Here’s a closer look at where the best Michigan walleye fishing is likely to be on opening day and beyond.
If you’re a walleye fanatic living in Michigan, you should be happy — if not ecstatic! Walleye fishing in the Wolverine State may be better now than it has ever been.
The resurgence of fisheries like Saginaw Bay and Lake Erie has taken some pressure off other traditional walleye fisheries and allowed them to rebound. The result is that Michigan may have the best walleye fishing in the country when it comes to quality and quantity.
Northwest Michigan has an abundance of large, clean, clear inland lakes that are topnotch walleye fisheries. Most are self-sustaining. A couple of them received massive plants of fry to jumpstart the fisheries that were very successful. Besides the scenic beauty of the area, Northwest Michigan is a great place to find walleyes.
“I would say my top walleye lakes are going to be Long Lake (Grand Traverse County), South Lake Leelanau (Leelanau County), and Lake Charlevoix (Charlevoix County),” said Michigan DNR fisheries management biologist Heather Hettinger. “Long Lake and South Lake Leelanau are not stocked, so the fisheries are driven by natural reproduction. They are both pretty solid fisheries where you are going to catch good numbers of fish most days on the water, but not all of them are going to be keeper-sized fish.
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“Both lakes have been surveyed in the past five years and we found very good numbers of baitfish — things like sand shiners, common shiners, mimic shiners, and various minnows. Lake Charlevoix, on the other hand, is a stocked fishery. It does get some natural reproduction, but not enough to sustain the fishery. The south arm is typically the best section of the lake to target walleyes, but really there are multiple spots out on the main lake where you can find walleyes as well.
“Fish in Charlevoix are definitely larger than on Long or South Lake Leelanau. Lake Charlevoix is a big body of water. Coupled with sources from two major rivers and Lake Michigan, the food sources for walleye there are abundant. You are more likely to catch lower numbers of fish there, but there are some big fish.
“The walleye lakes our tech crew has looked at this fall have been mostly lakes with natural reproduction, and for the most part we saw a good group of young-of-the-year fish in the surveys. I would say that the inland lakes that I stock in my management area (Intermediate, Charlevoix, Bellaire) have definitely improved since our stocking pattern has stabilized.”
For more information on walleye fisheries in northwest Michigan, contact the Traverse City Field Office at 231-922-6056.
“In southwest Michigan, we have started replacing our spring fingerling (1- to 2-inch fish) walleye stocking programs on several inland lakes with fall fingerling (5- to 8-inch fish) stocking programs,” advised DNR Southern Lake Michigan Unit Manager Brian Gunderman. “Initial results have been positive, but it will be a few years before we get the full benefits of this change in stocking programs.
“The lower Grand River has abundant forage (primarily suckers and minnows) and has been producing a strong walleye fishery in recent years,” advised Gunderman. “The population is supported by a combination of fry stocking and natural reproduction.
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“Walleye catch rates in the St. Joseph River are highest in St. Joseph County,” claimed Brian Gunderman, “however, the largest fish come from the lower river downstream of the Berrien Springs Dam. In the upper river, the main forage is suckers, minnows, and gizzard shad. The exception to this rule is in Sturgeon Lake and impoundments where bluegills are an important part of the diet. In the lower St Joe River, suckers, minnows, and gizzard shad are common. The St. Joseph River walleye population is supported by a mixture of spring fingerling stocking and natural reproduction.
“Lake Macatawa has a lot of food for walleyes (gizzard shad, yellow perch, and bluegills),” said Gunderman. “There is often a line at the west end of the lake where the turbid water of Lake Macatawa meets clear water from Lake Michigan. This transition area is a good place to start fishing for walleyes. Walleyes are stocked in the lake through a partnership with the Holland Fish and Game Club.
EASTERN UPPER PENINSULA
“Walleye numbers have been good in the Tahquamenon River in Luce County for the past few years,” shared DNR fisheries biologist Cory Kovacs. “A 2016 survey conducted on the ‘middle’ river between Newberry and the Upper Falls found walleyes that were an average length of 18.5 inches and a maximum size of 27 inches. Angler reports have been good by those who frequent the river, with good catches of healthy walleyes. Most use a minnow along the edge of the main channel drop. Some anglers do well where there are treetops, also casting a Rapala near them. The river has always been productive with good year-classes and high survival. There’s plenty of forage in the river with multiple species of panfish and minnows. This section of river is not stocked with walleyes and is entirely self-sustaining.”
Nawakwa Lake in Alger County is a sleeper that Kovacs advised trying if you’re looking for a leisurely day on the water and the main ingredients for a fish fry. “Walleye numbers here are good with the best catches occurring in May and June,” Kovacs said. “This fishery slows in July and August as the water warms, but offers a few nice fish from time to time. This is a self-sustaining wild population. Growth for walleyes is extremely low in Nawakwa Lake. However, survival is high, allowing many fish to make the 15-inch minimum size limit. Nawakwa Lake is not a big-fish fishery, but does provide anglers an opportunity to fill their live wells with a limit. Fishing here can be a challenge for anglers new to the lake, but using brightly colored lures and minnows are a proven favorites. Try them on a jig or under a slip-bobber. Fishing around the island on the north end of the lake is the most productive.”
