Michigan's Winter Walleye Waters

Just because you can't float your boat at this time of year doesn't mean you can't catch walleyes. You can find out for yourself by ice-fishing at these locations.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

By Jim Barta

It's unfortunate, but many anglers think that once ice covers our state's lakes and rivers it's time to sit back and wait for spring. But to others, some of the best fun and excitement a guy or gal can have while fishing can be had as they watch a trophy walleye appear through a hole in the ice.

Short rods, small reels, thin line and small jigs are the norm when taking on winter walleyes. Fun? You bet! There's nothing like the anticipation of seeing whether the cause of such a fight on the end of your line is the result of a trophy walleye that will eventually grace your den wall or one that decorates the dinner plate. Either way, catching these fish from one of Michigan's excellent walleye waters is a great way to spend a winter's day.

Here are several waters for you to try this winter.

LAKE ERIE
Ice-fishing on Lake Erie can be boom or bust depending on weather conditions. During winters where plenty of cold temperatures bring safe ice, the fishing off areas like Brest Bay can be some of the best anywhere in our state.

This bay is partly sheltered by points both north and south, which offers a certain degree of protection from the elements. But don't be fooled. A west wind can separate the ice from the shore, leaving anglers stranded. When ice-fishing here, as anywhere, always pay close attention to the conditions before venturing offshore.

Brest Bay is, for the most part, a shallow body of water with little or no current. Because of this, heavy tackle can be left at home while standard light tackle will be the way to go. Jigging Rapalas, Swedish Pimples or live bait take the majority of walleyes here.

Most of the action will take place two to three miles offshore near the southeast corner off Stony Point. Although this will be a good starting point, the walleyes will often swim throughout the bay in schools moving from place to place. Be willing to travel a bit while searching for the majority of fish.

Access to Brest Bay can be obtained from Sterling State Park in Monroe. Before heading out however, weather and ice conditions can be obtained - as well as bait and tackle - from State Park Party Store. You can contact them at (734) 289-3383. Bottom Line Bait and Tackle by Lake Erie can be reached at (734) 379-9762.

LAKE ST. CLAIR
This 409-square-mile area is known as one of the top spots for ice-fishing in Michigan. Each winter, hundreds of shanties line up to make a virtual city within themselves.

As for fish, just about any species desired can be caught here. Perch, pike, panfish and walleyes - a lot of walleyes! Most of the 'eyes taken here will be considered "eaters," but on occasion an 8- or 9-pound trophy can be caught.

Lake St. Clair is similar to Lake Erie in respect to its shallow conditions. Depths of 4 to 16 feet are common, so once again light tackle will be the way to go. Live bait on tip-ups is popular here, with anglers working a jig while watching for the anticipated "flag up."

First-time anglers to Lake St, Clair might do well by staying along the sheltered areas near Metropolitan Beach off Interstate 94. Early-season fishing can be good off Metro Beach or the Harley Ensign Memorial Access on North River Road at the mouth of the Clinton River.

For late-season action, check out the waters in Bouvier Bay off Fair Haven. Anglers can access the ice from the Fair Haven public access site off Anchor Bay Drive.

For ice conditions or bait and tackle, contact Lakeside Tackle at (586) 777-7003.

KENT LAKE
When talking about ice-fishing and walleyes in southern Michigan, you can't leave out Kent Lake. This 1,000-acre lake is located in Oakland County near I-94 and is part of the Kensington Metropark. Because of its proximity to metro Detroit, Kent Lake receives an abundant share of angling pressure. This popularity among folks ranks it as the second-most popular inland lake in the state.

"While there may be some natural reproduction taking place in Kent, I suspect that a majority of the fish are the result of stocking efforts," said Gary Towns, Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist. "In any case, Kent Lake has a good population of walleyes for anglers to enjoy."

Kent is actually one of a series of reservoirs formed by dams along the Huron River. The deepest portions of the lake, which reach 35 feet, become the most popular areas for fishing. The walleyes here will hold in the deep cuts formed along the bottom and can be caught with the use of jigs. Anglers will find their best success will come by working the deeper edges of the channels while using a chart to locate these cuts. Don't hesitate to move from spot to spot until the fish are found.

