Article Written by Spencer Berman. Learn More About the author below / Article Read Time: 6 Minutes
In the spring, the Detroit River sees the largest walleye migration in the world. Millions of Lake Erie walleye push up the Detroit River to spawn. Since Lake Erie is easily the most prolific walleye lake in the world, it is no surprise that such an astonishing number of walleyes push into Lake Erie’s largest water inflow, the Detroit River. The Detroit River provides Lake Erie with nearly 90% of its water. This extreme flow from the Detroit River serves as a major attractor to these fish which are programmed to swim up current in the springtime to spawn.
The DNR estimated that more than five million walleyes make their way into the river with some estimates claiming that the true number of fish is more than twenty million walleye. Either way, it is fair to say that the river is packed with fish! The walleye migration begins once the ice is off the lakes with some fish even pulling into the river before all the ice is gone. The majority of the fish seem to make the movement when the water is between 40 and 44 degrees.
How the Run Progresses
The fishing begins in late March depending on the water. In the first two to three weeks of the run, we typically see pre-spawn fish in the river and our biggest females being caught. In this early period, the numbers of fish are lower than during the later season. This is due to a few factors. First, while the fish are pre-spawn they are not looking to feed and mostly only react to baits jigged near to them causing a reaction strike based on proximity as opposed to the fish moving and hunting baits down. Next the numbers of fish in the river are lower especially in March, then increase once we get later into April. However, this early season window is when we see the biggest fish getting caught with the big females being the first to come into the river ahead of the HUGE number of eater-size male fish. Luckily with the walleye numbers in the Lake Erie system at an all-time high, we can still limit out on most trips during this “big fish early period.”
As the run progresses, we start to see more and more of the female fish dropping their eggs which ultimately lowers the overall weight of the bag we pull in. However, once these fish drop eggs they are then looking to actively feed and tend to be much more aggressive. In the later April period to early May, we see huge numbers of fish and very easy limits. The number of ten-pound-plus fish is significantly lower since most of the females have dropped eggs, although late spawners trickling in are always possible. With most of the fish post-spawn and tons of the bigger female fish around, we see lots of catching as well as lots of fish in the 24-30+ inch range.
From late May to the end of June, we still see large numbers of fish. However, the size average is heavily skewed to the eater-size fish in the 15–24-inch range with only the occasional bigger female being around. We traditionally still see good numbers in the river till around July 1st at which point the remaining fish either move back to Erie or are caught.
How to Fish Them
The Detroit River is defined by the extreme current flow that comes down the river. It has one of the fastest flows for a river its size in the world. For that reason, the fishing styles are very specific to the system. Vertical jigging heavy round-head jigs that get to the bottom fast in the extreme current and stay vertical is the preferred technique. The weight of the jig is dependent on the water depth. However, traditionally 5/8 oz to 1 oz jigs are the norm with ½ oz and 1.5 oz jigs coming into play in extreme circumstances. We present these jigs with a 4-inch plastic such as a worm or fins minnow. During the cold water periods, the jigs are often tipped with a minnow for scent. The cadence of the jig varies depending on the season with the early season cold water period normally requiring the jig only be lifted one foot or so off the bottom and dropped slowly to accommodate the slower attitude of the fish. As the run progresses the jigging gets more aggressive with 1.5-to-2-foot jigs and quicker falls providing a more aggressive approach for the post-spawn more aggressive fish.
Fishing locations on the river vary through the season however we normally start shallower in spawning areas around 12-25 ft. As the run progresses the fish will push deeper with hard bottom areas between 25-40 feet being key. Reefs and ledges in the shipping channel are normally prime areas during the second half of the run.
With the extreme current conditions, the right setups are extremely important. You will need a short light, but very fast jigging rod traditionally 6 feet long or even 5’6”. With the vertical jigging application not requiring a huge line capacity, I like to use smaller spinning reels such as the Okuma Helios 20. For the line, you need a high-quality no stretch braided line for maximum sensitivity and feel. Cortland 10-pound Master Braid is perfect for these applications. Additionally, I like to use high visibility colored line such as white or yellow so I can easily see the line orientation of everyone in my boat and make sure they are vertical. Lastly, the braided line should be connected to a very small swivel to help with the line twist that occurs in the current and followed up with 10-pound fluorocarbon leader material. This will make the line invisible to these walleye while giving you the abrasion resistance and feel you need.
About the Author
If you are looking to get out on the Detroit River for the walleye run, Spencer’s Angling Adventures has you covered. We have four amazing guides on the river anchored by Capt. Spencer Berman. We operate out of Sindbad’s Marina and restaurant in Detroit and offer a variety of fishing packages. Additionally, Sindbad’s restaurant has an amazing walleye special where you can bring some of the filets into the restaurant after the Captain has cleaned them and enjoy the freshest walleye ever. If you are looking to get out, please check out our website at www.SpencersAnglingAdv.com, email us at SpencersAnglingAdv@gmail.com or call us at 419-410-0498. Also, you can check us out on FB at Spencer Berman or Instagram @SpencerBermanFish.