Winter Walleye Wonderland

Winter Walleye Wonderland

Michigan ice-anglers can look forward to a banner season for walleyes if we get a little cooperation from Mother Nature. (January 2009)

Ron Hanna of Manton used a pink and white Nils Master lure to ice this Little Bay de Noc giant.
Photo by Mike Gnatkowski.

You'd be hard-pressed to name a state that has better winter walleye fishing than Michigan. Not only are there dozens of locations that offer topnotch winter walleye fishing, but also the diversity of these bodies of water is incredible. You have everything from small, natural lakes to expansive Great Lakes bays. The one thing they all have in common is they are all steady producers of winter walleyes.

Here are some locations that are sure to be hot this winter.

IRON LAKE
Winter comes early to the western Upper Peninsula, so it's not uncommon to be on the ice by Thanksgiving. Smaller lakes are among the first to offer safe ice and hot first-ice walleye action. Iron Lake is one of those lakes.

Sportsman's Connection indicates that 396-acre Iron Lake "is an extremely good walleye lake, though not many you hook will be lunkers." Local resident and outdoor writer Robert "Dock" Stupp concurs.

"You're not going to catch a lot of big walleyes on Iron Lake," he said. "They'll be mostly eating-size fish. You can catch a lot of them, but not many will be over 20 inches or so."

Stupp said some of the best action of the year occurs on first ice near the boat landing on the northeast side of the lake. Gradually sloping contours find walleyes cruising at 10- to 20-foot depths, and Stupp said you can find them in as little as 5 feet of water. As winter progresses, walleyes migrate to the south end of the lake where you can find water to 45 feet deep. An abrupt dropoff along the east shoreline concentrates winter walleyes.

Standard walleye fare works on Iron Lake. Stupp said he does well with a leadhead jig and minnow while spotting a tip-up. The tactic usually results in enough walleyes for supper.

Sportsman's Connections maps are a great source of information for small lakes like Iron Lake that aren't listed on many other maps. Contact Sportsman's Connections at (800) 777-7461 or www. sportsmansconnections.com.

LAKE EMILY
"Fishing Lake Emily for walleyes in the summer can be a problem because of the weeds," Stupp said. "In the winter, you don't have the weeds to contend with, so it's one of the best times of the year to fish the lake for walleyes."

Located in Iron County, 320-acre Lake Emily is not a big lake, so it freezes quickly and anglers can be augering holes in early December. Stupp said you often find first-ice walleyes in extremely shallow water.

"I've caught walleyes on Lake Emily in as little as 3 or 4 feet of water," he said. "In addition, there's a chance of catching a real trophy on the lake. I don't tell many people, but I've taken walleyes up to 29 or 30 inches from the lake. I don't keep fish that size anymore, but they're there."

Stupp said Lake Emily is planted regularly with walleyes, so there are several strong year-classes in the lake with good size structure.

Walleyes frequent the 5- to 20-foot contours at either end of the lake on first ice. As winter sets in, the 'eyes relate to a hole that dips to 32 feet near the boat launch on the east side of the lake and a point directly across from the boat launch on the lake's west side. The steep dropoffs concentrate winter walleyes. Stupp said that the walleyes are suckers for a leadhead jig adorned with a minnow.

For more information on Iron County lakes, live bait and tackle, contact Crystal Bait at (906) 875-4434.

Left: Two proven tactics for winter walleyes in Michigan are jigging and using a dead stick with a slip-bobber.
Photo by Mike Gnatkowski.

CHICAGON LAKE
Another Iron County lake, Chicagon Lake, is one of Stupp's favorite winter walleye venues. Chicagon Lake has a long history as being one of the top walleye lakes in the U.P. due to its regular stocking schedule. The 1,100-acre lake also has excellent walleye habitat with plenty of contours, flats, dropoffs and depths to 115 feet.

"Chicagon Lake is one of the better walleye and perch lakes in the area," Stupp said. "The fishing is always good about midway down the lake on the west shore."

A flat attracts early-season walleyes. Later in the winter, the 'eyes school over the structure found off Midsummer's Point. Two other locations that Stupp recommended are off the public access at Pentoga Park on the south end of the lake and along a dropoff that quickly tapers from 10 to 60 feet along the lake's eastern shore. A bonus of fishing Chicagon Lake through the ice is the jumbo perch that are mixed right in with the walleyes. Stupp said the perch top 12 inches and walleyes measure from barely legal to 5 or 6 pounds.

