Tuesday, February 7th, 2023
Tuesday, February 7th, 2023

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Understanding post-spawn walleye migration is critical to success

By Jeff Nedwick
Contributing Writer


The fishing opener is one of the state’s most anticipated outdoor events. On some of the more popular fisheries, hundreds of anglers line up at boat launches hours before daylight for a chance to fish for walleyes that have recently finished spawning.


Rivers are often a key walleye destination, whether a tributary connected to the Great Lakes or a single tributary connected to an inland lake. Understanding post-spawn walleye migration behavior on rivers is essential to success.


One of the first things to know about post-spawn walleyes is that contrary to popular belief walleyes don’t immediately exit rivers after spawning. Furthermore, not all fish migrate at the same time, or at the same pace. In fact, in many fisheries, a significant walleye population remains in rivers well into summer long after most anglers have shifted their focus to lakes.


Most of these late-departing, summer river walleyes are caught incidentally by anglers targeting other species, but those fishing specifically for walleye can catch them with by casting shallow-running crankbaits, bodybaits or jig-and-plastic combinations. Light or natural colored lures that imitate the forage typically found in these river systems generate jarring strikes from feisty walleyes that inhabit the deeper river sections with current.


Other walleyes move more quickly downstream, settling into their summer lake residence within a couple of weeks of spawning. Upon first entering the lake, they typically seek out humps or drop-offs near the river mouth. The type of food available in the lake often determines how long they remain in these areas. If the primary forage is baitfish that ride high in the water and roam open waters walleyes will disperse faster from near-shore structure to pursue them. But if the primary forage is bottom-oriented forage species, walleyes tend to stay near the river mouth longer. 


“With the arrival of gobies and collapse of alewives, walleyes stay in the bigger bays longer,” said tournament fisherman Mark Martin, who often fishes Great Lakes tributaries.


Trolling perch or goby colored shallow-running crankbaits behind planer boards or lead-core line is the most effective technique to cover the large expanses of water required to find walleyes in large bays or lakes. Keeping lures 2 to 3 feet above bottom is important.


Regardless of the speed of the downstream migration, a walleye’s journey is filled with stops and pauses. Finding the locations where they hold temporarily can provide great fishing for days or even weeks as new fish move in from upstream to replace fish that leave. 


One such area that walleyes seem to consistently use as a temporary holding spot on the Great Lakes is the lower section of a big river; the area just upstream from the mouth. This section of the river is characterized by slower current and deeper water that more closely resembles a lake than a river.


Martin looks for humps or holes in these lower river sections – areas much like those in a lake. He uses the same trolling techniques as in the lake but will also occasionally cast jigs and plastic trailers – but rarely live bait – to specific structural elements.

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