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Spring thaw means it’s time to jig for walleye

Nothing says spring to a walleye angler quite as definitively as dragging a jig through the tailraces of the dams throughout our region.

For most of my adult life, I have looked forward to the annual thaw that drains fresh cold water to our reservoirs in March. Lakes Milton, Berlin and Mosquito, in particular, grew popular with anglers who knew the dams’ discharges were the places to be once the current hit a certain volume and the water reached the right temperature to activate the walleyes in the downstream river stretches.

Around St. Patrick’s Day each year, anglers pull out their waders, dust off their spinning rods, wind on fresh line and stock up on 1/8-ounce ball-head jigs before heading to their favorite walleye spots at the reservoirs’ tailraces.

There, they find walleyes attracted to the swift water as they instinctively seek gravel bottoms with steady current to suit their spawning needs. The fish move up from their winter haunts in pools and run downstream from the dams.

I spent many a March morning casting jigs to the runs and riffles below the low-head dam a few hundred yards below the main spillway at Berlin. A good day would yield three or four 18-inch walleyes. Banner days might produce a limit.

Anglers also catch lots of March walleyes below Mosquito and Milton. The Mosquito tailrace is a relatively small area, and veteran anglers stake out the good spots where they can cast effectively to areas that might hold walleyes.

Jigs are the hot ticket in March. In fact, treble hook lures are prohibited in certain tailrace areas during the spawning season to discourage snagging walleyes. Foul-hooked fish must be released immediately.

Anglers sweeten their jigs with a variety of teasers, including marabou skirts, white and chartreuse plastic grubs and live minnows.

My preferred technique involved casting at an angle upstream and letting the jig sink for a few seconds before beginning a steady retrieve just fast enough to let the lure’s head tick the bottom. Speed is critical. Retrieving too slow will let the jig wedge in rocks, while too fast means the jig is above the strike zone.

Strikes typically are subtle. The walleyes that move into the tailraces during spawning season are not racing around to attack food. Rather, they will nip at intruding baits as though they are protecting their spawning sites.

A standard river walleye set-up is a 6 1/2-foot medium action spinning rod and reel spooled with 8-pound-test fluorocarbon line or 10-pound-test braid with an 8-pound fluoro leader.

Avoiding line twist is important to avoid day-ending snarls and birds nests, which can happen easily as anglers work their jigs on relatively slack line. To minimize twist, snap the spinning reel’s bail closed with your finger instead of the reel handle. Avoid letting the jig spin in the current.

Anglers looking for the season’s first walleyes need look no further than the spillways and tailraces at Mosquito, Berlin and Milton, as well as the Shenango River downstream from the Corps of Engineers dam in Sharpsville, Pa. The Ohio River’s locks and dams on the New Cumberland and Pike Island pools also produce a lot of March walleyes.

Teasing spring-run walleye into biting is not particularly difficult, which makes them the perfect fish to break the ice on our 2022 season.

Jack Wollitz’s book, “The Common Angler,” dives into the experiences that combine to make fishing a passion for so many people. He likes emails from readers.

Send a note to jackbbaass@gmail.com.

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