FISHING THE DETROIT RIVER
(By: Dan Boileau)

INTRODUCTION

THE FISHERY

WHERE AND HOW

JIGGING

3-WAY RIGGING

BOTTOM BOUNCING

HANDLINING

TRADITIONAL METHODS

INTRODUCTION

The Detroit River provides some of the finest year-round fishing that Michigan has to offer. April and May, however, are something special here. That's when lots of big walleyes congregate in the river to spawn and lots of walleye fishermen congregate with them. Most of these anglers will be jig fishing, but a lot of guys will also be pulling wire. (Pulling wire is a local expression for the finely tuned art of handlining, a unique form of trolling that was invented and perfected on this river.) Whether they are jigging or pulling wire, one thing is for sure, this virtual army of anglers is sure to be in place from mid March through mid May. They often endure late winter snowstorms, icy winds and cold spring rains just for the chance to boat a 10-plus pound walleye.

By mid May, the situation starts to change. The weather changes from tolerable to downright pleasant many days. The recreational boat traffic starts to pick up at a brisk pace. And, the fishing pressure starts to subside as the hogs begin coming farther and fewer between.

Many of the anglers start to follow the post spawn walleyes out into Lakes Erie and Saint Clair. Some find their interest beginning to diminish along with the odds of hooking up a true trophy. And a few, especially those with smaller boats, just become uncomfortable with all of the congestion once the recreational and commercial boat traffic gets into full swing. Whatever the reason, by mid May, the hundreds of walleye anglers are reduced to dozens and the river returns to normal. At least until the next year when the cycle begins again.

Don't misunderstand the reference to "normal" however. The Detroit River, for very good reason, continues to see considerable fishing pressure throughout the rest of the year. And not just walleye fishing.

Long regarded as a top producer of yellow perch, white bass, bluegill, crappie, rock bass and fresh water drum, the success of recent years has also earned this river a national reputation as a smallmouth bass fishery. Catch rates for largemouth bass, northern pike, channel catfish and musky have also been getting better every year. Even the sturgeon seem to be making a come back. Lot's of trophy's in the mix too!

So, whether you are a competitor, involved in the many professional or amateur tournaments hosted on the river each year, a pleasure boater that might just want to wet a line while taking in the sun and sights out there, or any interest level in between, the Detroit River is a top notch fishery with something for everyone that wants to get out there and try it.

 

THE FISHERY

If catch rates are any indicator of population, then walleye and white bass are the two most prevalent species in the river. Yellow perch run a close third. According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR), these are the three species showing the greatest increase in number between 1990 and 2000. Nearly all of the other angler-targeted species also showed at least a modest increase during the same period.

Also according to the MDNR, in 1998 spottail shiners were the most prevalent species of baitfish found in the St. Clair System (which includes the Detroit River). The spots were followed by gizzard shad, alewives, smelt and emerald shiners, in that order. These are the bait fish that make up the primary forage base. Each year, during late spring and early summer, the mayfly larvae provide a nice change of diet for the riverís underwater inhabitants as well.

With the abundance of forage, miles of excellent spawning habitat and wide variety of available structure, the world class quality of this fishery comes as no surprise. It is estimated that 10 to 12 million walleye reside in or move through the Detroit River each year. Six to 10-pounders are considered common, with lots of "eyes" over 10 pounds caught each year.

Smallmouth bass, due to their increase in numbers and above average growth rates, are becoming increasingly popular. Hardly a weekend goes by during the season without at least one bass tournament. White bass in the six to 10-inch range are harvested by the thousands each year by boat and shore anglers alike. Yellow perch continue to be a favorite of the cooks as well as the kids. Especially in the fall.

In short, the Detroit River is a great fishery that should just keep getting better, provided we take good care of it. By all means, take some fish for the table or a once-in-a-lifetime trophy to go on the wall. But put some back too!

 

WHERE AND HOW

Walleye can be taken over the entire length of the river. Water temperature, water clarity, the time of year, fishing pressure, wind direction and boat traffic are some of the primary factors you should take into account when selecting your spots. Early in the year, the lower river is very popular, largely due to the fact that this area warms faster than the middle and upper sections. This is especially true just south of the Detroit Edison Power Plant where a huge warm water discharge enters the river. This area is easily identified by the landmark candy stripesóthe large red and white striped smoke stacks rising up from the plant.

