High water makes river fishing a fast-moving adventure

Greg Pauken of Maumee fishes close to the shoreline in the Maumee River at Side Cut Metropark. High water from recent rain adds a challenge to walleye fishing.
Greg Pauken of Maumee fishes close to the shoreline in the Maumee River at Side Cut Metropark. High water from recent rain adds a challenge to walleye fishing.

While several rounds of robust spring storms have turned the Maumee and Sandusky rivers into wide, swift ribbons of nature’s own brand of latte, some anglers are still in pursuit of spawning walleye, while others are staying on the sidelines, poised to jump back into the fray once the water ebbs.

The fish, however, remain in the waterways.

“During these high water events, most fish species in the streams tend to retreat downstream a bit and find areas of lower velocity and just hold there,” said Mike Wilkerson, fish management supervisor for the Ohio Division of Wildlife’s Findlay office.

“With the walleye, a lot depends on what Mother Nature tells them to do. Normally, they like to conserve energy and not fight a lot of current. These are not fast-water fish, but that could change a bit at this time of year if they are moving to a specific area for spawning,” he said.

Although the angler numbers are way down on both rivers, because high water makes for tough fishing conditions, many fishermen had to be reminded that these significant fluctuations in water level are not some kind of anomaly. This is likely just the return of “the old normal.”

After last year’s freakish hot weather early in the spring, and several odd spells in previous years, we might have forgotten that.

“The fishing effort is probably minimal right now, but it’s really not out of the ordinary for the river to change significantly, sometimes almost from one day to the next,” said Bob Barnhart of Netcraft, a Toledo-area tackle dealer since 1941. “The river levels jump up after a big storm, and then slowly drop back down. The fishermen just have to be ready to hit it when the conditions are right.”

Barnhart does not expect the flush of rain water to disrupt or end the spawning run, but instead he is looking for a bonanza once the rivers start to recede.

“After this high water backs down, I don’t think the run will be over at all,” he said. “I think the walleye fishing will be gangbusters when the water comes down.”

Gary Lowry at Maumee Tackle said the high water has produced some four-fish limit catches for those anglers who have stuck it out and worked the areas that historically have been productive after major rains: Orleans Park, White Street access, and Towpath Park.

“We’ll have to wait and see what the weather does going forward,” Lowry said on Thursday, “but for the last day or so the fishing couldn’t be better. This is more like a normal year.”

Lowry, who moved his annual walleye tournament from this weekend to April 28 over safety concerns associated with the high water levels, said he encourages spring walleye fishermen to develop a variety of options.

“The best thing for anglers to do is to learn as many areas as possible, so the changes in the water level won’t leave them without alternatives,” he said. “The more places they know, the better. If they have locations for high water, low water and so on, they can be on the fish all of the time.”

Barnhart said savvy river anglers have adjusted their tackle to match the conditions, maximizing their chances for success in the high water. He recommends increasing the weight on floating jig head rigs to 5/8, 3/4, or even 1-ounce, and changing to a leader that is three or four feet long.

“That type of rig is more appropriate for the high, fast water that we are seeing in the rivers right now,” he said. “Those fish want to have their belly to the bottom in fast water, so the additional weight gets your rig down there, and the longer leader allows the bait to stay in front of the fish a bit longer.”

On the Sandusky River in downtown Fremont, the water is high and very murky, and the level has made it difficult to fish in some of the traditionally popular areas. Walleye fishing has been slow on the Sandusky, but some early run white bass are starting to show up. The best areas to fish are found between Rodger Young Park and Walsh Park.

Out on Lake Erie, the wind has scrambled what had been a very encouraging picture. Rick Ferguson at Al Szuch Live Bait in Curtice said the jig bite was decent earlier in the week, but a big blow from the northeast, followed by an even stronger push of wind from the southwest, has made a mess of things.

“It doesn’t matter where we were seeing fish caught the past few days because that all changes with this wind,” he said. “The wind has torn everything up pretty good.”

Ferguson said the traditional spring lake rig, hair jigs with stinger hooks tipped with live bait, has been the most productive offering and should continue to bring in fish, once the lake settles down.

“With the wind the way it is, I don’t think we’ll see anybody out on the lake until Sunday, and then it will be a crap shoot,” he said. “The wind has everything completely trashed right now.”

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