Tackling Our Great Lakes Walleyes

Tackling Our Great Lakes Walleyes

Fishing for walleyes on Michigan's biggest waters can be intimidating to most people, but not to the experts at these locations. Come on along for the boat ride! (April 2006)

The Great Lakes and their connecting waters are the perfect example of how big water can produce big fish.

Some of Michigan's best hotspots for trophy walleyes are Great Lakes bays and the rivers that link them, where 'eyes have access to a bountiful food supply, excellent habitat and plenty of room to roam. On the other hand, many of these same waters can produce good numbers of eatin'-sized walleyes, too, and are great places to try if you're just looking to fill the freezer.

All indications point to a banner year on the open waters of the Great Lakes in 2006. Ideal environmental conditions led to a phenomenal walleye hatch in 2002 in many locations. Walleyes that were just short of being legal-sized last season will be plump 16- to 18-inch eaters this year. This will definitely be the year to get some extra peanut oil for the fryer and to stock up on bags for your vacuum sealer.

LAKE ERIE

"I'm expecting the fishing to be phenomenal in 2006," said Lake Erie charter boat skipper Joe Pikulski. "Last year, you had to catch 60 fish to find 10 keepers. This year, those fish are going to be 16 to 18 inches, and the fishing should be fantastic."

Another bonus for Michigan anglers is that the season will be open on Lake Erie during May and June this year due to a regulations change. Some of the best walleye action of the year for Michigan anglers takes place early in the season when the walleyes are in the shallows after the spawn.

Pikulski said action heats up in late May and early June off ports like Luna Pier, Bolles Harbor, Sterling State Park and Monroe. It's only a short run to the 12- to 15-foot depths where late-spring walleyes can be found. Early in the season, slow-trolling with ThunderStick Juniors can be very productive, but as the water clears in June, anglers need to change tactics.

"Lately it's been more of spoon bite in June," declared Pikulski. "As the water has gotten clearer with the zebra mussels, the walleyes have seemed to have become more bottom-orientated."

Pikulski relies on a spread of disc divers run off planer boards. The divers get a 4- to 6-foot lead. Pikulski said that using 12-pound-test and letting them back 70 feet, they dive to 16 feet, thus putting them in front of bottom-hugging walleyes. Small spoons like Michigan Stingers and Fishlanders are the ticket in colors like blueberry muffin, gold/orange and copper. Pikulski supplements his disc-diver spread with regular Dipsey Divers run off the side of the boat from 40 to 60 feet out. With enough anglers, Pikulski said he'll have as many as six divers off each side of the boat. Weekend anglers might better subscribe to the theory that "Less is more."

Ten or 15 years ago, all you had to do was drag a Hot-N-Tot or Wiggle Wart through the water and you could catch your limit of Lake Erie walleyes. Even with all the changes, crankbaits still have their place.

"Crankbaits are good for the bigger fish," offered Pikulski. "The biggest walleyes suspend above the schools of smaller fish. Trolling clean crankbaits at 1.6 to 2.0 mph above the schools accounted for most of our big walleyes last summer."

Finding the schools of walleyes can be a crapshoot if you're not on the water every day.

"The locations change every year, if not every week," said Pikulski.

Known hotspots include the old dumping grounds straight out of Luna Pier, the 6- to 12-foot depths off Toledo Beach Marina and La Plaisance Bay, off the No. 1 Buoy off the Raisin River and in 12 to 18 feet of water in Brest Bay. "The drift boats are normally on fish," advised Pikulski. A good tactic for trollers is to skirt the pack.

As waters warm in July, the walleyes move eastward into Ohio waters, which is not very far from the Michigan line. Smart anglers buy licenses from both states.

To contact Capt. Joe Pikulski at Temptation Sport Fishing, call (517) 467-4717, or contact him online at www.temptationsportfishing.com.

For information on lodging, campgrounds and bait shops near Lake Erie, log on to the Monroe County Convention & Tourism Bureau at thebureau@monroe.com, or you can call 1-800-252-3011.

SAGINAW BAY

Saginaw Bay offers one of the most diverse walleye fisheries in Michigan.

"There are different schools of walleyes scattered throughout the bay," said Bay City native and professional walleye angler Bill St. Peter. "You can catch them just about anyway you want. It starts in the spring as the fish move out of the rivers in April. There's some really good fishing in 14 to 18 feet of water in the spring that no one really targets. Most people are fishing the shallows from Linwood to the Kawkawlin River in 6 to 10 feet of water. It's basically a night bite since the fish move shallow in the evening. Then the fishing's good in shallows all the way to Au Gres."

