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Michigan's Best Spring Walleye Rivers

Michigan's Best Spring Walleye Rivers

Fishing for walleyes in the spring is not only a tradition but also an addiction. You can get your fix on these rivers.

By Jim Barta

It doesn't take much coaxing to get me outdoors for any activity. If you're looking to go hunting or fishing, regardless of what you're after, if you need a partner, I'm usually ready to go.

But I must admit, there are a few things that really ignite a passion in me. For instance, in the fall it's pretty tough to pry me out of my tree stand for very long. There's just something about watching the sun break through the multiple-colored leaves of a typical Michigan fall. And come spring - ah yes, spring - as soon as the ice clears or season opens, don't get between the river and me when I'm after those magnificent trophy walleyes.

There's simply nothing like the rush of adrenaline that you feel as you set the hook on a large walleye the size of those taken each spring from Michigan's rivers. But be aware, once you've felt it, the experience becomes addicting! Feeling the thrill of having a walleye of near-monster proportions scooped into your net after an enduring battle is all it takes to get you hooked. And so with no cure in sight, the only therapy that can satisfy the habit is yet another trip back to the river.

Being an incurable walleye addict myself, I can recommend a few of Michigan's top rivers where I'll likely be receiving treatment myself this spring. My therapists have their offices in bait shops and on boat ramps, so I'll be sure to mention them here as well. See you there!

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

As a charter captain who specializes in fishing for walleyes it's hard to imagine finding any better place to pursue my business than the Detroit River. Let's face it. With the 10 to 12 million walleyes that the Department of Natural Resources claims to be swimming the river each spring, choosing this location is a no-brainer.

As testament to this river's fishery, during April and May of 2003, clients and I caught a total 874 walleyes from my boat alone. Of these, 109 weighed over 5 pounds, 57 were over 7 pounds and a whopping 18 walleyes weighed in at 10 to 14 pounds! Now that's what I'd call an incredible fishery.


Catching Detroit River walleyes doesn't take a degree in rocket science, but there are a couple tricks that'll help put more fish in the boat. For instance, maintaining a vertical presentation while jigging is a must. Also, one should be willing to change up with things like jig weight and color. Don't get hung up on one particular thing. Let the fish tell you what colors, weights and techniques they want each day.

When leaving the dock, understand that water color will dictate a lot as to angling methods and lures. For example, if the water is clear, jigging with light jigs and plastic will be the way to go. However, if dark or dirty conditions exist, consider trolling lures that give off stout vibrations or jigging with heavy jigs and live bait for scent.

Early in the spring, look for the southern portion of the Detroit River to see action first. Here in the southern most section of the Trenton Channel, a warmwater discharge presents the river with the season's first prime spawning temperatures.

"The walleyes seek out this area, which also contains some great staging as well as spawning areas," said Bill Dougherty of Bottom Line Bait and Tackle. "There are plenty of rocks and snags as structure that seems to eat jigs as fast as they're offered. But don't let that stop you. Believe me, these anglers don't keep coming back year after year for nothing. The fishing is simply fantastic!"

As season progresses, the fun can be expected to work its way north off the city of Wyandotte.

"Areas such as those found off the local steel mill or Mud Island will appear to collect more boats than walleyes," says Steve Lyell of the Wyandotte Boat Ramp. "But don't be fooled. Thousands of walleyes are caught here each spring, with plenty left to spare."

When fishing the Detroit River this spring, be sure to check out the regulations. Size and creel limits have likely changed for 2004 and anglers will need to be aware of them.

Access to the southern portion of the Detroit River can be obtained from Erie Metro Park in Brownstown or Elizabeth Park in Trenton. To reach the river farther north, check out the Wyandotte Boat Ramp off Jefferson in the city of Wyandotte.

For fishing reports or bait, contact Bottom Line Bait and Tackle at (734) 379-9762 or on the Web at; Hook, Line and Sinker at (734) 692-9839; or the Wyandotte Boat ramp at (734) 284-6774, or on the Web at

As spring walleye rivers go, the St. Clair River is sort of a late bloomer. The numbers of walleyes that make their way back to Lake Huron from Erie's spawning grounds and the distance they must cover may explain why.

