Time to run to the walleye run

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walleye

If you ask folks when they believe spring arrives, some would look at the calendar and point out that March 19 is the day. Others, knowing Ohio’s fickle weather history, rely on what they see to predict nature’s fresh start.

They may point out the crocuses popping along a walkway or daffodils emerging from their winter nap. Some look to the sky for skeins of geese and ducks heading northward or warblers and bluebirds returning to their breeding grounds.

Hunters may be listening for that first boss gobbler to yodel his dominance in the back forty, but if you’re an angler, especially one that lives in the Great Black Swamp region of Ohio, the answer could be summed up in one word: “WALLEYE!”

The walleye run is underway at the Sandusky and Maumee Rivers, providing an opportunity to catch Ohio’s most popular game fish. The walleye — also known as the pickerel, yellow pike or walleyed pike — is actually a member of the perch family. Its most common cousins are the yellow perch, sauger and the now extinct (as far as we know) blue pike.

The walleye is a native of Lake Erie and the Ohio River but has also been stocked in many other bodies of water, especially larger reservoirs. It is easily the most sought-after fish found in any part of Lake Erie or its tributaries.

Specifics

The name “walleye” is derived from the fish’s large eyes that appear to be clouded. They sit right above a mouth full of very sharp teeth that have given many careless anglers a reason to remember those chompers.The tail fin has a white tip or spot at the bottom that is easily seen while coaxing the fish into a landing net.

Typically, the length of a walleye is between 14 and 22 inches but, as with any average, you can find them on either side. If you’re lucky, the side you find your fish on will be closer to the Ohio walleye record of the 16-pound, 3-ounce fish taken from Lake Erie in 1999 or the world record 25-pound, 4-ounce fish taken in 1960 from Old Hickory Lake in Tennessee. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if larger fish aren’t cruising under Lake Erie’s surface just waiting for a lucky angler.

Walleye are free spawners, which means that they don’t build a nest or guard the young. They deposit their eggs in the riffle areas of tributary streams or over gravel or even larger rocks on reef areas of Lake Erie.

Ohio’s two largest and most well-known walleye spawning runs are the Maumee River in Lucas and Wood counties and in the Sandusky River in Fremont. The migration up these two rivers begins in mid-March and can last into the first week of May. These runs turn Perrysburg, Maumee and Fremont into a fisherman’s fantasy.

Water temps matter

As mentioned, weather during this time of year is a real hit-or-miss proposition, but if you’ve lived in Ohio any length of time, this is old news. The run has seen 70-degree fishing days in mid-March and snow covering the river’s banks in April. Weather changes can play havoc with some fishermen’s will to fight the elements but the fish, well, they’re already wet. They just respond to changing water temperatures and levels.

The trick is not to judge the fishing so much by the rain, snow or the chill in the air but by keeping a close eye on the water’s temperature. Ideally the rivers need to come up high enough so that the fish can feel the flow (which translates into a “pull”) and its temperature should hit the mid 40-degree mark, but anything from 40 to 50 degrees serves both fish and fishermen well.

Luring them in

The most popular angling method on either the Maumee or Sandusky rivers is by wading, using a good spin-fishing rod and reel. For years, the preferred lure was the lead-head jig. It did its job well, but every fisherman is looking for the “silver bullet” or is that the “golden hook”?

Today, easily the most popular and the most successful of the fishing lures available has been the Carolina rig. It’s simply a floating jig head with a weight tied 18 to 24 inches in front of it. The weight takes the jig down to the bottom but allows it to trail freely above it. Plastic twister tails tip the jig with the favorite colors being fluorescent red, orange, yellow and chartreuse. The weight used depends on the amount of flow. The general recommendation is to use a 3/8-ounce weight when the water is low and a 3/4 ounce when it’s high.

Access

There is plenty of public access along the Maumee River. Fishing and parking are available at Buttonwood, Orleans and Side Cut Parks. Lacking a lot of rain, anglers will continue to wade to Bluegrass Island.

On the Sandusky River, concentrate angling around Fremont’s Miles-Newton Bridge. The recent removal of the old Ballville Dam has allowed the walleye to continue their migration upstream to once historic spawning areas. Anglers gaining access to these areas might find some new fishing hot-spots.

Follow the rules. There are special regulations during these runs, and it’s important that you review the fishing digest carefully. Better not to find yourself on the hook for running afoul of the laws. The most notable rules include the following:

• Fishing is only permitted between sunrise and sunset.

• One single hook per line with a point to shank width not exceeding a half inch. Treble hooks are prohibited.

• Walleye daily limit is six.

• There’s a 15-inch minimum size limit on walleye in Lake Erie and its tributaries.

Safety

The other consideration is safety. Wading can be treacherous during high water, but for the ill-prepared, even shallower walks can become perilous. Dress for water temperature, not air temperature. Even in quality waders, the river saps your body heat.

Use a good wader belt and cinch it snuggly. If you fall without the belt, water will fill your waders and make regaining your feet a serious struggle. Don’t wear those waders in a boat, regardless of how tempting.

Another good wading option is a flotation device. There are excellent inflatable systems that are unobtrusive but can save your life in an emergency. Finally, you might also consider fishing with a partner. Shared experiences add flavor to the trip. If you prefer to go it alone, let someone know where and when you’ll be fishing and your expected return time. For fishing reports, check out wildohio.gov as well as maumeetackle.net and fishingbooker.com.

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Jim Abrams was raised in rural Columbiana County, earning a wildlife management degree from Hocking College. He spent nearly 36 years with the Department of Natural Resources, most of which was as a wildlife officer. He enjoys hunting, fly fishing, training his dogs, managing his property for wildlife and spending time with his wife Colleen. He can be reached at P.O. Box 413, Mount Blanchard, OH 45867-0413 or via e-mail at jimsfieldnotes@aol.com.

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