Channel edges, contour breaks, current breaks and rip-rap are all good walleye holding areas. Clearer water may not be holding more fish, but it generally makes the `eyes that are there a little more cooperative. A trip to one of the recommended bait shops weíve listed is usually a good way to refine your search before you hit the water. Or, once out there, look for the boats that are putting fish in the box. They may not be willing to tell you what they are doing, but it doesnít hurt to ask. You might be surprised at how helpful some of those guys really are.

Jigging, bottom bouncing, three way rigging, long-lining and handlining tend to be the most popular walleye presentations for the river. Weíll be discussing some of them just ahead. Donít forget, though, on some days, the most creative anglers are often the most successful.

One last comment on walleyes; if you're mostly concerned with catching dinner, plenty of "eating" size fish can usually be taken throughout the day. The twilight periods during early morning and late evening are often the best. But if you're more interested in bagging a real trophy, try fishing at night. Year after year, the majority of the really big fish are taken under cover of darkness. Just be safe! Familiarize yourself with the area(s) you want to fish during daylight first, leave the unused gear in the truck, or store it out of the way, make sure your boat is equipped with the necessary lights--in good working order-- and allow yourself enough travel time to avoid running at unsafe speeds in the darkness.

Bass anglers seem to have the most success on the lower end of the river all year round. (This is not to say that Lakes Erie and Saint Clair are anything less than phenomenal for smallies, itís just that this is a "River Fishing" guide.) The docks and seawalls, especially in areas of reduced current, are favorite targets. Rip-rap and the many shallow rocky bars around the islands in this area attract and hold good numbers of bass. Throwing crankbaits, tubes and spinnerbaits are very popular presentations, but you might be surprised at how many bass you get to tussle with when using live bait presentations.

Yellow perch often show a tendency to school up in the shallower areas, particularly the areas with reduced current. Many such spots are found on the lower end of the river, especially in and around the islands in that area. The weed patches found in six to eight feet of water just north of Sugar Island are a favorite spot of ours. Dropping the anchor close to a weed edge and fishing just off bottom with hooks or small jigs rigged on spreaders is our most productive pattern. At times, weíve presented the same offering in as little as three feet of water with amazing success.

Crappies and bluegills are becoming a favorite of many river anglers these days. Casting small jigs or hanging some live bait under a float can be very productive in the cuts and bays for these tasty specimens. Crystal Bay and the canals around Gibralter are very popular locations. Ice fishing in these same locations or in the marinas, where you can gain access, can also provide some excellent fishing.

When the white bass are in the river, fishing for anything else can be tough, especially if you are using live bait. You just canít keep them off when theyíre really going. Small minnows fished near bottom from shore or an anchored boat are the most popular way to target these feisty little guys. Casting small spoons and jigs can also be very productive. Sharp contours or channel edges typically hold good numbers of white bass when they are in. If you want to treat some kids or first time anglers to some great fun and non-stop action, go white bass fishing on the river in late spring to early summer (mid May through mid June). Theyíll never forget it.

If you are interested in fishing for northerns or largemouth, try your favorite presentation in the bays, or cuts around Grosse Ile. The slack side of the break wall found just east of Sugar Island is a good spot to catch some big northerns.

Occasionally, you will tie into a musky when fishing the river. In the fall of 1999 we caught a 44-incher on a spinner/bottom bouncer. That one came while walleye fishing outside the Ford Yacht Club on the south end of Grosse Ile. If you want to target these brutes, donít leave it to chance. We suggest you hire a reputable guide or find an experienced musky angler to show you the ropes the first time out. Some of the bait shops we refer to later can also help you get started. Drop by, or give them a call.

It is also possible to catch sturgeon, steelhead, sheephead, channel cats and a few others to boot when fishing the Detroit River. We didnít include any specific information about these species in this publication. but again, if your interests are focused on one of these less sought-after fish, we recommend you visit a reputable bait shop, hire a guide or do some research in one of the many excellent publications available about the Detroit River Fishery.

