Michigan's Winter Walleye Wonderland
October 04, 2010
We love catching walleyes in our state, but some waters are more productive than others. If your ice time is limited this season, grab your gear and head for these hotspots. (January 2006)
The author with a Tawas Bay walleye that was a sucker for a minnow suspended below a tip-up.
Photo courtesy of Steven A. Griffin
I love alliteration, words beginning with the same letter, a coincidence that makes their connection more playful, more meaningful and memorable. Example? Winter and walleyes. If you live in Michigan, there are few pairs of words that fit together better.
Walleyes are distributed widely enough that they're available to just about any ice-angler. They bite so readily that any angler with a little finesse and some patience can catch one. They're tricky enough to be a prize to be proud of. And on the table? Well, let's just say you don't hear of northern pike, bluegill or largemouth bass fish fries at the old fraternal club, do you?
No matter where you live in Lower Michigan, you're almost certainly within a couple hours' drive of some first-rate walleye ice-fishing. Grab a jigging rod or a couple of tip-ups, locate your auger and snowmobile suit, and wander our state for some winter walleyes.
Any discussion of Michigan walleye fishing has to start with Saginaw Bay. This large lobe of Lake Huron is packed full of walleyes, and come winter, it's covered with walleye anglers, too. Among them is sure to be Tony Gronski of Freeland.
The retired maintenance foreman from General Motors fishes just about every day there's ice. "Except that when the wind blows hard, I don't go," he says. "It's uncomfortable, and the ice has a chance to move."
Saginaw Bay anglers get used to pressure cracks, openings in the ice or ridges of ice pushed skyward. Pressure cracks are travel and safety considerations, of course, but they can also be the key to a successful fishing strategy.
"Normally, all the pressure cracks are on (underwater) breaklines where currents push the ice and make pressure cracks where 13 feet of water drops to 17 feet, or 18 feet drops to 22," said Gronski. "Most fishermen crowd around the cracks. Walleyes, like deer, like to hang around the edges, in my opinion. So, we follow the breaks and set up. When you find the fish, they'll usually be there for a few days or a week." He uses GPS to record locations so he can return to them another day.
Gronski relies heavily on his motorized underwater camera during daylight and a fish sounder in low light. He's pretty sure the light of the camera sometimes spooks fish when it's dark. But either tool helps him watch how fish move. "You know exactly what they do, if they're active or inactive." Otherwise, it's all feel. "Maybe they lip it, and when you hit, they're gone."
On Saginaw Bay, Gronski said, "If they're active, I jig from the bottom to six to eight inches above it. If they come in inactive, I pound the lure right on the sand, creating a kind of sandstorm. That either excites them, or they leave. If they're active at all, they'll dig that bait right out of the sand and take it. We've seen on the camera that when you get a lot of fish on the prowl, they'll stir the bottom up. That gets the minnows stirred up and confused, and then the fish will bite anything that moves."
Gronski fishes mainly the western shoreline on the bay, driving on at road ends. "We go three, five, seven miles out, using snowmobiles when the snow is deep, four-wheelers otherwise." He goes with the crowds, and watches others for safety, finding where they cross pressure cracks. Even in crowds, there are hot and cold spots.
"Last year, the fish were so aggressive," Gronski said. "One night we sat down at 3 p.m., three of us. And we must have sat right on the fish or on their escape route, because there were a lot of people out there. In three hours, I caught 10 walleyes, and the guys I was with caught 13. We kept our limits of five each. They were like a pack of wolves."
To deal with those Saginaw Bay walleyes, Gronski rigs up 30-inch rods with spinning reels wrapped with Berkley FireLine. From those rods he dangles ballhead jigs baited with stinger-rigged whole minnows, or his favorite, a white Do-Jigger made by Bay de Noc Tackle, the Swedish Pimple people. This is sweetened with the head of a minnow.
Gronski said the best times are the first three or four hours of daylight and the three or four hours at day's end.
For local information, contact the Bay Area Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-888-229-8696, or online at
Fishing Saginaw Bay effectively and safely is a chore. You need transportation, maybe a shelter, a power auger, an underwater viewing camera and a flasher. Far simpler -- provided you pay close attention to safety matters -- is fishing on Saginaw Bay's tributary, the Saginaw River.
Gronski admitted it's not his first choice. "The only time I fish the river is if I can't get out and I'm really getting claustrophobic. It's easy to fish. You drive up, park, walk out and punch a hole, and you're fishing. For the average fisherman, it's really easy to get to. Simple fishing. Wait for night movement."
Popular offerings include heavy Swedish Pimples, Do-Jiggers, ballhead jigs and a variety of spoons, almost always baited with a minnow or part of one.
