Photo by Tracy Breen.
In Michigan, at least one thing is certain: If there are walleyes in a lake, anglers are going to fish it hard.
Walleyes put up a good fight, taste great in the frying pan and look good on the wall. Some anglers jig for them; others troll. Some target them in the morning; others search the shallows in the middle of the night. Regardless of timing or tactics, if you go after walleyes in the spring of 2010, you’re bound to have a banner season — especially on the Great Lakes.
According to professional angler Mark Martin, Several elements will make the spring of 2010 a great time to be on the water fishing for walleyes. “Over the past 10 years, water levels in most of the Great Lakes and rivers in Michigan have been down,” Martin noted. “In the last year or so, we have had record rainfall, and the rivers that many of the walleyes spawn in have lots of water, which makes spawning easier for walleyes. The more water there is, the more vegetation there is for fingerlings to hide in and more plankton for them to feed on. Generally, the more water we have, the better off the walleye population is going to be.”
Martin has seen a noticeable increase in the number of walleyes in Saginaw Bay. It’s no secret that Saginaw Bay offers good walleye fishing, but right now Martin says the walleye fishing on the bay is great. “A few years ago, if a few anglers fished on the bay and caught their limit, it would have been exceptional. Now, catching the limit of walleyes on the bay is the norm. Any angler who knows how to fish and has a boat should find catching a limit of walleye on Saginaw Bay quite easy.”
Fisheries biologist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Jeff Brauncheidel says there are many factors that play into whether a fishery ends up having a good year. Every fishery is different. “Saginaw Bay will have a great year in 2010, but not every lake looks that promising,” Brauncheidel said. “Everyone loves fishing Lake Erie, and right now the majority of the walleyes in Lake Erie are from the 2007 year-class. Before 2007, there were several years that did not have a good hatch. The 2007 fish will be a few years old this spring and should be good size. However, every year is different, and it’s sometimes difficult to tell from one year to the next how good the fishing will be.”
According to charter boat captain Ernie Miller from Last Cast Charters, there are several contributing factors that make Saginaw Bay a great walleye fishery. “There have been several year-classes of walleyes that have had successful hatches and reached maturity in recent years,” Miller explained. “Saginaw Bay has everything going for it. The bay has a number of rivers that flow into it and natural production. The fishery receives attention from the DNR in the forms of plantings. There are several walleye groups like the Saginaw Bay Walleye Club that raise funds by putting on walleye tournaments. They use the funds created by the tournaments to plant fish into the bay. Right now, it is not uncommon to fish the bay and see larger numbers of walleyes than anyone has seen in decades.”
Miller believes the most predominate year-class on the bay is between 3-5 years old. These fish are between 19 and 23 inches, which is the perfect size for the frying pan. “In a few more years, if things continue like this, there should be some really big walleyes in Saginaw Bay,” Miller said. “Saginaw Bay has been known for holding walleyes worthy of putting on the wall. Right now there are some large fish around, but most of the walleyes the anglers are catching are 25 inches or smaller.”
Bring plenty of night crawlers with you this spring if you fish Saginaw Bay. Miller says you will need them!
“With so many walleyes in the bay right now, when I fish I bring an entire flat of crawlers,” Miller says. “My friends or clients and I will go through hundreds of them in a few days because the younger fish feed so aggressively.”
In the spring, one of Miller’s favorite places to target walleyes is out in front of the Kawkawlin River. “Straight out from the river mouth, I troll with body baits in 6 to 12 feet of water. The trick is finding the schools of fish. Sometimes they can be difficult to locate, but when I find them, I can catch fish for hours,” Miller noted. If anglers want to catch a large walleye for the wall, Miller says the best time to fish near the river mouth is the first couple weeks in May. “A lot of the big females who have finished spawning in the river will head back into the lake to feed, and fish in the 8- to 11-pound range can regularly be caught there.” Miller advises that although it is tempting to takes these big fish home, anglers should put most of them back into the water. “These big females are the ones doing all the spawning from year to year, so if anglers want to continue to see good fishing on the bay, they should let most of them go. It doesn’t take long for a fishery to go downhill if everyone is taking big females home.”
Another fishery that is thriving is Lake Erie. People from across the country travel to Lake Erie to fish for walleyes. Even with the pressure on the fishery, the lake continues to produce plenty of fish. “The Detroit River and Maumee River continue to produce large numbers of walleyes,” Miller said. “I think our hats should be tipped to the DNR in Michigan and Ohio for their efforts. They keep a close eye on the fishery, and it shows because the lake offers great walleye fishing.”
Every year, large numbers of fish travel up the Maumee River to spawn. The MDNR monitors the river because when fish are in the river, they can easily be snagged. By having a constant presence on the river and by writing tickets, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources has helped the Lake Erie fishery.
