Our Great Lakes Walleyes

The experts think the walleye fishing on Michigan's Great Lakes waters has never been better. You can find out for yourself at these locations. (April 2007)

Chuck Bettinson is all smiles after catching this nice southern Michigan walleye.

Most Great Lakes locations produced outstanding walleye fishing in 2006. With a year to grow and several strong year-classes to capitalize on, anglers can expect walleye angling on the Great Lakes to be even hotter this season. Try to fish these hotspots this year. However, you will notice we left out Lake Erie, mainly because that Great Lake is worthy of its own full-length feature story in our upcoming June issue.

SAGINAW BAY

"Anglers enjoyed good walleye fishing all summer long in 2006 on Saginaw Bay," said Southern Lake Michigan Management Unit fisheries supervisor Jim Baker.

Baker admitted that the walleyes weren't the biggest, but they sure made up for it in numbers.

"We have had three outstanding natural year-classes that are now carrying the fishery," Baker said. "There are a lot of fish in the pipeline."

When asked why there was such a huge jump in natural reproduction and spawning success, Baker said he could sum it up in one word: "alewives." He continued, "We never knew how big a factor alewives were in limiting perch and walleye numbers until now."

Baker said fisheries managers had a pretty good feel for the number of naturally spawned walleyes versus planted fish that were in the bay due to extensive tagging and netting studies that had been done. Baker said studies showed that about 80 percent of the walleyes captured were stocked fish versus 20 percent natural fish prior to 2003. After the tremendous year-classes in 2003 through 2005 and excellent walleye survival, the ratio flip-flopped 360 degrees. Now 80 percent of the walleyes found in the bay are naturally reproduced and only 20 percent are the result of planting.

"We had near-perfect conditions for spawning and hatching for several years in a row," Baker said.

In fact, the bay is now supporting so many walleyes that the decision was made to not even stock it in 2006. Instead, more than 39 bodies of water in the Lake Huron Basin got the extra walleyes. How does that bode for anglers in 2007?

"I'm expecting a banner year in 2007," Baker stated. "There's going to be a lot of medium-sized walleyes in the 16- to 18-inch range."

Baker said because there are so many walleyes in Saginaw Bay right now that growth rates have slowed dramatically, so big 'eyes are likely to become scarce. That may be bad news for tournament anglers looking to weigh in a winning limit, but for the average Joe Angler, those medium-sized walleyes will fit into a frying pan just perfectly.

The open-water fishery on Saginaw Bay begins as soon as you can get a boat in the water. Pre-spawn walleyes cruise the shallows in the bay right after ice-out looking for one last meal before spawning. Other walleyes that ran the rivers in the fall may have already completed spawning chores and are dropping back to recuperate in the lake. The post-spawn walleyes are hungry once they catch their breath. You'll find a bunch of heavy fish packed into the Saginaw River just before the season closes in mid-March. Most of the big hawgs, though, will be out of the river and cruising the shallows before the season opens again at the end of April.

Stick baits are the ticket for the early-season Saginaw Bay walleye bite.

"It's pretty hard to beat a No. 18 Rapala Husky Jerk in the spring," claimed tournament angler and Bay City resident Bill St. Peter. "The fish are chowing down on smelt that time of year, and body baits do a good job of imitating them."

Blue/silver, black/silver and gold/ black are proven color combinations. The fishing can be hot off Linwood in 6 to 10 feet of water. The shallow bite takes place after dark. Savvy anglers target the 14- to 18-foot depths during the daylight hours. The fishing remains good well into June in the shallows all the way from Au Gres to Sand Point. Later, as water temperatures warm in the Inner Bay, crankbaits and crawler harnesses steal the show.

"Our fish usually are about 50/50 on the crankbaits and crawler harnesses," said Saginaw Bay regular Ken Fogelsonger. "There are days when the Hot-N-Tots and Wiggle Warts will outproduce the meat, but I don't think there's anytime you'd want to go out there without some night crawlers."

The crankbaits can be run clean or off planer boards or inline boards. Both help to spread lines and cover more water. Mini-spoons are also catching on big time on Saginaw Bay. Some anglers hedge their bets by running a small spoon off a three-way swivel above a diving crankbait. A hot combination on the bay was a small spoon with about a 30-foot lead behind a small, clear Slider Diver.

The walleyes on Saginaw Bay gradually move deeper as the summer progresses. Anglers need to cover water to find 'eyes shadowing schools of pelagic baitfish.