When entering the Kensington Metropark, there is a small vehicle fee charged. Kensington Metropark is open daily from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. For more information, call the park at 1-800-477-2757. The park headquarters is located at 2240 West Bruno Rd. in Milford.

SAGINAW RIVER
Once safe ice forms, there's no shortage of access spots along the Saginaw River. Good thing, because the great fishing here could cause a congestion of activity if access was limited. In a typical Michigan winter, the ice action can be expected to start on the Saginaw River around the middle of January.

To get in on the walleye fishing here, begin along M-13 near Wick's Park and in the shadows of the Zilwaukee Bridge. These areas are prime spots, but don't limit yourself to these alone. The Saginaw River offers great fishing in a number of other locations as well. Contact local bait shops, or look for anglers already on the river to hone in on these hotspots.

Schools of walleyes enter the river during the fall and their numbers continue to grow throughout the winter. Look for plenty of great "eaters" to be taken here, with a few that would gladly grace anyone's wall as well. Fish that top 10 to 12 pounds are caught here each winter.

Most of the Saginaw River anglers rely on jigs, jigging spoons and live bait. Many regulars swear by 1/2-ounce Northland Fireball jigs in orange and tipped with a shiner minnow. The idea is to lift and lower the offering within inches of the bottom while keeping the line

tight. The same goes for a jigging spoon. Work the lure just off the bottom, jigging it to resemble baitfish. The larger walleyes will simply inhale the offering while leaving you to feel only a slight tap or weight.

Match the lure to the current speed, keeping the offering as vertical as possible. By slowly jigging the lures on a tight line, light bites can be felt. Swedish Pimples and No. 7 or No. 9 Rapalas in fire-tiger pattern are top producers on the Saginaw River.

Look for the early morning and late afternoon to be the best times to be on the ice.

For more information on Saginaw River walleyes, contact the DNR Saginaw Bay Management Unit at (989) 684-9141.

SAGINAW BAY
As with any large body of water, weather can be a primary factor in your ability to ice-fish. Saginaw Bay is no exception. West winds can make this bay hazardous for anglers looking to enjoy the great fishing here. But when weather and ice conditions permit, look for this portion of Lake Huron to produce some of Michigan's best winter walleye action.

Accessing the best spots here will mean using some sort of powered transportation. Snowmobiles and ATVs will be needed to reach the prime areas, which may lie as far as three to five miles offshore from Linwood.

Slight changes in the bay's relatively flat bottom will concentrate good numbers of fish. Once these differences are located, a series of holes should be drilled to offer an occasional change of spots. Catch a fish or two from one hole and switch to another. This technique will allow you to take advantage of numerous fish without applying too much pressure to any one location.

When the walleyes are active, aggressive jigging with Swedish Pimples or Jigging Rapalas will work well. When the bite slows, use a bit of finesse by slowing the action and tipping the lures with a minnow. Work these baits just above bottom in a motion designed to tease the fish. Another method that works well during slow periods is with the use of tip-ups. A lively minnow set just above the bottom will do the work for you.

For information, bait and tackle on Saginaw Bay, contact Frank's Great Outdoors at (517) 697-5341.

HUBBARD LAKE
At 8,850 acres, this Alcona County lake is one of Michigan's largest inland bodies of water. Its cold, clear and deep water gives it the distinction of being a typical northern Michigan walleye lake.

Although an occasional large walleye is caught, Hubbard anglers can usually count on catching numbers of eater-sized fish. As so typical of inland walleye waters, finesse tactics will be the trick here. Small jigs, light tackle and live bait are key items on Hubbard.

"Hubbard has a series of deep holes, some as deep as 90 feet," said professional walleye angler Tom Denneweth. "The lake is formed by a defined series of dropoffs that dip to a large 60-foot-deep flat in the center. The southeast end tapers into a large shallow bay known as the South Bay. These dropoffs and flat areas form the main areas of Hubbard Lake's walleye fishery. During the summer, the walleyes will actually suspend in much the same manner they do in the Great Lakes."

Doctor's Point on the northern shoreline just below North Bay has a very severe drop that goes from 5 to 60 feet. Light jigs with minnows or wigglers will take fish here during much of the winter.

