When it comes to hardwater fishing, pro angler Mark Martin knows where and how to catch monster walleyes. Read on for four of his hotspots and the tactics he uses to match them. (December 2009)
Pro angler and guide Mark Martin shows off a heavy walleye he pulled through ice on Saginaw Bay.
Photo by Tracy Breen.
Few anglers ever tire of catching large walleyes. There is something about pulling a 10-pound fish out of the water that gets the adrenaline coursing through their veins. During the spring and summer, catching large walleyes is tricky, but not as difficult as it can be in the winter, when even finding the fish can be a challenge. Convincing them to bite when they are cold and lethargic is even tougher.
In the winter, the patient, persistent walleye anglers are usually the ones who go home with the most walleyes. One of the most patient and persistent walleye anglers I have met is Mark Martin from West Michigan. Martin is a walleye pro who is no stranger to the pages of this magazine or the winner's podium at walleye tournaments across the country.
Martin spends a fair amount of time in the winter peering through a small hole in the ice, waiting for a monster marble-eye to grab his bait. Martin believes the key to success in the winter is choosing good locations ahead of time.
"One of the easiest ways fishermen can catch big walleyes is (by) knowing where the walleyes like to hang out on the lakes," he explained. "I locate my honeyholes in the spring, summer and fall, when there is open water. When I find structure that consistently holds walleye on my fish finder, I mark those locations on my GPS. Every angler who is serious about ice-fishing should have a good GPS unit so they can go back to their favorite summer fishing hole to locate fish in the winter."
Martin believes first ice is often the best time to be on many lakes because much of the vegetation that holds baitfish is alive and walleyes often key in on those areas. When Martin is searching for a good ice-fishing spot, he looks for a few things in particular. "I prefer lakes that connect to a major body of water that is typically open in the winter, like Lake Michigan or a lake connected to a river system," he said. "These types of lakes attract more walleyes, and the walleyes often come and go to and from the lake all winter."
Martin also prefers lakes with a lot of structure on the bottom. "Michigan was a major lumber state hundreds of years ago. Many of the rivers and lakes have lots of lumber pilings on the bottom that attract walleyes," he noted. Below are a few of the lakes that fit Martin's mold for a perfect walleye lake.
Manistee Lake in Manistee is a decent-size lake at 930 acres, and it's connected to Lake Michigan by a channel. The Little Manistee River and Big Manistee River come into the lake. On the southeast side of the lake, there is a fair amount of slab wood on the bottom that regularly holds walleyes. There is also a fair amount of slab wood on the southwest side in front of the old factories that can be found along the shoreline. "Most anglers know about both of these large slab piles, and it isn't uncommon to find large numbers of anglers fishing when the walleyes are biting," Martin said. "First-time anglers should look for the areas where anglers are concentrated and start fishing."
According to Martin, there are about seven or eight large slab wood pilings that can be found at the mouth of the Manistee Channel. "Some of the piles are in the mouth of the Manistee Channel," Martin said. "As you continue along the west side of the lake, pilings are scattered here and there for about 3/4 of a mile."
Martin often fishes on the edge of the pilings. "The walleyes are often down about 25-40 feet," he said. "During twilight periods, the walleyes tend to be close to the pilings or on the edge, so I fish the edge or right over the pilings. If I fish the lake during the middle of the day, I fish in the general area but not as close to the pilings because during the day, the walleyes seem to venture away from the pilings a bit."
Another slab pile to target is at the mouth of the Little Manistee River. "There is a large piling at the mouth of the river that walleyes hang out in during the winter. The problem with fishing in front of the river mouth is there is a fair amount of current and the ice can be dangerous. With two rivers coming into the lake, the early ice can be tough to fish. Anglers should use caution when fishing this area," Martin advised.
Because of the river current and the fact that the slab wood can give off gases that undermine the ice, Martin believes the best times to fish the lake are January, February and March. "I love fishing first ice, but on Manistee Lake, I often stay away until January, when the ice is a little thicker," he noted.
