Rivers across the Northland offer opportunities to enjoy early-season open-water action as schools of walleyes surge upstream on their annual spawning run.
Such migrations happen on waterways of all sizes, from large rivers to small creeks, but Team Northland’s Chip Leer says the Rainy River between Minnesota and Ontario is one of his favorite places to tap the spring bite.
“It’s a classic example of a good-sized river feeding into a large lake,” he begins. “Walleyes from around the main lake gather at the river mouth in late winter, then move upstream toward their spawning areas as the ice recedes. This run of fish boosts the river’s walleye population to its highest level of the year, offering incredible fishing to anglers who know where to fish when, with the right presentations.”
Leer notes that similar scenarios exist across the Walleye Belt, and including the mighty Detroit River on western Lake Erie, Wisconsin’s Fox River, and countless other prime tributaries. “When fishing the Rainy River or other systems like this, I usually start looking for walleyes near the mouth of the river, then gradually work my way upstream until I find the fish,” he says.
Leer targets sweet spots such as channel ledges and assorted current breaks. “Main-channel holes are among my favorite fishing areas, because walleyes leap-frog from one to another on their way up and down the river,” he says. “You have a great chance at catching large fish, plus smaller eater-sized males. Another plus is waves of migrating fish often recharge a hole at different times throughout the day.”
Leer notes that a hole doesn’t have to be 20 feet deeper than the surrounding bottom to attract and hold fish. “Even slight depressions can produce fish, provided they offer a break from the current,” he says.
He also targets current seams and shoreline eddies and advises walleye hunters to check out anything that blocks the current in their particular river, from logjams and bridge pilings to shoals, riprap, or wing dams.
Shallow areas are often best worked by casting tactics, but Leer prefers to fish deeper water by vertically jigging, either from an anchored position or by slowly slipping downstream, using his trolling motor to keep the line as close to vertical as humanly possible.
His favorite jigs are long-shank leadheads like Northland Fishing Tackle’s Slurp! Jig and round-headed RZ Jig. “They hold tippings well and yield rock-solid hooksets,” he explains, adding that Northland’s new Swivel-Head Jig is another standout. “It gives plastic trailers and livebait extra action as the hook rotates with the current,” he says.
Leer’s top tippings include 3- to 5-inch Impulse plastics, which add scent, flavor, and bulk to help walleyes find the bait in dark water, and make them hang on longer when they strike. His favorite styles include the Impulse Ringworm, Paddle Minnow, and Smelt Minnow, but he encourages budding river rats to experiment with a variety of shapes, colors, and sizes.
Once the softbait is in place on the jig, Leer sweetens the pot by piggybacking a skull-hooked shiner or fathead minnow on top of the plastic. “Subdued jig strokes are the rule in spring’s cool water,” he says. “I like a slow, methodical lift-drop, keeping the bait within a few inches of the bottom. But there are days, especially early in the season, when you catch more fish by just holding the jig still.”
Whether you join Leer on the Rainy River or try your luck on another fish-rich system this spring, keeping these tips in mind can help you put more walleyes in the boat.
For more from Chip Leer, visit the links below