Our Top Early-Season Walleye Rivers

Now's the time to start fishing Ohio's spring walleye run. Spawning fish will begin moving into Lake Erie's bays and tributaries this month, providing some of the hottest fishing action of the year.

By Brian Ruzzo

The 2003-04 hunting season may be over, but Ohio sportsmen shouldn't plan on any downtime. As winter is ushered away by icy winds, the 2004 fishing season is set to kick off. If you're looking for a place to start the open-water season, consider going after Lake Erie's walleyes this month.

According to Jeff Tyson, an Ohio Division of Wildlife fisheries biologist, the outlook for walleyes is promising this spring. The 2001 year-class, which was relatively large, should be 15 to 17 inches in length by now. Additionally, the strong 1999 class will fuel the fishery with a large complement of fish measuring 18 to 22 inches; trophy fish will be well represented as well.

"We still have good numbers of 1996 fish. Those are the bigger walleyes," Tyson said. "They should run 22 to 24 inches this spring."

Here's a closer look at the state's walleye fishery and several spring- time hotspots, including Lake Erie and several of its tributaries.

Since the 1990s, walleye recruitment has been unpredictable. According to Tyson, Lake Erie is not producing the exceptional year-classes that it did during the 1980s, so biologists - though they are looking for a few good year-classes to drive this season - are working diligently to protect the long-term health of the fishery.

The declining recruitment of walleyes can be attributed to several factors, but the more prominent contributors include the zebra mussel problem, challenged habitat in degraded nursery areas and environmentally weakened rivers.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

"A lot of the energy from phytoplankton that used to go into baitfish production is now used by the zebra mussels," said Tyson. "That means fewer baitfish, which also means less forage for young walleyes."

Habitat degradation in nursery regions also negatively affects recruitment. The reefs that are the chief spawning substrate are in shape, but once the walleyes hatch, they head for shallow inshore waters. Historically, Lake Erie featured gently sloping shoreline with vegetation, which provided not only cover but also food for newly hatched walleyes. Today, many of those long-recognized nursery regions are now lined with artificial rocky shores.

Worsened river habitat results directly from development, especially that involving dams. Dams halt the spawning runs of river walleyes, thus limiting their options. The dams also generally affect natural river flows and spawning zones.

Fortunately, biologists are actively involved in several initiatives designed to address some of these problems. For example: Sediment from Maumee Bay dredging operations is being considered for use in creating better nursery habitat for walleyes.

Fisheries experts are also examining the feasibility of dam removal on several Lake Erie tributaries. In the past it was believed that the Lake Erie walleye population was largely produced by reef spawners, but biologists are taking a second look at the importance of river-bred stocks. It's now thought that during windy years, when many reef eggs are washed away, the river spawners play a more important role in bolstering spawning success.

Biologists also recently analyzed a regulations package that will reduce spring (March and April) bag limits from four walleyes to three. The package also includes a size limit, which was not imposed previously, of 15 inches. (By the time you read this story, this regulation should be approved and in effect. It's highly recommended that anglers obtain the 2004 edition of the Ohio Fishing Regulations pamphlet to review the new regulations. Check your local sporting good store or call 1-800-WILDLIFE to request a copy.)

"The intention of this regulations package is to reduce Ohio's walleye harvest by about 10 percent," Tyson noted, "because the Lake Erie Committee announced that there needs to be a 40 to 60 percent reduction in the total allowable catch for 2004."

But why do Ohio's recreational anglers have to reduce their harvest by only 10 percent if the committee is looking for a 60 percent reduction? Because - according to Tyson -Buckeye State anglers aren't currently taking all the fish that they could legally have, instead harvesting approximately 70 percent of the total allowable catch. A small reduction in this harvest should get Ohio closer to its new overall goal.

While biologists labor at protecting and sustaining the world-renowned Lake Erie walleye fishery, anglers can start hitting the waters this month. Getting a boat out on the lake early this month can be an arduous task, but you can bet that the walleyes will start to move to their spawning locations as soon as all the ice is gone.

Tyson says that the primary western basin spawning region is the Impact Area northeast of the Toussaint River mouth, a region comprising eleven different reefs. The deepest water surrounds Niagara Reef; a line of 24 feet of water skirts its northern and eastern sides.

A line of reefs - Crane, Big Pickerel, Cone, Little Pickerel, Flat Rock, Crib, and Round - lies just inside Niagara Reef. The northern and eastern edges of this line are bordered by 18 feet of water.

Turtle, Locust Point and Toussaint reefs lie closest to shore. Bordered by 6 to 12 feet of water, these reefs should be promising targets early in the month, especially after a few sunny afternoons. The shallower water will warm quickly, attracting early-season walleyes.

The action should pick up at the end of the month, as the peak spawning period on the reefs usually falls during the third week of April. However, the walleyes will still be in a pre-spawn mode, so Tyson recommends vertical-jigging with twistertail grubs tipped with shiners or with blade baits. Some anglers even employ ice-fishing tactics during the pre-spawn cold and jig spoons tipped with shiners or minnows.

"I use 6-pound-test line," Tyson offered, "because it's a very light bite. I have a trolling motor on the front of my boat, and I like to hold my position, or move into the wind and cast into the wind."

As walleyes aren't slamming the bait at this time of year, Tyson believes that the tactic of casting into the wind, which puts less slack in his line, enables him to detect the slightest of bites and thus provides him with a distinc

t advantage early in the season.

Boat anglers looking to fish the Impact Area can select from plenty of launch sites. At the mouth of the Toussaint River, anglers can launch from four sites, including Flora's Marina, Toussaint River Marina, Beef Creek Marina or Brown's Marina. All four sites are northeast of state Route 2.

