Believe it or not, the first time I fished the Detroit River was at the invitation of famed TV host Babe Winkelman and the Good Fishing TV crew. The time frame was in the late 80s and the walleye fishing on the Detroit River was just starting to gain national attention.
Prior to Babe arriving I was asked to do some pre-fishing, photography and interviews for magazine articles with a few of Babe’s professional fishing team members. Any time Babe plans to visit a fishing destination in anticipation of shooting a TV episode, he contacts local outdoor writers and arranges to spend a little time on the water with local talent.
I hooked up with noted walleye pro Bob Probst who at the time was working for Lindy Little Joe Tackle Company who of course was sponsoring the Good Fishing TV series. Dan Nelson the marketing guy and spokesperson at the time for Lindy Little Joe was in charge of coordinating the pre-fishing, photo shoots and evening bull sessions.
My buddy and fellow outdoor writer, the late David Richey of the Detroit News was also on hand to capture a story for the newspaper. Together we all spent several days on the river walleye fishing, shooting photos, sharing stories like fishermen will do and enjoying some great moments off the water as well.
I credit Dave Richey for giving me the kick in the pants I needed to start writing outdoor articles back in the early 80s. I give Bob Probst the credit for encouraging me to start fishing the Masters Walleye Circuit, which at the time represented the big leagues in walleye tournament fishing circles. Bob and his partner Mike McClelland were dominate forces on the circuit in those early years and a big part of their success was due to Bob’s ability to find fish no matter where he traveled to.
Watching Bob work his magic on the Detroit River was amazing. Prior to this trip Bob had never fished the Detroit River, but he had little trouble zeroing in on the best fishing spots and techniques. Bob told me at the time that a “river is a river” and he uses the same walleye fishing approach no matter what river he may be fishing.
Shallow And Sluggish
Most of our time on the water during that first experience with the Detroit River was spent in the very popular lower stretches between the power plant just south of the Elizabeth Park Boat Launch and the mouth of the river. What I found interesting is we fished both upstream and downstream. Instead of drifting with the current and vertical jigging like everyone else, we would slow troll upstream dragging our jigs well behind the boat and then drift back downstream over the same water vertical jigging.
In the lower parts of the Detroit River the current is sluggish compared to the upper river and most of the water we targeted was less than 10 feet deep. This simple approach kept us fishing 100% of the time. Actually, we fished almost 100% of the time because trolling upstream we were snagging our jigs on the bottom, breaking off and retying fairly often.
On this particular trip I learned three lessons about river walleye jigging. I quickly came to the conclusion that it’s best to fish with jigs provided by a sponsor when trolling upstream! More importantly, I also learned that as long as you’re in contact with the bottom it’s possible to catch walleye going both upstream and downstream. We used 3/8 ounce jigs for both vertical jigging and dragging the jigs back upstream.
Thirdly, I discovered that even in shallow water the boat can pass directly over top of walleye without spooking them. Thankfully, most rivers are fairly turbid and walleye feel very content in shallow water even when there are lots of boats fishing an area.
This tidbit of knowledge has served me very well over the years fishing a host of other walleye rivers including the Saginaw, Tittabawassee, Kalamazoo, St. Joe, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, Fox, St. Croix and even the mighty Mississippi and Missouri rivers. The advent of thin diameter and low stretch braided and fused lines makes it even easier to maintain contact with bottom fishing both with and against the current.
Faster And Deeper
When targeting walleye in deeper water and faster current, dragging jigs upstream is less productive in most instances than vertical jigging. When fishing deeper water the emphasis should be put on vertical jigging and also mastering the art of vertical jigging.
Vertical jigging sounds simple, but in fact this popular fishing technique is a lot more difficult to master than most anglers realize. Vertical jigging is a boat control thing and to become good at this presentation an angler must master the art of doing several things all at the same time.
Call it “walleye multi-tasking” — to vertical jig requires keeping your jig in close proximity to bottom, while using an electric motor to keep the boat positioned directly over top of the jig. Meanwhile, most guys who vertical jig are also fishing two rods at the same time, doubling the degree of difficulty.
Balancing all these tasks effectively is a challenge in of itself, but there is more to know about vertical jigging. To be honest, most guys move the jig by working the rod tips far too much to be effective. Getting bit isn’t so much about moving the jig enticingly, but rather keeping the jig close to bottom and letting the current naturally drift the jig downstream.
Too much movement on the jig is counterproductive because it literally takes the jig up and out of the strike zone. Remember when vertical jigging that there is a one to one ratio between how far the rod tip moves and how far the jig is lifted.
Guys who lift the rod tip two or three feet are literally taking the jig out of the narrow strike zone and then letting it drop back down into the strike zone. The best place for the jig to be is a few inches off the bottom. Keeping the jig in that narrow six inch wide “strike zone” as much as possible is the real key to becoming effective as a vertical jigger.
Instead of jigging constantly, lower the jig to bottom, lift up a few inches and then hold the jig still while the boat drifts downstream for several seconds. This is surprisingly hard to do for guys who have spent a lifetime keeping the jig in constant motion. Trust me, when you slow down the jigging stroke and hold the jig near bottom longer, the number of bites an angler gets goes up dramatically.
Plastics Or Live Bait
Back when I fished the Detroit River with Babe Winkelman, Bob Probst and Dave Richey we were all convinced that an emerald shiner minnow was necessary to getting bit. We were tipping our Fuzz-E-Grub jigs with shiners and that combination proved very effective.
These days my views have changed because we now have soft plastics that are far superior to those produced in the 80s and 90s. The biggest difference is modern soft plastics are softer, they have natural scent and they even have flavor enhancements that encourage a fish that bites them to hang onto them.
I use soft plastic much more often than I use minnows these days. Some of my favorites are the Berkley Gulp Minnows and the Ripple Shad series from PowerBait. Other good soft plastics are those produced by Yum and the TriggerX baits produced by Rapala.
There are still days that I feel it is important to use an emerald shiner for bait, but those are the days when the bite is tough, the water is cold and every edge is needed to be successful. Typically on these days I use a soft plastic and then top dress the set up with a live emerald shiner. This way I have the benefits of live bait and also should I miss a fish, I can drop back down and catch that fish or others in the group thanks to the fish catching powers of plastic.
When using a clean jig and live minnow, if you miss a fish the odds are the bait is torn free of the jig and there is no chance of tempting that fish into biting a bare jig. Because I use plastic and live bait in combination, it’s important to use a jig that can accommodate both.
Short shank style jigs which are popular with live bait anglers are a poor choice when fishing plastics and or plastics and live bait. A long shank jig with a larger hook gap is needed to fish both plastics and live bait at the same time.
My hands down favorite jig for vertical jigging on the Detroit River is the 3/8 and 5/8 ounce models of the Bait Rigs Odd’Ball Jig. This unique jig features a modified stand-up head that features a thin wire long hook shank Mustad hook. The stand-up design keeps the hook point up off the bottom when I lower the jig down, significantly reducing snagging. The thin wire hook penetrates the tough mouth of a walleye like no other and this jig readily accepts soft plastic, bait or both.
Summing It Up
Not a lot of dealers carry the Odd’Ball jig in the sizes or colors I favor so I order mine on-line at www.baitrigs.com. Thirty plus years of fishing the Detroit River have taught me a thing or two about getting the most out of my hours on the water. It’s the details that make the difference. It takes time to master the popular fishing presentations used on rivers like the Detroit River.
The good news is that we don’t have to talk about the “good ole days” when we talk about fishing the Detroit River. The spring walleye run these days is just as good as it was 30 years ago. Mark your calendar because in the month of April the place to be is the Detroit River.