Detroit River Walleyes

A chilly start yields good numbers.

A cold unrelenting winter that refuses to release its icy grip has made for a slow start to the 2018 walleye “run” in the Detroit river, though walleye numbers have been good on the few days in April that have been temperate enough for comfortable fishing.

The Detroit river divides Lake Erie downstream, and Lake Saint Clair, the Saint Clair river and Lake Huron further upstream.  Separating Detroit Michigan from Windsor Ontario near the mouth where Lake Saint Clair flows in, and other “Downriver” communities at its terminus at Lake Erie, the river flows for 24 nautical miles and serves as an international border for the US and Canada and a major shipping route for everything from iron ore to wheat. Enableing freighters from all points of the globe to reach as far into the continent as Chicago and Duluth, the Detroit river is a key trade route that connects North America to the world.  Curiously, to get to Canada from the city of Detroit, across the river, one must travel South, using a bridge, a tunnel or a boat.

My favorite method is a boat because that usually indicates a fishing trip.  Most Detroit river anglers ply the waters on both sides of the river, which requires a fishing license from Michigan AND Ontario.  It’s not necessary though if you choose to stay on the US side, but most of us who have grown up around the river, Lake Saint Clair and Lake Erie like the freedom of being able to move to where the fish are biting at any given time.  The river is a huge waterway more than a half mile across in most areas.  It can host thousands of fishing boats, sailboats, all types of pleasure craft and dozens of 1000 foot freighters, all at once.  The “shipping channel” runs to 40 ft; depth and most of the productive walleye water is in the 20-30 range.  Numerous holes, humps, eddys and structure known to those who fish a lot, provide incredible fishing for walleye, perch, smallmouth bass, pike, muskie, white bass and sturgeon to name a few.  Often times all of the species mentioned above can be hooked in one day while targeting walleyes.

Windsor Ontario and Detroit Michigan (Originally Fort Detroit) are rich in historical significance due to their importance as fur trading epicenters long before the US declared independence from England.  Governed by native Americans, the French, the English and ultimately the Americans over its long history.  It’s rumored that many thousands of historical artifacts litter the depths of the river, including everything from tomahawks, muskets, cannon, shipwrecks, treasures in gold…to cars, trucks and ships from the modern age.  The Detroit river was once a horribly polluted waterway but clean-up efforts and the foreign zebra mussel have drastically improved water quality and clarity.  The jury is still out on the zebra mussel.  Once feared to be a pending ecological nightmare, the foreign invader does cause problems with man-made machinery and pipe systems, but there hasn’t yet been a huge negative impact to the fisheries.  Wherever they are present, which is almost all of the Great Lakes now, water clarity seems to have improved, though this may yet prove to be problematic, with algae blooms and other by-products starting to show in the Northern Great lakes, which were already clean, blue and bountiful prior to the zebra mussel’s introduction.  As I stated, the jury is still out.  On the Detroit river, Lake Saint Clair and Lake Erie the formerly muddy, polluted and oft times, smelly water is now blue, clear and seemingly fresh.  Most of us who spend time on these water ways are pretty happy about that.   The fishing has never been better.

Friday April 13th 2018 provided a brief break in the lingering winter weather on the River. Opting to fish the US side, near the mouth of the river at Lake Saint Clair, we launched my good friend Steve D’Arca’s 20’ walleye boat into the river at 4:00pm hoping to explore 3-4 of our usual hot spots by sunset.  The two of us, along with two more buddies, made a quick 5 minute run to our first “hole”, got rigged with our vertical jigging gear and went to work.  Though all manner of gear and techniques can, and do get used, the vast majority of fishermen opt for vertical jigging.  Letting the river current take the boat through each “slot”, (some of which can be up to a mile long), is the norm. Some drifts are short, perhaps a hundred yards.  Boat control is important and a good electric trolling motor, used to keep positioned over the targeted structure, and to control drift speed is vital.  Drift speed equates to how vertical you’re able to keep your line, perfectly vertical, and in contact with the bottom being the goal. A good graph is worth its weight in gold too, to avoid working unpopulated water.

With deep water, a decent flow rate and often conflicting winds, a 1 ounce jig head is ideal to stay in touch with the bottom.  My rig consists of a1 oz. round jig, in one of many color choices, (though chartreuse is the first choice usually), with a 5-6” rubber worm or minnow pattern.  A stinger hook is imperative for the short strikes that are common.  Rubber worm size, color and shape vary from plain straight black (again, first choice…and most productive usually) to chunkier minnow profiles and curly tail variants in many colors.  Many angler use live worms or minnows, but we do at least as well, if not better with artificial lures.

I rig a 6’, stiff, medium action jig rod with a good quality spinning reel loaded with non-stretch braided line.  8 lb. typically, which is plenty strong enough to land the occasional Muskie or sturgeon in the wide open, mostly snag free river, while being thin enough to not spook fish.  I also use a mono leader of about 24” joined to the braid via a very small swivel.  I use 4-6 lb. low stretch fluorocarbon typically.  It’s very important to have anti-reverse bearings on your reel.  Most good reels nowadays have this feature, which prevents ANY reverse movement from your spool and reel handle when setting the hook.  The combination of stiff rod, non-stretch braid and anti-reverse reel equate to many more fish being hooked…and landed.  Any rig that falls short of this set-up will have difficulty detecting strikes or setting the hook on the deep dwelling fish.  As with anything the details matter.

Our maiden voyage this year proved to be well worth the effort.  We caught our limit of 20 walleyes in under 3 hours, all between 16-21”, which are perfect for the fryer. (This is not catch –n-release fishing like so much of the other fishing we do…this IS catch-n-eat !!).  We typically release any walleye over about 24”, and any large female fish which can often top 10 lbs, or more.

It’s very normal to hook Muskie and sturgeon also, and I did land a 30lb Muskie on my walleye gear this trip.  After a quick photo it was released back to the depths. We usually hook 6-7 sturgeon per season too, which can sometimes top 100 lbs or more.

Walleye should be plentiful through May.  Huge runs of White Bass, perch and smallmouth Bass will also fill the river as the temps warm.  Most fisherman move out to either Lake Erie or Lake Saint Clair in late May or June, chasing walleye, smallmouth and Muskie.  These connected waterways are world class fisheries for all three species, Perhaps best in the world for the latter two.

Don’t miss the opportunity to get in on this fantastic fishery.  It can last as much as 10 weeks or as few as 5.  For the millions of anglers that live close to this “urban” fishery, it’s a godsend that is as highly anticipated as opening day of deer season, Tigers baseball or Christmas.  Good luck, stay safe and fill your livewells!

Report and photos by Brandon Vaughan

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