JIGGING

Vertical jigging is by far the most popular way to catch walleyes all year round, anywhere on the river. Weíre not suggesting that this method is a no-brainer, but it is probably far less difficult to do effectively than many people might suspect. In the strong currents found in the river, boat control is normally the most difficult part of this presentation for most people to master. But with the right rig and a little bit of practice, you can get it down in no time.

So what is the right rig? It should be a moderately sized boat: 15 to 21 feet is considered to be ideal by most jig fishermen on the Detroit River. Smaller than this starts to generate some safety concerns, and larger starts to become a little more difficult to control in the wind and current. Another key element is the motor you use to control your speed and direction. Electric trolling motors (especially the bow mounted type) have become the most popular choice for this task, but a gas powered kicker motor or a smaller main outboard can also do the trick.

Just be sure you have enough power to make quick and frequent corrections to your course without killing your trolling batteries in the first 20 minutes of fishing. If you are using an outboard, be sure it will run slow enough to provide very subtle inputs to speed and position.

All of this is important because the key to vertical jigging is keeping your line as vertical as possible. That means that the speed and direction of your jig moving down stream must be matched closely by the boat on the surface. Wind speed and direction will also have an impact.

On a calm day, you may not have to do anything except position your boat upstream of the area you want to cover, tie on the right sized jig and ride the current over your spot. If a little breeze is blowing, you just point the bow of your boat directly into it and use your trolling motor to apply just enough thrust (in short but strong bursts) to neutralize its effect. But if the wind is strong and gusty, with a little swirling thrown in, you may well have your work cut out for you.

Another important element of vertical jigging is maintaining contact with the bottom. This sounds easy enough, and with a one-ounce jig in nine or ten feet of water, it is easy. The problem is that a one-ounce jig will typically produce fewer walleye hook ups than a lighter jig.

This is due to the way walleyes feed. When they see something they think they want to eat, they get close to it and flare their gills to suck a volume of water (and their prey) into their mouth. Then, more quickly than most of us may believe possible, they decide to eat whatever they caught or spit it back out. They are very quick to do the latter if what they have in their mouth doesnít feel right. Bigger jigs tend to be more difficult to vacuum in, and they tend to not feel right once there. So what does all of this have to do with maintaining bottom contact? It means you want to use the lightest jig you can, and still be able to feel the bottom as you go bouncing your way downstream.

Ideally, you will be holding your jig (on a perfectly vertical line) about three to six inches off the bottom as you move along. Every few seconds, you need to lower the jig until you feel it touch bottom (so you know you are there), then immediately raise it up again. This pattern greatly reduces the number of snags youíll encounter, and it keeps your bait in the strike zone the maximum amount of time. You should be prepared to vary this a bit by changing your timing and the action you impart to the jig. The fish will usually let you know when you are "in the zone."

At times, it may even be more productive to thump the bottom with a heavier jig, and snap it up higher and more aggressively. We recommend trying this only after youíve discovered that a more subtle approach is not working. Most of the time, lighter jigs, subtly drifting past these bottom-hugging fish will produce the most hookups. Just donít go trying to finesse them with a jig too light to maintain bottom contact with.

When jigging, donít expect the walleye to slam your bait like a bass or a northern might. Remember how they feed! Most of the time you will only feel a slight tap at best. When you do, set the hook! Also, when lowering your bait towards bottom, if you donít feel it hit, but the line has gone slack, set the hook! Lastly, if you are jigging up, and it just seems to get heavy, set the hook! Concentration will be the key here. If one person in the boat is out catching the rest of the crew, chances are that will be the person paying the closest attention. Everyone else is probably getting bit just as much, they just donít know it.

Jigs weighing 5/8 oz. are our most used size. On very windy days, or when fishing the deeper channels of the upper river, weíll go up to 3/4 or even one ounce. Some guys tell us they fish a 3/8 oz. Jig in forty feet of water. All we can say is, weíve tried that and discovered that we couldnít make it work for us. In 10 to 20 feet of water yes, but we usually donít go below a half ounce unless we are fishing these shallower areas.

As for color and trimmings, we normally stick with the brighter colors; chartreuse, fluorescent lime or orange in particular. Other colors, or even plain lead, can be more productive at times. Especially when the water is exceptionally clear. But 90 percent of the jigs we take out are the brighter colors.

