The 2020 walleye season was one for the books. Not because of the fishing, but rather because of the seriously abbreviated season. Due to a worrying display of gross governmental overreach, the Michigan boating and fishing season, which usually kicks off at the beginning of April, was banned. Boating (with a motor?!?) and fishing with friends, or clients was prohibited, based on……guesswork and hysteria, and nothing more!
Forget about the huge economic impact to Michigan, and most other states where similar restrictions were mandated. Forget about the livelihoods of everyone that relies on outdoor sports and tourism to support their families. Forget about the fact that there is probably no better way to “social distance” than to be in a small boat, in the middle of a large body of ice cold water.
Thousands upon thousands of people spent over a month anxiously awaiting some common sense and the reopening of the fisheries.
Thankfully sportsmen and women didn’t stand for the restrictions and based on their push back, the waterways were reopened in time to salvage some of the season.
The walleye fishing scene on the Detroit river is as impressive as it is traditional. At the peak of the walleye “run”, any stretch of river can see hundreds of boats at any time of day or night. This is an often mile wide river that runs almost 20 miles between Lake St Clair and Lake Erie. At the peak of the season, the river is jammed full of boats.
My first trip down the river this year was with my friend Lonnie Allen aboard his nicely appointed walleye boat. Lonnie, like many of the fishermen that I know, is a hard core walleye fisherman and has just the right set-up to effectively target Michigan walleye.
Having the “right” rig is important to walleye success. The Detroit river is big water. The currents are very powerful. It’s open enough that wind can be a big factor, and traffic is significant at time, traffic not just from other fishing boats but also from large pleasure yachts, sail boats of all shapes and sizes, including nightly regattas for many classes of sailing vessels. 1,000′ freighters, coast guard, local police, sheriff’s and border patrol boats, large and small also frequent the same areas that hold millions of walleyes.
A deep”V” boat of 17-20′, with a reliable motor in the 50-200 HP range, a good bow mounted electric trolling motor and a quality graph is the basic set-up. Each of those basic components is key to success. The bow mounted trolling is an absolute necessity to match boat speed to current speed when on a “drift” through one of the many stretches of holding water that most locals frequent. The deep “V” hull is important for the often choppy waters. The reliable motor is a god send when you notice, at the last minute, that a giant freighter is bearing down on your position. They sneak up on you silently pushing a 10 ‘ tall bow wake. If I had a dollar for every time that I’ve seen surprised walleye boats, large and small, scrambling to avoid being keel-hauled by a mountainous, silent hulk of a freighter, I could buy a shiny new walleye boat!
The majority of the fishing is done by jigging 1oz painted jigs with various rubber baits, utilizing stinger hooks trailing from the main jig hook. Minnows are added sometime. Many people also still slow troll plugs on hand lines too. It’s a more old school tactic and more often than not it’ll be old-timers who practice this method, but it’s highly effective! When I started fishing the river 40 years ago, it was by far the most common method. Electric trolling motors and graphs were pretty rare on the river back then. It’s still common to see smallish boats with specialized spring loaded “reels” mounted to the gunnels, dragging heavy weights, trailing plugs. Some of the most coveted and collectible gear are home made wooden reel “boxes” using old hand crank, spring loaded Victrolla mechanisms to hold the trolling line. Don’t know what a Victrolla is or how it works? Look it up, but it’s basically the first “record player”. They were spring loaded and wound with a hand crank and people “Jerry-rigged” them to do any number of duties once they became “useless antiques”, about 90 years ago. Other local specialties also include “whipping” and “Chugging” for walleyes.. both effective, interesting and unique ways to catch “Eyes”. An entire article could be written for each, so I’ll save a description for another day. I stick with vertical Jigging nowadays.
Because Detroit river walleyes tend to hold in water depths from 20 to 40′, it’s important to use the right gear to up your odds of success. My rig is as follows and is the right way to be successful, give or take a few very minor variations based on personal preferences.
Assuming your trolling motor can match the current speed, allowing you to maintain a vertical jigging presentation, a good stiff spinning rod of 6-6.5′ in length, preferably a one piece rod made of sensitive graphite, is a good start. To that, affix a very good spinning reel with smooth drag and an instant anti-reverse bearing so that there’s no hint of backlash at the hook set. This is very important! A similar set-up with a baitcaster, or level-wind reel can also work. Using no-stretch Spider-wire or Fire-line is also vitally important. Zero stretch and sensitivity will boat many more fish. The small details matter…a lot! Many people tie their 1oz jigs directly to the spider wire, but to minimize line twist, and to add a bit of fineness, a use a 3-4′ leader of low stretch fluorocarbon mono and a very tiny, very good swivel between the spider-wire and mono. I stick with 6-8lb for the mono, and 10-12lb for the spider wire. I like bright yellow for the spider wire, because watching the line for “hits” is important. Walleye often slam the jig on the drop and you won’t feel anything, but you will see your line suddenly jump, or go slack when it should be tight. Keeping your line tight on the up-stroke and on the drop while jigging is very important because of this. Hi-vis line helps you to stay focused. More hook sets will result.
Choosing the right plastic bait for your jig, and the color of your jig is a daily consideration and walleyes tend to prefer certain colors from day to day. Plastics can be any number of minnow or worm shapes and effective jig colors can range from bright chartreuse to olive, black or even metal flake blue or purple. Jig head size, shape and hook quality varies. Make sure the hook gap, sharpness and strength is sufficient for walleyes that can range from 2-12 lbs and you’ll be safe. I find 1oz jigs to be the only weight necessary. 1 oz. helps even out any slight variations between current speed and your ability to control your boat to match current speed. ¾ oz. jigs require much more precision in boat control, which can be very tricky considering highly variable wind conditions coupled with current speeds. I’ve never found a need to go lighter than 1 oz…..so I don’t. Trailer hooks are another matter. Generally speaking the store bought variety are no good and most locals make their own stingers. I make mine with high quality, sharp size 8 trebles. The stingers are 2.5″ overall, use tough 10lb mono and most importantly can be taken on and off the main jig hook multiple times. This is accomplished by building your stingers with a slip-knot system, as an alternative to the store bought rigs that have a rubber compound covered loop, designed to impale on the hook of the main jig. That type wears out and fails quickly. The homemade variant can be used over and over again. (Check out BackcountryLife Magazine at YouTube to see a “how to” for making stingers). The homemade rigs a more stealthy too, and it’s easy to customize them for length and hook size. I make a few with super fine wire to use when we’re in notoriously Muskie infested areas. A few spots hold walleyes and groups of LARGE muskies and we often boat a muskie or two as bycatch. Muskies in the 40-50” range are fun to catch on walleye gear!
With the small details accounted for, and the right platform, Walleyes should be available through May and into June. With senseless restrictions lifted, the Detroit river walleye rodeo is in full swing. Get after them while you can. Try the gear and tactics listed above and you should have fast action. Good fishing!
Brandon Vaughan has over 40 years of personal and professional experience in a broad array of hunting and fishing disciplines, from Alaska to Belize. Past professional experience includes working as a professional guide in Alaska and around the Great Lakes region. In addition to hunting and fishing throughout the lower 48, Canada and Central America, Brandon has been an Orvis Endorsed Fly-fishing guide, a fly-fishing and fly-tying instructor, a hunting guide and shooting instructor.