Walleyes (a.k.a. Pickerel) are known to be a finicky fish. Some anglers describe walleye feeding habits as something of a constant “tap-tap” feeling or a bump. But, there are occasions when they are less weary and strike out of instinct; sometimes greedily as they pursue lures meant for large Pike and Musky. While those instances are not unheard of for French River fishing spots, especially during the early spring and fall months, more often than naught, walleye have to be tempted and teased using live bait presentations which account for the vast majority caught.
Walleyes, like perch, are a schooling fish. They cluster around structural elements like rock humps, inside turns, break-line transitions, shoals, sunken logs, fallen trees, and docks on the French River Delta. Depending on the time of the season, they will migrate and follow schools of baitfish. Other times, they will lay in wait near different bottlenecks and flowing current where fish are migrating. Hunting and catching walleye requires a firm understanding of the river structure and weather conditions. Having good boat control is a plus along with an understanding of their feeding habits.
These key points are an important part of walleye fishing. Whether you are working a jig and minnow suspended off the bottom, or maintaining your rig at a consistent trolling depth with harnesses and spinner rigs.
Various popular techniques and tactics are used for walleye in the French River Delta and Georgian Bay Biosphere Area to catch one of our most popular species.
Fishing with live bait for walleye is a tried and true tactic for many enthusiasts as it offers wide range of options and various presentations for your potential trophy. Some options that an angler might consider is presenting with a slip sinker or a slip bobber rig, pulled behind a spinner, tipped on a jig, or simply fished with a plain hook and split shot. Minnows, leeches and worms are the three most common live baits used for these picky river and bay fish. Nightcrawlers often match molting crayfish and become the bait of choice.
Below, is a basic seasonal guideline to follow in preparing to fish with live bait for walleyes:
Spring: Minnows, Emerald Shiner, Lake Chub, Northern Redbelly Dace, and Fathead Minnows are some of the legal baitfish to use during cooler spring water temperatures.
When Walleyes are feeding on Yellow Perch during the season, perch patterns are the choice.
Summer: Leeches and Nightcrawlers work well during increased water temperatures of the season.
Fall: Minnows, Longnose Dace, Emerald Shiner, Blackchin Shiner, Bluntnose Minnow, Fathead Minnow, Blacknose Dace are relatively hardy species and Small Suckers. When Northern Cisco or Tullibee move into the French River, sliver and purple patterns work well.
Always check to make sure you are using legal bait for Ontario to fish for walleye. The Baitfish Primer is a good reference to determine your bait from local French River bait shops. Nightcrawlers are available at the Bear’s Den Tackle Shop along with rigs, jigs and lures. Nightcrawlers often match the scent of molting crayfish and become the bait of choice.
Jigs are the most popular lure used for walleye. The angler using this rig can reach the depths where walleyes inhabit. Depending on the depth and season, colour may not be relevant as most walleye anglers tip their jigs with live bait for added attraction and scent for the dark depths.
How to work and present your jig depends on the time of year:
When the waters are cold, walleyes are sluggish and require a slow presentation with short gentle taps on the retrieve the best opportunities to catch them. It is not uncommon during this portion of the season to sometimes feel as if you snagged into something or have a sense of them not biting as they may hold onto your bait at a slightly higher depth.
For warmer water, they become more active and may require an intense jigging retrieve.
In both scenarios, however, you must lightly cast your rig or simply drop it off the side of the boat and let your bait sink to the bottom. Then retrieve with a series of twitches and pauses based on the time of year. After each twitch maintain a taut line while the jig sinks back to the bottom. Walleyes usually hit while the jig is sinking due to the appeal of a weakened prey. If your line is not taut you won’t feel a strike, sometimes you will feel a distinctive tap, other times you will feel light pressure as if the jig is hung up. Whenever you feel anything different set the hook. When fishing with jigs a must have is a fast action sensitive rod so you can feel even the lightest taps, the fast action gives the power for an immediate hookset.
