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Ohio's Finest February Walleye Rivers

Ohio's Finest February Walleye Rivers

Now's the time to start catching river-run walleyes, and Ohio boasts some of the best spring 'eye fishing in the Midwest. Try these biologist-recommended waters this month.

Crankbaits fished slow and deep are one option for Ohio's early season walleye anglers. Live and dead minnows work well too. Photo by Tom Evans

By Brian Ruzzo

The snows of winter may not be over yet, but let the 2003 angling season begin. There's some great walleye fishing available statewide this month, starting with Lake Erie and its tributaries.

Known as "The Walleye Capital of the World," Lake Erie produces more sport fish than all the other Great Lakes combined. There are several reasons for the Lake Erie walleye "factory" effect. First, Lake Erie is the southernmost fishery of the Great Lakes. Therefore, the water is warmer, resulting in a longer, more productive growing season. Another contributing factor is the productiveness of the western basin. In fact, the western basin is the most productive natural spawning and nursery area among the Great Lakes.

Western basin walleyes average 2 pounds. According to a creel survey conducted in 2000, central basin fish are slightly larger, averaging 3 pounds. But the population densities in the western basin are much higher.

Many of these fish will migrate into Lake Erie's tributaries this spring as the water temperatures approach 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The western basin's Maumee and Sandusky rivers support the top two walleye runs in the state. The central basin's Grand River features a smaller spring walleye run. Other Lake Erie runs are sporadic and hard to predict.

River walleye catches tend to be slightly larger. In 2001, river-run walleyes averaged 20 inches. According to fisheries biologist Doug Johnson, the smaller 2-year-old class has less influence on the river creels than the lake. The 2-year-olds dominate the lake fishery and the catches, but only a percentage of those fish are large enough to spawn; therefore, they do not enter the rivers and figure heavily into the average.

However, a good 2-year-old class is still important. They may not dominate the river fisheries, but the larger 2-year-olds will still enter the rivers bolstering the overall numbers. These fish will be in the 14-inch range. Biologists expect a good spring season on the rivers because of a strong 2001 class.

In addition to the healthy classes, the state has recently implemented several regulations that should continue to improve the fishery. In 2001, the bag limit on walleyes taken before April 1 was changed from 10 to four fish. This translates into less fish taken before the spawn. Biologists hope that more spawning fish will mean more fish for the future. This regulation has been in effect for two spawning seasons. Anglers could benefit this year.

Also, commercial fishing regulations have been tightened. This was done in partnership with other jurisdictions, including Ontario and Michigan. Although there is no commercial fishing in Ohio, the regulations will benefit the fishery.

Besides the Lake Erie tributaries, the Ohio River can be excellent for walleye and sauger fishing during the early spring. Here's a closer look at all of these great early-season walleye rivers.

The Maumee River is big water, but it is generally shallow. The gradient is moderate with few ledges or rapids. The river is generally turbid, with plenty of gravel beds. Walleyes use the gravel beds to spawn at night. During the day, walleyes seek cover in nearby deeper pools.

This month the males will start to stack up at the mouth of the river preparing for the run. Access to the lower Maumee River is excellent. Starting at the mouth of the Maumee, anglers may launch boats at the Ottawa River Yacht Club on Edgewater Drive. Cullen Park also provides boat launches near the mouth of the river. These are good places to start fishing early in February because the walleyes will start to gather here as the ice retreats from the big lake.

Shore anglers can also get in on the ice-out action at the Bayshore Fishing Access, 4 1/2 miles north of state Route 2, or at the Maumee Bay State Park, which can be reached via Cedar Point Road.

In March, the male walleyes will begin their run toward Grand Rapids. The females follow shortly thereafter.

The power dam in Grand Rapids halts the walleye's run, but the section of river that gets most of the attention from walleye enthusiasts is the stretch between Interstate Route 475 and I-80/90. The most productive spawning grounds are in this section.

