Michigan's Monster Winter Walleyes

It takes a lot of hard work to find and catch a 10-pound walleye. But by ice-fishing on these waters, your quest for a wallhanger will be much easier. (January 2007)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Finding and catching 10-pound-plus walleyes takes a lot of hard work, but your reward could be a wallhanger. We're talking 11-pounders that measure over 30 inches and have canine teeth like a junkyard dog. Everyone loves catching walleyes, especially monster fish. All you have to do is follow some simple rules to make your quest much easier.

First, find the fish. Begin your search when the dead of winter causes a lull in the action for panfish, pike and other species on inland lakes. If you are in search of a trophy walleye, concentrate on the Great Lakes bays or connecting waterways that host spectacular runs of big fish.

Take a look at the Department of Natural Resources' Master Angler Awards list and you will notice the majority of big walleyes come from just a few locations. This is where walleyes grow to large proportions by feeding on alewives, shad, smelt, emerald shiners, chubs and other forage fish found in huge schools.

This abundance of forage is the key to growing lunker walleyes, and Michigan has gained a reputation throughout the country as an ice-fishing honeyhole for trophy fish. The most popular wallhanger walleye waters are Saginaw Bay, the Saginaw River, Lake St. Clair, Muskegon Lake and Little Bay de Noc. Sure, there are many more walleye waters, but why mess with the rest when you can fish the best? Focus your efforts on these hotspots and you will be pleased with the "eye-popping" results.

SAGINAW BAY & RIVER

I can't say enough about the splendid walleye fishing on Saginaw Bay and the Saginaw River. But I'm biased after growing up with the fantastic fishing close to my home. Heck, in a decade of ice-fishing, I've entered five walleyes over 11 pounds in the "Saginaw Shiver On The River Contest," taking first place one year and placing in the top five in three other contests. The bay/river area is my most successful hawg walleye fishing location. I've wet a line in almost every inch of the Saginaw system and know the water intimately.

DNR fisheries biologist Jim Baker from Bay City best described the fantastic fishing.

"Saginaw Bay has a tradition of producing monster walleyes, tipping the scales over the 11-pound mark and limit catches when the weather is ideal and ice forms across the bay," Baker said. "Each year is different. Some winters, the walleye fishing is outstanding -- the best in the entire Midwest. The next winter, ice is precarious and anglers can not get out to the good fishing grounds."

Saginaw professional walleye angler Don Leuenberger fishes Saginaw Bay every day. He has the uncanny ability to find roaming schools and stay on top of hot walleye action.

"I start near Linwood, park at the city ramp and run five to seven miles northeast to the structure humps that traditionally hold winter hawgs," Leuenberger said. "As the winter progresses and fish migrate south, I move to the state park or DNR boat launch at the Saginaw River mouth, and spend most my time fishing around the manmade island where walleyes congregate prior to the spring spawning run.

"Look for limit catches in 17 to 20 feet of water using a silver/blue No. 3 Do-Jigger spoon or small white Swedish Pimple tipped with a lively minnow," Leuenberger continued. "Warm weather can create runoff, which stimulates walleyes, and they will charge into the mighty Saginaw River. Begin by looking for them near the warmwater discharge off Pioneer Street in Bay City. Next, hit the Veterans Park. If you don't find fish, try traditional hotspots near downtown Saginaw like the Zilwaukee Bridge, Carrolton Island, Bean Hole, Hooters, WMCA Hole or Wicks Park."

Leuenberger has his favorite weapons, too.

"My hottest river walleye lure is a chartreuse No. 5 Jigging Rapala tipped with a crappie-sized minnow," he said. "Pump the offering 1 to 8 inches off bottom, and tap bottom every few minutes. Big walleyes will see the lure dancing in the current and slurp the hook with only a light tap-tap, which feels like a bluegill on the line."

For lodging and area information, call the Bay City Chamber of Commerce at (979) 245-8333, or go to www.baycitchamber.com. Also, try the Saginaw County Chamber of Commerce at (989) 752-7161, or www.saginawchamber.org. Frank's Great Outdoors will have up-to-date fishing info at (989) 697-5341.

