FRENCH RIVER: WALLEYES
Statesiders call them walleyes, but to Canadians, they're pickerel. Regardless of how you label them, you'll have trouble finding better fishing on either side of the border.
Some walleyes live in the French year around, but fishing really picks up in mid-September, when walleyes from Georgian Bay start moving upriver. When the run peaks, there will be four bay fish for every resident fish. It's easy to tell the difference: bay fish are dark golden in color; residents, much lighter. The bay fish run 3 to 5 pounds, with a few up to 14. Resident fish are considerably smaller.
The migratory fish are drawn by current, so they congregate below rapids and in narrows, places that also draw plenty of baitfish. In fall, most of the big walleyes are caught at depths of 15 feet or less, but you'll find smaller ones down to 30 feet.
A plain slip-sinker rig baited with a 2- to 3-inch minnow accounts for most fall walleyes, but a jigand-minnow also works well. One of the best bigfish methods is trolling the rapids at night with a large floating minnow plug.
Walleyes continue to bite until freeze-up, which is usually in mid-November. They stay around the rapids and narrows through the winter, but treacherous ice makes winter fishing nearly impossible.
The fishing season closes at the end of March, but opens again on the third Saturday in May. For the first week or two of the season, walleyes remain in the rapids where they spawned. But then they begin moving downstream, congregating in narrows with current. Use the same techniques as in fall, working water 10 to 15 feet deep.
After the first week of June, most of the walleyes move to areas with less current. They hold along weedy breaklines and off weedy points, usually at depths of 20 to 25 feet. By mid-June, most anglers switch to nightcrawlers. Normally, fishing stays good into early July.
By mid- to late July, most of the migratory walleyes have moved back to Georgian Bay. Resident walleyes start to go deeper, commonly to 30 or 40 feet, but sometimes to more than 70 feet. You'll find them off steep cliffs and deep rocky points, but reduced walleye numbers and abundant forage make summertime fishing difficult. It stays tough until walleyes from the bay return in the fall.
A 5-1/2- to 6-foot medium-power spinning outfit with 6- to 10-pound mono is adequate for most French River walleye fishing. But snags can be a big problem in the French, especially when fishing around rapids and narrows where current scours the bottom and keeps rocks exposed. In this situation, even 10-pound line won't prevent break-offs, so some anglers use drop-sinker rigs. To keep your hook out of the rocks, you may want to add some type of floater.
The French has fairly clear water, so overcast days with a slight chop usually make for the best walleye fishing. As a rule, the action is fastest early and late in the day.
LURES AND RIGS include: (1) Original Floating Rapala, (2) slip-sinker rig with a 1/4-ounce egg sinker and a size 4 hook baited with a minnow or (3) nightcrawler, (4) Mister Twister Meeny Jig, (5) jig and minnow.
How to Troll the Rapids
TROLL a large floating minnow plug below the rapids starting around sunset. Work the eddies along either side of the fast water, then work the current seams between the fast water and the eddies. The plug runs only a few feet beneath the surface, but walleyes spot the silhouette after dark and swim up to strike.
How to Make and Use a Drop-Sinker Rig
TIE on three-way swivel; add dropper with split-shot pinched on and 2-foot, 6-pound leader with size 6 hook. To reduce snags even more, use floating jig head.
KEEP your line nearly vertical while drifting with the current. Allow the split-shot to touch bottom every few seconds, but don't let the rig drag along the bottom.
LOWER your rod tip when you feel a bite, then set the hook quickly. The line cannot slip through the sinker, so the fish may feel resistance and drop the bait if you wait too long.