There are only two possible explanations for not fishing the Detroit River when the walleyes are going in the spring: either you live a thousand miles away or you don’t fish.
There are an estimated 2.4 million walleyes moving through the Detroit River in the spring. There’s 32 miles of river. Do the math. That’s 75,000 fish per mile. You almost can’t drop a jig without hitting a walleye on the head with it.
Not that that means you’ll load the boat. You’ve still got to make them bite, play them, and land them. But limit-catches are fairly common and if you know which end of the rod to hold, you’ll more than likely get your chances.
The spring walleye fishing begins as soon as the winter ice clears the river and continues—well, you can probably catch them until ice-up again—into June, but it tapers off as the white bass run gets so thick you can hardly catch an ‘eye because you can’t keep the whites off your line. Good walleye fishing is a safe bet through May most years.
The Detroit River connects Lake St. Clair with Lake Erie (which probably boasts the thickest concentration of walleyes in the world). Fisheries biologists estimate that 10 percent of Lake Erie walleye run through the Detroit River.
The game is fairly simple: choose a jig, tip it with something (minnows are the most popular bait, though plenty of guys say any plastic trailer will work just as well), and bounce it off the bottom. The trick is staying vertical—there’s a stiff current in the river and controlling your boat so that the jig isn’t swept downstream from you is de rigueur.
“Go with the flow,” said veteran Detroit River guide Jon Bondy, with 21 years of experience on the river. “Go to You Tube and watch something on proper boat control in a current. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel—you’re in a current situation and you’re often in a crowded situation, so you don’t want to get yourself flustered.”
Crowded? Well, there does seem like every angler in Michigan is there on some Saturdays. But there’s a lot of river to fish and there’s good fishing from end to end.
It’s important to keep in contact with your jig and with the bottom. Drop to the bottom, tighten up your line, and jig with short, steady strokes. There’s no need to lift it more than a foot or so. Follow the bait back down with the rod tip as most strikes will occur when the jig is falling. Strike hard and hold on.
A 5/8-ounce jig is probably the most popular, but if you’re having a hard time staying in contact with your jig, don’t be afraid to go to a bigger one. I know plenty of guys who use whole ouncers and unlike a lot of other fish that suck in jigs, walleyes grab them. An ultralight jig is not necessary. I’d recommend a trailer hook, toward the back end of the minnow or plastic tail just in case they’re not getting the whole thing when they bite. (It happens.)
Standard bass-class rods and reels are fine. Use a fairly stiff rod—you want to be able to set the hook right now when they bite. I’d guess that eight-pound line is about standard, but I go with a super line (either braided or Fireline) with a couple of feet of six-pound fluorocarbon leader tied on.
One of the benefits of fishing the Detroit River is that so many people do, it’s a regular topic of discussion in the chat room on the Internet. Guys will regularly post about where they got them (the steel mill or the Renaissance Center, for instance) and the landmarks are fairly obvious.
The fish can be at any depth—from right off the bank to down in the river channel—depending on a variety of factors (water temperature, water color, etc.). Generally, you can fish until you find them and then home in on them. If you struggle, just keep your eyes open and watch where you see guys going for the landing net. It’s rare that you don’t it happening.
“Pay attention to where you catch them,” Bondy said. “If they’re all in 13 feet and you’re in 17, you’re not going to catch them. Look at that depth finder wherever you catch a fish. But there are millions of fish swimming up that river, so there is going to be many concentrations of them.”
The fish tend to run larger early in the season and, as spawning wraps ups, the bigger fish move on. That’s when I prefer to fish, when the bite is largely males that run in the 15- to 20-inch class, as they are absolutely delectable on the table. Fact is, I’ve been frustrated at times because all we were catching were big, fat hogs.
Now that’s something to complain about, isn’t it?
This article was produced in partnership with Pure Michigan.
Images by Bob Gwizdz