No spring Midwest walleye discussion would be complete without mention of the Detroit River and its legendary spawn of brute west-basin Lake Erie walleyes. That’s where long-time pro and Erie expert Chuck Mason comes in. Mason explains the two-part game of the region – river and lake. “On the Detroit River, I am looking for spots with slack water or choke points that the bigger fish will slide into in order to get out of the current and rest up. Out on the Michigan side of Erie’s western basin, I’m looking for areas where the fish will stage before heading for their spawning structure and river runs.”
Depending on timing and water temperatures, you may want to be in one place over the other. “We start out snap-jigging hair jigs and lipless baits on the Detroit river, than shift more to using blade baits out on Lake Erie,” says Mason. “On the D, we fish vertical presentations consisting of jigs varying in weight from 5/8 oz., 3/4 oz. and 1 oz. in combination with Wyandotte Worms and plastic minnows, then tipped with live bait and rigged with a stinger hook.” What sounds like a clunky offering has some real method behind its apparent madness. “Tipping the presentation does two things,” Mason says. “It bulks up the profile in dirty water while adding flavor and scent. The smaller jigs are my finesse presentation in clean, shallow water or in areas that are completely out of the current. Heavier jigs up to an ounce are employed in spots where the current is whipping, but holding a bunch of fish.”
After the spawn, the big, open water of Lake Erie calls for differing tactics. “On Erie, I’m often pulling big body baits behind planer boards in combination with some shallow baits rigged with snap weights to get them down in the water column,” Mason says. “Some areas are holding fish in tight spots, and that is where casting lipless baits like the Northland Rippin’ Shad comes into play.” When focusing on these small spots, Mason will fish on a controlled drift, using either a drift sock or use the bow-mount trolling motor. In stained water – the “soup” as he calls it – Mason snap jigs ½ oz. to 1 oz. hair jigs. A variety of tactics will work for these post-spawn fish, so Mason emphasizes a montage of methods to figure out what works best on any given day.
Though many anglers choose to tie braid direct in the stained water to avoid losing baits, Mason prefers using a 10-lb. fluorocarbon leader and hi-vis braid in conjunction with a ball-bearing swivel. For his trolling setups on Erie, he spools Daiwa Sealine 27 line-counter reels with 12-lb. mono and uses a snap at the end. For snap-jigging, hair jigs and lipless baits are rigged with 30-lb. hi-vis braid for castability with a 14-lb. leader, while his blade-bait rods are rigged with hi-vis 10-lb. braid and leader. “These trophy fish call for higher-end rigging and heavier line in general,” advises Mason.
Like pro John Balla, Mason is a huge fan of the St. Croix Eyecon Heavy Metal rod (ECS58HF), as it was specifically designed and built for big-jig vertical presentations on spring rivers with heavy flows. “When it comes to vertical jigging the Detroit River, the shorter the rod, the quicker the hookset, which is huge considering we just might be fishing the most snaggy river system in the country,” Mason says. “Specifically, in the Trenton Channel where the big girls are many, it’s a complete jig graveyard. The ECS58HF allows for intense control, driving home hooks through hard mouths quickly, while providing a fast response that makes it the right tool for the job. It also feels really light in your hand, which is key for fishing all day, pumping heavy jigs in fast current,” he adds. For less current and lighter presentations in the ½ oz. – 5/8 oz. range, Mason reaches for the Legend Tournament Walleye LWS59MXF. “Like the Heavy Metal Eyecon, this Legend Tournament is a great rod for bigger jigs, but it has a sweet spot and really excels right in that ½-oz. category.”
Mason deploys Eyecon Trolling rods when pulling baits on boards or snap weights on Erie. “They’re powerful enough to hold up to pulling boards through big water in a tournament situation where we might be dealing with 4-to-5-foot waves, but still soft enough to play a fish into the net,” says Mason, who prefers longer rods while trolling, saying they offer better leverage and line management. The Eyecon ET86MMT telescopic model is one of his favorites. “It’s just a sweet rod that fishes really well, then stores so nicely at the end of the day.”
One of Mason’s favorite techniques is snapping hair jigs off the bottom on the drift with Legend Tournament Walleye LWS68MXF. “Toss out a couple of bags to slow you down, then put down the size that works best for the conditions and give your rod tip a six-inch pump off the bottom, and then drop back down and snap again,” he advises. “The action on the Legend Tournament Walleye is perfect for setting the hook on a bite, which comes on the lift 95% of the time,” continues Mason, who’s also bullish on St. Croix Avid Series rods. “The AVS68MXF has the exact same length, power, and action of my favorite Legend Tournament Walleye model, but Avid’s larger guides make it a perfect choice for casting a wider range of baits from lipless cranks to Jigging Raps and swimbait presentations. I’m often casting up onto structure this time of the year for big pre-spawn walleyes, and precise location is a big deal on the fly. The 6’8” length and extra-fast tips on these rods make for extremely accurate casting, while the guide trains are very forgiving with a variety of baits on all kinds of line.”
For the most part, vertical operations require a shorter, stouter rod to stand up to heavy jigs, while affording fast, effective hooksets. Pros that favor pitching jigs looked to longer options in the 6’8” range for precision, all the way up to 7’6” when distance is identified as a critical factor. Diverse St. Croix rod series like Eyecon, Legend Tournament Walleye, Avid, Legend Elite, and Legend Xtreme are widely employed by these pros for a variety of springtime walleye bites across the Midwest. No matter what series in the lineup you choose, you’ll find quality rod choices specifically designed to give you the upper hand when targeting spring walleyes with any technique or presentation.