Ice-out walleye on Rainy River

by Jeff Gustafson | March 1, 2013

Ontario anglers typically face several months of exclusively hard-water fishing, so many of us are itching to cast into open water the first chance we get. In Northwestern Ontario’s Sunset Country Region, most lakes remain frozen until mid-April, the same time as the walleye season closes for a month. However, areas of moving water often open up much earlier, providing an opportunity to sneak in open-water walleye fishing before the season closes. In Northwestern Ontario, there is no better place to launch your boat than the Rainy River.

The legendary Rainy
The Rainy River is a 137 km stretch of water flowing from Rainy Lake into Lake of the Woods. It forms a section of the U.S.-Canada border between Minnesota and Ontario.

As the ice melts, hundreds of thousands of walleye pile into the river from Lake of the Woods to spawn. Typically, the Rainy River is ice-free and navigable around April 1st, and anglers on both sides of the border have until April 15th to take advantage of a great walleye bite, making it one of the most popular fishing locations in North America prior to the season closure.

In 2012, the ice melted early, even setting records in many places, which created perfect conditions for incredible walleye fishing starting the last week of March.

Father and son adventure
It was early April when I picked up my dad to take him on his first Rainy River walleye experience. Not only did it turn out to be the best day I’ve ever had on Rainy River, it was probably the best day of walleye fishing I’ve ever experienced. This is a serious claim, because I’ve spent many days guiding and fishing on Lake of the Woods and at several world-class fly-in lakes over the years.

Anglers can access the Rainy River at several points between Fort Frances, where the River begins, and the town of Rainy River, where it feeds into Lake of the Woods. There are good ramps at each of these towns, as well as in the communities of Emo, Barwick and Pinewood.

The weather is variable at this time of year. I’ve fished cold, rainy, and even snowy days with good luck, but have had the best results when the sun was shining and I could wear a t-shirt. Conditions were prime on the day Dad and I headed out, sunny and calm. We launched at the public access in Emo and took a short boat ride downriver to the Long Sault Rapids area.

The river’s average depth is 8 to 12 feet during the spring, when several tributaries are feeding it. Although the banks and bottom are generally sandy, there are enough rock outcroppings and boulder piles to keep you on your toes.

The good news is that once the fish move into the river, they are ready to eat, so you’re always going to catch something.

Anchor up and fish
I generally like to move around a lot and cover water, no matter what species I’m after, but on this day, I pulled up to a small sandbar that stuck out into the middle of the river from the Canadian bank, dropped anchor and didn’t move for the entire day.

The river is relatively featureless structure-wise, so when you do find sand bars, shoals or neck-down areas with increased current and deeper holes, you’re going to find walleye. Fish will hold on the down-river side of these structural elements, waiting for food to float by, so setting up just below these spots is a good tactic.

Over the first couple of hours we caught fish every few minutes, and by the afternoon we were getting bites on every single cast. We would pitch a jig and live minnow upstream, let it sink to the bottom in 5 to 10 feet of water, and start gliding it back to the boat with the current. Seldom would our jig make it all the way to the boat without a fish.

I’ve had good catches using minnowshaped soft plastics, but I like to use live minnows on these early trips to help guarantee action. My strategy delivered on this trip. Dad caught one of the biggest walleyes of his life, a beautiful 31 inch fish. We had plenty of others in the 24-29 inch range, and a bunch of smaller fish. It really was one of those days you dream of over the winter.

The Sunset Country Region offers some of the best options for walleye anglers looking for fast action and big fish. And, there is no better way to start the season than the Rainy River.

Visit for lodges and outfitters in the Rainy River area.