Great Lakes walleye populations are booming. Make sure you get out and stock up on walleye fillets this season. (April 2009)
Corey Houser unhooks a spring walleye. Photo by Mike Gnatkowski.
Walleye fishing on many of the Great Lakes seems to be getting better and better. Much of the boom can be credited to phenomenal hatches in recent years. When the stars align and Mother Nature cooperates, walleye numbers can explode. Fortunately, that's exactly the scenario we can look forward to at several Great Lakes ports this season.
The stage is set for an absolutely banner year on Saginaw Bay in 2009. Super year-classes in 2003, 2004 and 2005 have now grown up and are contributing to the sport fishery. You can find walleyes in the bay from fat 15-inch eaters all the way up to some respectable 6- and 7-pound specimens. The really huge fish seem to be lacking, but as the bigger fish in the system mature. the chances for trophy fish will improve too. In the meantime, there's nothing wrong with a limit of 16- to 20-inchers. In fact, I'd prefer it.
"There are just an incredible number of fish in the bay right now," said pro angler and Bay City resident Bill St. Peter. "I almost felt guilty taking people out last year. Even if you weren't working at it real hard, you'd have your limit in an hour or hour-and-a-half. I'd almost felt like I was cheating the people. But they were happy. The fishing was that good." Last year saw a lot of walleyes in the 7- to 11-inch age-class too, which bodes well for the future. All of these fish are the result of natural reproduction. (Continued)
Catching a limit of walleyes on Saginaw Bay right now isn't rocket science. There are so many fish in the bay that they are everywhere. There are several different types of walleye bites on the bay. Clearer water has allowed weedbeds to flourish in the deeper portions of the bay. Walleyes realize that the weeds harbor food and schools of walleyes take up residence in the weeds.
"Zebra mussels have really cleared up the bay and you've now got weedbeds where you didn't have any a few years ago," said St. Peter. With the aid of a good graph, St. Peter said you can locate weedbeds in 8 to 13 feet of water that will hold walleyes throughout the summer. You can pitch, cast crankbaits or slip-bobber the weeds and pull limits of walleyes averaging 2 to 6 pounds.
Most anglers troll for walleyes on the bay. What you pull is a matter of personal preference.
"In the spring, you can't beat a No. 18 Husky Jerk," St. Peter said. "The fish are hungry after spawning and walleyes are feeding on smelt. Once the water temperature reaches 50 degrees, I switch over to crawler harnesses." Other anglers still pull crankbaits, like traditional Wiggle Warts and Hot-N-Tots, and do well.
Fishing right after ice-out until mid-May can take place in as little as 3 or 4 feet of water. Most of the time, it's a nighttime bite and limits are routine. Anglers affix cyalume sticks to in-line boards to cover water and keep track of their boards. Crawler harnesses seem to work during the daylight hours.
Last May. I joined St. Peter to pre-fish before a PWT tournament that was being held on Saginaw Bay. A strong northeast wind had buffeted the shoreline on the west side of the bay and turned the water to mud. It took a while that day to find cleaner water and put a program together. We still managed to catch some fish. The next day with calmer winds and clearing water, we had a three-man limit by noon.
As the water warms, fish move out to slightly deeper water and get much more aggressive. Subtle structure in the bay begins to attract fish. June can be a transition period when walleyes can be found just about everywhere in the bay, and they can be caught just about anyway you want to fish for them.
Below: Crankbaits and stick baits are hot when fished behind in-line planers. Photo by Mike Gnatkowski.
Trollers do well when concentrating on the 15- to 20-foot depths off the shipping channel and the Saganing and Pinconning reefs. Eastside hotspots include the area known as "The Slot" off the east islands and Thomas and Callahan reefs. It's not until August when the walleyes vacate the inner bay and head for the islands, east to Port Austin or north to Thunder Bay.
To sample Saginaw Bay's phenomenal fishery first-hand, contact Bill St. Peter at (989) 686-0629. Information on local bait shops, hotels and amenities is available by contacting the Bay Area Convention & Visitors Bureau at (888) 229-8696 or online at www.tourbaycity.org.
In many ways, Thunder Bay is an extension of Saginaw Bay. Many walleyes undoubtedly make the short trip up the Lake Huron shoreline to bide their time in Thunder Bay. With the outstanding walleye habitat the bay affords, the population has been expanding. Once the top brown trout destination in Michigan, walleyes have all but stolen the show in the Alpena.