LAKE ST. CLAIR

"Lake St. Clair has a legacy of providing superb winter walleye catches, with plenty of big fish mixed in," explained Gary Towns, DNR fisheries specialist for the region. "Walleye fishermen begin their quest as soon as ice forms. Many walk from shore pulling gear on a sled or carrying auger, rod and reel, graph and bait. When thick ice forms, most use snowmobiles or quad runners to reach distant points."

Lake St. Clair logs more winter walleye fishing man-hours than any Michigan lake, and for good reason. It is located close to metro Detroit, and the lake is loaded with fish. Lake St. Clair is a connecting waterway between Lake Huron, the Detroit River and Lake Erie. Many of the walleyes caught in Lake St. Clair are thought to be transient fish migrating from Huron to Erie, or vice versa.

Walleyes are found all along the shores of Lake St. Clair, but public access is limited from Grosse Pointe Farms to St. Clair Shores. However, numerous access locations farther north include Point Huron Metro Park, Metro Beach, Anchor Bay, New Baltimore, Swan Creek, Anchor Bay Drive and Middle Channel Drive.

Anchor Bay is first to ice over. The best catches come at dawn and dusk because the water is shallow and the walleyes are spooky. This area is also well known for fantastic perch fishing. Many anglers seek walleyes in 18 to 24 feet near the shipping channel and 12 to 18 feet off Grosse Pointe, and then move to shallow water in search of yellow perch. Glow-in-the-dark Swedish Pimples tipped with perch minnows or a sucker minnow head produce most of the low-light walleyes.

Lake St. Clair is relatively shallow, and savvy anglers catch walleyes by working pockets of deep water. Many times these pockets are surrounded by weedbeds, and hungry walleyes skulk in the structure and slam offerings fluttering past ambush points.

For more information, contact the Anchor Bay Chamber of Commerce at (586) 725-5148, or online at www.lakestclair.net

LITTLE BAY DE NOC

No article on fat walleyes would be complete without the fantastic ice-fishery found on Little Bay de Noc in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

This region has a reputation for producing huge walleyes, and most DNR Master Angler Award fish come during the winter when pre-spawn females are gorging on minnows in preparation for the spring ritual. As winter progresses, "hens" develop larger eggs, and it is common for a 30-inch walleye to tip the scales at over 10 pounds.

Gladstone plays host to this fantastic winter fishery, with thick ice and suitable walleye habitat found close by. Many anglers park at the city boat launch and head to the fishing grounds on ATVs or snowmobiles laden with ice-fishing gear. Hotspots are located less than two miles from shore in deep-water hideouts -- 30 to 35 feet deep -- thus providing ample cover, forage fish and ideal habitat for roaming walleyes.

Some locals think zebra mussels have cleaned the water in the bay, thus making the walleye bite somewhat unpredictable. One day you catch a fish or two, and other days they bite like gangbusters.

Most ice-anglers use electronics to find and catch fish. Spoons, Swedish Pimples and Jigging Rapalas are the most popular lures. Some people rig a wire stinger hook to the bottom of a No. 5 Jigging Rapala and attach a lively minnow by hooking it through the lips and pinning the stinger in the tail. The setup is lowered within inches of bottom and is twitched slightly. When a walleye appears on the electronics, the lure is raised a few inches and the rod is jiggled sideways to make the dangling minnow wiggle to mimic the frantic twitching action of wounded baitfish. The subtle presentation draws walleyes from long distances in the clear water, holds their attention and causes them to swim upward and slam the offering.

Don't overlook the great ice-fishing available off the Kipling Launch about two miles to the structure found along the steep dropoff. Garth Point is well known as a walleye magnet because the water drops from 3 to 24 feet. This is also an area where walleyes congregate before ascending the nearby Whitefish River and Rapid River. As spring approaches, the region is stacked with walleyes cruising the dropoff in search of an easy meal.

Some walleyes are caught by using tip-ups spooled with light 6- to 8-pound-test clear monofilament line. Lively minnows are set within inches of bottom while using just enough split shot to keep the line vertical. Many more trophy fish come on minnows attached to large spoons jigged 6 to 10 inches off bottom. The experts use No. 7 hammered-chrome or blue/silver Swedish Pimples, Little Cleos, white/chartreuse No. 3 Do-Jiggers, Crocodiles and a variety of Nils Masters or Jigging Rapalas.