This tributary to the Great Lakes receives its current from water flowing south out of Lake Huron and into Lake St. Clair. Along with the current, anglers can expect to find good numbers of walleyes making their way south from one lake to another as well as north on the return route from spawning areas.

The St. Clair River offers anglers the opportunity to practice a number of favorite techniques. Those who prefer to probe deep holes with the age-old method of handlining can find that this river meets their every need. Swift water runs the entire distance, creating plenty of lure action.

For those who would rather jig, this is the place to do it. Anglers on the Detroit River often opt for heavy 3/4- to 1-ounce jigs, where as those anglers, who are fishing the St. Clair, would do well to stick with jigs weighing between 1/4-to 1/2-ounce.

When choosing jig color, as a matter of practice, let the fish dictate their preference daily. However, as an overall favorite, look for chartreuse or orange to work well here.

Tipping the jig with live bait can always be a plus, but in St. Clair's late-spring fishery, plastic can often work just as well. My favorite jig-bait combo during the late spring is an unpainted jig with an unassuming 4-inch brown, plastic worm. With crayfish and larva making their spring appearance, this lure can be the best bait in the box.

Look for the waters from Stag Island to the Blue Water Bridge as well as those around the Marine City area to hold good numbers of fish. In addition, check out the mouth of the Belle R

iver as well as the North Channel near Lake St. Clair.

For a fishing report, call the Lake Side Tackle hotline at (586) 777-7008 or contact the store at (586) 777-7003.

With the Saginaw and Tittabawassee rivers such an intricate part of each other's fishery, it's hard to talk about one without mentioning the other. These rivers are closed to walleye fishing from March 15 until the last Saturday in April, restricting anglers from pursuing their sport as early as may be desired. Not to worry, though, because these rivers are among the best for post-spawning walleyes.

To say the least, these waters can get a bit crowded during opening week. Despite this pressure, however, both the Saginaw and Tittabawassee hold their own when it comes to limit creels.

To get in on the largest fish, anglers will need to start their fishing efforts as soon as season opens. Once the spawn occurs, the large females will pause shortly for recovery, then make their way back into the big water of Lake Huron. This period doesn't last very long, but plenty of "eater-sized" walleyes make the fishing efforts well worthwhile.

To take advantage of this tremendous fishery, try drifting crawler harnesses along the bottom. Spinner color may vary, but those in red are always a good bet. On the Tittabawassee where the water is generally shallow, probe the deeper holes for your fish with jigs. These holes can be found around various bridge abutments and bends in the river. Some of the better areas include the run just above the State Street Bridge and the area known as the "golf course."

One of the best sections of the Saginaw River can be found where the Tittabawassee empties into it. Walleyes working their way out of the Tittabawassee often hold here in the deeper holes, providing anglers with constant action.

For fishing reports, bait and tackle, contact Frank's Great Outdoors at (989) 697-5341 or check them out on the Web at

The St. Joseph River in southwest Michigan is a sleeper when it comes to typical spring walleye action. The fishing success here may not be as good as other river fisheries, but nevertheless, still gives up some great walleyes each season.

"The St. Joe can be a rather good walleye fishery," said Tom Bennett of Benton Harbor. "During the last two seasons, however, it's suffered a bit in the same way other walleye fisheries have. Unrelenting spring weather has somewhat hurt the year-class."

Despite the unfavorable news, Bennett claims that his fishing hasn't been hurt too much.

"Actually, I did quite well last year," Bennett remarked. "You have to be a little persistent and hang with it during the slow times, but hey, that's fishing!"

According to Bennett, some of the better fishing takes place below Mercy Hospital, along Berrien Hills Golf Course. In addition, anglers want to hit the area out from Eagle Point Marina and along the stretch of the river directly upstream from the Benton Township Launch Ramp.