Walleye are abundant in the French River area. They are known for playing with the bait. Walleye gingerly pick up live bait and drop it as soon as they feel any type of resistance. The slip-sinker rig eliminates the resistance as a walleye strikes. The angler free spools the line allowing the walleye to swim away to eat the bait for a hookset.
Slip sinker rigs are made up of three components: a hook, sliding weight and a stop. You can make your own slip sinker rig or can purchase one pre-tied at most sport shops. Fishing the slip sinker rig is quite easy, after a cast allow the rig to sink. When you pull the rig the stop catches the sinker as it moves along the bottom allowing the bait to look natural for an easy meal.
The sinker is the most important component, it must be heavy enough to get the rig to the bottom. A rule of thumb is 1/8 oz. for every 10 feet of depth. Most anglers use an egg or walking type of sinker, but in vegetation a bullet type sinker works best allowing the rig to slide through the weeds. For hooks the smaller the better, size 6-8 octopus to maintain a natural look.
The stops can be a barrel swivel, to make it adjustable a bobber stop or a very small split shot can be used. Most often walleyes relate to bottom structure, leader lengths of 18 to 36 inches works the best. Bottom Bouncer or Loten Floating Jig Walleye Rig are effective for trolling slowly for deep water techniques too.
When walleyes suspend at a certain depth on a piece of structure (rockpile, crib, or submerged hump) the slip bobber rig is highly effective by presenting the live bait at a pre set depth, putting the bait right in their face. You can make slip bobber rigs rather easy or buy them at sport shops. To make a slip bobber rig simply start with your stop attached to the fishing line, you can use a piece of string or a rubber band knotted on the line thread on a small bead then the bobber. Add a small split shot below the bobber for balance then tie on a hook size 4-6-8 and bait with a minnow leech or nightcrawler. Remember to hook the head of the worm allowing it to dangle and entice.
People love fishing with spinner rigs for walleyes. Add minnows, leeches or nightcrawlers for added scent and taste the rig’s presentation. The lure’s vibrating motion will attract fish and will allow you to adjust your speed according to the weather conditions.
As weeds are emerging, walleyes will school around fresh growth. So, spin your lure through the area quickly to see if one will attack. Spinner rigs require approximately 2 oz. weighted options of slit shot or mixing and matching sinker weights to get to the depths of 20 feet by adding the weight a few feet ahead of the spinner rig for drifting or trolling. Most anglers prefer using a bottom bouncer or a three way rig to keep the spinner in contact with the bottom. Shallower areas may only require the weight of a small split shot. Try different depths, break-lines to match your different spinner depths and styles to locate the walleye patterns.
Allows anglers to cover more water and fishing spots, especially in unfamiliar waters with less time to locate walleye schools. Prior to the introduction of downriggers, side planning boards and diving planes, our grandfathers would cast a spinner rig or a diving crankbait off the back end of the boat in the prop wash as a technique referred to as flat lining. During high winds, you may have to back troll against the wind to control your speed. With the new trolling tools offered now fisherman can choose more options to present their baits.
A fishing technique that precisely places lures vertically in large bodies of water. Extremely difficult to do on the French River Delta with changing depths and occasional trenches or other natural obstructions. You can fish parts of the French River and its larger bays by downrigging. However, be prepared to lose lures and rigs as it is common to snag underwater structures.
Similar to a downrigger, the side planer spreads fishing lines horizontally to the sides of the boat. This technique allows you to fish greater depths.
A diving device is attached to the fishing line that dives on a plane downward and outward. They work well for deep trolling, but the water resistance can force your hook set not to reach the fish. However, you can offset this disadvantage by rigging with a swivel and extra monofilament through another swivel. Then fastened it to a leader and your lure. Planners will slide on your line like a slip sinker. This technique will allow you to set the hook directly against the fish.
Maximizing your walleye catches on the French River hinges on utilizing the right lure, right bait and right presentation. It helps being in the right fishing spot to hit the hottest combinations. Enjoy spinning up more French River walleyes on your next trip!
Article by Joe Barefoot, M.B.