These professional anglers travel all over the country to make a living, but when they are back home in Michigan, this is where and how they fish.
Walleye fishing in the early spring in Michigan can be very productive. If you are willing to brave the cold temperatures in March and April, you will often be rewarded with large numbers of walleyes. Walleyes are often hungry just before and just after spawning, which is a great time to be on the water.
The law dictates that you must only fish walleyes on certain rivers such as the Detroit River and the Great Lakes during March and most of April, which forces anglers to avoid inland waters. However, the good news is the Great Lakes offer great early spring fishing. Three anglers who take advantage of the early spring fishery are professional angler Ernie Miller of Last Cast Charters in Fruitport; Mitch Johnson, a professional angler in Montague and owner of Johnson's Great Outdoors (a sporting goods retailer); and Mark Martin, a professional angler based in Twin Lake. All three anglers spend considerable amounts of time on the water pursuing walleyes. According to all of them, if you find the right water you can plan to catch large numbers of walleyes.
When it comes to consistently catching large numbers of walleye, all three anglers agree that a great place to start is Lake Erie. "For some, driving over to Lake Erie is a long drive, but the trip is worth it," explained Martin. "In the early spring, you can catch a boat full of walleyes in no time if the bite is on in Lake Erie."
According to Ernie Miller, there are four areas anglers should plan to fish. "The Banana Dyke, Bolles Harbor, Brest Bay and Luna Ouer are great places to target walleyes," Miller explained. "Those four areas are where pre-spawn and post-spawn walleye stages occur. If you can find them in those areas, you can catch one fish after another because there are typically lots of fish there in the middle of March through April."
Miller says it's not uncommon to catch several 3 1/2- to 5-pound fish. "These are good-sized fish, and it is typical that we get three or more fish on at a time, which creates lots of excitement. All the boards I am trolling often go off about the same time."
To be successful, Miller believes, anglers need to focus on the top water column. "I typically fish between 15 and 25 feet of water and tend to fish about 7 feet down," Miller noted. "That seems to be where the fish like to be. A crawler harness with a split shot trolling 25 feet behind the boat is a popular tactic used this time of year on Lake Erie."
Most walleye anglers who fish Lake Erie prefer to be on the water before first light. "Walleyes don't like much light so the best time to fish is first thing in the morning," he said. Deep-diving crankbaits are also popular. "When using deep-diving crankbaits, the best thing to do is put it 5 to 7 feet behind the boards. When trolling with crankbaits, go about 1 mile an hour, 1.5 at the most. When trolling crawler harnesses, I recommend 7/10 miles an hour at the most."
The water can be very shallow in many of the areas where the fish hang out, so you don't need to fish very deep. "At the Banana Dyke, the water is only 7 feet deep. The fish like to be about halfway down in the water column, so most of the time I fish just 3 feet under the surface."
One of the main reasons most professional walleye anglers focus so much of their attention on Lake Erie is because it offers a consistent bite that isn't affected as much by weather as other lakes and rivers.
When fishing Lake Erie, there are several boat launches where you can access the Lake. Erie Metro Park, Sterling State Park, Bolles Harbor and Luna Pier Harbor Club offer decent launches, but plan to pay a fee at some of them to launch a boat.
It's no secret that one of the best places to fish walleyes any time of the year is Saginaw Bay. Pro angler Mark Martin enjoys fishing Saginaw Bay during March and early April. "There are several river mouths I like to fish in front of when fishing for walleyes during the early spring. The Saginaw River, Quanicassee River and the Kawkawlin River mouths are great places to target for walleyes. There is a lot less sediment in the bay than most of the rivers, so I fish in the shallow water around the river mouths. The fish are staging to go up the rivers to spawn and there are often large schools of them. They are often in water as shallow as 4 to 5 feet."
These rivers are long distances apart, but Martin says fish will stage up and down the coast in between the rivers so the fish are easy to find; you don't have to fish in one certain spot. "Some walleyes will stage right at the mouth of the rivers while other fish will stage up in shallow waters between the rivers."
Martin says there are often so many fish stacked up in the bay that you can fish in one direction for miles without getting away from fish. "There are miles between the rivers I am talking about but sometimes there are solid schools of fish from one river to the next. Sometimes you might have a mile or so where you don't have any fish but then you will get into them for the next three miles," Martin explained.
With the water being so shallow, the fish are often spread out over an extremely large area. When fishing between the Saginaw River and the Quanicassee River, avoid the rocks.
"There are many rocks between these two rivers and you can really get your boat and motor in trouble if you don't pay attention because the water is so shallow. Anglers need to go slow and pay attention."