HOUGHTON LAKE
Walleyes and Houghton Lake seem to go together about as well as any two things I can think of. In fact, when it comes to fishing in general, Houghton stands out as Michigan's top angler hangout.

At 20, 000 acres, Houghton Lake is our state's largest inland body of water. It's a fertile lake with a number of holes, humps and bays that offer great angling opportunities.

During previous winters, anglers had to fight huge amounts of weeds when searching out their catch. After a recent spray, however, lake officials killed a vast majority of the vegetation, offering both good and bad results. The lack of weeds made it easier to fish without fouling tackle, but in the process did away with angling areas that typically held fish. Leaving anglers to randomly search for new hotspots.

Houghton Lake is definitely a finesse fishery. Light tackle and live bait will be the way to go here. With a majority of its walleye population in the "eater" category, small jigging spoons or tip-ups should be used.

"Walleye Alley" is a 7-to 9-foot-deep section that parallels the west shore of the lake. It runs for about two miles and is about 1/4-mile wide. The north end opens into North Bay, while Muddy Bay is at the south.

Another spot to fish is the Middle Grounds. This area of 9- to 16-foot depths is located in the central section of the lake and offers nearly two square miles of water from which to fish. A 17-foot hole in the northeast portion here offers up walleyes that can be taken with small jigs tipped with leeches or minnows.

The flats area just off the DNR boat launch at the lake's southern end has several deep holes. Use electronics to locate these and work the contours along the edges.

For more information, contact the Last Resort & Bait Shop at (989) 422-4221 or the Chamber of Commerce at (989) 366-5644.

LITTLE BAY DE NOC
When fishing this beautiful northern Michigan water, it's hard to tell which is better - the fishing or the scenery. Little Bay de Noc offers pristine areas of pine, rock and wilderness, and mixes it all with some great walleye fishing.

"We're really quite proud of the fishery that we have here," said Janet Faust of Shorewood Motel. "The fishing is great and scenery is as good as it gets. Folks come here for both."

Look for the best action to come from the upper portion of the bay, especially since this area is among the first to freeze over.

"There are several reefs in the upper bay," said Faust. "The majority of productive fishing takes place in 8 to 20 feet of water over one of the reefs or out from a point."

Even though the area is somewhat secluded, don't expect to feel lonely while fishing here.

"At times, there seems to be more shanties on the ice than we have homes in our little town," Faust said. "Until the walleye season closes in late February, this is a regular ice-fishing haven."

Access can be obtained off North Lakeshore Drive at the Kipling Access site. To contact the folks at Shorewood Hotel, call 1-800-207-3451, or call the Gladstone Chamber of Commerce at 1-800-437-7496.

LAKE GOGEBIC
This 12,000-acre lake is the Upper Peninsula

's largest inland body of water and certainly one of the north country's top walleye lakes.

When fishing Gogebic, tip-ups and jigs will be the way to go for both walleyes and northern pike.

"Both pike and walleyes can be caught here in good numbers," says Mike Carpenter of Bergland. "The walleyes are certainly the best eating of the two, but personally, I enjoy fighting the northerns."

According to Carpenter, look for some of the best fishing to come along the north and south ends of the lake where access is relatively easy.

"We have to deal with a lot of snow up here," said Carpenter. "Unless you approach the lake from a cleared road, getting access can be real tough."

Look for the lake's north end near the town of Bergland to be fairly consistent throughout most of the winter. Locating the best spots to begin fishing should be no harder than spotting the collection of shanties placed out by the locals taking advantage of the great fishing.

Set tip-ups with minnows along the edges of weeds in 6 to 12 feet of water and, for even better success, try giving this technique a try after dark. Jigging spoons and swimming-type lures tipped with a minnow is always a sure bet when on Lake Gogebic.

For information on fishing and lodging on Lake Gogebic, contact Nine Pines Resort at (906) 842-3361 or visit them online at www.ninepinesresort.com.

* * *
So just because you can't float your boat doesn't mean you can't catch walleyes this winter. Join the ice-fishing brigade at these locations and you won't be disappointed.



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