"The results of our last spring gill net survey showed Thunder Bay walleye numbers were pretty close to Saginaw Bay," said fisheries research biologist Jim Johnson. "Thunder Bay probably has two-thirds the number of walleyes that Saginaw Bay has in it, but they're bigger. If you looked at it in biomass terms, Thunder Bay might have more walleyes in terms of pounds per acre than Saginaw Bay."
Johnson said the walleyes in Thunder Bay are from Saginaw Bay originally. He said the bigger walleyes, which are usually females, are more inclined to migrate. "The bigger females are very nomadic," said Johnson. "They go where the food is. That's how they get so big. They are constantly in search of food. The smaller males have one thing on their minds and they tend to hang around the spawning areas." Johnson related an example of just how far and how quickly the bigger walleyes migrate. He told of a large female walleye that they tagged at the Dow Dam in Midland that was recovered 10 days later in Thunder Bay.
There used to be some real pigs in Thunder Bay, but the size of the walleyes there has declined somewhat due to a change in their forage.
"There was a time when 10-pound walleyes were not a big deal in Thunder Bay. Now they're not quite as big," he said. "The walleyes are feeding on gobies now and smelt in deeper water. In fact, walleyes are populating the entire lake in water less than 70 feet. Thunder Bay continues to be a real hotspot though."
Johnson said a shift in walleyes' forage might require a shift in angling tactics in order to continually be successful during the summer months.
"Unlike the 1980s," said Johnson, "walleyes are not getting as much food. They use to be mid-level feeders. Now they're eating gobies that are right on the bottom out in the 70-foot range." Johnson said anglers may have to employ salmon tactics using downriggers, divers and lead core to tempt walleyes these days. Paying attention to temperature and where the thermocline is located in the summer is now key.
Thunder Bay has produced an excellent night walleye bite for years. The night fishery takes off right after ice-out and peaks during May and June. The fishing is uncomplicated. A No. 18 black-and-silver Husky Jerk is pretty standard fare. Snap it to a rod and line-counter reel spooled with 14-pound-test line and pull it behind a lighted in-line planer board and you're in business. The 8- to 12-foot depths are most productive after dark. Fishing can be good from Scarecrow Island all the way to Whitefish Point. Expect plenty of walleyes in the 5- to 7-pound range, and double-digit specimens are not unheard of. A similar bite resumes in October when walleyes return to the bay to gorge on emerald shiners and gizzard shad. The fishing remains hot until it gets too cold to fish.
Anglers have discovered in recent years how to tempt Thunder Bay's walleyes during the daylight hours. Part of the problem was that the night bite was so good that no one bothered to fish during the day. You can do nearly as well during the day and still get some shut-eye. Trolling with crankbaits, like Hot-N-Tots and Reef Runners, off in-line boards is hot near Sulphur Island, Grassy Island and Partridge Point. The reefs around North Point, Squaw Island and Thunder Bay Island have untouched walleye potential. And the best walleye fishing might be found to the east where summer walleyes spend most of their time searching for gobies.
For information on bait shops, charters and accommodations, contact the Alpena Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-425-7362 or on-line at www.alpenacvb.com.
"Tawas Bay has a really nice walleye population," said biologist Jim Johnson. Tawas is a stopover point for Saginaw Bay walleyes that are headed north. Many never leave.
Tawas Bay was always a marginal port for salmon because it was so shallow. But the 12- to 24-foot depths are ideal for walleyes. In the early spring, you can take a mixed bag of walleyes, steelhead and brown trout by trolling the inner bay from the National Gypsum Light all the way around to Tawas Point. Stick baits like Thundersticks, Rattlin' Rouges and Rapalas, pulled behind in-line planer boards are the top combination. Walleyes are hungry after spawning and take advantage of the smelt that run into the bay. The fishing can remain hot well into May before the trout and walleyes move out to deeper water.
During the summer months, walleyes can be caught in 20 to 30 feet of water between the No. 2 and No. 4 buoys using crankbaits and stick baits behind in-line boards all the way out to 60 to 70 feet of water near Au Sable Point half way between Tawas and Oscoda. Savvy anglers are discovering that walleyes there are best tempted with tactics most anglers use to rely on for salmon.