There are several more launch sites west of the Toussaint River mouth, including Inland Marina, Fenwick Marina, Turtle Creek Marina, Lamberjack's Marina and Wild Wings. All of these sites are north of state Route 2.

Shore-anglers can also get in on the action, Tyson reports. During March, when the warm sun drives fish into shallow water, anglers can sometimes catch walleyes from either the Turtle Creek fishing access site on North Humphrey Road, off state Route 2, or Wards Canal at Metzger Marsh Wildlife Area.

Metzger can be reached by following state Route 2 to Bono Road. Turtle Point Marina and Flora's Marina both have shoreline fishing piers.

Anglers planning to explore Lake Erie are advised to contact any of the Ohio Division of Wildlife offices to obtain the free Lake Erie Fishing Guide. This booklet is loaded with useful fishing information along with maps showing launches and shoreline access sites.

Anglers may also obtain specific fishing information from the Sandusky Fisheries and Enforcement Units office of the ODOW; its mailing address is: 305 East Shoreline Drive, Sandusky, OH 44870. Or call (419) 625-8062.

Early this month, Lake Erie's walleyes should be found staging close to the mouths of the Sandusky and Maumee rivers. These staging areas often offer early-season fishing of considerable quality.

State fisheries biologists say that in March, commercial seine fishermen working close to shore in the Sandusky region catch and, by law, release plenty of walleyes along with the rough fish they are allowed to take; accordingly, sport anglers seeking walleye schools should also work close to shore, starting at the river mouths and moving offshore until they find fish. The areas surrounding the mouths of the Sandusky and the Maumee are relatively featureless, so anglers need to cover plenty of water.

While walleyes stage early in March, it's doubtful that anglers will find many staging fish later in the month. By the end of March, those fish that are starting their runs late usually enter the river's mouth and keep moving. Anglers will have more success targeting the fish upriver or tackling reef-spawning fish in the Impact Area.

Anglers who'd like to cash in on early Sandusky-run walleyes should try launching from Bay Harbor Marina, Clemmons Marina or Bickley's Dock Shack. Shore-anglers may also fish the bay at Pickerel Creek Wildlife Area, Willow Point WA, Bayview, the Sandusky Bay Bridge, Bickley's Dock Shack, Shoreline Park and Battery Park Marina. U.S. Route 6 provides access to all of these bay sites.

Those in pursuit of early-season Maumee River walleyes should try launching from the Ottawa River Yacht Club on Edgewater Drive, or from Cullen Park. Shore-anglers can also get in on the ice-out action at the Bayshore Fishing Access, which is four and a half miles north of state Route 2, or at the Maumee Bay State Park, which can be reached via Cedar Point Road.

The Lake Erie Fishing Guide shows all of the above access sites. For more information, contact the Sandusky Fisheries and Enforcement Units office.

It's tough to beat the river fisheries, which seem to get started a little sooner than does the lake fishery. And they're a bit easier to access early in the year, as anglers there usually don't have to worry about lingering ice or rough weather.

The Sandusky River begins as a trickle in Crawford County and continues through Wyandot County, becoming more established north of the Upper Sandusky. From there to Freemont, the Sandusky is designated as a state scenic river.

Walleye anglers should concentrate on the stretch directly below Ballville Dam in Freemont. During February and into March, walleyes will stage in the bay; this month they will run upriver until the dam halts the spawning run. Shoreline anglers can access this stretch of river at the Roger Young Park off Front Street in Freemont.

There's no doubt that the twistertail jig is king when it comes to river walleyes. While 1/4-ounce models are a staple on the river, it's important to pack heavier ones for stronger flows. A basic rule of thumb is to use the lightest jig possible that will still reach the bottom.

In recent years, floating jigs have become popular, because they don't get snagged as often. Anglers rig floating jigs with split shot so that the lure floats just off the bottom. River anglers usually don't tip their jigs, either floating or standard, although the technique may work when nothing else produces a hit.

For more information, contact the ODOW District Two office, 952 Lima Avenue, Box A, Findlay, OH 45840; (419) 424-5000.

The Maumee River is arguably the Buckeye State's top walleye fishery in March, thanks to the incredible migration that begins about a week after the Sandusky River runs. The Maumee River's walleyes are halted by a power dam in Grand Rapids.

However, the best fishing isn't found directly below the dam. Instead, anglers should focus on the section of river flowing between Interstate 475 and Interstate 80/90. The walleyes are attracted to this section because of its exceptional spawning habitat. The fishing should be great this month, most likely peaking during the first week of April.

Shore-anglers can get to this stretch by way of International Park off Cherry Street in Toledo. Upstream, the Side Cut Metropark off South River Road provides access.

Plan to bring plenty of twistertail grubs if you plan to fish here. Snags will claim a fair share of baits - but that's what it takes to catch fish here.

For more information regarding local access sites, contact the Toledo Metroparks office at (419) 893-9740. For more fishing information, contact the District Two office of the ODOW.

With all of its reefs, nursery areas and rivers, Lake Erie's western basin provides the most spring walleye action, but the central basin's walleye fishing is also fine. Better known as a steelhead stream, Grand River also hosts eastern Ohioans' fastest early-season walleye action.

Like the Sandusky and Maumee rivers, the Grand features a strong springtime run of walleyes. Although the Grand River run is not of the dimensions of as the northwestern rivers, it's still worth a trip this spring.

The peak of the run is ordinarily reached in late March. The best fishing should be near Painesville. Shoreline anglers can access the river at the Painesville Recreation Park in Painesville; use twistertail grubs, and look for deeper pools. As with the other rivers, it's important to use enough weight to get any lure to the bottom.

For more information regarding the Grand River's walleye fishery, contact the ODOW District Three office, 912 Portage Lakes Drive, Akron, OH 44319; (330) 644-2293.

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