait shops yet. Go on line at www.baitrigs.com to order a few.
One quick reminder, at this time of year the Ohio waters of Lake Erie have a reduced creel limit on walleye. It’s best to check local regulations (available from license agents) before heading out to target early spring Lake Erie walleye.
March River Walleye
Depending on the year, the latter part of March can often see a big push of fish into the Detroit River. Generally speaking these are some of the biggest fish of the year and most of these giants head straight to the best spawning habitat located primarily in the upper river.
Targeting these fish is a bit of a gamble because March is an unstable time of year from a weather perspective. If the wind blows Lake St. Clair will quickly turn into a sea of muddy water, all of which must pass through the Detroit River.
The best March Detroit River fishing typically occurs on years when we have early ice break up, mild weather and not too much rain. This perfect storm of conditions rarely happens which means that jig fishing on the Detroit River in March is literally a crap shoot. It’s best to have local contacts who can give day to day water clarity reports.
Fishing in dirty water is always challenging, but fishing in dirty water that is also ice cold is plain crazy.
Much of the water in the upper river is fairly deep which in turn means that anglers are going to be using primarily 1/2, 5/8 and 3/4 ounce lead head jigs tipped with live emerald shiner minnows. Most anglers at this time of year opt to add a No. 10 treble hook stinger as short strikes are the norm.
A painfully slow jigging stroke works best in cold water. I call it “tight-line” jigging because I move the rod upwards and downwards so slowly that the line to the jig is always taunt. I also like to pause at the top of the jigging stroke for several seconds before lowering the jig back to bottom.
This kind of jigging is also tailor made for performance style jigs like the Odd’ball mentioned earlier. The 5/8 ounce size is my go to jig, but at time when the water is deep and the current swift, I’ll bump up to the 3/4 ounce size.
Normally when I talk about walleye jigging in rivers, soft plastic plays a big role. In the extremely cold waters of March, it’s simply impossible to beat the fish catching powers of a live emerald shiner minnow. Enough said.
Coho A Go Go
March is also a time when the first open water fishing opportunities for coho, steelhead, browns and kings light up. In the super early season when water temperatures are below 40 degrees, most anglers concentrate on warm water discharge sites or river mouth regions that attract bait and game fish early on.
A lot of anglers start their season at Michigan City on the Michigan and Indiana border. Others target fish at Port Sheldon commonly called the “bubbler”, at St. Joe and also at Holland. A similar bite occurs on the Lake Huron side from the St. Clair River north to Harbor Beach.
Early season fishing for trout and salmon is typically a trolling game and planer boards like the popular Off Shore Tackle Side-Planer play heavy in this equation. At the terminal end, shallow diving minnow shaped crankbaits like the classic Rapala Floating Minnow are pretty tough to beat. Other good early season stickbaits include the Reef Runner RipStick, Salmo’s Sting, Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnow and Storm ThunderStick.
As the water begins to warm above 40 degrees, other baits like small spoons and higher action crankbaits start to kick into gear. The Mini-Streak produced by Wolverine Tackle is my go-to spoon for early season coho and browns. I generally get these to depth by fishing them behind Tadpole Divers by Off Shore Tackle or TripZ Divers, now known as RunDown Divers.
Both of these divers can be fished easily in combination with in-line boards. I favor the No. 1 Tadpole and the size 20 RunDown diver, with a six foot leader of 15-17 pound test fluorocarbon line and a good ball bearing swivel attached to the bait.
Higher action crankbaits also light up when the water warms into the low 40s. Good trout and salmon crankbaits include the Yakima FatFish and Mag Lips 3.5 model, the Storm Hot n’ Tot and also the Wiggle Wart.
Fishing these baits in combination with in-line boards helps to spread out the lures and cover more water. Trolling speeds in these cold waters ranges from about 1.5 MPH to 2.0 MPH. It only takes a few calm and sunny days to warm the waters into the mid-40 degree range and this is when the bite hits a peak.
Summing It Up
March Madness can be about basketball or it can be about the first open water fishing opportunities of the year. Here in Michigan the arrival of open water is something worth celebrating. The Romanack’s divide this early season action between walleye and trout/salmon fishing. Either way, it feels good to be on the water and stretching a line.
For more information and video clips on fishing check out the Fishing 411 TV web page at www.fishing411.net and also the Fishing 411 Facebook site.