For my money, there’s no better place to fish for walleyes this time of year, anywhere, than the Detroit River. It’s no secret. I swear, at times you could almost walk across the river going boat to boat and never get your feet wet.
There’s a reason: The river is full of fish. Not only is there a decent resident population of walleyes in the river, but the fish from the big lakes – Lake Erie on the lower end, Lake St. Clair on the upriver side – head into the river to spawn. Everybody knows the ’eyes will head upriver to spawn, but tagging studies show they’ll head downriver, too.
What is so remarkable is that even when the river is packed, almost everybody is catching fish. That’s how many fish are in there. Millions. And if you look at the registration numbers on the boats, you’ll quickly see how many folks come from far away to take advantage of this fishery.
The Detroit River fishery starts heating up in March and runs through June. Numbers-wise, the fishery just gets better as spring progresses, but the early bite is when the big sows are most abundant. If you’re like me and prefer the smaller fish for the table – say 20 inches or less—there can be times when it’s hard to catch them early because all you catch are big fish. The bite tapers off around the end of June. You’ll still catch fish but not as many or as quickly.
The spring walleye fishery is about 90 percent a jig fishery. The key is to stay as vertical as you can. Drift downstream using the bow mount motor to keep your presentation vertical.
The rule of thumb for jig fishing is to use the smallest jig you can get away with, but that’s not as important as making sure you stay in contact with the bottom. If it takes a bigger jig to keep you in contact with the bottom, use it. And bigger jigs have some advantages as well.
I used to use really small jigs (because I could), but when I went to a bigger, larger-profile jig in the river, I realized I caught more fish. With a larger profile, you hit the bottom harder – creating more of a disturbance in the silt or more noise if you’re hitting rocky bottom. And the fish can see it better. There’s a strong current, and when you’re moving at a good pace, the fish will react to it. Use bigger plastic trailers or minnows, too. You’ve got to have a big profile – it’s there and gone – and if you use too small a bait, they may not notice it.
With a bigger jig, the line is more taut. There’s no slack in it. It’s an instant feel. With a small jig, like an eighth ounce, there can be a little belly in the line. You won’t feel the fish.
I recommend that you always use a trailer hook. Sometimes the fish just grab the end of the bait, and the stinger will get them. Never, ever stick the trailer hook into the plastic body or minnow. It’s just like a treble hook on a Rapala – you want it swinging free. With the stinger hook in the minnow or plastic, it will not wobble as well. You’re restricting the movement of the bait. You’re handicapping yourself. It’s not that you’re not going to catch fish, but you won’t do as well as you would if that stinger hook is swinging free. Just make sure you use stiff line or wire. And make sure it’s the right length. You want that trailer hook on the side of the minnow or plastic, not too far behind it or too close to the jig hook.
I recommend using a high-visibility braided line. I like Flame Green Fireline because sometimes you don’t even feel the bite – it’s just a little tick – but watch your line. You can see it jump like it’s electrically charged. You can see it better than mono or fluorocarbon, though you can always use a length of either for a leader.
I always use a plastic trailer – my favorite is a Gulp paddle tail – though the most popular is a Wyandotte Worm, a three- or four-inch plastic worm. Brown and black are probably the most popular colors, but everyone has their favorites, and sometimes, when the bite is hot, it doesn’t seem to matter.
I always recommend taking minnows. You can add a minnow to the jig and plastic trailer. Sometimes it doesn’t make a difference, and sometimes it makes all the difference in the world. Why handicap yourself?
I also recommend buying an Ontario license. Sometimes there is a significant difference, because of the wind and current, in the water color on the different sides of the river, and if the water is too dirty (or, for that matter, too clear) where you’re fishing, head to the other side.
Many times on the Canadian side, you’ll catch bigger fish. I’ve learned that from years and years and years of fishing tournaments there.
But if you cross to Ontario, make sure you read their rules. For instance, you can only fish one rod, and they’ll see you if you’re jigging two. And you’re not supposed to bring live minnows into Canada. I carry a Ziploc bag and salt with me, and when I go to Canada, I put the minnows in the baggy and salt them. They work just fine.
And don’t be afraid to cast jigs and well as fish vertically. I was in Indianapolis doing a seminar recently, and a fellow came up to me and told me he saw me fishing, casting jigs toward the shallow rip-rap, and catching three fish in five minutes. I remember the day. I was fishing a tournament and had about five minutes before I had to leave, and I managed to cull out one of my smaller fish.
You can also anchor in the shallows or put your trolling motor on spot lock. Use a bigger jig, at least a half ounce, cast it deeper and bring it back up the incline, the drop-off, or the edge of the channel. That’s something that’s really come on in the last five years. You might not feel the bite. You’re either going to pick it up, and the fish is there, and you feel the weight, or you’ll see your line jump. Around the islands is a good place to use this technique. There’s often a current break downstream of the island, and the fish will hold in the current break.
Trolling is also a great way to fish the Detroit River, but I’m about out of space this month. I’ll save that for another time.