Body baits are the ticket early in the season on Saginaw Bay.

"You can't beat a No. 18 Rapala Husky Jerk," claimed St. Peter. "The new clear Husky Jerk in blue and white was hot last spring." The body baits do a good job of imitating the smelt that walleyes are feeding on in spring. "Once the water temperature hits 50 degrees, I switch to crawler harnesses," St. Peter continued. Hot-N-Tots and Wiggle Warts still take some fish, but he said it's pretty hard to beat a juicy crawler.

St. Peter said anglers enjoy great fishing on the bay in close through July.

"There are several different types of walleye bites on the bay," he said. "You've got a good weed bite right through the summer. Shallow trolling on the Inner Bay is good, and then you've got a deep-water fishery in the Outer Bay and around the islands. You can catch 'em just about any way you want."

One pattern that most anglers overlook are walleyes tucked into deep weeds on the bay.

"With the zebra mussels, now you have isolated, deep weedbeds growing where there never used to be any, and the walleyes really stack up in 'em," said St. Peter. He locates the weedbeds in 8 to 13 feet of water at high speed with the aid of his Lowrance 111 LCG. One you find them, you can pitch jigs, cast or use slip-bobbers for 'eyes that will average 3 to 6 pounds.

Like Lake Erie, Saginaw Bay enjoyed a t

remendous walleye hatch in recent years, and there was an abundance of 8- to 13-inch walleyes last year that should reach keeping size this summer.

To learn some of the pro's secrets for Saginaw Bay walleyes firsthand, contact Bill St. Peter at (989) 686-0629. For information on bait shops, lodging and amenities near Saginaw Bay, you can contact the Bay Area Convention & Visitor Bureau online at www.tourbaycitymi.org, or call 1-888-229-8696.

THUNDER BAY

Once one of the top brown trout destinations, Thunder Bay is now gaining a reputation as one of our state's top walleye waters.

"We had a great summer," claimed Dave Birmingham, tournament director for the Thunder Bay Walleye Club. "What was different (last) year was that we caught some during the daytime, which is unusual for us."

Thunder Bay has been producing a tremendous -- and somewhat unheralded -- night walleye bite for years.

"May and early June produce the best nighttime bite," said Birmingham. "It's pretty hard to beat a No. 18 black-and-silver Husky Jerk. You combine that with 14-pound-test line, a line-counter reel and a lighted in-line board, and you're in business."

Birmingham said that the 8- to 12-foot depths are most productive after dark. Expect plenty of 'eyes in the 5- to 7-pound range, and double-digit trophies are common. The night bite resumes in October and lasts until it gets too cold to fish. Gizzard shad and emerald shiners move into the inner bay then, and the walleyes gorge on them. Fishing can be good all the way from Scarecrow Island to Whitefish Point.

The daytime walleye bite during June and July is something new on Thunder Bay. "Catching walleyes in the daytime on the bay is unusual for us," claimed Birmingham. Catching them was as simple as trolling Hot-N-Tots and Reef Runners in 18 to 24 feet of water around Sulphur Island, Grassy Island and Partridge Point. The reefs around North Point, Squaw Island, Gull Island, Thunder Bay Island and Crooked Island near Misery Bay have untapped walleye potential.

For information on the Thunder Bay Walleye Club, contact Dave Birmingham at (989) 356-3764 or online at www.walleyecentral/thunder_bay. For information on amenities, bait shops, and lodging in the area, contact the Alpena Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-425-7362, or visit online at

www.alpenacvb.com.

St. MARYS RIVER SYSTEM

The St. Marys River system represents hundreds of square miles of potential walleye hotspots, and some of the most beautiful venues you can imagine. Finding walleyes there takes some doing, though.

"The St. Marys River is the most diverse place that we fish on the walleye circuit," stated walleye pro Bill St. Peter. "There are so many isolated rockpiles, current breaks, weeds, little bays -- just tons of places that walleyes could be. But that's part of the problem, too. There aren't huge numbers of fish on any one spot, but there are lots of places with a few fish." The catch is to find them on any given day.

Because the St. Marys River drains Lake Superior, it runs clear and cold during much of the year. Early in the season, walleyes gravitate to the lower reaches of the system where it spreads out, warms up and becomes more hospitable to walleyes.