We almost always use a soft plastic body on our jigs, even when we are topping them off with big juicy shiners. Some guys say that this adds color and bulk. Whatever the reason, we tend to get more hook ups with the plastic than without. Grubs, curly tails and plastic worms get the nod 95 percent of the time, but every once in a while we get creative with some of the other choices on the market. From very lifelike plastic minnows to skirted neon grubs, you will never find yourself lacking color and variety where soft plastics are concerned. Don't hesitate to try different things out there. For instance, fuzzy-tailed grubs have been a strong producer for us at times.

As the season progresses, we find that just plastic on the jig is sufficient most of the time. But we wonít hesitate to go back to real meat (shiners) if the bite gets tough. On the other hand, many of the best fishermen working the river, including some of the PWT pros weíve gotten to know, will tell you that they never use live bait. No matter what the water temperature or clarity. Thatís just a matter of personal preference bolstered by confidence and experience. Different things work for different people.

As for the rest of your jigging gear, a spinning reel on a shorter (5 to 6 foot) fast action rod seems to be the most popular choice. If you are planning to purchase a new rod and reel for jigging, put the money in the rod first. The faster and lighter the rod, the more sensitive it tends to be. The more sensitive the rod, the more bites you are likely to feel.

Monofilament line in the six to twelve pound test range seems most preferred, with the majority of folks using eight or ten pound.

Super lines like Berkley Fireline will also enhance sensitivity but be prepared to react quickly to the boat-side antics of a larger fish. The lack of stretch in these lines make them much less forgiving, especially on a shorter rod. If you do use a super line, make sure you use a mono leader and a barrel swivel on the business end. That way you can break off the leader if you get snagged, versus cutting your super line at the reel, or worse yet, breaking your expensive jigging rod. As for us, we still prefer mono for jigging.

No discussion of jig fishing on the river would be complete without mentioning stinger hooks. These are usually small treble hooks, size 8 and 10 are most popular, attached to the jig with a very short line. Two to four inches in most cases. These stingers can be allowed to dangle free behind the jig, or they may be hooked into the shiner or plastic body thatís dressing the jig. Many river anglers feel these little add-ons are indispensable when jig fishing. Especially when targeting the more sluggish fish found in colder water.

There are several ways to attach a stinger to a jig. We can't say that any one is better than another, it's more a matter of personal preference. Take a look at the illustrations below for a few ideas. You can also check with the guys at the bait shops for pre-tied stingers or other suggestions.

Jigging works well all year round, but is especially effective during the cold water fishing of the early and late season. Probably because jigs can presented much more slowly and subtly during these times when the fish are less likely to expend much energy chasing their meals. Three other popular presentations that will work very well in cold water, and warm for that matter, are three-way rigging, bottom bouncing and handlining. Let's start with three-way rigging.

 

3-WAY RIGGING

Weíve heard some debate over where this technique was developed and what it should be called, but there is seldom any debate over it's effectiveness. It's also a very easy and relatively inexpensive presentation, especially along the snag infested bottom of the lower river. You start by tying a three way swivel to your main line. Add a short dropper from one of the swivel rings for a sinker, and attach your bait to the remaining ring with a leader of the appropriate length.

The "appropriate length" of the leader will vary with baits and conditions. Most of the time three feet or less is adequate when fishing the brisk currents of this river. If you get much longer, snagging begins to be a problem, and if go much shorter it will start to affect the action of some baits. You can increase the leader length when pulling a floating jig head or some other buoyant type of bait, but we seldom find it necessary, even on those days when the water is exceptionally clear.

The dropper is used to connect your weight/sinker to the 3-way rig. It should normally be between six and ten inches long. Shorter, in this case, will make your bait more susceptible to snagging and longer will start to position it above the strike zone. Hereís another tip; tie your leaders and your droppers from a lighter test line than the main line. That way, if you should get hopelessly snagged, you won't have to donate your entire rig.

Unlike vertical jigging, a three-way rig is allowed to trail behind the boat at about a 45 degree angle. If it is more vertical than that, you are probably using more weight than you need for the conditions you are fishing. Less than a 45 degree angle starts to flatten your rig against the bottom and make it more difficult to maintain bottom contact. If this is the case, add more weight or slow down! Depending on the speed of the current and the water depth where you're fishing, you can expect to use three to six ounces of weight under most conditions out there. We tend to prefer regular old bell sinkers, but pencil, triangle and disk type weights are also pretty popular.