Martin's favorite fishing technique for Manistee Lake (and overall) is to jig alongside a dead rod. "Often the walleyes seem to be attracted to my jigging, but when they approach, they go for the dead rod because it is an easy meal. In the winter, an easy meal is what they are looking for," Martin explained. "On my dead rod, I usually have a plain hook with a split shot and a small minnow. On my other rod, I will jig a Rapala, a spoon or a buckshot rattle jig. Something as simple as a leadhead jig with a minnow on it is a great standby. Sometimes it is the simple presentation like a jighead and minnow that gets the most action. I think many anglers forget about this tactic in the winter, but it can work well."
Over the years, Martin has taken several large marble-eyes out of Manistee Lake. "I have caught several walleyes over the 10-pound mark in Manistee Lake," Martin said. "Pulling a fish that big out of a hole in the ice is a blast!"
Portage Lake, just north of Manistee Lake in the town of Onekama, also offers good walleye fishing. At 2,100 acres, it is a large and clean lake that offers great ice-fishing opportunities. "These two lakes are close together. A few buddies can come stay in a hotel for a few days and fish Manistee Lake one day and Portage Lake the next," Martin suggested. "I don't see near the fishing pressure at Portage Lake in the winter because it is a little bit out of the way."
Portage Lake has a lot of weed edges, dramatic dropoffs and points that attract walleyes. "Since Portage Lake is connected to Lake Michigan, there are often large Lake Michigan walleyes that come and go out of Portage Lake to feed in the winter," Martin said. "There is a large forage base because there is a lot of perch, shad and other bait fish the walleyes can feed on all winter."
There is a small tributary that feeds into Portage Lake but no large rivers. "Since there isn't a large river
feeding into the lake, the first ice can be a great time to fish walleyes on the lake," Martin advised.
When fishing Portage Lake, Martin focuses most of his efforts in front of the points or small fingers of land that jet out away from the shoreline. "There are points all over the lake," he said. "Anglers should find one and get out in front of it in about 20-40 feet of water and start fishing. Early in the season, many of the weeds along these points are still alive, and the baitfish are living in the weeds, which attracts the walleyes. There are several points on the north side of the lake that walleyes seem to spend a lot of time near."
There is one point on the west end of the lake before the channel that often produces large walleyes for Martin. However, he says anglers should use caution when fishing near the channel. "I am cautious when I fish near the channel," he said. "There is a current there, so the ice may be thinner than anywhere else on the lake." During the middle of the day, Martin often fishes in deeper water in front of the points. He goes into shallow water first thing in the morning and just before dark.
Martin believes the best time to fish Portage is either first or last ice. "The problem I have encountered on Portage Lake is because a large river doesn't feed the lake, the fishing can slow down when the ice gets thick in the middle of the winter," he explained. "If we don't get a hard winter and the ice stays moderately thick, the fishing is usually good. However, if it gets really cold and the ice gets thick, I think the walleyes move out of the lake."
Long Lake in Grand Traverse County is 2,860 acres and is one of Martin's favorite lakes to fish in the winter. "I think Long Lake is one of the better inland lakes for walleyes and is often overlooked by serious anglers," he said. "I am starting to regularly catch fish in the 21- to 25-inch range. The lake has a lot of underwater humps and points that the fish pile up on in the winter."
One of his favorite points to fish is out in front of the public boat launch on the southeast side of the lake. "Many of the points offer great fishing in 20-30 feet of water, and drilling a few holes in the deeper water is usually a good bet for catching a few fish," Martin noted. "These points usually produce fish up to 20 inches, which are great for eating, but every time I fish the lake I catch a couple of fish that are much bigger. I have caught 26- and 27-inch fish in Long Lake. The key is staying all day and fishing hard."
Jigging Rapalas seems to be a productive tactic for Martin on Long Lake, and tip-ups work well also. "A few friends of mine fished Long Lake regularly last winter and caught a lot of fish on tip-ups using grey minnows," Martin said.
