Walleye run on rivers provides tried, tested cure for cabin fever

3/17/2013
BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE OUTDOORS EDITOR
Fishermen will converge on the Maumee River, among other sites, again this year in near shoulder-to-shoulder fashion trying to land a prize walleye.
Fishermen will converge on the Maumee River, among other sites, again this year in near shoulder-to-shoulder fashion trying to land a prize walleye.

For eager fishermen, the first 50-degree day in March is the angling equivalent of firing the starter’s pistol to begin a marathon. After four or five months of dealing with intense cabin fever, fishermen of all descriptions will emerge from winter’s funk and resume their battle of wits with those often elusive denizens of the waterways.

Anglers usually need little coaxing to get the gear out of the garage and consider the 2013 fishing season officially under

way. When the thermometer crept into the marginally comfortable range recently, the battle was joined, and it should last until the snow flies in November.

The primary destination of the first wave of these antsy anglers is the rivers — the Maumee or the Sandusky around this area. It is not uncommon to cross the Maumee-Perrysburg Bridge one day and not see a single fisherman, but pass the same way just a few days later and it will appear that an army has invaded.

WALLEYE RUN REGULATIONS

(In effect March 1 through April 30)

■ Daily limit: 4 fish

■ Size minimum: 15 inches

■ No fishing with more than one hook

■ Hook must be no larger than one-half inch from shank to point

■ Treble hooks prohibited 

■ Fishing hours are sunrise to sunset in the following areas:

— Maumee River from the Ohio Turnpike bridge to the Old Waterville interurban bridge, and from the State Route 578 bridge to Providence dam

— Portage River from State Route 19 to the Elmore dam

— Sandusky River from where the Toledo Edison power line crosses the river at the southeast corner of Rodger Young Park to the northern tip of Brady’s Island

■ Fishing prohibited: in the Sandusky River from the Ballville dam to the Toledo Edison power line

Hundreds of anglers in waders stand nearly shoulder to shoulder in the edges of the river, while a flotilla of small boats work the center of the waterway. The targeted species coming out of the gate is walleye, and the fishing flock just hopes its move back outdoors coincides with a big influx of the prized sport fish.

Each spring, as the ice comes off the rivers and the days get steadily longer, the walleye’s internal clock says it is time to leave Lake Erie and head up the streams to spawn. Many of the Lake Erie walleye will spawn out on the reef structures in the open lake, but nature’s GPS has tens of thousands of them choosing the rivers as their spawning destination.

The annual phenomenon brings this fish, one that provides premium table fare, within reach of the many anglers who do not have access to a boat large enough to take on the lake. The river run is their best shot at catching walleye.

Since the spring spawning run can provide masses of fish for masses of fishermen, special rules are in place for March and April each year (see graphic). Anglers in the rivers and the bays can use just one hook; treble hooks are prohibited. Fishing in the designated spawning areas on the rivers is permitted only from sunrise to sunset.

The movement of walleye up the rivers each spring is triggered by both rising water temperature and the increase in daylight, according to Jeff Tyson, the Lake Erie Program Administrator for the Ohio Division of Wildlife’s Sandusky research unit.

“The males move up the river first, and usually stay for an extended period of the run,” Tyson said.

Female walleye will enter the river as the water temperature continues to warm and approaches its optimum level for spawning, which is around 50 degrees. Tyson said these larger female fish likely stage in certain sections of the rivers, and then move back out into the lake once their eggs are dropped.

He expects the first week of April to provide the highest catch rates, with that peak possibly occurring a week earlier or a week later, with weather and the warming of the river water as the wild card in the formula.

Last year, with extremely warm temperatures very early in the spring, was unique, an exception, with spawning and peak catches occurring earlier.

Tyson said the spawning walleye seek out bottom areas covered in gravel or cobble, and most of the actual spawning occurs at night.

“In the daytime, a lot of fish will hold in deeper pools out of the main current,” he said. “There’s a ton of gravel and cobble throughout the Maumee River, so they have plenty of places to spawn.”

The in-house experts at Jann’s Netcraft on Briarfield Boulevard in Maumee recommend the river angler tackling the walleye run use a 6-6 medium-to-heavyweight rod and fish with 8 or 10-pound test line. Some fishermen have historically employed a heavier line, but a quality 10-pound test spool should handle anything the river serves up.

Floating jig heads attached to a two or three-foot long leader in a “Carolina” style rig are the most commonly used lure during the run, when special rules limit the options to a single hook that is no larger than one-half inch from shank to point.

The floating jig is dressed with a plastic twister tail, usually about three inches in length. The leader holding the jig is attached to one end of a swivel, with the main line attached to the other end of the swivel after an in-line sinker is placed on the main line.

This arrangement allows the weight to sink, while the lure rises and is much more visible to fish holding along the rocky bottom. There are two obvious benefits to using a Carolina-style rig when fishing the spring run.

First, a lot more fish are hooked legally when the bait or lure is up off the bottom and out of the rocks or gravel. A lead-headed jig or a weighted hook dragged or jerked across the bottom will foul-hook many fish, and the law requires that any fish hooked anyplace except in the mouth must be immediately returned to the river. Snagging injures many fish.

Secondly, the angler will have his line hang up or snag the bottom a lot less often when the hook is floating away from the many cracks and crevices along theriver floor. This saves tackle, saves time since re-rigging while maintaining your place in the stream can take more than a few minutes, and it also keeps a lot of broken line and harmful lead out of the river.

Anglers tackling the spring run should proceed with caution – the water is cold, the current strong, and the river bottom irregular. A good wading stick can provide stability as you move around in the water.

The biologist Tyson recommends that anglers strictly follow the special walleye run regulations, but not necessarily follow the crowds.

“We have a sense for what is going on during the spawning run, but there are no hard and fast rules,” he said. “There are still some things we don’t know about the walleye in the rivers, so we shouldn’t assume the fish are all packed into the places where the fishermen tend to congregate.”

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6068 .