"The walleyes in Saginaw Bay generally migrate from south to north during the summer," said veteran tournament pro Andy Kuffer. "The walleyes follow the shad and smelt to deeper water. They'll also key in on young-of-the-year perch." Smart anglers are right behind them.

Kuffer said when fishing the open waters of Saginaw Bay, pay close attention to your graph to locate subtle contours that could concentrate walleyes.

"The change might be only a foot or two, but that's all it takes sometimes because there isn't a lot of structure out there," suggested Kuffer. "Other times, the walleyes will be up in the water column not relating to structure at all. Then they'll be chasing baitfish to the top. You need to pay close attention to your graph."

Trolling has become the norm as anglers discover it's the best way to cover large amounts of water on Saginaw Bay.

"The jig bite is not as good since the bay has cleared up," Kuffer stated. "Most anglers have learned how to troll."

Kuffer said crawler harnesses have their day, and there are a variety of ways to get them down to the fish. Crankbaits still produce.

"Lures like the Little Ripper and the old 1/4-ounce Hot-N-Tots have been

good in recent years," Kuffer said.

To sample Saginaw Bay's walleye boom firsthand with walleye pro Andy Kuffer, call him at (586) 247-7332. For information on lodging and accommodations in the Saginaw Bay area, contact the Bay Area Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-888-229-8696, or visit the bureau's Web site at www.tourbaycitymi.com.

ST. MARYS RIVER

The St. Marys River system represents one of the most diverse, expansive and beautiful walleye fisheries in Michigan.

"On the St. Marys, you've got lake fish, channel fish, weed fish, rock fish, flats fish — the fish can just be in so many places," Andy Kuffer said. "The key, though, still is to find food. Find food and you'll find fish."

Sometimes that's easier said than done. St. Marys River walleyes have a myriad of food sources to choose from, and they change on a seasonal basis. Kuffer related how one recent tournament on the St. Marys was won by anglers who discovered some jumbo 'eyes keying in on a baitfish called a trout-perch found in some weeds in Lake George, a sizeable lake connected to the St. Marys. Anglers definitely need to keep an open mind on the St. Marys.

Generally, Kuffer said walleyes in the St. Marys system follow a predictable pattern. They migrate downstream away from the dam on the upper river as spring and summer progress, and then they reverse the process in the fall. The shallow bays near the lower end of the system are good locations to look for 'eyes early in the season.

"Raber and Munuscong bays can be very good early in the season," offered Kuffer. Early in the season could mean right after the season opens into July. "I have done well there because of the lack of pressure," Kuffer continued. "Both Raber and Munuscong fish best early in the season when the weeds are still growing."

The key, according to Kuffer, is to find the subtle drop where the weeds end and the main bay begins, which can be much farther from shore on Munuscong than on Raber.

As the shallow bays warm and the cold waters of Lake Superior moderate during late summer, the walleyes move into the shipping channel to follow schools of smelt and alewives, but they will quickly shift gears to take advantage of seasonal abundances of baitfish and other forage. When the walleyes are relating to deep structure and baitfish, jigging can be productive, but generally, a tactic that allows anglers to cover more water is better.

"The best technique the last few years has been bottom-bouncers and crawler harnesses," claimed Kuffer. "The rig just allows you to cover a lot of water, and that is key on the St. Marys."

To find information on guides, bait shops, tournament schedules and accommodations near the St. Marys River, contact the Sault Convention & Visitors Bureau at (906) 632-3301, or online at www.saultstemarie.com.

THUNDER BAY

Once famous as Michigan's Brown Trout Capital, the waters of Thunder Bay near Alpena have now become one of the top destinations for Great Lakes walleyes.

"Thunder Bay has turned into another Saginaw Bay," quipped veteran charter skipper Ed Retherford. "They are catching more and more walleyes here every year, and more and more of them are being caught in the daytime."

Once thought to be strictly a nighttime fishery, the secret to Thunder Bay's daytime walleye bite is just beginning to be unlocked.

"We still have a great walleye bite right after ice-out through May," said Retherford. "The guys are pulling body baits in the shallows then and doing really well, and a lot of that happens after dark. But there's also a daytime fishery in June, July and August that we haven't had in the past. Most guys are pulling Reef Runners and other diving crankbaits. They're catching them on meat, too, on harnesses with crawlers or Gulp Shads and crawlers off boards. It's really a tremendous fishery."