Shore anglers can access this stretch at International Park off Cherry Street in Toledo. Upstream, the Side Cut Metropark off South River Road provides access. The best fishing in this section doesn't start until next month, and it peaks in the first week of April.

For more information regarding these access sites, contact the Toledo Metroparks at (419) 893-9740. For fishing information, contact the ODOW's District two office, 952 Lima Avenue, Box A, Findlay, OH 45840; or call (419) 424-5000.

Like most rivers, the Sandusky has humble beginnings. Starting as a small brook in central Ohio's Crawford County, the Sandusky winds toward Upper Sandusky where the river finally begins to look like an all-season waterway. In fact, from Upper Sandusky to Freemont in Sandusky County the river is designated a state scenic river.

For walleye anglers, the Sandusky River begins at the Ballville Dam in Freemont. The hottest stretch during March is from the dam downstream to Roger Young Park in Freemont. Shore anglers can access this stretch at the park. Boaters can launch from the city launch site across the river from the park.

Like the Maumee, the run begins at the lake. The fish will move from Sandusky Bay into the mouth of the river in early February. But according to biologists, the Sandusky River usually warms slightly faster than the Maumee. Therefore, the run may begin a week early on the Sandusky.

Boaters may access the bay for early-season fishing at several different sites, including Bay Harbor Marina, Clemmons Marina and Bickley's Dock Shack. Shoreline anglers can also fish the bay at Pickerel Creek Wildlife Area, Willow Point Wildlife Area, Bayview, Sandusky Bay Bridge, Bickleys Dock Shack, Shoreline Park and Battery Park Marina. U.S. Route 6 provides access to all of these bay sites.

Upstream, the action will begin in a few weeks. Mad Creek Bait and Tackle, Memory Marina, and Riverfront Marina

provide boating access. The Mad Creek Bait and Tackle site also has shoreline access for anglers. All three upper river sites are north of I-80/90. These sites provide access mostly to transition fish moving to and from the spawning grounds upriver.

For more information, contact the District Two office of the Ohio Division of Wildlife.

In the northeastern part of the state, walleye fishing begins on the Grand River. In 1974, the state designated the Grand River as a wild and scenic waterway. Unlike the northwestern rivers, the Grand is renowned for its fall and spring steelhead runs. But its early spring walleye runs also attract attention. Like the northwestern streams, the Grand has plenty of gravel beds to support spawning walleyes. The runs are not as prolific as they are on the western basin streams, but good numbers of fish can still be caught.

This month, the fishing begins at the mouth of the river. Boaters and shoreline anglers can access the mouth at the Fairport Harbor Port Authority Boat ramp, which can be reached via Water Street.

Several other sites also provide shoreline-angling access at the mouth of the Grand River. Try the Headlands State Park breakwall off State Route 44, Fairport Harbor Lakefront Park on High Street, Painesville Township Park on Hardy Road, or the Lake Shore Reservation at the junction of Lockwood and Antioch roads.

In March, Grand River walleyes start their upstream migration. Just upriver from the mouth of the river, the Rutherfords Landing launch site provides good boating access to transition fish. Rutherfords Landing can be reached via River Street.

The best section of river during the peak of the run in late March is near Painesville. Fisheries biologist Phil Hillman recommends targeting the deeper pools in this region. In the past, corporate landowners allowed shoreline access on the west bank from U.S. 20 to the Painesville Recreation Park, but, according to ODOW biologists, these access sites are no longer available.

The best public access point for shore anglers is the Painesville Recreation Park in Painesville. Other privately owned access points may be available, but check before using them.

For more information regarding the Grand River, contact the District Three office of the Ohio Division of Wildlife, 912 Portage Lakes Drive, Akron, OH 44319; or call (330) 644-2293.

Also, a copy of the Lake Erie Fishing Guide is a must for serious anglers. It has great fishing information and a list of public access points that apply to fishing the mouths of the tributaries. For a copy, contact the District Two or District Three offices of the Ohio Division of Wildlife; or call 1-800-WILDLIFE.

