Michigan'™s Best Spring Walleye Rivers
October 04, 2010
There's a gold rush taking place on a river near you this spring. Don't miss out on the action!
One of the great things about living here in Michigan is the variety of different choices that we have to pursue our favorite game fish.
Photo by Jim Barta.
If you have a hankering to troll for really big game, the salmon fishing off ports like Frankfort or Manistee or Ludington would be hard to beat. Likewise, if fly-fishing is your game, you haven’t lived until you’ve wet a line in the Au Sable. Is inland lake fishing your thing? We’ve got it, big time!
But for this fellow’s money, I have got to admit that I would sooner drift along one of our state’s river systems in search of migrating spring walleyes than any other form of fishing I can think of. There’s just something addicting about the feel of a slight tap at the end of a jigging rod, knowing that this fish could go into the record books.
As a licensed guide and charter captain, the number of calls I get from anglers around the country proves that I’m not alone in my love for Michigan’s own gold rush. This time, the treasures are not found in the rivers of California or Alaska, but right here in our state’s own river systems.
Here are some of our best walleye rivers with a gold rush this spring.
Imagine a place where you can go while knowing that at any moment, the trophy of a lifetime could be yours. Imagine also that, on more days than not, catching a limit of 5- to 10-pound walleyes is possible. Must be heaven, right? No, in this case I’m talking about the Detroit River!
From ice-out through the month of May, this river likely yields more walleyes than all our state’s river systems combined. So great is this waterway that in 58 days of fishing in April and May last year, clients and I put 834 walleyes in the boat, with 27 fish weighing between 9 and 13 pounds!
Starting at the mouth of Lake St. Clair and flowing south to Lake Erie, there are literally hundreds of popular spots to fish on the Detroit River. Since the walleyes are constantly migrating in schools, locations may be considered the “hotspot” one day and void of fish the next. For best results, it’s wise to check with one of the many local bait shops along the river or watch for the armada of boats drifting over that day’s best locations.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Steve Lyell at the Wyandotte Boat Ramp. “The guys start filtering their way onto the river as soon as the ice clears, and then it all begins again. Fish after fish are caught, with some pretty nice ones in the mix. You know you’ve got something special when folks show up from all over the country to enjoy what we have here.”
Jigging is by far the most popular way to fill your creel of walleyes on the Detroit River. Jigs that weigh between 3/8 to 1 ounce are used by the thousands. While each angler has his or her own favorite jig color, mine is chartreuse, orange or a mixture of both. Personal preference and previous success will generally dictate each angler’s choice of color and size.
During the early weeks of spring, I prefer to tip my jig with a minnow. Once the water surface temperature reaches 48 degrees, I forgo the use of all live bait and only tip my jigs with plastics.
“Jigging is a great way to fish,” says Bill Dougherty of Bottom Line Bait and Tackle in Brownstown. “But a lot of the larger fish are caught by handliners. This is a technique that goes back to the 1920s and is just as successful today as it was then.”
Access to the Detroit River can be obtained from several launches along its shoreline. The Wyandotte Boat Ramp on Jefferson can be reached by calling (734) 284-6774. For charter or guide service, call (313) 388-5847 or go to www.truefishing.com. Bait and tackle can be purchased near the river in Ecorse at The Dip Net. They can be reached by calling (313) 388-5811. Bottom Line Bait and Tackle can be reached at (734) 379-9762.
ST. CLAIR RIVER
While the peak walleye fishing on the St. Clair River doesn’t get started as early as on the Detroit River, this river system boasts the number of fish it yields. Its ability to show anglers a great time catching walleyes is a continuous occurrence year after year.
The average current speed here is a bit faster than in many of the state’s rivers, while structure in the form of rocks can be found everywhere. But current plus rocks will always add up to plenty of walleye action.