Despite what some think, Miller believes 2010 should be a great year for anglers who target walleyes on Lake Erie for several reasons. “Water levels are up, which should help the lake. Lake Erie always has a great mayfly hatch, which provides lots of food for the fish. This results in larger, healthier fish,” Miller explained. Lake Erie also has a wide size variety within its walleye fishery. “In many lakes, anglers might come across a large number of fish from one year-class. On Lake Erie, there are a variety of different year-classes thriving. Anglers should expect to catch smaller fish that are perfect for eating, larger fish and everything in between.” The walleyes in the lake spawn in the nearby rivers and on the many reefs found in the lake.
“Lake Erie is a wal
leye factory, and I think it will continue that way for years,” Miller said. With lots of bottom structure, reefs and river systems, it is easy to see why walleyes and anglers love the lake. “Lake Erie is unique in the fact that it always has an abundance of food for every age class of walleye. The younger fish feed on mayflies and insects. The larger fish are able to feed on the healthy perch population. With so many available, the walleyes are able to grow regardless of what age class they are.”
Miller believes Lake Erie is a great place for the novice angler who wants to get serious about walleye fishing and fish. “Lake Erie is one of those lakes that, since there are large numbers of walleyes, anglers can put a lot of fish in the boat with a few basic fishing techniques. If anglers know how to use fish a crankbait or crawler harness, they can catch fish somewhere on Lake Erie,” Miller said. “It is not uncommon to locate large schools of fish on Lake Erie that are a quarter-mile wide by a half-mile long, which makes catching fish fun and simple. Every time the lure hits the water, anglers are getting a bite.”
Anglers looking to fish Lake Erie for the first time should launch at Sterling State Park near Monroe. “Not far from the launch is the Fermi Nuclear Power Plant. Anglers should fish right out in front of the plant in about 18 feet of water,” Miller advised. “There are multiple rock humps and bottom structures that the walleyes hang around, so it’s usually a sure bet for finding fish in the spring.” According to Miller, walleyes can be found near the power plant in May and June. “The fishing in this area is usually hot until the Fourth of July, when it shuts right down.”
Brauncheidel believes Lake Erie will be better in a few years than it is right now. “It looks like the 2009 hatch was better than expected, so we should have some good-sized walleyes in the lake from the 2009 year-class in a few years,” Brauncheidel said. “Anglers should be patient.” One of the deciding factors of whether a certain year will have a good hatch in any of the Michigan waters is whether we had a mild spring or a stormy one. “When the walleyes hatch and float down the rivers into the lakes, if we have several storms, the water really gets turned up, especially in the shallows where the fry live. A lot of them die during the storms.” The MDNR didn’t expect 2009 to be a very good year-class because of the storms, but Brauncheidel says the hatch was better than expected, especially on Lake Erie.
Even though the 2009 hatch was better than expected on Lake Erie, Brauncheidel believes the overall harvest allowed to be taken on Lake Erie may be adjusted for the 2010 season and be slightly smaller than the previous years’ harvest.
When it comes to consistently catching walleyes, many anglers head to the west side of the state and fish Lake Michigan or the lakes that flow into Lake Michigan. From Muskegon all the way north to Big Bay De Noc, lots of walleyes can be found in the spring. Miller is from Muskegon and often fishes Muskegon Lake or White Lake. In the spring, he concentrates his efforts at pierheads along Lake Michigan. “In 2010, it will be like most years along Lake Michigan’s ports,” he said. “Fishing the pierheads for post-spawn fish at night is going to be the best option. I usually troll in and around the pierheads until the early hours of the morning to catch fish. I like trolling a deep-diving Husky Jerk.”
The difference between the west side of the state and east side is there is no bottom structure along the Lake Michigan coastline, which can make fishing tough. “I always hug the pierheads in Muskegon, Manistee or other ports because that is often the only structure around. Sometimes there are subtle depth changes that attract fish and tiny bits of structure here and there, but for the most part, the only place anglers catch fish is around the large structure where the baitfish hang out, which is the pierheads and break walls.”
“Right now, I don’t believe the walleye fishing on the west side of the state is as good as it is on the east side, but there are plenty of walleyes here; you just need to work for them,” Miller explained. “If I were to choose one body of water to fish in the spring of 2010, it would be Saginaw Bay, hands down.”
Overall, it looks like 2010 should be a great year to pursue walleyes in Michigan. There are a lot of fish in many of the Great Lakes, and the MDNR aggressively plants many of the inland lakes. Whether you live in the northern part of the state or the southern part of the state or somewhere in between, you can likely find good walleye fishing close to home.