Tips and tricks for catching Detroit River walleyes that you can use anywhere!
April can be a frustrating month for avid walleye anglers. Within most waterways throughout the Midwest and Canada, the first half of the month sees fishing season not yet open, and once open, the weather can be more unfavorable than not.
But there’s one place where the bite only gets better as April slowly wanes, and that’s on the Detroit River. Here, within the flow that connects Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie, the season for targeting walleyes is open throughout the entire year. And then there’s an estimated nineteen million walleyes swimming within this fast-flowing waterway this month alone, here to go through the rituals of spawning. But neither the fishing nor catching comes easy here. The current is quick, and the wind can blow hard from almost any direction and push you off course. Overall, it’s boat control that separates the anglers who land a limit from those who come back to the dock empty-handed.
Luckily, the technique that takes the most fish here, vertical jigging, is a fairly easy ploy to use. But even then, there are little details that make a big difference in how many fish are landed. And it’s these same tips and techniques that will help you catch fish in rivers all year long, no matter where it is you’re fishing.
River fishing is unique in its own right. Unlike in natural lakes and reservoirs, where 90 percent of the fish only hold in 10 percent of the water, fish can be spread throughout the entire river system. It all depends on the flow. Is the water rising due to runoff from rain or snow, or drought has levels falling? Is it muddy or clear? Cold or warm? There is so much riding on the water’s environment at the moment. Exploring it all is key.
Overall, in the Detroit River, waters are flowing fast and slightly elevated due to the runoff of melting ice from Lakes Huron and St. Clair, as well as any added precipitation that may be falling. Ultra-muddy water conditions can be the death of a good bite. Lightly stained water is more desirable. If the water’s too dirty downstream, I’ll motor upstream to find cleaner conditions.
In rivers, walleyes will head right to the bank as the water rises. Pitching jigs to the bank or even up onto the flooded grassy plains is a great ploy in most waterways.
The best way to find key catching locations is with an SD card filled with Navionics mapping to find holes and runs near shore. With a Navionics card in the card-reader of my Lowrance HDS-12 LIVE sonar/chart plotter combo, I can see where every hole, hump and bump lies underwater. And that means I can find more places than ever to catch fish, even in waterways I thought I knew. Navionics mapping has opened my eyes to what really lies below my boat and has helped me discover new spots.
Ready – Aim – Drop
Once I have found a place I want to fish and it’s deep enough for vertical jigging, I’ll motor my Lund well above the run and, with its nose pointed upstream, deploy my bow-mounted electric trolling motor and get its prop spinning.
An electric trolling motor in the bow is the most important piece of equipment for boat control. My foot is continuously on the controller pedal, endlessly turning left, right, goosing the power up or turning it down, all so I can keep the boat moving down stream at the exact same speed as the current.
Controlling my boat is why I also spool up with brightly-colored Berkley FireLine, such as Flame Green or Crystal, on my ABU Garcia reels. Using such brightly-colored lines allows me to see the angles my jigs are going into the water, which indicates to me whether I need to speed up, slow down or turn. What I am trying to achieve is a perfect vertical presentation.
The rods I use for vertical jigging here need to be slightly more powerful than what I would use in a lake and have an extra-fast action. This allows me to feel the moment my jig taps bottom, so I can lift it up and out of a snag’s way. It also allows me to quickly pull huge walleyes up and off the bottom. The perfect stick is Fenwick’s 6-foot 6-inch medium-action Elite Tech Walleye spinning rod.
And that FireLine I use? I prefer 10-pound test, and I tie the superline directly to the jig using a Palomar knot. Trust me on this, the fish will not care about the brightly-colored line whatsoever.
I prefer heavy jigs, rather than going with my usual lightest the wind and waves will let me get away with. Northland’s 3/8-ounce Deep-Vee Jig does the trick very well in heavy current, and they come in a variety of ’eye-catching colors. The “V” shape of the jig cuts through the water nicely, as well it’ll pop out of a snag easier than a standard round ball head.
Nip and Fall
It wasn’t all that long ago, in the early 2000s, that live minnows were the only bait folks were using in the Detroit River. (Well, almost anywhere, for that matter.) But then came softbaits like Berkley PowerBait and GULP!
Now, it’s not to say a lively shiner isn’t going to catch fish, but I will say that a PowerBait Pro Jig Worm or GULP! Minnow will take as many fish and stay on the hook longer.
And jigging these baits is as easy as lowering the jig to the bottom, and the moment you feel the bottom, lift the lure about one foot, then repeat. Walleye bite extremely light. A strike may feel nothing more than like an ultra-light “tick,” or just something different, like added weight, from all the other ups and downs you made with the lure.
The Detroit River is a unique fishery in itself, but the lessons you learn here will be priceless in any river.
By far, boat control is the crucial link between landing a limit and going back to the dock empty-handed. Use a bow-mounted electric trolling motor to your advantage. Pitch jigs to shore when the water rises, and use heavier jigs when you’re vertical jigging. And don’t overlook softbaits as well as lively live bait.
Mark Martin is an instructor with the Fishing Vacation/Schools on ice and open water who lives in Michigan’s southwestern Lower Peninsula. Check out his website at markmartins.net for more information.