Like any fish species, walleyes will key on structure. Early-season anglers fishing the bays and mouths of the river will want to look for rocks, ledges, dropoffs and similar cover. Biologists note that the fish will be traveling in schools, so a depthfinder may help.

Once you have located fish, try ice-fishing jigs. These small jigs seem to work well for sluggish fish in cold water. You may also want to try live bait, which is always a good bait choice when fish are finicky.

When the walleyes enter Ohio's Lake Erie tributaries, they will take a variety of jigs with Twistertails or live bait threaded on the hook. One popular jig is the floating jig with split shot. Maumee River anglers have been using this rig for several seasons and now it's their primary bait. A split shot or sinker above the floating jig head gets the bait down. This rig can still reach the depths, but the bait rises just off the bottom where it can be easily seen and taken by hungry walleyes.

Some Sandusky River anglers are starting to use the floating jig head with success, and biologists expect to see more fishermen using this tactic this year.

Use a slow retrieve - as slow as the current will allow. These dormant spring fish are not ready to chase anything yet!

Another amazing Buckeye State walleye fishery is the Ohio River. Like Lake Erie and its tributaries, the mighty Ohio supports vast numbers of sport fish, but this month it's the coldwater species that will dominate creels. Walleyes, which average 2 1/2 pounds, along with saugers, team up to provide southern Ohio anglers with a dynamite cold weather fishery. The saugers are slightly smaller, averaging 1 1/2 pounds, but they provide some of the Ohio River's highest catch rates.

One reason for such high catch rates is the natural tendency of these fish to congregate. During fall, as the water temperatures approach 50 degrees, walleyes and saugers will start to congregate at tailwater races and stream confluences. They will remain concentrated in these locations through the winter and into early spring.

The most popular method of taking Ohio River walleyes and saugers is to fish 1/8- to 3/8-ounce jigs tipped with white or chartreuse Twistertails near the bottom. Tipping the jigs with live or dead minnows will improve catch rates. Fish the jigs with light lines and sensitive rods to help detect finicky bites. Most of the time it is best to fish slow. These fish may be coldwater fighters, but they won't chase fast baits. Jigging spoons and vibrating blade lures also take some fish.

Fish the deeper pools during the day. Overcast days are especially productive. Fishing at night, especially for saugers, can be excellent because the fish move into shallow waters near sunset. Crankbaits can be effective when probing shallow river flats during these low-light periods.

The section of Ohio River bordering the Buckeye State includes nine tailwater races. From east to west the locks and dams include New Cumberland, Pike Island, Hannibal, Willow Island, Belleville, Racine, Gallipolis, Greenup and Meldahl. Most of these sites have shoreline and boating access close by.

According to biologists, all of the tailraces should provide good walleye and sauger action. But the Greenup tailwaters produce the highest catch rates for saugers, and the New Cumberland and Pike Island tailwaters provide the best walleye fishing.

In fact, according to Scott Schell, District Four fisheries biologist, the upper Ohio River harbors a unique strain of walleyes. He thinks these fish could be the original strain of walleyes that populated the Ohio River hundreds of years ago.

The 2003 outlook on the Ohio River for both walleyes and saugers is excellent. Biologists point to some strong previous year-classes that should be filling creels this spring

The continued efforts of the Ohio River Fisheries Management Team should ensure the long-term health of this fishery. Organized in 1990, the team is comprised of members from several bordering states. The first major project completed was standardization of the fish

ing regulations for black bass, walleyes and saugers. The second undertaking was a creel survey conducted along the 491-mile stretch of the Ohio River between Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia and Indiana. The valuable information obtained during this survey has helped the team continue to improve the fishery.

The team has published an Ohio River Fishing Guide that shows all of the above access points and provides more fishing information. For more information, contact the District Four or District Five offices of the Division of Wildlife. District Five can be reached at 1076 Old Springfield Pike, Xenia, OH 45385; or call (937) 372-9261. The District Four office is at 360 East State Street, Athens, OH 45701; or call (740) 594-2211.

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