For more details on Chicagon and other central U.P. lakes, contact the Northern Lake Michigan Management Unit of the MDNR at (906) 875-6622.

LITTLE BAY DE NOC
Ice-fishing fanatic Ron Hanna drives by dozens of topnotch winter walleye waters from his northern Michigan home on his way to Little Bay de Noc each winter. Why would you drive that far if you had walleyes in your back yard? Well, a couple of winters ago, Hanna and his buddies caught 30- and 31 1/2-inch hawgs within an hour of hitting the ice. They iced another 10 1/2-pounder that evening.

Not only are there big walleyes in Little Bay de Noc, but also there are plenty of them.

"There seems to be this perception that walleye fishing on Little Bay de Noc isn't as good as it used to be," said Northern Lake Michigan fisheries supervisor Mike Herman. "Our data doesn't substantiate that."

Herman said recent surveys place the number of adult walleyes in Little Bay de Noc at more than 460,000. That's reason enough to make the drive to Little Bay de Noc.

First-ice action heats up on the north end of the bay where several rivers enter. The walleyes relate to reefs in the area that drop from 6 to 18 feet of water. As winter deepens and ice conditions improve, walleyes

and anglers ply the deeper reefs found off Kipling and Gladstone. Center Reef is a good starting point. The general pattern is to start shallow in the morning and work deeper as the day progresses. Reverse the pattern in the evenings.

Hanna said that early and late fishing produces the best bite, although the passive approach using tip-ups sometimes accounts for midday fish. Usually, jigging is the ticket on Bay de Noc. Hanna recommends No. 7 or No. 9 Jigging Rapalas and Nils Masters lures. Hanna's biggest Bay de Noc trophy, a 30 1/2-inch 10.9-pound monster, came on a white/pink Nils Master, but both lures work. He said sometimes he tips the lures with a minnow depending on how aggressive the fish are. Hanna said chartreuse was a hot color last season. Other productive lures to have in your Little Bay de Noc arsenal are locally made Do Jiggers, Swedish Pimples and Rattlin' Buckshot spoons.

For lodging, guides and fishing reports, contact Sall-Mar Motel & Resort at (906) 474-6918 or online at www.sallmarresort.com.

BURT LAKE
When Hanna does ice-fish for walleyes close to home, it's often on Burt Lake. You're not going to catch the trophy-sized fish on Burt that you'll catch on Little Bay de Noc, but there's usually no shortage of action.

"We had some nights last winter where we iced 30 walleyes in an evening," Hanna said. "Unfortunately, most of them weren't legal-sized, but we usually got enough for a fish fry."

Burt Lake's walleye population is sustained solely by natural reproduction. The lake has an abundance of rocky shoals and reefs where walleyes spawn successfully and an abundance of forage that sustains walleyes and the lake's jumbo perch.

At 17,260 acres, Burt Lake is big and finding walleye schools sometimes takes some doing. Several points that jut out into the lake are key starting points, especially later in the winter. The structure they provide is a major attraction. Try off Greenman, Colonial, Dagwell and Cedar points. Deep flats are also good locations to look for cruising schools of walleyes off Maple Bay and off the state park on the lake's south side.

With so much area to cover, tip-ups and Slammers are a mainstay for searching for active schools, especially during the midday hours. Tip them with a lively blue or gray shiner. Even at midday, walleyes find a lively shiner hard to resist. Once walleyes become active in the evening, anglers turn to more traditional jigging lures like Swedish Pimples and Jigging Rapalas. Most of Burt's walleyes range from 16 to 20 inches, but fish in the 6-pound range are not uncommon.

For information on lodging and bait shops in the area, contact the Indian River Chamber of Commerce at (231) 238-9325 or at www.irchamber.com.

Not only are there big walleyes in Little Bay de Noc, but also there are plenty of them.

MULLET LAKE
"The fishery on Mullet Lake is identical to Burt Lake," fisheries biologist Tim Cwalinski said. "Both are very consistent for walleyes, though Mullet Lake might not be quite as productive."

With a surface area of more than 16,000 acres, Mullet Lake also has depths in excess of 140 feet. Mullet supports a two-story fishery, although very few winter anglers target the salmonids. Most are after walleyes and perch.

