Pre-Spawn and River Walleye Tactics
By Richard Martin

Every year it happens. Like the inexorable ticking of a clock, the days grow longer, two minutes by two minutes. And as they do, Lake Erie walleye eggs and milt begin to mature and hormones trigger off behavior patterns that have changed little over thousands of years.

The fish begin staging south of Green Island, north of such reefs as Clinton and Cone, between North Bass and Niagara, and off the tip of Catawba island, all deep water spots. Then the huge, loose schools and pods begin a slow, measured movement toward the western end of the lake.  

Some of those schools head toward reefs like Toussaint and Niagara, others favor flats, beach areas, and rockpiles, and more seek out the Sandusky and Maumee rivers, but they all move and as they do, offer opportunities for the first big walleye catches of the year. And some of the fish caught will be BIG walleyes!  

It's tough fishing. Some years the ice lingers long, and anglers will often perform the dangerous trick of walking their boat over thin ice to open water.    Foolish.   other years the ice leaves early, and launch ramps in western Lake Erie are free and ready for use. However the weather, once boats can be launched, it's going to be cold. Lake water won't be much above 33 degrees, snow and high winds are always possible, and ice chunks will be floating here and there. which means anglers had best dress warmly and carries plenty of hot coffee. But the fish have no choice and will move, whatever the weather.       All that's necessary is to find them and then catch them.  

The finding most days isn't difficult.      At the beginning of the migration, look for them in the deep-water spots listed above. As it progresses they' 11 move into shallower water and schools will swim west, many of them passing the tip of Catawba Island. They might be a half-mile offshore, or a mile or several, and depending on when you're able to go, most could be north of the island, or west and south.  

So, one good tactic is to launch at Catawba Island State Park and head a mile or two due west. Then anchor if necessary, or drift if the winds are gentle and drifting is possible.         With a fish locator, pinpointing schools and pods is easy, but lacking this basic gear most anglers anchor and fish one spot for 15 minutes then move, and move again. Drifters just keep going, maybe working deeper or shallower on each drift.  

Anglers will basically be using ice fishing techniques at this time of year, and that means jigging just off bottom with spoons and jigs.   Good choices are Swedish Pimples, jigging Rapalas, Snakey Spoons, Hopkins Spoons, and Crocodiles. Those who prefer straight jigs should try those with twister tails, soft flaring maribou, or tinsel tails. Either way it's best to bait all three hooks of spoons or the single hook of jigs with emerald shiners. The minnows bouncing up and down add both eye appeal and flavor to any lure.  

Keep in mind that early fish are very cold and therefore very sluggish. A fast moving rig won't attract them, so keep it slow and make jigs easy up and down, rather than fast and jerky.      Strikes might be serious hits, but much more often they'll be gentle tugs or maybe just a touch of extra weight on the line as a fish clamps down. So, use a sensitive rod, 6-10 pound test line, and take action at any difference in the lure.  

On my last trip for these cold water walleyes, the action was more or less typical. We launched at Catawba State Park, moved out about two miles until the locator showed a cluster of fish below, anchored and started jigging blue and silver Swedish Pimples with shiner dressing. It took less than five minutes to feel that first gentle tug, a slow plunging fish that materialized into a seven pound female.  

Then my partners started picking up fish, and I caught more, filling my limit within an hour. And thank heavens for that. Even with plenty of protective gear, my fingers were wet and growing numb, toes weren't moving well, and the coffee had long gone. We headed back to the dock in a hurry.  

It's worth pointing out that not all walleye follow this general migration route. Some move into Sandusky Bay from the Marblehead area and these are the easiest to catch of all. Several years ago I spent a few minutes studying a map of the Bay, and found a spot where the shores pinched in dramatically. That's at the old railroad bridge just east of old Bay Bridge and east again of fairly new Route 2.  

Every walleye that takes this route must funnel under that bridge, and it looked like a likely spot. I never got around to trying it, but did pass the information on to a friend who lives up there, and he said, "It's a great place all right.       once we tried it and couldn't stay because of the current, but twice we found the current slow and limited out under the bridge both times." It's worth a look.  

Once spawning begins, many fishermen head for various flats, and work off the beach areas, rock piles, and near such reefs as Niagara, Toussaint, Crib and Locust Point Reef. These areas will account for lunker walleyes, up to 10 pounds and better on spoons and jigs, but it's worth pointing out that older and larger fish aren't that great eating, and are better left to spawn and produce a new generation. When I hit these pre-spawn fish, my keepers are the nice little 2-4 pound jacks, and all others go back.   But that's a choice each fisherman must make himself.  

Each year a substantial number of fish enter the Sandusky and Maumee rivers, and these are a bonanza for boatless anglers. Easy access, no cost for charters or headboats, just a few jigs and patience. And hopefully a little extra knowledge. The jacks arrive in the river first, often by very early March, weather deciding. And while they're waiting for the larger females to arrive, some will strike a bait.  But once serious spawning begins, it can be tough to interest a lovelorn walleye in food.  

The first point to keep in mind for this river fishing is that there are lots of regulations on both rivers. Among them are restrictions on the most popular fishing areas. on the Sandusky, the regulated stretch runs through downtown Fremont from the Toledo Edison power line to the northern tip of Bradys Island.  

And on the Maumee, it's from the Ohio Turnpike bridge to the Old Waterville interurban bridge at the end of Forest Road and from the SR 578 bridge to the Grand Rapids Providence dam. Only single hooks are allowed too, and there are other regulations.      Read them carefully, because both rivers are usually swarming with wildlife officers in plain clothes looking for snaggers and other miscreants.  

Most of the anglers who fish these rivers spend their time casting quarter or eighth ounce twistertail jigs in chartreuse, white, yellow, and red slightly upstream and let the lure sink to bottom before making a slow retrieve. Occasionally this works, and the fish is actually mouth hooked, instead of snagged.  

But you' 11 have better luck adding a small minnow or piece of worm to the hook, then strike at any change in resistance. Some try live bait too, maybe a 2-3 inch minnow or whole night crawler on a slip sinker, and tight line in pools or other likely places where fish will stop to rest.  

With a small boat you can move downstream past the crowds and jig for fish that haven't yet seen swarms of doll flies. or test the old Michigan trick of drifting downriver exactly as fast as the current, and jigging an eighth or sixteenth ounce doll fly just off bottom. Again, with a little bait added for allure.  

Sometimes a nice cluster of fish will move upriver and action will be fairly fast for those who can keep their baits down and moving slowly. Sometimes no new fish will arrive for several days, and fishing can be slow. Weather is always important on any river, too.  

The best time to fish is after a good rain that swells the river and turns it almost chocolate. As the water recedes and begins to clear, it's time to go fishing, since each rain will bring up new fish. Trying your luck on a low, clear river or on one too muddy to allow more than inches visibility is always iffy.  

And remember, if nothing is producing a catch, turn to the unusual. Try removing the standard treble hook from a small jigging spoon, and adding a proper single hook. Then Dig Dust off bottom with a minnow dressing and see what happens. or use a worm rig with single hook and spinner. or some incredibly gaudy doll fly. Maybe nothing will happen, but then again ....