Most of Bennett's walleyes come by drifting crawlers that are simply hooked in the middle and weighted with a split shot. When the water appears to be cloudy, consider adding a bright bead ahead of the bait. Cast upstream and allow the offering to drift with the current on a taunt line. Bites will be light and often resemble a hang between rocks. A gentle pull will be the best way to distinguish rocks from non-aggressive fish.

Access can be obtained from the Benton Township Launch off exit 28 on Interstate 94.

Anglers working the waters of the Grand River will find the section from Grand Rapids downstream to the city of Grand Haven to be fairly consistent on spring walleyes. This is suburban angling at its best. Office buildings and stores replace trees along the shores of this area. But don't be fooled by your surroundings, because the fishing here can be as good as it gets anywhere!

Because its shallow waters wind through miles of agricultural farmlands, weather will have a significant impact on the fishery here. Runoff due to heavy rains dirty the water quickly and often shuts down the fishing action. When the river is high due to this spring runoff, the walleyes can be expected to move out of the main river current and hold in flooded brush and various logjams. When this occurs, tactics similar to those used by the bass crowd should be considered. Try pitching jigs tipped with crawlers into the brush and retrieving them in a twitching motion. One particular problem with this method is the number of panfish that make short work of the crawler. When this happens, consider going to scent-laden plastics.

Under normal water conditions, Grand River walleyes will hold in some of the more typical river locations and are susceptible to the standard angling tactics. A favorite of mine here involves simply drifting a crawler that's weighted by a split shot through various prime areas. While this technique will take a good number of walleyes, be prepared to do battle with more than a few of the Grand's large catfish as well.

Another method that works great here involves the use of a light jig tipped with a crawler and held off bottom with a bobber. Drift the offering such that it skims just inches above the bottom and across the rocks. The technique certainly isn't rocket science, but the walleyes sure love it.

When targeting walleyes on the Grand River, trolling can definitely be a winner. By long-lining shallow minnow-shaped lures such as Rapala's floating lures or Storm stick baits, anglers can cover a lot of area in a short time. This technique will often find fish that can then be worked at a much slower pace.

Popular locations for walleyes on the Grand include the hole just downstream from the U.S. Highway 131 Bridge in Grand Rapids, just upstream from the Eastmanville Bridge, the area known as the gravel pits and the area referred to as "the willows."

The Muskegon River is probably one of the top rivers in southern Michigan for its walleye action. The Muskegon's popularity comes with good reason - it's simply great!! Anglers working these waters can expect to find that the entire river hosts good numbers of walleyes, with the stretch from the Croton Dam downstream to Muskegon Lake sure to be ranked as the best.

From opening day through the month of May, look for the walleyes to be holding in one of the many deep runs or holes created by bends in the river. In some areas, such as the upper stretch from Maple Island upstream to Croton, the river tends to be fairly shallow. Anchoring and casting tactics will work much better in this fast-water section than does the traditional walleye methods of trolling and jigging. The most productive crankbaits used here successfully are those that are amon

g the various shad-style baits. Cast the lure upstream above a hole and work it slowly down and through the depression. While working the lure, watch the line carefully for a twitch or jerk to the side indicating a strike.

Three-way rigs, not unlike the ones used when drifting spawn for steelhead or salmon, are the best bet for working baits through these holes. Adjust the weight on the dropper until the bait bounces along the bottom with the current. Crawlers are the best bait for this type of fishing, and should be threaded onto a No. 2 Aberdeen hook.

The lower river, from Maple Island downstream to Muskegon Lake, is lined with downed trees and a number of logjams. Despite these obstacles, there are still areas where anglers can target walleyes by vertical jigging and other typical walleye techniques. Regardless of your angling preference, expect good things when working this area.

Some of the best spots will include the areas known as "the walleye ponds" located at the end of Holton Duck Lake Road, the stretch just downstream from the access at the end of Milliron Road in Muskegon Township and the North Branch of the Muskegon River from U.S. Highway 131 downstream to Muskegon Lake.

* * *

Now that you have a craving for spring walleye fishing, go out and get your fix!

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