Spring Walleyes on the Rainy River


There is a spring tradition for some anglers that goes back generations. As the warm and welcomed spring sun begins to melt the ice and snow, the Rainy River just east of Baudette, Minn. begins to show pockets of open water. That water shows its beautiful hues and slowly makes its way to the west and north, eventually ending up in Lake of the Woods. As ice gives way to open water, thousands of walleyes are making their way to their spawning grounds. The fishing can be phenomenal, but timing is important. And if you hit it right, you can catch more trophies in a day than many catch in a lifetime.

This is the spring run on the Rainy.

It all begins with reports about open water on the river, and the news travels fast. Boat access typically begins near the Upper Sault Access (Franz Jevne), which is 28 miles east of Baudette and continues west. After Franz Jevne, the open water progresses west to Birchdale (Nelson Park landing), Frontier landing, Vidas landing (Clementson), Timber Mill Park (east Baudette), Peace Park in Baudette Bay, Bayview public access and finally Wheeler’s Point public access at the mouth of the Rainy River. Depending upon the spring, open water often appears the third week of March, but every year is different. The best way to keep abreast of the open water on the river is to keep connected with Lake of the Woods Tourism Bureau’s website and social media for updates and any other pertinent information.

The first anglers to appear are the brave souls who elect to bring up smaller boats that can be pushed across the shore ice and carefully slid into the icy waters. These are the pioneers of the walleye run and obviously “safety first” is their mantra. Most anglers wait for the accesses to be ice-free, and the county is good at using backhoes to help speed up the natural process of the excess ice moving out.

Tackle now is simple: a good jigging rod, handful of jigs and minnows or bright plastics. For most, a jig and minnow—preferably the emerald shiner—is the go-to bait during the cold-water period. Brightly colored glow and gold jigs are a good start. Most of the walleyes are hungry, but want the bait slow, as they are not in the chasing mode. Don’t worry about using a heavier jig. A lighter one can rise up and move too fast in the current with less control. Depending upon the flow of the river, start out with a 3/8 or 1/2 ounce and go from there. Don’t be afraid to go heavier if the water is moving quickly, as this jig will slow down your offering, just the way the walleyes want it.

Many vertically jig over the side of their boats, working the bottom foot of the water column. Anchor up and give it 30 minutes in a spot before moving. Anglers will anchor up on key spots such as a hole, bar or current seam. Often, groups of walleyes are on the move and will come to you.

On occasion, walleyes will want a little “angle to the dangle,” meaning they like it more horizontal. Try working a section of water by slowly using your trolling motor, or if there’s a strong current, use a kicker motor slowly upstream. Pull your jig slowly forward and drop it back until it hits the bottom. Sometimes it never makes it to the bottom as the walleyes normally hit it on the drop. Drift back downstream and use a trolling motor to slow-drift, if necessary, and repeat.

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Some prefer casting and working the shoreline. The key here is a controlled drift, making sure you are not ripping downriver too fast. Some years, the current works well for this, other years the assistance of an electric trolling motor is helpful. Believe it or not, slow-trolling a crankbait can also be effective. Putting your lure in front of many walleyes will produce some active ones, or at minimum, reaction strikes. Don’t fall into the old wives tail that you cannot troll in cold water; I have seen it too many times and it simply isn’t true.

This time of year the walleyes are moving upstream in schools. As you decide where to fish, do not overlook shallow water in 3 to 7 feet where many fish and big ones hold. If you work a few sections of shallow water with limited results, slide a bit deeper. With the naturally stained water and spring runoff, light penetration in the shallow depths is better and fish will see your offerings easier vs. when in the depths.

In this colder water, especially when casting, many prefer plastic baits on their jigs. Plastics seem to shine in colder water. If pitching jigs into dirty water or mudlines, plastics can also actually outfish live bait. In turbid waters, plastics seem to have better “fish-calling” qualities than live bait too. These are louder, vibrate more and distribute scent. Again, bright-colored plastics in this stained, sometimes stirred up water is a good choice. It’s also helpful to have action or vibration on the plastic body like ridges, a paddle tail or a twister tail.

Vary your jigging technique until you get dialed in. Cast your offering upstream at about the 10 o’clock position and slowly work the bottom with short little jumps or a slow, steady retrieve. Experiment—this kind of fishing does not have to be rocket science. It is just jigging, so get your jig with bait in front of some of these pre-spawn walleyes and they will grab it.

The walleye season on Lake of the Woods and the Rainy River is open until April 14. From March 1 to April 14, there are special spring fishing regulations for Four Mile Bay and the Rainy River: Anglers are allowed to keep a combined limit of two walleyes/saugers under 19 1/2 inches per day. The larger fish caught must be returned to the water immediately; no walleyes are to be kept 19 1/2 or over, including trophy fish over 28 inches. This helps to preserve the sustainability of the big female walleyes.

The small businesses of Baudette will have most everything you need—bait shops carry the hot jigs, plastics and live bait. Hardware stores, restaurants, coffee shops and souvenir retails are buzzing this time of year too.

The spring run of walleyes is tradition, and an exciting time. It’s almost a rite of passage to the warmer months ahead, marking the official start of open-water fishing many have been looking forward to. It seems only appropriate the kickoff to the season involving some of the largest walleyes in the land stacked up in one beautiful river.