Five Great February Walleye Rivers

Walleyes, saugeyes and saugers are beginning their annual spring runs - so now's the time to go for some great late-winter fishing for these species on Ohio's top-rated rivers.

By Greg Keefer

Frigid temperatures and icy winds can keep all but the sturdiest of anglers at home in front of the fire, but those hardy souls undeterred by winter's blasts know that this month makes some excellent river fishing for walleyes available.

The western basin of Lake Erie is the undisputed walleye capital of the world. Every spring, tens of thousands of big walleyes begin concentrating around the mouths of the rivers and streams that flow into the big lake in preparation for the spring spawning runs.

"The spring Maumee and Sandusky river walleye fishing can be fantastic," said Travis Hartman, a fisheries biologist assigned to the Ohio Division of Wildlife's Sandusky Fish Research Unit. "In years when Ohio has a mild winter, February fishing is possible in these rivers, dependent on the weather."

The Niagara Reef is a shallow, rocky reef in Lake Erie north of Camp Perry that attracts 60 to 70 percent of the lake's spawning walleyes. About 10 percent of the spawning walleye population bypasses the reef in favor of migrating upstream in the lake's tributary rivers; targeting the gravel beds and smaller waters in which their own lives began, the fish return to the same areas to spawn each year.

"Both rivers attract spawning walleye between 16 and 32 inches weighing up to 14 pounds," Hartman noted.

The largest spring walleye Hartman has seen was a female over 34 inches long. The only reason that this fish didn't set a new state record was that the spawned-out female had lost much of her weight.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

The Grand River also hosts a big spring walleye spawning run. This large river empties into Lake Erie's central basin, another hotspot for walleyes in the Great Lakes system.

The Ohio River contains walleyes, saugers and saugeyes, which move into the tailwaters and becoming vulnerable to winter anglers. Some of these fish attain huge sizes as they fatten up on ciscoes and smelts.

Tactics for cold-water river walleye don't differ much from warm-weather approaches. Slowly dragging a jighead tipped with a twistertail grub in chartreuse, green, pink or any of the glow colors is productive, accounting for most of the river's winter walleye harvest.

A recent trend has seen anglers use a floating jighead tipped with a twistertail. Pinching a lead sinker onto the line 12 inches above the jig will keep the jig about a foot off the bottom.

Here's the lowdown on where to go for Ohio's best February walleye action this year:

"The Maumee River typically offers the best February fishing," said biologist Hartman.

Once the spawning run begins, anglers target the Conant Street Bridge in the city of Maumee upstream to the end of Jerome Road in Lucas County. Most of the shore-fishing takes place in the stretch of the river from state Route 64 near Waterville north to Ewing Island, which is northeast of state Route 20 in the Maumee-Perrysburg area. Popular areas include Buttonwood Park and Bluegrass Island off Hull Prairie Road in Perrysburg, Side Cut Park north of Bluegrass Island and, on state Route 20 near Ewing Island, Orleans Park, which has a small boat ramp along with some good shoreline access.

The Bayshore Fishing Access off state Route 2 can be good at ice-out, as can Toledo's International Park off Cherry Street. Shoreline anglers typically wade out to gain access to main-channel locations. Be prepared for high, fast-moving water and steep slopes in some locations.

Additional information can be obtained from the ODOW's District Two office at (419) 424-5000.

The Sandusky River is another prime area for pre-spawn fish moving out of the western basin. When water temperatures reach the high 30s, walleyes begin concentrating off the river in deeper water.

"The best fishing in the Sandusky River usually develops in Fremont between Brady Island and the Ballville Dam," said the ODOW's Hartman. "The Ballville Dam impedes spawning fish from migrating upstream."

At this time of year, boating can be as treacherous here as in any of Ohio's rivers. The Sandusky's high water and fast currents should be challenged only by knowledgeable boaters.

Contact the District Two office at (419) 424-5000 for more information.

February is normally a little early for the spring walleye run, according to Tim Bader, a fisheries biologist with the Fairport Fisheries Unit, but if spring weather comes early, the fish will begin heading upriver sometime this month.

Huge numbers of walleyes will hold just off the Grand River in Lake Erie. There, depending upon conditions, they can readily be taken by boaters or ice-fishermen.

Ice-out allows anglers shoreline access to the river off Fairport Harbor's two fishing piers. The Short Pier is on the Fairport side of the river. The Grand River Pier, which has a working navigational lighthouse, is on the other side of the river.

Fairport Harbor is about 45 minutes east of Cleveland off state Route 2 on Lake Erie. For more information, contact the Fairport Fisheries Unit at (440) 352-4199.

The Ohio River runs along the borders of Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana and West Virginia. The flow rate of this mighty river is controlled by a series of lock and dams, four of which, according to Scott Schell, a fisheries biologist with the ODOW's District Four office, are of particular interest to winter walleye, sauger and saugeye anglers: the New Cumberland, Pike Island, Hannibal and Willow Island locales.

"A good cue is the increase in flow," Schell observed. "It triggers walleyes to move in and hold by the dams. They really stack up in these places."

Knowing which side of the river to fish makes a big difference in catch rates. If there is a rise in water levels, anglers should fish the lock side of the river, because walleyes concentrate out of the current.

During low-water periods, anglers should fish opposite the lock

on the other side of the river. Schell recommends using leadhead jigs tipped with plastic curlytail grubs or minnows, jigging spoons and vibrating blades.

The New Cumberland lock and dam will provide some of the winter's best shoreline fishing for Ohio River walleyes. New Cumberland is off state Route 7 at Stratton. For current river conditions and more information, contact the dam office at (740) 537-2571.

Access to the Pike Island shoreline is on the Ohio side, where a fishing platform and parking are available. The lock chambers are on the West Virginia side along Route 2 north of Wheeling. Contact the Pike Island authority at (304) 277-2240.

The Hannibal lock and dam will be found off state Route 7 at Hannibal in Monroe County. This area, which features a hydroelectric plant, has been developed with anglers in mind, with amenities like fish-cleaning facilities and restrooms. Access for shoreline anglers (including the handicapped) is on the West Virginia side. Call (740) 483-2305 for information on the Hannibal lock and dam facilities and current water conditions.

Willow Island has plenty of parking. Footpaths lead to the water on the West Virginia side. The dam is off state Route 2 near the village of Willow Island, West Virginia.

For updated information on the water levels and fishing conditions, contact the Willow Island lock and dam office at (740) 374-8710.

The Ohio River Fishing Guide, a cooperative effort between state conservation agencies on both sides of the river, contains maps and information on access points for shore anglers and boaters. It's must-read material for anyone who wants to fish the Ohio River. For a free copy, contact the District Four office at (740) 594-2211.

ODOW officials remind all anglers to use caution when wading or boating any of Ohio's major rivers in February. Waders are advised to go no deeper than waist-deep and to avoid fast-moving water.

Boaters should always tie off anchors from the bow of the boat - never from the stern, as stern anchoring can result in the boat taking on water, causing it to roll over, swamp or fill with water and sink.

Call the ODOW at 1-800-WILDLIFE for more information on winter walleye angling. Trip planning assistance and information is available by contacting the Ohio Division of Tourism at 1-800-BUCKEYE.

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