Targeting Pre-Spawn Walleye
By Mark Romanack
Late March and early April are a magical time for those anglers who enjoy catching big walleye. It’s at this brief time of year that female walleye are stuffed full of eggs, giving them a more plump look than a Christmas turkey!
For those who are out to catch their personal best, there is no better time to be on the water and chasing big eyes. The problem is, in many years this volatile time of year ends up being a wash out for walleye anglers, quite literally. Melting snow, spring rains and seasonal winds combine to turn our best “big fish” fisheries into a quagmire of hopeless muddy water.
Muddy water during the pre-spawn is seemingly a hurdle no angler can overcome, but thankfully it seems every year anglers can look forward to at least a few days when the conditions are ideal for targeting trophy class walleye. Don’t forget if one fishery is blown out, there is a good chance another fishery is still fishable.
CATCH AND RELEASE DESTINATIONS
A few places have recognized that anglers will travel many miles and spend countless dollars to give themselves a shot at catching the walleye of a lifetime. One such place is the Bay of Green Bay in Wisconsin. From the mouth of the Fox River north to Oconto and Peshtigo countless anglers converge every year in March and April with the hopes of landing their PB walleye.
At the end of the day when anglers are loading their boats and stowing gear, it’s simply amazing to walk around and visit with these anglers. Instead of a livewell full of fish, these guys whip out their smart phone and show off pictures of all the beautiful fish they caught and released unharmed to spawn.
For those who are sincerely looking to put a fish on the wall, taking a length and girth measurement and a few photos is all it takes for a qualified taxidermist to create the mount of a lifetime. There is simply no need to kill a fish for a taxidermy mount.
A similar experience takes place every year in eastern Ontario at the Bay of Quinte. This fishery is closed to fishing in the spring, so anglers converge in late fall from around Thanksgiving to freeze up to target trophy walleye.
This fishery is unique in that a small population of walleye spend most of their lives in Lake Ontario. During the late fall these fish slip up in the Bay of Quinte to feed on alewife and gizzard shad that crowd into the Bay during the fall and winter months.
Mighty Lake Erie is without question the best overall walleye fishery in North America and Mother Erie also has more than her share of trophy class fish. While it has always bothered me to see recreational anglers killing coolers full of adult walleye, the fisheries biologists of Lake Erie are not concerned. It has been proven that the most productive fish in regards to spawning and reproducing the species are not the mega hawgs, but rather the run of the mill fish that range in size from four to eight pounds in size.
Still, I can’t bring myself to kill adult walleye, especially during the spawning season. While, I’m making a personal decision not to kill pre-spawn females, that doesn’t mean I discourage anglers from targeting those big fish on Lake Erie.
Not everyone has enjoyed as many days on the water as I have and everyone needs to make their own decision when it comes to “catch and kill” or “catch and release” as it pertains to walleye fishing. So long as you are properly licensed and stay within the boundaries of the law, I have no issues with those who are targeting walleye during the spawn.
SAGINAW BAY/SAGINAW RIVER
While Saginaw Bay can’t compete with Lake Erie for numbers, it is. most certainly one of the more fertile walleye fisheries on the planet. Also, because Saginaw Bay has little structure compared to Erie, the pre-spawn fish tend to show up and then squirt into the tributary streams to spawn without warning. The major tributary feeding Saginaw Bay is the Saginaw River, which is currently closed to walleye fishing March 16 to the last Saturday in April.
Beginning in 2023 the Saginaw River will remain open year around setting the stage for what may well be one of the best places on Earth to catch a trophy class walleye in March and April.
The Saginaw River feeds a lot of rich farm land, so the water clarity is seemingly always cloudy even in perfect conditions. When spring run off and rains begin, the Saginaw River quickly turns into a river of mud and the fishing success is up and down as a result.
The Detroit River attracts countless walleye on their annual spring spawning runs. The opportunity to target trophy class fish starts as soon as the river is ice free and anglers can navigate safely. In most years that means that the middle to the end of March is prime time to target mega big walleye on the Detroit River.
ST. CLAIR RIVER
While the Detroit and the St. Clair Rivers are similar, the biggest difference is that Lake St. Clair feeds the Detroit River and the icy waters of Lake Huron feeds the St. Clair River. As a result, the Detroit River action heats up first and the St. Clair River follows a few weeks later. This unique situation sets the stage for anglers who “spot hop” to stay on those big fish as long as possible.
ST MARY’S RIVER
The Upper St. Mary’s River is probably one of the most overlooked walleye fisheries in the Great Lakes region. Near ideal spawning habitat can be found in the upper river. Because the walleye season is closed until May 15, this area does not produce as many trophy class fish as the others listed in this article. Also, the St. Mary’s is fed directly from ice cold water coming down from Lake Superior. As a result, when other river fisheries in the state have peaked and are declining, the St. Mary’s is just heating up.
HOW IT’S DONE
There are lots of ways to catch pre-spawn walleye. Casting jigs, vertical jigging, jig trolling, blade baits, slow trolling crankbaits and live bait rigging are just a few of the ways anglers consistently catch big walleye. We’ll tackle the “how to catch them” questions in another blog. In the meantime, if you haven’t already made plans to target pre-spawn walleye this year, what’s stopping you? The fish you catch may well be your PB.