River regulars are rubbing their hands with anticipation while awaiting this winter. Last year they were pestered nearly to death by tons of fish just under the 15-inch minimum. This season, those should make for a lot of tasty keepers.
Anglers always congregate near the mouth of the river at Bay City and in downtown Saginaw. But remember, this is a big river with a lot of fluctuating current. Its ice conditions can change quickly, and the penalty for falling through into the moving water can be extreme, as in death. Fish smart!
For more information, contact the Saginaw County Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-444-9979 or
Any time you talk about walleyes, you better figure that Roscommon County's Houghton Lake will become part of the conversation. And that's especially true in winter.
Sure, there are plenty of big bluegills in this huge, shallow lake, and northern pike are plentiful enough that you can catch the dozen you need
to sort out one or two 24-inch-plus keepers. But walleyes really formed this lake's claim to fame.
The fish are a blend of the lake's natural reproduction and efforts by local fishing groups to boost it with pond-reared fish. Biologists have said the lake is so productive on its own that more stocking isn't needed. But to some people, that's like someone saying you don't need another bowl of popcorn or another day of vacation. What's their point?
Department of Natural Resources biologist Steve Sendek -- an avid winter angler himself -- said the standard winter walleye fishing tactic here is to find and work the weedbed edges, especially where big cabbage beds give way to open waters about 10 feet deep.
That's the hot zone as day gives way to dark, or vice versa. Not ready to give up when the sun goes down? "Sometimes, after dark, they come up onto sandy flats in about 5 feet of water," Sendek said.
Tip-ups are the most common walleye tool on Houghton Lake, especially smooth-releasing "boards" spooled with light line and baited with a gray shiner. You can hedge your bet, though, by setting one tip-up and jigging a light spoon. Sendek likes small Mepps Cyclops, Williams Wobblers and Doctor spoons -- lighter lures that flutter instead of dart -- tipped with all or part of an emerald shiner.
Houghton Lake has more surface area than any other Michigan lake, but it has more access points than most lakes, too, with a DNR site on each of the four sides of the lake, plus other drive-on points at road ends. Most years, some shuttle services carry anglers to rental shanties and other fishing spots. Any place on the lake can have its good walleye day, so check with local bait shops for the latest reports.
For local information, check out the Houghton Lake Area Tourism and Convention Bureau's Web site at
LAKE ST. HELEN
Like a middle child in a family or the girl next door at prom time, Lake St. Helen sometimes gets overlooked in all the fuss over nearby Higgins Lake and Houghton Lake. But this medium-large shallow source of the Au Sable River's South Branch has a secret: some mighty fine winter walleye fishing.
Much of the walleye fishing is in the eastern of the three-section lake, which is great, because you can hop out of your vehicle at the DNR access site in town, trudge onto the lake and be walleye fishing in minutes.
Sendek calls Lake St. Helen "a sleeper." He added, "Our plants have been catching on and are finally producing some fish -- some nice-sized fish -- in 8 to 12 feet of water."
The standard approaches -- jigging spoons or shiner-baited tip-ups -- work here, of course. But here's a Sendek twist: "I like to find some large flathead minnows, and fish them after dark, higher off the bottom than I would usually fish." Flatheads, he said, "are constant swimmers, like leeches in the summer."
That makes a tip-up rig, which is usually a stationary presentation, an active one while you can sit a snowball's throw away and watch for the twinkle of a clip-on nightlight that tells you it's walleye time.
For more information, contact the Houghton Lake Area Tourism and Convention Bureau at their Web site,
This large northern Lower Michigan lake -- our state's fourth-largest by surface area -- was a walleye winner long before plants created or restored other fisheries elsewhere throughout the state. And biologists say that Burt remains one of our better walleye lakes.
Burt Lake produces its own walleyes. The DNR hasn't had to stock any walleyes for a decade or so. Just-legal 15-inchers make up most of the catch, but plenty of them are caught each winter.
Daylight fishing is better in deeper water, probably because this lake's water is quite clear and weedbeds are scarce. At night, you can find fish moving into the shallows. Whatever the depth, Sendek said you'll find your best action on flats or steps. "My favorite areas are depths of 15 to 20 feet, wherever you have flats."
Slip onto the lake at Burt Lake State Park, provided there's a State Park entry sticker on your windshield. Another access option is the Maple Bay State Forest Campground on the west shore at about midlake.
SANFORD & WIXOM LAKES
These impoundments of the Tittabawassee River -- Sanford Lake beginning at the tailwaters of the Wixom Dam -- are productive through the ice for so many species that few anglers target walleyes on them. These reservoirs are full of northern pike, crappies and bluegills. But those who do seek walleyes often return with happy smiles, because populations are strong and building.