While jigging is a top-rated technique here, the river’s shallow waters offer anglers the opportunity to cast to the many rock-filled current breaks that can be found. Schools of walleyes will stage in the slack water while recovering from the rigors of spawning and feed on anything that resembles an easy meal. To master this casting technique, anglers will need a hefty electric motor or a gas-powered engine to keep the boat positioned above the current break. Occasionally, anchoring will do the trick, but casting to specific spots may be restricted by the limited mobility caused when anchored.
When using jigs, 1/4- to 3/8-ounce jigs should be considered in the shallow water of the St. Clair River. Since the water will have warmed by the mid-June peak, jigs tipped with plastics or live crawlers will work best. Minnows should be used only as a last resort.
Look for the mouth of the river on Lake Huron to offer good numbers of walleyes in the spring. This area has an especially fast current and can be some tricky fishing, to say the least. The Pine River area in St. Clair will usually attract walleyes in the late spring. Anglers can do well in this area while drifting crawler rigs or by handlining. There are several top spots to try from the Belle River inlet south through the North Channel and Middle Channel. Look for current, rocks or weeds. Odds are, the walleyes will be there as well.
For a fishing report on the St. Clair River, call (586) 777-7008. For bait and tackle, you can contact Lakeside Fishing Shop at (586) 777-7003.
ST. JOSEPH RIVER
Mention the St. Joseph River in a circle of anglers, and chances are the topic will be steelhead or salmon. This river has earne
d that rule of topic and still continues to yield an abundance of these fighting machines annually. But to the locals, this fishery offers up yet another specialty in the form of gold.
“Personally, I’m glad the walleyes haven’t been the primary focus of attention in the years past,” said Mike Rulo of Coldwater. “While all the other guys are chasing steelhead, I’m having a good time catching walleyes. I take some real trophies every year out of the Joe.”
Well, you can’t keep a good thing quiet forever. With the word out now, those anglers whose love for the sport centers on walleyes will certainly want to add this river to their list of spring fisheries.
According to Rulo, a top spot to target spring walleyes can be found from the mouth of the St. Joe where it meets Lake Michigan, and upstream about 8 to 10 miles. Other hotspots are along the Eagle Point Marina below Mercy Hospital, out from the Berrien Hills Golf Course and along the river directly upstream from the Benton Township ramp.
For best action, try drifting a rig consisting of a split shot, No. 2 Aberdeen hook and night crawler along the bottom. When working from shore, cast your offering at a 45-degree angle to the current and keep a slightly taut line to feel light pickups. When fishing from a boat, consider drifting crawler rigs or trolling with crankbaits. Overall, look for the crawlers to work best. As an added touch, especially during dirty water conditions, add some brightly colored beads to the crawler rig. There are times when this is all that’s needed to entice a strike.
To access the St. Joseph River, try the Benton Township launch. It can be reached by taking exit 28 off Interstate 94.
Another river that carries the distinction of being a trout and salmon water is the Grand River. During peak times of the year, anglers can be found standing shoulder to shoulder along its banks attempting to catch one of these great fish.
But this river will also be home to schools of walleyes making their way from Lake Michigan in search of prime locations on which to deposit their eggs. After the spring opener, which is timed to fall shortly after the spawn takes place, anglers can enjoy some of western Michigan’s top spring walleye action.
A prime area of interest begins with the section of river where the Grand flows into Lake Michigan in Grand Haven and extends up to the Sixth Street Dam in Grand Rapids. Spring walleyes from the entire river system, including Lake Michigan and other connecting waters, make their way up the river to the area below the Sixth Street Dam to spawn.
Anglers can find post-spawn walleyes most anywhere in the upper half of the river. The vast majority, however, are taken in Grand Rapids directly below the dam or slightly downstream in deep holes or off large flats.
