The Detroit River’s epic spring walleye run comes but once a year. Those anglers who have experienced the Detroit River when it’s red hot can attest that the bite is epic.
The walleye start tricking into the river in March and by early April the river is alive with fish and world class jigging opportunities. By early May most of the adult females have spawned and returned to their summer haunts and by Memorial Day the bite focuses almost exclusively on aggressive males that linger in the river.
Seemingly these smaller males would rather forage in the river than return to the big pond. If you missed the big fish run earlier in the spring, this late May bite is one more last chance to fill the freezer.
Start to finish the walleye run is only a little over 60 days which means any way a walleye enthusiast slices it the wait between annual spring river runs is about 300 days!! This sobering fact is important because it should focus anglers on how important it is to hit the Detroit River prepared for success.
A Mindset For Success
The spring walleye run on the Detroit River attracts a literal army of anglers, but not all of these fishermen are catching fish. When the bite is snapping seemingly nets are flying everywhere, but the reality is most of the fish are being caught by a minority of anglers who possess collectively a critical skill set.
Jig fishing is a “skill”, not an art as some might suggest. Becoming a skillful jig fisherman doesn’t happen over-night, but it can happen for anyone who is willing to put in the time and pay attention to the important details.
Successful river jig fishing starts with boat control. The majority of the fish taken from the Detroit River every spring are caught using a presentation known as vertical jigging. The idea of fishing a jig directly below the boat is simple enough to understand, but what a majority of fishermen don’t realize is that vertical jigging is only possible when the boat is under complete control.
Fishermen use all kinds of “means” in controlling their boats, but the only practical solution is to use a bow mounted electric motor for this chore. Both traditional cable driven and modern wireless electric motors can be used for vertical jigging. The difference is that cable driven motors are foot controlled and wireless motors can be controlled with either a foot control or a key fob.
The key fob option works great for anglers who are only fishing with one line. Those anglers who wish to master vertical jigging with two rods will need to also master the use of the foot control.
When vertical jigging in flowing water, the electric motor is used to position the boat overtop of the jig. In effect, vertical jigging is about getting the boat, current and jig to all move downstream at the same speed. Since as anglers we have no control over the current, we must use the electric motor to match up the boat’s drifting speed to the current speed.
Creating this delicate balance takes a little practice, but anyone can learn to control a boat in flowing water and various wind conditions using an electric motor. The struggle to stay vertical is a constant battle and requires 100 percent concentration, 100 percent of the time!
The best way to keep the boat moving at the same speed as the current is to use periodic short bursts of power from the electric motor. If too much power is provided by the electric motor, a boat that is moving at just the right speed will suddenly be moving either faster or slower than the current.
In either case the fishing line moves from the “vertical” or straight down orientation to angling upstream or downstream. When the line begins to angle away from the boat, contact with the bottom is lost. To compensate for the line angling and the jig lifting off bottom, the angler simply uses the electric motor to drive the boat, back over top of the jig.
Once an angler understands the need to stay vertical and how to control a boat with an electric motor to accomplish this goal, the focus moves on to finding and staying on fish. River walleye are seemingly always on the move, forcing anglers to be doing the same thing.
The one thing that remains constant is regardless of where geographically in the river walleye are found, these fish are always going to be found on the bottom. Several kinds of bottom structure routinely attract and hold walleye including flats, channel edges, wavy bottoms and sea wall edges.
Flats are the easiest structure to fish because the fish tend to spread out on the flat and the depth doesn’t change significantly. The area downstream of the Ambassador Bridge and also out in front of Wyandotte, downstream to Grassy Island are good examples of river flats.
Channel edges are like “fish highways” but this form of structure is the most difficult to fish because these edges meander and the water depth along the edge is constantly changing. The river channel is well defined near Mud Island, out in front of the 80 inch steel mill and near the water intake on the west side of Fighting Island.
Wavy bottoms are places where the current has scoured out depressions in the bottom. Walleye lay in these depressions to escape the direct flow of the current. A good example of a wavy bottom is the area out in front of Cobo Hall near the middle of the river.
Sea wall edges are also common in the Detroit River and this structure type tends to concentrate fish very close to the bank edge. The area directly in front of Cobo Hall, the area around the Post Office, the area by the Coast Guard Station and the area directly downstream of the Wyandotte public boat launch are just a few of the sea wall edges that routinely hold fish.
Once an angler understands boat control and the river structure types that routinely find fish, the focus of vertical jigging switches to using the proper rods, reels, fishing line and leaders. The advent of fused and super braid lines is perhaps the best thing that ever happened to Detroit River walleye jiggers.
Fused and super braid lines are very thin in diameter and feature near zero stretch. The thin diameter helps in reducing friction and makes it easier to stay vertical with lighter jigs. Low stretch in fishing line plays to sensitivity and makes it far easier to detect subtle strikes.
Most of the anglers who use fused lines are fishing with either six or eight pound test. Anglers who prefer super braids are normally fishing 10 pound test.
Both fused and super braids are excellent choices for vertical jigging. The biggest difference between these common line types is that fused lines are flat in shape and braids are round like monofilament. Anglers argue about which line type is best, but because super braids are round they tend to lay on a reel spool better and are more user friendly to fish.