When running back and forth between the rivers, Martin says to go out and around into deeper water and then slow down and head back into the shallow water when you are ready to troll.
According to Martin, early spring is a great time to fish between the rivers because the water is shallow so the fish stay in the area, especially when there is a lot of runoff and sediment pouring out of the rivers.
"I have noticed that the walleyes congregate in these shallow areas when the water is really dirty," Martin said.
When fishing, Martin is often one or two miles offshore. A popular bait for this type of fishing is a Husky Jerk and one of his favorite baits is a Rapala Tail Dancer. Martin suggests that anglers try casting for walleyes.
"Most anglers troll, but if that gets boring, I tell people to start casting. People often dismiss casting because they don't want to miss fish by not covering a lot of water, by stopping and throwing out a line. However, there are often so many fish that you will catch walleyes regardless of which method you use
. Throwing out a Husky Jerk or a Shad Rap is a good break from hours of trolling."
When fishing the bay, Martin says you can catch a variety of different-sized fish. "There are many different year-classes in the bay so you never know what you're going to get into. I will say if I catch a 6- or 7-pound fish, most of the fish I catch in that area will be about that size. Usually once you get into a certain age-class, that is what you catch until you move to a different spot."
MUSKEGON LAKE PIER HEADS
If you are an angler without a boat, another option is to fish Lake Michigan off the pier heads at the mouth of Muskegon Lake. That is one area where you can walk out on the pier in March and experience some action without having much money tied up in a boat or gear. Ernie Miller fished there as a child and still believes it is a great option. When fishing the pier head, Miller prefers using a Storm Swim Shad like a countdown lure.
"I like using a 4- to 6-inch Swim Shad," Miller explained. "I will cast these out and count down as it drops and reel it in. If I get a fish at a certain count, I can cast out again and likely catch another walleye at the same depth from the same school of fish."
Miller prefers using a Swim Shad around the pier heads because of all the rocks. "The hook on a Swim Shad is on the top side so I don't get the hook stuck on the rocks as often with this lure so I don't lose as many lures," Miller explained.
Another reason Miller likes the lure is because when he casts it beyond the rocks, he can let it go right into the sand and reel it in along the bottom without the hook getting caught on anything.
"The walleyes are often right on the bottom and I have to put the lure right in their face to force them to bite. I can do that with this lure."
Miller prefers using lures in a chartreuse color.
When fishing off the Muskegon Pier, there are a couple of hotspots Miller targets. "When you walk out on the pier, there is an 'elbow' on the outside of the pier," Miller said. "It is deeper on the shore side. There is a sandbar and a deep pocket near the elbow where the walleyes tend to hang out. At the end of the pier on the north side near the Muskegon Channel is another great spot."
Miller fishes the pier heads from a boat and uses the same lure. "I often use the Shad Rap and cast it out and let the lure sink to the bottom. Then I get my boat going about half a mile an hour and drag the lure through the sand until a fish lying on the bottom grabs it. Sometimes these fish are very lethargic and you need to entice them to bite. When the lure is right in their face, they can't resist it."
When Muskegon Lake opens for fishing on the last Saturday in April, Miller enjoys fishing the entire lake and mouth of the Muskegon River, not just the pier heads.
"Muskegon Lake is a great walleye fishery in the spring," he says. "There is lots of old timber on the bottom all over the lake from the logging days, and the walleyes congregate in and around the timber looking for baitfish."
Miller relies on electronics to find the submerged timber and the walleyes he seeks. "The fish are often suspended above the timber and you need to put the bait right in front of them to get them to hit. Electronics come in handy.
"Anglers new to the lake can try fishing the Muskegon River mouth, just inside the pier heads and/or look for lots of boats. When they are biting, you will see many boats in one area catching fish."
WHITE LAKE PIER HEADS
Mitch Johnson, from Montague, has White Lake in his back yard. At the mouth of White Lake, anglers can fish for walleyes off the pier on Lake Michigan.
"This is a good place for anglers without a boat to target walleyes," Johnson explained. "In March, the walleyes drop back into the lake after spawning in the river. There are often lots of fish out in the big Lake.
"Anglers casting off the pier are often using Countown Rapalas, Husky Jerks and Luna Baits. The walleyes are often very hungry because they just finished up spawning and they need to eat, so casting off the pier and getting aggressive with the baits to attract some attention is a great option at this time of year."
Regardless of where you choose to fish at this time of year on the Great Lakes, if you can find the walleyes, you will likely find several of them as they prepare to spawn or as they finish spawning. In both cases, they are often eager to bite, which can provide you with lots of action.