As is the case with vertical jigging, you will want to fish this rig with the sinker in close contact with the bottom--but not dragging. This is easily done by pumping the rod up and forward so as to raise the sinker a couple of inches, and then allow it to drop back until you feel it tap the bottom. As soon as you feel it hit, pump the rod up and forward again. Itís normally not necessary to be too aggressive with this motion, but if the bite is slow to non-existent, get creative.

You can pull a lot of different baits on a three-way rig. Minnow imitating cranks like rapalas, thundersticks, husky jerks and bombers, two and a half to four inches long in a variety of colors are probably the most popular. Flutter spoons, pencil plugs and spinners are also known producers. We like to use a floating jig head tipped with a big juicy shiner ourselves. John Campbell won the PWT Tournament on the Detroit River in 1999 pulling rapalas on 3-way rigs. He varied his presentation a bit, though. He would tie on a rapala with the rear hook removed, then add a second rapala on a short leader tied to the back of the first lure.

Most of the time, 3-way rigs are pulled upstream, against the current, at relatively slow speeds. We say relatively because the current will impart a pretty good action to most baits in this river, even when the boat remains stationary. A good approach is to try and slip your boat from side to side across the current while making only minimal forward progress. Itís best to try and pick your spots carefully when doing this, because most of the time, you will not cover a lot of water. We saw a team win an MWT (Michigan Walleye Tour) tournament several years ago pulling Storm Thundersticks on three-way rigs. It would take them an average of an hour and ten minutes to move 300 yards upriver. Even when moving upstream this slowly, you will normally need three to six ounces of weight on your dropper to maintain bottom contact with a 45 degree angle to the line.

We like baitcasting gear for pulling 3-ways. The power and leverage of a decent baitcasting reel will make a ton of difference when hauling that three to six ounces of lead up and down all day. We find that the models with a "pitching" button, or momentary bail release are the most comfortable to use because you can allow line out without having to reach over with your opposite hand to open and close the release. Sensitivity in the rod gives way to durability here. We recommend a decent quality six and a half to seven and a half foot medium action rod. We also prefer to spool this setup with one of the so-called super lines, like 10 pound test Berkley Fireline. The smaller diameter offers less water resistance which translates to less weight needed on the other end. We have also found this line to be a bit more durable when dragged through the many snags and other sharp objects found in the river.

If you want to save some time and some money when dragging 3-ways upstream, practice this little maneuver: If you get snagged, release the bail to let the line go slack for a moment. Then raise the rod tip up as high as you can reach and give it a little pump. We have found this technique will free us up about 80% of the time. If it doesnít work, shift your motor into neutral and allow the current to carry you back over your snagged bait until it comes free. With a little practice, you can use this method to fish all day without having to leave your childís college fund on the river bottom. Some days, we donít loose any gear at all. Just be sure to check your line after it has been snagged, and retie if itís nicked or abraded.

 

BOTTOM BOUNCING

At this point, we could probably get away with just telling you to go back up and reread the last section while substituting the words "bottom bouncing" for 3-way rigging. The two techniques are that similar. We use the same leader lengths, the same presentations, the same methods of maintaining "bottom contact," the same rod and reel and most of the same baits. The only thing that is really different is that the sinker and dropper used with the 3-way rig are replaced with a piece of wire with the weight molded around it. So why bother with another presentation, right?

Well, there are a few differences, some of them make sense, some of them may not. At least not to us! But we have learned that the fish will often show a preference for one or the other. There are a lot of theories and opinions about why this is true. Here are some of ours.

As an attractant, the bottom bouncer will look and sound different when moving across the river bottom. It may stir up less silt when tapped on the bottom. It will certainly generate a different sound when hitting the rocks or gravel. Since it canít collapse down like a 3-way rig, it will impart a slightly different action to the bait coming along behind it. The wire frame of the bouncer will also look a lot different than the line and sinker used to tie a 3-way. And, although you could certainly paint your 3-way sinkers any color you like, a colored bottom bouncer, by its design, will keep more mass and color up off the bottom where it may be more easily seen. So how do you decide what to tie on? We would be hard pressed to try and identify the conditions under which bottom bouncing would be more effective than 3-way rigging, so we won't try. What we will do is share a couple of the things we've seen and learned over the years.

