Spring 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, MN begins to show pockets of open water. The open water that begins showing its beautiful hues slowly makes its way to the west and north, eventually ending up in Lake of the Woods.  As the ice gives way to open water, thousands of walleyes are making their way to their spawning grounds. With so many fish into the river, fishing can be phenomenal. Yes, it is a timing thing, but if you hit it right, anglers can catch more trophies in a day than they may catch in a lifetime. 

It all begins with reports about some open water on the river. 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. They give daily updates on the progress of the open water, fishing reports, and any other pertinent info.

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” has to be the mantra here. Most anglers wait for the accesses to be ice free.

The county is good about using backhoes to help speed up the natural process of the access ice moving out.

Tackle during this time is simple. A good jigging rod, a handful of jigs and either minnows or bright plastics will do the trick. 

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

Many anglers will vertically jig over the side of the boat, working the bottom foot of the water column. Anchor up and give it 30 minutes in a spot before moving. Many anglers will anchor up on key spots such as a hole, bar, or current seam. Many times, 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 the current is strong, a kicker motor slowly upstream. Pull your jig slowly forward and drop it back until it hits 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.    

Some anglers prefer casting and working the shoreline. The key here is a controlled drift, making sure you are not ripping down river 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 very 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 wive’s tail you cannot troll in cold water, I have seen it too many times and it simply isn’t true.

This time of year, walleye are moving upstream in schools. As you decide where to fish, do not overlook shallow water—3-7’ of water can hold a lot of fish—and big fish. 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 offering easier vs. the deeper depths.

In this cold water, especially when casting, many anglers prefer plastic baits on their jigs and do very well. Plastics seem to shine in cold water. If pitching jigs into dirty water or mudlines, plastics can actually out fish live bait. In turbid water, plastics seem to have better “fish calling” qualities than live bait. They are louder, vibrate more and distribute scent.

Again, bright colored plastics in this stained, and sometimes stirred up water is a good choice. It can also be helpful to have some action or vibration on the plastic body, such as ridges, a paddle tail or a twister tail.   

Vary your jigging technique until you get dialed in. Cast your offering up stream at about ten o’clock 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. 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 14th. From March 1 – 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 19.5” per day. The larger fish caught must be returned to the water immediately. There are no walleyes to be kept 19.5” or over, including trophy fish over 28”. This helps to preserve the sustainability of these big female walleyes.

As far as lodging, the hotels and resorts around Baudette are a natural choice. During prime time, if the closest properties on the river or in town are full, there are numerous resorts north of Baudette which typically have openings along with restaurants and bars. To make it easy, there is an entire list of lodging at the Lake of the Woods Tourism website LakeoftheWoodsMN.com.

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. Things are hopping and people are excited.

The spring run of walleyes is tradition and an exciting time in these parts. Almost a rite of passage to the warmer months ahead, it marks the official start of open water fishing that many anglers have been looking forward to. It seems only appropriate the kickoff to the open water season involves some of the largest walleyes in the land stacked up in one beautiful river.

Game on!