For more information, contact the Delta County Area Chamber of Commerce at (906) 786-2192, or www.deltami.org

MUSKEGON LAKE

West Michigan has several great walleye hotspots along the Lake Michigan "Gold Coast." Popular locations include lakes Macatawa, White, Pentwater, Manistee and Portage. Each water in its own way provides fast-paced walleye fishing fun, but when it comes to wallhanger 'eyes, few places can compete with Muskegon Lake.

Usually by late December or early January, a thick layer of ice covers Muskegon Lake. Savvy anglers set up on likely walleye holding areas, and jig lures for splendid catches. Also, keep in mind that the Muskegon River hosts one of the largest runs of trophy walleyes in our state. The DNR takes eggs from ripe females in mid-April by electroshocking hundreds of fish near Croton Dam. In the winter, you can expect to find Croton-bound walleyes cruising the Muskegon River.

Some of the best fishing begins on the western end of Muskegon Lake where pre-spawn hens congregate in the 30- to 50-foot depths. Heavy lures are needed to reach bottom, and large Swedish Pimples, Cleos and No. 9 Jigging Rapalas tipped with minnows get the job done. One trick is to dress the large Jigging Rapala with crappie-sized minnows on all five hooks. Some anglers think this extra-large presentation -- called a "Christmas tree lure" by the locals who adorn the fire-tiger lure -- gets the attention of big fish and keys savage strikes.

Walleyes are found throughout Muskegon Lake, but well-known strongholds are found in deep water but away from the dropoffs. The shipping channel is a natural, along with the deep water off the Muskegon Museum Of Arts and the 27- to 33-foot flat found southwest of the middle channel.

Most winter anglers park at one of the numerous boat launches found on the Muskegon. Come late winter when roaming fish migrate east to the shallower water near the Muskegon River inlet, easy access is found at the Highway 120 boat launch. Some people concentrate on the North Channel Ruins area, which has pilings and 15-to 21-foot holes.

Smart anglers drill multiple holes in several locations until they find good concentrations of fish by using modern electronics like a Vexilar flasher to mark bottom-hugging walleyes. Winter walleyes are nomads; they roam throughout the system until early spring. The trick to good fishing is to find where fish are holding, and set up on top of the school.

For more information, contact the Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce at (231) 722-3751, or online at www.muskegon.org.

JIGGING STRATEGIES

There are a lot of tactics out there to make you a more efficient and productive ice-angler.

One trick is to drill three holes about 18 inches apart, place the flasher transducer in the center, and then jig your lures in the outside holes. Make certain you can see the lures on the flasher at all times, and when a walleye appears, coax it into striking by mixing radical jigging with subtle twitching. After a series of slight rod-tip twitches, the rod is held stationary so the lure is slightly above the fish mark on the flasher. Strikes occur when the walleye glides kissin' close to the stationary lure. If the fish does not accept the lure, more jigging/twitching is used and the lure is raised slightly higher in an effort to draw fish upward, which can cause a savage strike.

Walleyes will follow lures several feet off bottom and strike or inhale the hooks by venting water through their gills at lightning speed. Fresh bait can make the difference between solid strikes and no fish on the ice. When walleyes are very close to the lure, it is the seductive swimming/finning action of a live minnow that excites 'eyes into taking the bait. Change minnows frequently, and carefully thread the minnow onto the hooks by passing the barb through the lips. This will help keep minnows alive longer.

If you have a walleye on the flasher and looking at your offering but not biting, reel up, grab a new lively minnow and hook it through the tail, and drop it down to the waiting fish. Halt the descent by closing your reel's bail to stop the offering slightly above the target. The tail-hooked minnow will swim frantically on the lure, quivering like it is injured, sending s

ound vibrations through the water and a visual cue that commands an instinctual bite from walleyes.

Keep minnows alive by transporting in a water cooler with screw-on lid to prevent spills. Once you reach the fishing grounds, drill a hole and immediately give the minnows fresh water. Water in coolers should be fresh at all times, so plan on changing it several times each outing.

* * *

Catching a wallhanger walleye is a quest of many Michigan anglers. Your dream can come true if you make the move to waters that hold big fish this winter!

Find more about Michigan fishing and hunting at: MichiganSportsmanMag.com

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