"Anglers can catch walleyes during the middle of the day on Long Lake, but most of the action occurs first thing in the morning or just before dark," Martin explained. "The lake is very clean, so the slightest disturbance on the lake causes the fish to get spooky. When anglers are coming and going during the day, the fishing slows. When there is little activity at first or last light, the fish tend to be more active."
Another option is fishing during the week. "Last year, my buddies had better luck during the week, when most anglers were working," Martin said. "Taking a few days off might be a good idea if you plan to fish Long Lake."
It is difficult to discuss ice-fishing for walleyes without mentioning Saginaw Bay. Every year, Martin holds an ice-fishing school on Saginaw Bay in Linwood. Most years, the bay produces some extra-large walleyes. "Last year, during our ice-fishing school, one of the anglers who helps me teach was showing students how to effectively jig a Rapala," Martin recalled. "In the process, he actually hooked into and landed a 13.45-pound walleye. This is why many anglers, including myself, continue going back to Saginaw Bay. It is one of the most consistent fisheries in Michigan for large walleyes." The whopper walleye won the "Shiver on the River" contest last year. When fishing out of Linwood, Martin parks at Linwood Beach Marina because much of the good fishing on the bay can be easily accessed from that point, and there is plenty of parking available.
Saginaw Bay always produces fish and is well worth the drive. "From first ice to last ice, Saginaw Bay always produces walleyes because there are fish constantly coming and going out of the bay on the prowl for food," Martin said. "I think the best water depth is between 15-20 feet, which can require anglers to go several miles offshore."
Saginaw Bay is one of those places where an ATV or snowmobile of some type is a necessity. Going several miles offshore to find fish is normal. "Saginaw Bay is a great place to ice-fish, but it can be unsafe. Anglers should call Franks Great Outdoors in Linwood before stepping onto the ice and should always fish with a friend. The wind can cause the ice to break up, and anglers get stranded on the ice. Anglers need to be extra cautious when fishing the bay and try to follow the path on the ice that most of the other anglers are using."
Every year when Martin hosts his ice-fishing school, he tracks the baits that perform the best, which is a great way for the rest of us to know what to bring onto the ice. In 2008, the Jigging Rapalas caught the most fish, followed by the Buck Shot Rattle Spoon, Plain Lead Head Fireball Jig, Sidewinder Spoon and the Little Cleo. Martin's favorite way to jig these rigs is to allow the rig to drop 1 1/2 feet and then quickly jerk it up 12 inches or so before stopping. Most of the time, the lure is almost on the bottom. "The key to making this work is to pause for a second between when you drop it and when you jerk it," Martin said. "This makes the walleyes think the fish is wounded, so they often grab it on the way up."
With these rigs, Martin often uses 8-pound fluorocarbon line. "Fluorocarbon line has very little stretch, so it works well for this technique," he said. "It is very strong. Last year, we had to use 4-pound-test because the fish were so finicky. It worked great."
Martin is a great angler, but he often credits much of his success to the fact that he has the right gear. Martin never leaves home without an Aqua- Vu underwater camera. The camera helps Martin see how the fish are reacting to his lure presentation, and in many cases, he catches fish because he sees them on the camera and adjusts his presentation slightly to get them to bite.
Drilling holes in the ice to find out how deep the water is can spook fish. Martin believes in drilling as little as possible. To reduce the amount of holes he drills, he keeps a Polar Vision Unit with him at all times. A Polar Vision is an electronic device that anglers can hold up to the ice. It tells how deep the water is under the ice without drilling a hole. It saves lots of time and effort and, most importantly, it doesn't spook the fish.
Having a GPS, a portable shelter and a nice heater also helps. As technology advances, catching plenty of fish through the ice is getting easier. Regardless of where you fish for whopper walleyes, having a few of these gadgets can really help you. Above all, be safe when you ice-fish.