Bottom bouncing tends to be more popular with many river anglers after the water has warmed to about 50į or higher. Bouncing also seems to be a bit more popular for pulling spinners and crawlers. The 3-way rigs tend to get the nod more often in the colder water and when pulling crankbaits and other artificials. On a more practical note, bottom bouncers weighing more than four ounces can often be very difficult to find. If you want to fish heavier bouncers but can't find them, drop by one of the shops we have listed up ahead. These folks cater to Detroit River Fishermen and their unique needs.

Sometimes, it can really pay off to break with tradition and try pulling your offering downstream instead of against the current. We've found that bouncers are much more effective and accommodating than 3-ways for this. Their may be several reasons for this, but the important thing is that it works. For one thing, going downstream involves using less weight, a one and a half to two ounce bouncer is normally sufficient. And with the boat moving just slightly faster than the current, you can cover water much more quickly when going downstream. You know you've got your speed about right when your bouncer is ticking bottom when your line forms about a 45 degree angle with the surface. If your line is more towards vertical, speed up, if it takes too much line out to feel bottom, slow down. Itís really that simple. On the negative side, snags are much more difficult to retrieve when running downstream. You probably don't want to try this when fishing the lower river.

But remember--none of this is cast in stone. Our advice is to stock your box with a nice assortment of bottom bouncers and everything you need to tie on a 3-way rig. Donít hesitate to switch between them when the bite is slow either. Let the fish have the opportunity to tell you which method is right for the conditions.

HANDLINING

Also called wire trolling or pulling wire, this presentation is quite similar to bottom bouncing in many ways: Most of the baits you would normally pull behind a bottom bouncer (or 3-way rig) are also popular choices when handlining. You also use a lead weight molded around a length of to position your bait near the bottom. In this case though, quite a bit more weight is used and the wire it's attached to is much stiffer to support it. This makes it possible to maintain your bait precisely in the "strike zone" while trolling against a very strong current. It also involves pumping the weight up and forward then dropping it back as you feel it tapping along the bottom. Beyond that, however, the similarities begin to diminish quickly.

For starters, leave the rod and reel at home. Many sportsmen and women feel that this is in itself unacceptable. The idea of sportfishing with anything other than a rod and reel is simply not an option for these folks. If you are one of them, you may want to just skip ahead to the next section. If not, put your conventional tackle away with your conventional thinking, and read on. Whatever your particular position on this topic, let's respect the right of the other guy to take up the opposite position. After all, that's one of the main reasons we call ourselves sportsmen!

Instead of the traditional rod and reel, a special trolling reel is used for handlining. It should be attached directly to the boat, or at least to some fairly stable object within the boat. This reel is spooled with a flexible/stranded wire, normally nylon coated, with a very stout snap for attaching the shank on the end. A key feature of the reel is that a coil spring at its center will put up a slight resistance as the wire is pulled out and automatically wind it up as slack is allowed back in. This characteristic of the reel allows its user to work the line by hand without worrying about it tangling as it is hand over handed back into the boat.

As we stated earlier, most handlining weights are very similar in construction to a bottom bouncer, except they are normally much heavier. From one pound up to about a pound and a half being the most typical range. A big advantage here is that the added weight will allow you to pull it much more quickly (one to two miles per hour is typical), even in the deepest and fastest sections of the river while maintaining solid contact with the bottom.

The leaders used for handlining are attached to a clevice on the wire shank above the weight rather than directly to the weight. The spacing of the clevices on the shank, coupled with varying lead lengths, will provide a lot more flexibility in positioning your bait relative to the bottom. This alone can be a huge advantage over bottom bouncing at times. The leads used for handlining are normally much longer than the conventional leaders discussed so far. They typically start at about six feet long and may go up to 30 feet or more in length. Many veteran handliners will work with three leads, but two is more common. Especially with the less experienced wireliners. A six foot bottom lead and a 20 footer above is a pretty typical two lead set up. By attaching the longer lead higher up on the shank, the difference in length enables you to actually fan your baits out over a larger area when slipping back and forth across the current.