For more details on walleye hotspots in the Eastern U.P., contact the Newberry Customer Service Center at 906-293-5131.
Fishing Tips from the Pros
Anglers should expect great fishing on Lake Erie in 2018. “We have had a number of strong year-classes in recent years that should produce outstanding fishing for several years to come,” said Lake Erie Basin Coordinator Jim Francis. “2014 was a good year-class, 2015 was really good, and 2016 was fair, so there are a lot of fish in the system. 2017 was above average, too.”
The timing was good because Lake Erie has been riding the huge year-class of 2003 for years and those fish are disappearing. “Some people were questioning where all the big fish are, but the 2003 year-class has run its course,” offered Francis. “There are indications that the 2015 year-class might be on par with the 2003 year-class.”
That would bode well for Michigan anglers. The abundance of smaller walleyes should favor Michigan anglers because the smaller fish tend to stay in our state’s waters longer in the summer.
“Baitfish numbers are looking good,” said Francis. He added there is an abundance of shiners, gizzard shad and a lot more variety in the baitfish population.
“There’s a bumper crop of white perch right now,” he claimed. “Walleye prefer other baitfish than the spinney-rayed species, but they will eat them. We’re seeing some reduction in growth rates, but that’s to be expected with the strong year-classes we have in the system right now.”
Anglers should find outstanding sport off Michigan ports like Sterling State Park, Luna Pier, Bolles Harbor, Detroit Beach and Brest Bay, with an abundance of walleyes that will fit perfectly into a fry pan.
For more information on walleye opportunities in Southeast Michigan contact the DNR Waterford office at 248-666-7443.
“Houghton Lake continues to kick out consistent year-classes of naturally reproduced walleye, which has enabled us to discontinue the stocking program there,” advised Central Lake Management Unit fisheries Management Biologist Mark Tonello. “We have been conducting electrofishing surveys each fall and we continue to find wild age 0 walleye each year.
“Houghton Lake isn’t really a trophy fishery,” Tonello said. “Fish over 25 inches are fairly rare, but limits can be had. Trolling is a good way to cover water in the spring, since the weeds aren’t up yet. Body baits and crankbaits can be good as are crawler harnesses and bottom bouncers.
“Both Muskegon Lake and White Lakes are regularly stocked, and they provide excellent opportunities for both limits and big fish,” Tonello shared. “By the walleye opener, the large adult spawners have retreated from the gravel bars of the White and Muskegon rivers and are back in the lakes. Some of the large females will top 30 inches. While they won’t be as heavy as they were pre-spawn, they will be hungry.”
Anglers can catch trophy walleyes almost year ’round by trolling at night near the pier heads or casting off the breakwalls at both ports.
Northeast Michigan’s premier walleye waters seem to be more than holding their own. “Burt Lake is pretty consistent and Mullet appears to be coming on strong,” declared Northern Lake Huron Management Unit Supervisor Dave Borgeson. “The stocking we’ve done in Mullet finally seems to be taking hold and there are signs of some significant natural reproduction in 2017. Black Lake looks similar. We’re getting much better reports as opposed to five years ago”
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Borgeson said the 1 1/2- to 2-inch fingerlings the Black Lake Sportsman Association has been responsible for planting has jumpstarted the fishery. “Burt Lake is up and down,” Borgeson stated. “The problem when we have a big spawn on Burt is that it inhibits recruitment. Right now, it’s stable. Both Black and Mullet are on upward trends. We tagged a lot of walleyes in Hubbard Lake this fall when we surveyed it. We found upwards of three adults per acre, which is good.”
“We had another good year-class of walleyes in 2017, and I expect the fishing will continue to be excellent through 2018, as we have several good year-classes already in the fishery,” said Southern Lake Huron Fisheries Management Unit Manager Jim Baker. “No big changes are on the horizon, although we are considering throttling back a bit on the possession limit, as the population has now passed its earlier peak and the growth rate is increasing again.”
Anglers this past fall reported incredible fishing on the Saginaw River. Anglers reported catching upwards of 100 fish to secure a two-man limit. The abundance of short fish bodes well for the future.
WESTERN UPPER PENINSULA
Once the premier destination in the Upper Peninsula, the Bay De Noc walleye fishing has collapsed. The large walleyes that the fishery was once known for have disappeared. Authorities cite various reasons, but knowledgeable individuals say the illegal gillnetting taking place under the guise of the Native American Treaty is the culprit. On Nov. 18, 2017, a deer hunter stumbled on a pile of more than 150 mature walleye carcasses that had been filleted and dumped. Many agree this is the tip of the iceberg and question where the fish are being sold.
During the mid 1990s the walleye sportfishing catch on the Bays De Noc was estimate at upwards of 75,000 fish. During 2016, estimates place the sport catch at 2,500 walleyes. Walleye fishing continues to be outstanding just to the south in the water of Green Bay outside the treaty waters.