It’s also true that fused lines tend to suffer from abrasion issues and need to be replaced more often than super braids. A quality super braid such as Maxima’s Braid 8 is tightly wrapped, coated to make it slide smoothly though the rod guides and will last a jig fisherman two or three seasons.
Because fused and super lines have near zero stretch, the best rods for fishing them tend to be high modulus graphite spinning models that feature a soft tip and fast action. In most brands of rods a six or six/six medium light action rod with a fast or extra fast tip makes for excellent jigging sticks.
The sensitive tip is critical because it has to telegraph the strike and also absorb the shock that occurs when the hook is set. A rod that is too stiff will literally tear the jig right out of the fish’s mouth.
The ideal spinning reels for vertical jigging are smaller 25 or 30 size models with wide spools. A wide spool reel collects line without creating excessive memory or loops in the line. This feature may seem minor, but a wide spool reel allows line to flow off the reel smoothly when lowering the jig to bottom.
Because super lines are expensive, most anglers load their reel half full with monofilament and then put a top dressing of about 75 yards of fused or super braid line.
What comes next is a constant debate among jig fishermen. Some anglers tie their jig directly to the fused or super braid line and others feel it is important to add a 24 inch leader of fluorocarbon line and tie the jig to the fluorocarbon leader.
The debate rages on, but anyway it is sliced super braids and fused lines are more visible in the water than fluorocarbon line. A 24 inch leader of 10-12 pound test fluorocarbon attached using a Double Uni Knot gives anglers the best of both worlds. Super sensitivity and a nearly invisible jig to line combination make this option something every jig fisherman should consider seriously.
The Hook Set
The moment of truth comes in vertical jigging when a fish bites. The problem is vertical jigging produces two distinctively different bites that anglers must learn to detect.
The first kind of strike is a no-brainer to detect because it feels like a distinctive tap or tick in the line. This type of strike occurs when the jig is resting on a taunt line and the sensation of the bite is readily transferred up the line, into the rod tip and ultimately into the hand of the fisherman.
It’s the second type of bite that most anglers struggle with. When a strike occurs as the jig is falling in the water on slack line, no distinctive tick or tap can be felt. Instead when the rod is lifted and the line pulled tight again a sensation of weight is felt.
When an inexperienced angler feels this sensation of weight, the first reaction is the jig must be snagged. A second of hesitation is all it takes and the fish spits out the jig.
The key to being successful jig fishermen is to condition oneself to set the hook when anything feels different. For some anglers this is the most difficult part of vertical jigging to master.
How the hook is set is the next critical piece of the puzzle. Most anglers who detect a strike tend to drop the rod tip slightly then rare back and let the fish have it. In vertical jigging it’s critical to lift the rod in a sweeping motion that works to keep the line tight.
The sweep set never gives the fish an opportunity to detect the angler’s presence and drop the bait. The best jig fishermen develop a sweep set that amounts to a lightning fast reaction time. This small, but critically important detail is what often separates a good jig fisherman from one whose skills are off the charts.
Not All Jigs Are Created Equal
Anglers on the Detroit River tend to fish ball style jigs and most buy them from basement builders who use the cheapest possible hooks. The ball shape of the jig is okay for vertical jigging, but the hook is the most important link between the fish and fisherman.
Premium hooks that are razor sharp make a huge difference in how many of the fish that bite are ultimately hooked and landed. The best jig fishermen I have shared a boat with are ardent about making sure they are fishing jigs with premium hooks. The instant a hook point gets even a little dull it needs to be sharpened to “sticky” sharp status.
Stand-up style jigs are also an advantage when vertical jigging. A stand-up jig keeps the hook point upright and off the bottom when the jig makes contact with the bottom. With ball heads and other jig designs the instant the jig makes contact with bottom, the hook rolls over.
Stand-up jigs hook more of the fish that bite because the hook is always in the proper upright position for a hook set. Also stand-up jigs tend to snag a little less often than ball jigs. Many anglers don’t feel it’s important to use stand-up jigs and jigs with premium hooks, but these tiny differences can and do make a big impact on fishing success.
Two Rod Jigging
The final step in becoming a proficient vertical jigger is mastering the skill of fishing two rods at the same time. Two rod jigging puts twice the baits in the water and equally increases an anglers likelihood of success. The problem with two rod jigging is not everyone adapts easily to this “multi-tasking” fishing technique.
The only way to master two rod jigging is to fish with two rods and push through the nagging desire to put one rod down and just fish. Obviously fishing two rods doubles the chances of success, but it also doubles the chances of snagging, makes for more work keeping live bait in the water and makes the boat control process that much more complicated.
The best way to describe two rod jigging is that it’s a pain in the back side to master, but once a person gets proficient vertical jigging with two rods, it feels strange to fish with just one rod.
Every time I fish on the Ontario side of the Detroit River where only one line per angler is allowed by law, it feels like my right arm has been chopped off!
Summing It Up
Vertical jigging when practiced with razor sharp skills amounts to a fish harvesting system. Like anything worthwhile, mastering this popular presentation requires considerable time on the water. Oh well, I guess that means we will all just have to fish a little more often.