The annual mass migration of greenback walleye into the southern waters and tributaries of Lake Winnipeg has begun. The famed Red River North sees some of the largest movements of pods upon pods of Lake Winnipeg fish making their way upstream every fall. It’s mid-September as of this writing and good to great reports of greenbacks being caught in the river have been steady since the end of August.
When to go
There is no definitive date on the calendar to circle to anticipate the arrival of the greenback walleye horde into the Red. It varies year to year from very early such as mid-August to very late going deep into the first weeks of October. The strength of the annual run, speaking in terms of size and pure numbers can vary as well with some years seeing continuous influxes of massive schools and others where they are fewer and far between. Current flow, water and mean temperature, and baitfish movements are some of the factors that play into the timing and scope of the migration.
The numbers and size of walleye this year that are already being caught is very encouraging for an above average fall greenback walleye run. The action has been on fire for the fat 17 to 21-inch ‘football’ greenback class as well as the 28-inch plus Master Angler-sized walleyes. The open water season can extend into early November most years but for trips where more planning is involved, it is hard to go wrong with any dates in the month of October.
Quick hitter on the Red
We went on a recent excursion to the Red River to witness the hot bite for ourselves. Joining me for a quick trip was avid walleye angler and fellow self-proclaimed river rat Dan Demelo. Dan was fresh off of a successful outing a few days earlier where he focused most of his efforts on the southern stretch of the river. Launching out of Selkirk Park, we decided to head north to see how the action was in that area.
On this mid-September morning, our outlook wasn’t the brightest as the wind was blowing strong straight out of the south. Muddy shorelines were visible the entire drive north with the resulting low water and in addition to that, the forecast was calling for a temperature high of 31 degrees Celsius (89F). As long-time greenback run anglers, we knew all too well that this had all of the makings of a zero walleye day.
Ask any Red River veteran and they will tell you that the ideal condition for greenback hunting is when the river level is elevated. At this time of year, this almost always only occurs when there is a north wind blowing over the big lake which slows the river’s flow to almost a stand still causing the water level to rise as well as clear up considerably. Conversely, it is commonly agreed that the worst conditions are when there is any prolonged south wind which results in faster current, low river level, and much murkier water.
The easiest indicator to gauge where on the river level spectrum the Red happens to be on any given day is the width, or lack of, exposed mud shoreline. These fluctuations are almost tidal in their degree and can vary wildly in a matter of 24 hours depending on where the wind is blowing from.
Water temperature interestingly isn’t as determining a factor into whether greenbacks will be biting as it is on other lakes and systems. Once schools have actually made their way into the Red River, water level which directly correlates with water clarity is the primary consideration when adjusting your tactics. The gradual drop in temperatures both above and below the water improve the walleye bite more so by eliminating competing predators such as drum, bullhead, and catfish which go into their wintering patterns as the fall goes on.
Arriving at the ‘end of Main’ area, we spent some time scanning at different spots first to see what depths we marked fish at. The primary shoreline edge was too shallow with the water being low. The first transition (10-13 feet) consistently showed lots of fish while the secondary (15-19 feet) only had the occasional mark. We decided to drop lines at the bottom of the first drop-off and immediately hooked into a handful of sauger. This was followed shortly by a flurry of Master Angler sized bullhead. Sliding down into deeper water only resulted in a few more sauger so we picked up and started over in a new spot.
Within seconds my rod was jolted by a tell-tale ‘thunk’ on the end of the line. I openly exclaimed joy at the sight of bright emerald green thrashing just below the surface. A healthy 19-inch greenback walleye absolutely inhaled my orange 3/8oz jig and salted minnow. We proceeded to catch (and also drop) a handful more walleyes in that spot, all of them striking very aggressively with arm-jarring slams. When anglers can catch good numbers of greenbacks even during less than ideal conditions, we know that the schools are in the river in huge numbers.
What to use
All manner of standard walleye presentations and tactics will catch walleye on the Red River contrary to popular belief. The standard jig and frozen minnow combination is admittedly hard to beat in its simplicity and effectiveness but other tactics that anglers here employ to great success include: long-line trolling brightly coloured crankbaits, jigging plastics or lipless hard baits, and still-fishing bait rigs with nightcrawlers or live or frozen minnows. Dan shared that he did most of his damage the other day with a bottom-bouncer and spinner rig baited with a plastic swimbait.
Almost a Master Angler
We were able to repeat our pattern of catching small groups of chunky greenback walleye at various spots in the area. The consistent active depth on this day was 12 to 15 feet of water. Some spots were more loaded with bullheads and saugers than others but we would get a walleye bite mixed in if we waited it out long enough. After a handful of saugers bit our lines at yet another spot, Dan set the hook on something quite obviously much bigger.
The ‘sack of bricks’ bend in his rod and occasional deep pump of the rod tip had our eyes big as we knew that he had a good walleye on the line. After a spirited battle which had us thinking northern pike for half a second, we had a super fat greenback in the net. This fish had some dermal sarcoma on it which isn’t unusual to see occasionally on south basin walleye catches. They don’t make for the most photogenic fish but aside from being unsightly, they otherwise do not affect walleye mortality or the flesh for table fare. This big girl measured at 70cm (27.5’) which was just a hair shy of the Master Angler benchmark of 71cm.
Hot spots to check out
Much like many bodies of water, various sections, community holes, and stretches on the Red have names that they are referred to by the angling community. In case you are not familiar, just some of the more popular ones include:
–Sugar Island (large island just north of Selkirk Park). The southern point and adjacent drop-off on the west are tried and true community holes.
– Miracle Mile (section from Lower Fort Garry north about a mile). Shallow flats, gravel beds, and typically faster current are some of the features of this stretch which is a go-to spot for many anglers every fall.
–End of Main (aptly named dead end road at the mouth of Netley Creek). Relatively wider section at the northern stretch with productive water at a variety of depths.
–The Cut (opening in the shoreline that connects river to Lake Netley). Well-known community spot recognizable by the famous yellow buoys.
Aquatic Invasive Species
The entirety of the Red River in Manitoba is identified as an AIS Control Zone. Please be aware of AIS regulations and best practices before and after launching your boat into the Red. A water inspection and decontamination station is conveniently set-up at Selkirk Park boat launch. For more information and station operating hours please visit the Sustainable Development AIS page.
HuntFishMB – Eric Labaupa
For more information about fishing for walleye in Manitoba please visit our Walleye page.
*Protect Manitoba’s water and resources. Stop aquatic invasive species. For more information on how to do your part visit the Sustainable Development AIS page.