Getting this rig deployed can be a little tricky at first, but hang in there and you'll get it. Just get the boat moving at trolling speed then drape your longer/upper lead over your shoulder with the bait out of the way. Drop the bait on the shorter lead into the water followed by the sinker. Lower that down several feet and then put out the top lead that you draped over your shoulder a minute ago. Make sure the baits are running true, then keep pulling out wire and letting it all go down until your sinker taps bottom. Now start gently pumping the wire forward and back about six to twelve inches. Make sure the sinker is ticking the bottom most of the time as you drop it back. Now all you have to do is wait for the fish to grab your bait, then pull him on in. If you have him on the bottom lead, be sure to drape the top one over your shoulder, out of the way, before you finish bringing the fish to the boat. If you are totally confused at this point, then this is probably a good time to take a look at the diagram below. Hopefully, that will help you start to visualize some of the things we're talking about here.

Minnow imitating crankbaits from two to five inches long are the most popular offering amongst handliners, but small flutter spoons and pencil plugs see a lot of use as well. Pulling live bait on spinners is not exactly unheard of either. Water temperature, water clarity, time of year, time of day and personal preference will be the determining factors. Again, make it a point to visit one of the local bait shops. Those guys will usually have some pretty good information about what's going well that day.

Handlining, although fundamentally pretty simple, can in practice be extremely frustrating for the beginner. World class tangles, hooks buried in clothing--carpeting--and fingers, wire line wrapped up in your prop, and some pretty embarrassing moments out on the water, are just of few of the learning curve hurdles you may have to overcome when just starting out. For many accomplished handliners, this was a small price to pay for the added flexibility and excitement that mastery of this skill eventually provided them. But it doesn't have to be that hard.

If you want to give this unique style of fishing a try, we would highly recommend that you hire the services of an accomplished guide the first time out. That may be one of the Charter Captains we have listed in a later chapter, or it may even be a relative, friend or neighbor who has already earned their stripes as a handliner. Just one outing with someone who really knows what they're doing can help reduce those learning curve hurdles to very manageable speed bumps. If, however, you are determined to learn this on your own, at least talk to one of the many experts found in the area bait shops. These guys have seen and done it all and they're happy to provide a little help and instruction to the first timers and veterans alike. They can also help you make good, informed decisions about any gear you are considering investing in. Much more so than your buddy at work who claims he did this once with his uncle a few years ago.

 

TRADITIONAL METHODS

One of the oldest and most popular techniques for fresh water fishing is baitcasting. We use this term somewhat generically here, as we are actually referring to just about any presentation that involves casting or pitching a bait away from yourself, and then retrieving it in a way that is intended to make fish attack or try to eat it. This could mean long casting crankbaits over structure or flats, pitching jigs up under docks and bridges, casting tubes or other plastic baits in and around weed beds, slow rolling spinnerbaits through current breaks or anything and everything in between. There are literally thousands of topics and techniques that fall into this category and most of them can be used productively on the Detroit River. Unfortunately, we have neither the time or the space in this booklet to even make a dent in that list. Fortunately, that's probably not necessary. If you have ever been fishing before, then you probably have some experience with any number of these presentations.

We can offer a few suggestions to help you get started though. For instance, we would highly recommend casting shallow running minnow imitators over the many shallow flats found in the middle and lower river at night. Primarily considered a walleye tactic, mixed catches including bass and northerns, are pretty common. The same can be said about casting Shad Raps and Wally Divers along the many sections of rip rap found all over the river. Chances are, this will catch more smallmouth than walleye during the day, but expect the opposite during low light conditions and after dark. Spinnerbaits or tube baits fished slowly around docks, pilings and boat houses can be extremely productive. Just be courteous and careful when working these areas. Most property owners are pretty understanding, but who can blame them for becoming a little testy when someone is hanging up treble hooks in their canvas boat covers, or climbing over their PWC to retrieve an errant cast. If you are still developing your casting accuracy, try sticking to other areas for a while until your skill level improves.