Angling techniques here are often dictated by the weather. After a heavy rain or high water conditions due to spring run-off, expect to find walleyes holding in flooded brush, back bays or areas out of the main river channel. For best success on these fish, try casting crankbaits with rattles to counter the dirty water conditions. Pitching jigs into brushy areas can also be effective. When water conditions are at normal levels, Grand River walleyes will stage in typical locations and can be taken by trolling or vertical jigging. With the majority of the river’s channel averaging 4 to 6 feet, shallow-running crankbaits or light jigs will be a must.
For fishing information, bait and tackle, call Jack’s Fish Farm at (616) 846-5844.
Any mention of great walleye rivers wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the Saginaw River. Each year, thousands of walleyes begin to make their way up the river, starting in the fall and staying until the spring spawn is over.
The river begins in Saginaw, where the Tittabawassee, Shiawassee and Cass rivers join. It flows north until it eventually reaches Saginaw Bay. A shipping channel, which seconds as a fish-holding magnet, averages 20 to 25 feet deep and is maintained for the numerous large ships that go up to the industrial sections of the river.
As the largest river to enter Saginaw Bay, the Saginaw River attracts the greatest number of walleyes into its waters throughout the fall and spring. This adds up to some great fishing potential for anglers who not only enjoy taking numbers of walleyes, but also are looking to put a trophy fish on the wall.
Water clarity will have an important role in the success rate here. The run-off from the surrounding farmlands during heavy rains can muddy up the river quickly and turn fish feeding activity off. When planning a long-distance trip to the Saginaw, it would be wise to call ahead and check conditions first.
Local anglers looking to get back on the water after a winter break often begin preparing for the late-April opener as though it was another national holiday. Jigs are painted, hooks are sharpened and boats are readied in anticipation of another year of great fishing.
Walleyes can be found throughout most of the river, but most anglers concentrate along the channel edges and deep holes. The area below the Zilwaukee Bridge also gets a thorough workout.
For fishing information, call Frank’s Great Outdoors at (989) 697-5341 or Four Season Sports Center at (989) 867-8801.
The Muskegon River is probably the best known of our state’s southwest walleye rivers — and for good reason, because it has plenty of them! The entire river system is host to good numbers of walleyes, but the stretch from the Croton Dam downstream to Muskegon Lake may be considered as one of the river’s best.
From the late-April opener through the month of May, look for walleyes to hold in one of the many deep holes or runs created by the various bends in the river. The upper stretch from Maple Island upstream to Croton flows more like the trout stream that it is. This fast, fairly shallow water is better worked with anchoring and casting tactics than the traditional drifting walleye techniques.
Productive methods in this section of the river include casting crankbaits and working bait through the holes. The most productive lures are the shad imitators such as the Rapala Shad Rap. These should be quarter-casted upstream above the hole and then worked slowly down through the hole.
Three-way rigs, not unlike the rigs commonly used for drifting spawn for steelhead, a
re the best bets for working bait through these holes. Adjust the weight on the dropper until the bait bounces along the bottom with the current. Look for crawlers to work best here. These should be threaded onto a No. 2 Aberdeen hook.
The lower river from Maple Island downstream to Muskegon Lake is littered with downed trees and numerous logjams. There are, however, areas where anglers can target walleyes by vertical jigging and other traditional walleye techniques. Some of the better areas include a spot located off the end of Holton Lake Road, the stretch downstream from the access at the end of Milliron Road in Muskegon Township and the North Branch of the Muskegon River from U.S. 31 downstream to Muskegon Lake.
When it comes to river walleyes, most anglers will stick with the southern half of our state when pursuing their fishing passion. And that’s just the way many Upper Peninsula residents want to keep it. You see, the U.P.’s Menominee River boasts a good population of walleyes that many local anglers have been enjoying for years.
Anglers work the Lighthouse Pier and Government Pier at the river’s mouth and the waters about one mile upriver toward the Scott Dam.
Vertical jigging and slipping with the current is a top tactic here when the water is clear. During dirty water conditions, look for crankbaits with rattles to work best.
For lodging information, the Menominee Chamber of Commerce can be reached at (906) 863-2676.