Traverse City Record-Eagle

May 24, 2013

Bob Gwizdz: Walleye on the Detroit River

Outdoors columnist

---- — WYANDOTTE — We motored out of the marina, headed upstream on the Detroit River for about five minutes, then Gary Towns shut down the outboard, dropped the trolling motor, and we were fishing. Three minutes later, I heard him say something about a bite.

I looked. His rod was bent. I went for the net. It was a walleye in the 19-inch range.

Three minutes in. We were going to get them today.


It was more than an hour before Towns caught another. And nearly another hour before I caught my first.

Towns, a retired Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist who used to oversee this fishery as part of his responsibility, was on the river for the third time this year. It was my first Detroit River trip of year, having been weathered out of a couple of previously planned expeditions.

There was a south wind blowing straight upriver, making it difficult to stay vertical as the current wanted to sweep the jig downstream. We were doing the typical Detroit River thing: jigs tipped with minnows, bounced slowly along the bottom.

Towns had caught his first fish in 24 feet of water. The next two came in 23 and 25 feet, respectively. So we thought we had them figured out. But after more than an another hour passed with neither of us getting a bite, Towns decided we should try another spot.

We motored downstream, off of Grosse Isle. The wind had shifted a little bit southeast and the island gave us some relief. The boats — there are always a ton of boats on the river this time of year — were drifting in somewhat deeper water. When in Rome, eh?

Our first drift, Towns caught a 22-incher. On the next drift, he caught another keeper. I quit fishing the 3/8th ounce jig I had one, upsized to a ½ ouncer — which helped me keep contact with the bottom — and I caught one, too. When we quit, in early afternoon, we had six in the live well.

Towns said, that mathematically at least, we had a pretty good day.

“During the peak years, when Lake Erie had 60 to 65 million walleyes, 2-year-old or more, Bob Haas (a former DNR research biologist) had a tag-return study going on and he figured the run in the Detroit River was around 10 million walleyes,” Towns said. “Now that the Lake Erie population is in the 17- to 19-million range, that’s only 25 to 30 percent of the peak old run. If the percentages hold true — and Haas’ research seemed to show it would — that means the Detroit River run is somewhere in the 2.5 to three million range.

“When you’ve got fewer numbers you’re going to have fewer encounters with those fish because the density of the fish is just not there,” Towns continued. “But if you do the math, if they were biting the way they were today 10 years ago, we’d have encountered three times as many fish.”

That would be 18. And that would have been outstanding.

As it was we averaged a half a fish per rod/hour, which is less than excellent (I always consider one fish per/rod hour to be excellent walleye fishing) but “that‘s still well better than the state average,” Towns said.

“When you look at creel reports, there are a lot of zeroes,” he said. “For everything.”

We talked to lots of other anglers as we drift-fished downstream. Most were catching some fish. Very few were tearing them up. We talked to one pair, who we fished next to for a couple of hours, who said they had seven (and we never saw them catch another). When we got the back to the marina, the boat behind us at the ramp (with four anglers) had 12.”

“I asked the guy at the marina and he said most boats had two or three,” Towns said. “When I told we had six, he said, ‘You guys got ‘em.’ “

Well, it’s always that way. Some days you’re the windshield, some days you’re the bug. We were a little more the former than the latter this day.

Despite the declining Lake Erie walleye population, the fishery — and though I assume there are some year-round Detroit River residents, the bulk of the spring fishery if for Lake Erie — remains excellent. I have long believed that when the Detroit River is right, it is the best walleye fishery in the world. It would really take something to convince me I’m wrong.

When we filleted the fish, Towns measured, sexed, and took fin spines from them (can’t take the biologist out of the boy, eh?) They were all males (typical of the post-spawn fishery here) measuring from 17.4 to 22 inches. Towns passes the samples along to the DNR, which has a coterie of volunteer/anglers who do the same. “We get a lot of good data from them,” Towns said.

With the water temperature taking longer than usual to warm this spring I suspect the walleye fishing will continue to hold up a for a while yet.

“We should do this again,” Towns said.

Just one question: When are we going?