For information on accommodations, bait shops and charter boats in the Tawas area. contact the Tawas Bay Tourist & Convention Bureau at 1-800-558-2927 or on-line at www.tawas.com.
Au Gres straddles Inner and Outer Saginaw Bay. The shallows between Whitestone Point, Point Lookout and Point Au Gres are festooned with reefs and structure that attract thousands of post-spawn walleyes. The fishing can be spectacular from ice-out into May. Walleyes shadow schools of spawning smelt and savvy anglers take advantage of it. Most launch small boats on calm nights and anchor on the reefs. You can cast stick baits, spoons or cast jigs tipped with minnows.
Walleyes headed north from Saginaw Bay or dropping down out of the Rifle or Au Gres rivers are hungry and easy targets. The reefs can be literally covered with walleyes. Friends have related how the reef was nothing but glowing eyeballs when they shined lights over the side of the boat.
For information on boat launches, accommodations and bait shops in the area, contact the Au Gres Area Travelers & Visitors Bureau at (989) 876-8131.
BAYS DE NOC
The Bays De Noc in the central Upper Peninsula are famous walleye destinations. Little Bay De Noc, smaller, more manageable, more accessible and closer to amenities and accommodations, gets most of the attention. In fact, the size and immensity of Big Bay De Noc may scare some anglers away, but if you're looking for some walleye potential, Big Bay De Noc may be the place.
"Big Bay De Noc is an untapped fishery," said guide Marty Papke. "The size of it intimidates most anglers, and it's sometimes tough to contend with the wind there, but it has some tremendous walleye fishing."
One problem with the fishing on Big Bay De Noc is that the fishing is so good on Little Bay De Noc, no one bothers fishing Big Bay De Noc. "There's not the number of fish in Big Bay De Noc," said Northern Lake Michigan Management Unit fisheries supervisor Mike Herman, "and it a more difficult place to fish, but it's very good for big fish, and the population there is slowly building."
Anglers will find good access and uncrowded fishing in Garden Bay, at Fayette State Park and on the Stonington Peninsula at Wilsey Bay. Opening day finds walleyes clustered in the shallow north end of the bay where several rivers enter the bay. Walleyes recuperate along the 6- to 18-foot reefs found off the Sturgeon, Ogontz and Fishdam rivers. Later in the year, they relate to the reefs and islands that characterize the bay. Particularly good are the areas around St. Vital Island and Round Island. Trolling is a great way to cover water and locate active schools of 'eyes. Once pinpointed, anglers can cast jigs or live-bait rigs with good success.
Little Bay De Noc walleyes follow a fairly predictable pattern each year.
"The walleyes in Little Bay De Noc usually can be found relating to the river mouths when the season opens," Papke said. "The Days, Tacoosh, Rapid and Whitefish rivers on the north end of the bay are a gathering point for post-spawn walleyes. They don't stay there long, though. The walleyes quickly disperse over the reefs and to newly emerging weedbeds where they can find food. Thousands of legal-sized walleyes patrol the reefs found in the middle of the bay off Gladstone and Kipling. Another hotspot is in 6 to 18 feet of water off Stonington."
The great thing about Little Bay De Noc, besides plenty of walleyes, is that you can catch them just about any way you want. Trolling is a simple method that covers water. You can pull crankbaits, crawler harnesses or small spoons. Papke prefers a more hands-on approach when guiding anglers. Techniques include jigging, rigging, dragging and casting. Each is a technique that requires anglers to hold the rod, feel the bite and hook the fish, definitely technique
s that are more fun with light-fighting fish like walleyes.
Papke always has an assortment of live bait on hand when guiding, but he said most days it's not necessary to catch your limit of Bay De Noc 'eyes. Papke said scent-enhanced baits, like Berkley Gulp!, work great, helps customers keep their line in the water and do a good job of imitating one of a Bay De Noc walleye's favorite foods -- gobies. Dark-colored twisters and tubes hopping and jigged along the bottom are sure to get bit by hungry walleyes, if you can keep them away from the abundant smallmouths that also populate the bays.
For more information, contact the Delta County Tourism & Convention Bureau at (906) 786-2192 or on-line at www.deltami.org.
Great Lakes walleye populations are booming. Make sure you get out and stock up on walleye fillets this season.