Now, you'll hear locals grumble that Sanford Lake isn't nearly as good as it used to be for most species. They may have a point, but they're either keeping it secret or don't know that walleyes are plentiful here. The good walleye fishing on Wixom Lake is better known. Part of that is because walleyes are planted in these lakes as well as upstream lakes. But also, resident walleyes seem to be producing more of their kind.
Most of the 'eyes caught on these lakes wave tip-up flags. It's unclear whether that's the top method because walleyes fall for it most easily, or because that's just what most anglers use. Either way, you can't go wrong with a 3-inch blue or grey shiner offered on a light line or leader and suspended beneath a hair-trigger tip-up. The river channels meander through the impoundments, and the best fishing comes where walleyes can move between deep channels and weed-rich shelves, often in 6 to 10 feet of water.
Since the channels still have river currents, extra attention to safety is needed on these and all impoundments. A change in flow through the lake can render safe ice treacherous in less than a day.
If you don't nervously and carefully check your tip-up from time to time to make sure your minnow hasn't swum into some weeds, you're either fishing in the wrong spot because it's too far from weeds, or you're willing to find at the end of the fishing session that you were out of contention all along.
Productive fishing here comes in a short window. The most serious walleye anglers set their tip-ups an hour before sunset and count on most of their action coming between sunset and darkness, so a lighted strike indicator is needed to learn of bites.
Access? It's tougher on Sanford than on Wixom. Sanford Lake's only public access site is the Sanford Lake Park operated by Midland County near the dam site, and it gives safe access to the basin only at that end of the lake. Otherwise, you'll have to seek permission from area property owners. The DNR operates a public access site on the Tobacco River arm of Wixom Lake, and it's a short hop from there to the Tobacco spillway where walleye anglers gather. To expl
ore the Tittabawassee arm of the lake, get upriver at the snowmobile race site at Albright Shores just off Estey Road.
For local information, contact the Midland County Convention and Visitors Bureau at 1-888-464-3526 or
Sendek calls Lake Margrethe just west of Grayling a "flashy" walleye lake. "It has some very good years, and then there are bad years," said Sendek. "Last year was pretty poor, but there's a good year-class coming up, and I expect this winter will be a good one."
The fishing fortunes may well reflect the periodic injection of planted walleyes, which in this lake grow into dandies -- a lot of 20-inchers.
Lake Margrethe is a fooler. Much of the northern end is shallow, less than 15 feet deep. But Sendek said the good fishing comes where shallow water tumbles into deeper holes in the lake's central and southern portions. Sendek said successful ice-anglers fish here a little deeper than in most lakes, from 15 to 30 feet. Both jigging and tip-ups produce.
Gaining access to the nearly 2,000-acre lake is easy, with public access at a U.S. Forest Service campground in the northwest corner and a DNR access site at the southern tip of the lake, with the latter being closest to some of the deeper walleye-holding holes.
For more information, contact the Grayling Visitors Bureau 1-800-937-8837 or
Don Barnard of Sanford is a fisheries technician who works out of the DNR's Saginaw Bay District office at Bay City. With his electrofishing and other survey equipment, he gets to look at a lot of lakes. He also likes to hit them on his own time in winter with rod and reel or tip-ups. Barnard said Peach Lake near West Branch in Ogemaw County is a pretty darned good walleye lake.
Peach Lake covers a few hundred acres, feeding Peach Creek, which flows into the River Fiver's West Branch. From time to time, it gets plants of walleyes, and subsequent surveys have found good numbers of them, some over 24 inches.
This lake has plenty of ledges, underwater bars, dropoffs and more of the shifting structure that walleyes -- and smart anglers -- learn to love. Winter anglers use both minnow-rigged tip-ups and rod-bobbed Swedish Pimples. There's a public access site on the eastern shoreline, and on a lake this small, that's all you need to have a lot of good walleye fishing within walking distance.
For more information, contact the West Branch-Ogemaw County Travel Bureau at 1-800-755-9091.
If you've let a good chunk of the winter slip away on you, or you're looking for a late-season change of scenery, give some consideration to Hubbard Lake in Alcona County.
"This is a later-winter fishery," said Sendek. Anglers in the know "usually fish deep in 30 to 50 feet of water, with tip-ups with big minnows." You can fool fish with jigs, too, but remember: "No matter what you do, do it deep."
For more information, contact the Alpena Area Chamber of Commerce at 1-800-4-ALPENA, or online at
Most of us have busy lives these days, but we also need some time to get away from it all. These walleye hotspots should keep you all warm and fuzzy until spring!