"The bays are warm, and the river is cold, so it's a natural place to look for walleyes," advised St. Peter.

Most anglers pull crawler harnesses behind bottom-bouncers or with additional weight. Jigs tipped with crawlers or scent-enhanced plastics work, too. Locate fish by trolling, and then back off to cast to them. Good locations in Munuscong Bay are near Roach, Maple, Birch, Rocky and Barbeau points. Raber Bay doesn't feature as many points as Munuscong, but there are plenty of little bays that collect warm water and walleyes early in the season. Trolling crankbaits is a good way to cover water, too. This is big water that can whip up in a hurry, so use caution.

St. Peter found some quality walleyes during the most recent Professional Walleye Tour event in Lake George on the St. Marys system. The 'eyes were concentrated where a distinct weedline in 12 to 14 feet of water shelved off into 30 or 40 feet. St. Peter found them receptive to a spinner/bottom-bouncer presentation, but other anglers pulled crawler harnesses behind in-line boards and used bullet weights and Berkley Gulp crawlers to allow the rigs to pull through the weeds. Some of the best fishing can be found during the heat of the summer. At one time or another, you can catch walleyes on the St. Marys just about any way you want.

For information on guides, bait shops and accommodations in the area, contact the Sault Convention & Visitors Bureau at (906) 632-3301 or online at www.saultstemarie.com.

BIG & LITTLE BAYS DE NOC

Little and Big Bays de Noc are two of Michigan's premier walleye waters. Anglers from around the Great Lakes region come to the bays to sample the great walleye fishing. They usually aren't disappointed.

"The walleyes are usually relating to the river mouths when the season opens on May 15," suggested Capt. Marty Papke.

Schools of post-spawn walleyes collect off shallow river mouths like the Whitefish, Days, Tacoosh and Rapid rivers on the north end of Little Bay de Noc. Walleyes that have spawned on the rocks and sand flats in the bay itself can still be found hanging around those areas when the season opens. Other walleyes that have already recuperated can be found staging near newly emerging weedbeds in the same area. A good spring location is off Stonington, where a 6- to 18-foot contour attracts spring walleyes. Not all the walleyes hang around the river mouths, though. Some of the bigger fish that move way up the rivers have been known to travel up to 20 miles in a few days, according to Papke.

While many anglers start the season by trolling, Papke prefers a more hands-on approach for Little Bay de Noc's 'eyes. He prefers a combination of rigging, jigging and casting, or dragging floating jigheads. The rigs get an assortment of live bait in addition to scent-enhanced lures.

"The Gulp products are really good when using jigs because they keep your bait in the water," claimed Papke. "They're tough and do a good job of imitating gobies, which are a ready food source for walleyes."

The hot spring fishing on Bay de Noc peaks in late May and early June, before the fish start filtering southward toward deeper water.

"The alewives move in toward the end of June and July," stated Papke, "and then the fishing gets tough for a little while." But he stressed that July and August can produce some good fishing for those pulling crawler harnesses or body baits at night. Prime locations are off Portage Point, along the ore docks near the mouth of the Escanaba River and on the 18- to 30-foot reefs out from Stonington.

"Some

of the biggest fish of the year on Bay de Noc are taken during the fall," claimed Papke, adding that the fishery is 90 percent trolling then, with body baits pulled behind lead-core line, snap-weights or flatlines. As the waters of the bay cool into the 40s, hawg 'eyes move in to pig out. The walleyes can be found relating to bottom in the 30-foot depths. The fishing remains good until the bay freezes or it gets too cold to fish. Walleyes topping 10 pounds are common then.

While Little Bay de Noc receives the bulk of the fishing pressure because of its easy access and its more manageable size, Big Bay de Noc has a lot of potential.

"Big Bay de Noc is an untapped fishery," claimed Papke. "The size of it intimidates most anglers, and it's sometimes tough to contend with the wind there, but it has some tremendous walleye and smallmouth fishing."

To sample some of the Bays de Nocs' great walleye fishing, contact Capt. Marty Papke at 1-800-708-2347 or online at www.littlebaydenoc.com. For information on lodging and bait shops in the area, call the Delta County Tourism & Convention Bureau at (906) 786-2192, or go online to www.deltami.org.

* * *

Michigan's Great Lakes offer some great walleye fishing. Get out and try it this year to find out for yourself!

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