Long-line trolling also has its place among river fishing tactics. This is nothing more than pulling a crankbait or other offering far enough behind the boat to let it dive to the desired depth. Shad-Raps, Wiggle Warts, Hot-N-Tots and Wally Divers are just of few of the more popular choices for trolling. The type of crankbait and the speed of the boat and the current will determine how much line will need to be let out to reach the target depth. Normally, that should be at least a couple of feet above the bottom to avoid donating a lot of expensive crankbaits to the river bottom. Speeds between 1/2 and 1-3/4 mph seem to be the most productive.

If you want to give long-lining a try, be considerate when picking your spot and setting your course. If you try trolling through a group of jig fishermen going the opposite direction, chances are there are going to be some tangles followed shortly by some other unpleasantries.

Another popular presentation, even older than "baitcasting," would be the many different fishing methods that fall into the category of "still fishing." Whether using a sinker to anchor a bait to the bottom, or hanging a good old fashioned hunk of night crawler under a bobber, this age old technique remains the most often used presentation on the river. For a lot of very good reasons! It doesn't require much of an investment in gear. You can do it from the banks and piers as well as from a boat. It's very easy to do--you don't have to have any prior experience or developed skills to be successful. (Perfect for kids and first timers.) It's a very relaxing way to spend a day fishing. And, most of all, it will catch just about anything that swims.

These days, still fishing is most often thought of as a favorite way to target pan fish. Considering the many afternoons of frantic perch fishing action we've enjoyed from an anchored boat on this river, it's pretty easy to understand why. But the many bonus smallmouth, walleyes and other species we catch while "pan-fishing" are a pretty good reminder of just how deadly a tactic still fishing can actually be. It won't always be the most productive way to go after the larger game fish in the river, but it will almost always be your best option for many of the other popular species found there.

If bobber (aka float) fishing is your favorite, you should plan to focus your efforts in the bays, cuts and canals where the current is minimized. Crystal Bay on the Ontario side of the lower river is a perennial favorite of float fisherman targeting slab crappies and bluegills. In the main current areas, your float and whatever you have hanging under it, will tend to be swept downstream with enough force to straighten out the line--bringing your bait up to the surface. You won't get many bites under those circumstances. To keep this from happening, you need to use so much weight at the end of your line and a float big enough to support all that weight, that you defeat your purpose--To have a bait hanging naturally and tantalizingly in the fishes face.

Using a sinker heavy enough to keep your line pinned to the bottom is the most popular way to present a stationary offering in the strong current of the Detroit River. In the deeper main channels, this could mean as much as three or four ounces. A half an ounce will hold a perch spreader down nicely in the six to eight foot depths typical of the wide shallow sections of the middle and lower river. In the more "bottom friendly" sections of the middle and upper river, it's also popular to use just enough weight to allow your rig to bounce along the bottom with the current when cast upstream from your stationary position. A nice selection of sinkers will allow you to determine what is just right for the circumstances you'll be fishing in.

Plain hooks, small jigs and simple spinners, when combined with night crawler pieces, leaf worms, minnows, crayfish, crickets or wax worms, account for most of the still fishing success on this river. The use of perch spreaders and crappie rigs is also pretty common. That does not mean you should limit yourself to only these combinations. Remember what we said earlier about creativity. If what you are doing is not working, try something else!

One type of still fishing that is probably under used on the Detroit River is "drop-back-fishing." It's pretty simple, and can be extremely effective at times. It is similar to trolling, but uses only the current to generate the desired "action" on the bait. You just anchor your boat or position yourself upstream from a fairly localized area you want to target, and drop a crank bait back into the current. Let out enough line to allow it to dive to the desired depth and suspend directly over the spot you want to cover. It will just sit there, undulating irresistibly, until your quarry can't resist it any more. Holes, depressions or the edges of eddies formed by current breaks can be productive spots for drop-back fishing.

Back somewhere in the beginning of this booklet, we told you that it was going to be less of a "how-to-catch-fish" manual, and more of a "how-to-go-fishing" reference. For that reason, the section you have just read is just one of many in this publication. It was not a comprehensive collection of tactical know how and secret locations. It was a starting point for people who have been making excuses for not fishing this wonderful resource we have here. Or for folks who want to try a different presentation or target a different species for the first time. Whatever your reason for reading it, thanks for your time, and remember this one thing: The best way to catch fish on the Detroit River is with a line in the water! Now get out there and tighten some lines.