Retherford said the key to finding summer walleyes in Thunder Bay is to locate sparse weedbeds scattered throughout the bay.

"Weeds are the key," Retherford stated. "Use your GPS to locate the weeds, and then put out a spread of four to six inline boards and troll."

Retherford said the walleyes could be scattered throughout the bay from 15 to 40 feet of water. Retherford's advice was to find a good chart and then do some scouting. Prime locations are near North Point, Sulphur Island and around the reefs located off Scarecrow Island. These areas produce consistent fishing for 'eyes that occasionally top 10 pounds.

Retherford said that a "sleeper" walleye fishery is developing north of Alpena's Thunder Bay at Rockport.

"There are more walleyes than people think off Middle Island and Presque Island," confided Retherford. "The walleyes are in 40 to 60 feet of water, so no one is really targeting them."

To get a firsthand lesson on how to catch Thunder Bay walleyes, contact Capt. Ed Retherford at (989) 356-9361, or visit his Web site at www.troutscoutcharters.com. For details on lodging, amenities and accommodations in the area, contact the Alpena Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-425-7362, or online at ww.alpenacvb.com.

BAYS DE NOC

"The walleye fishing has been good on the Bays de Noc," offered Northern Lake Michigan Management Unit fisheries supervisor Mike Herman. "But there seems to be this perception that the walleye and perch fishing isn't as good as it used to be. Our data doesn't seem to substantiate that. The fishing has remained consistent, and there's a huge population of walleyes in the bays, especially Little Bay de Noc."

Tagging studies that have been done in recent years seem to substantiate Herman's claims.

"Our studies have shown that there are more than 460,000 adult walleyes in Little Bay de Noc alone! That's a lot of walleyes," Herman stated.

Herman also said the exploitation rate is somewhere around 12 percent, which means that 12 percent of the adult walleye population is caught by anglers each year. Generally, biologists are not the least bit concerned until exploitation rates reach 25 percent.

"The walleye fishing is so good that a lot of guys are giving up their deer hunting so they can just fish," Herman declared.

A good spot to start the season on Little Bay de Noc is off the river mouths on the north end of the bay where walleyes feed while recuperating from the rigors of spawning. Reefs, rocks and structure off the Rapid, Tacoosh, Days and Whitefish rivers produce good catches right after the May 15 opener through June.

"We really don't know where the walleyes go throughout the year," admitted Herman.

A good guess is that some of the walleyes head out into the wide-open expanses of Green Bay to shadow schools of alewives. Herman theorized that schools of midsummer walleyes could be found relating to reefs found off Cedar River.

"If you fished for them, I think you could find them," Herman said. "The trouble, or opportunity if you will, is that no one does. It's basically an untapped fishery from Ford River all the way to Menominee."

Some walleyes stay in the Bays de Noc throughout the year. Productive summer hotspots are off the ore docks near the mouth of the Escanaba River, over the reefs in 18 to 30 feet of water off Stonington and near Portage Point. You can catch the 'eyes then by jigging or trolling.

"Little Bay de Noc is more productive than Big Bay de Noc, but Big Bay has tremendous potential," Herman said. "The stockings in Big Bay have great survival, and it is definitely an up-and-coming fishery."

Herman said that one problem, though, is that Big Bay de Noc is farther from the population centers, and with such great fishing on Little Bay de Noc, no one bothers to try Big Bay de Noc.

"There's not the number of fish, and it's a more difficult place to fish, but it's very good for big fish, and the population is slowly building," confided Herman. " I think the bays offer some of the best Great Lakes walleye fishing in the state — short of Saginaw Bay and Lake Erie."

For guides, accommodations and information on fishing the Bays de Noc, contact Sall-Mar Hotel & Resort at (906) 474-6918, or online at www.sallmarresort.com.

* * *

The walleye fishing on Michigan's Great Lakes has never been better. What are you waiting for?

(Editor's note: Ludington-based charter captain, guide, author and photographer Mike Gnatkowski has compiled a cookbook of easy, delicious recipes. Wild Game Simple features over 100 straightforward recipes to prepare everything from fish to venison to waterfowl. The recipes are a compilation of the captain's secret blends, customers' offerings and old-time favorites. Signed copies are available for $24.95 plus $4.95 shipping and handling. Michigan residents need to add 6 percent sales tax. The book is available online at www.gnatoutdoors.com, or by mail at P.O. Box 727, Ludington, MI 49431

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