Good early-season locations for walleyes are just southwest of Topinabee where the lake shelves from 10 to 30 feet off the mouths of the Indian and Pigeon rivers. Many anglers hedge their bets and rig a rod with a perch rig and minnows and jig with a second rod. Both rigs will take walleyes and jumbo perch. Find one and you're likely to find the other. Another flat off the public access on the north side of the lake extends from Dodge Point and is a good first-ice venue. Later in the winter, walleyes relate to points on the eastern side of the lake south of Aloha State Park. Try the 10- to 40-foot depths off Needle, Round and Stony points.

Mullet Lake walleyes feed on an abundance of smelt, alewives and herring in addition to native shiners. With all the forage available, Mullet Lake tends to produce some bigger walleyes on average than Burt. Expect most 'eyes to be in the 2- to 4-pound range with an occasional trophy fish. You can either spot tip-ups or jig with a Swedish Pimple tipped with a minnow.

For bait shops and amenities in the area, contact the Cheboygan Area Tourist Bureau at (800) 968-3302 or online at www.cheboygan.com.

HAMLIN LAKE
Mason County's Hamlin Lake is famous for its tremendous winter bluegill fishing. However, what many don't know is that it's a steady producer of walleyes too. With loads of forage and plenty of structure, though, it's not an easy place to fish. The walleyes tend to move around a great deal on Hamlin Lake and to consistently catch them you must be equally mobile.

Anglers make nice catches of walleyes on Upper Hamlin Lake on first ice. Most ice-anglers are fishing for bluegills then, but many spot a tip-up or two near the old river channel where it traverses the lake. Walleyes frequent the 10- to 12-foot depths just outside the bluegill grounds. Many a panfisherman, though, has been shocked when a walleye engulfed his tiny teardrop and stretched his 2-pound-test line to the limit. Most walleyes range from 16 to 24 inches, but 30-inchers aren't unheard of.

As ice conditions improve, the hottest walleye action can be found on the lower lake. Walleyes spend the majority of the time in deep water, and then make nightly forays along the many steep dropoffs that exemplify the lake. Savvy anglers spend the last two hours of daylight in the 15- to 22-foot depths along the sharp contours. Jigging a Swedish Pimple sweetened with a minnow head on one rod and using a dead stick with a slip-bobber is a proven combination. Fishing can be especially hot the last two weeks of the season. Targeting deep water during midday can be productive. Work the 30- to 50-foot depths with minnows and slip-bobbers for walleyes and bonus jumbo perch.

For live bait, tackle and fishing reports, contact Pere Marquette Sporting Goods at (231) 845-8676.

SAGINAW BAY
Saginaw Bay is as hot as any walleye fishery in Michigan right now. The fishery is thriving as a result of several successive bumper year-classes that have the bay just chock-full of walleyes.

About the only thing that can prevent you from catching a limit of walleyes on Saginaw Bay this winter is weather. It takes a prolonged cold spell to seal up the bay in a layer of good ice, and sometimes that doesn't happen until well into January or even February. Even then, anglers should use caution when fishing the bay. Ice conditions may vary greatly from location to location, and shifting winds can open and close pressure cracks quickly. Always take a cell phone and GPS and let someone know when you plan to return.

Mason County's Hamlin Lake is famous for its tremendous winter bluegill fishing. However, what many don't know is that it's a steady producer of walleyes too.

By early January, anglers can get on the bay out to 10 or 12 feet at public accesses at Erickson Road and Linwood Beach Campground and Marina near Linwood. Walleyes often frequent the shallows, along with jumbo perch, on first ice. As ice conditions improve, anglers can venture out to the 15- to 24-foot depths that are most productive during midwinter. It pays to be mobile. Keep moving and punching holes until you make contact with the schools. Jigging is by far the most popular technique, but a slip-bobber suspending a pair of lively shiners often outfishes jigging lures and doubles your chances. Although there are plenty of walleyes in the bay right now, many of the fish are small. Still, you stand a good chance of not only catching good numbers of eatin'-sized walleyes, but a trophy or two also.

For more information on Saginaw Bay, contact Frank's Great Outdoors at (989) 697-5341 or go online to www.franksgreatoutdoors.com.

Michigan ice-anglers can look forward to a banner season for walleyes this year as long as we get a little cooperation from Mother Nature.

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