Michigan's Great Lakes Walleyes

Perhaps no other state has walleye fishing as good as ours. You can find out for yourself on lakes Erie, Huron and Michigan, and their connecting waterways.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

By Mike Zielinski

Michigan could call itself "The Great Walleye State" and not be bragging! Walleye fishing opportunities are nearly limitless. As a result, Michigan's portion of the Great Lakes and their connecting waters have become a favorite with serious and novice anglers alike.

While some locations traditionally provide better fishing, new technology and increased interest in tournament fishing has shown anglers how to take good catches of walleyes from areas once labeled as only "mediocre." Newly designed "walleye boats" are now available that provide anglers with small craft that are not only speedy but very seaworthy, especially on the big waters of the Great Lakes.

The following Great Lakes waters represent both the best walleye fishing available anywhere, plus a few quality places perhaps not yet familiar to many anglers. Either way, you can't lose!

Probably the very tops in walleye numbers and angling opportunities anywhere, Lake Erie has often been described as, "The Best Walleye Hole In The World." Currently, this title appears to be threatened because walleye populations have been declining over the last decade, down approximately 70 million fish from the heady times of the 1980s. Fisheries biologists have been trying to react to the loss of fish stocks here and changed the rules for 2004.

"We have known about the Lake Erie walleye decline for awhile and the time to make a change was immediately," said Dr. Kelly Smith, Michigan Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Division chief. "We were at 19 million walleyes. To get below 17 million walleyes in Lake Erie will spell disaster for those fish stocks."

As a result, in Michigan our small section of Lake Erie will be closed to walleye fishing from April 1 through May 31. When the season opens June 1, the creel limit will be five walleyes per person instead of the previous six, and the size limit will be 15 inches instead of 13 inches. These rules will remain in effect until further notice. The good news is that the 2003 hatch of walleyes on Lake Erie was the best in 10 years.

Despite all this, Lake Erie will produce topnotch walleye fishing in Michigan from near the middle of June right into August. Often, this fishery is made up of smaller fish, many of which will not make the new size limit. Look for the walleyes to be schooled up off the Fermi Nuclear Plant in 20 to 26 feet of water at that time of year.

Trolling with crankbaits like Storm Wiggle Warts, Hot-N-Tots and Rapala Shad Raps behind planer boards remains a very effective technique. Recently, anglers have found that trolling spoons like Silver Streaks in 3- to 5-inch sizes behind tiny diving disks can really be effective. If the mayflies are hatching, anglers who like to drift and cast - or just drift and bump bottom - use a variation of the weight-forward spinner commonly referred to as walleye "flies." These lures are tied on 10 to 14 inches of heavy monofilament and consist of a spinnerblade just ahead of a weight with one or two hooks at the terminal end and dressed with a variety of materials, from plastic skirts to colorful feathers. Night crawlers, leeches or minnows are used as bait.

There are a number of public launch sites, including Sterling State Park just north of Monroe, and Bolles Harbor just south of Monroe off Interstate 75.

For more area information, contact the Monroe Chamber of Commerce at (734) 242-3366 or www.monroeinfo.com.

This 32-mile long drain of Lake St. Clair is mostly known for the tremendous spring spawning run that yields many fish weighing in the double digits. It is also a great small-boat fishery, because the river is less than a mile wide in most places. April is perhaps the best time to be there for really big walleyes.

The most popular technique is vertical jigging. Jigs are dressed with soft plastic grubs or minnow bodies from 2 to 4 inches long with huge silver shiner minnows attached. This rig is then allowed to drift within inches of the bottom as the line is kept as vertical as possible to detect the light taps of a feeding walleye and to prevent snagging on the treacherous rock bottom. The most popular weight jigs are 3/8- and 5/8-ounce painted in a variety of fluorescent colors, with chartreuse being the most popular.

There is a general misconception that taking these big spawners is detrimental to walleye populations, but according to DNR biologist Mike Thomas, "Those big old sows are not very good for spawning anymore. Often they don't spawn and just absorb their eggs. They are also major predators, even on their own species."

The entire stretch of the Detroit River offers good walleye fishing, but it isn't difficult to find out where the hottest action is occurring - just look for a pod of 300 to 500 boats on any spring weekend. They will be crowed near the Trenton Power Plant on the Trenton Channel, along Fighting Island in Wyandotte, behind Great Lakes Steel in Ecorse, and at times along the Canadian shoreline below the Seagram's plant and below the salt mines.

"If you are coming to the Detroit River, bring a lot of jigs and a variety of colors," says local charter captain and outdoor writer Jim Barta. "The fish are always here from late March through late May and can be finicky biters, especially in muddy waters. Just keep changing until you find something that works and then make sure everyone in the boat puts one. The bite might not last long and you have to take advantage of things."

For area information, contact the Southern Wayne County Chamber of Commerce at (734) 284-6000 or www.swccc.org. For more fishing information, call Bottom Line Tackle at (734) 379-9762. For guide service, call (313) 388-5847.

The walleye fishing on Lake St. Clair seems to have really come on again in the last three to five years, especially along the U.S. side near Anchor Bay between the C-marker and B-marker. Professional walleye angler Andy Kuffer lives in the area and calls the walleye fishing there, "The best in years."

The Canadian side, however, has always been a better walleye-producing area, and according to biologist Bob Haas of the Lake St. Clair Research Station, there is a reason.

"There just seems to be a special mix of water, forage and habitat that creates a natural walleye incubator over on the Canadian side," said Haas. "It is amazing. We

have found that this water doesn't mix with water along the U.S. side. The force generated by huge Lake Huron draining down the St. Clair River appears to be strong enough to keep the waters from mingling and keeping the lake divided. What we do see is a whirlpool effect by current along the Canadian waters, which serves to keep more forage and nutrients along that side. This is part of that incubator effect."

Night crawlers and spinner combos dragged just over the weedtops has always been an effective method here. Add some planer boards to the game and trolling can really become a productive walleye technique here. Deep-diving crankbaits also work well along the deeper, cooler and often clearer waters near the shipping channel. Buoy 28 can get hot for walleyes during warmer weather, as can the lighthouse situated in the middle of the lake.

For more information, contact the Mount Clemens Chamber of Commerce at (810) 493-7600 or www.central-macomb.com.

Andy Kuffer is one of Michigan's better-known touring walleye pros. He grew up fishing the St. Clair River/Lake St. Clair complex. A major problem in catching walleyes here is not finding them, but getting to them. Because of recent low water levels, many of the boat launches have not been capable of launching a heavy 20-foot walleye rig. One launch that can handle larger boats is just below the power plant in Marine City.

"If you like to jig-fish for walleyes," says Kuffer, "late April through early June is the time to be doing it here. The walleyes are migrating out of Lake St. Clair after having already moved out of Lake Erie and through the Detroit River to get this far north."

Kuffer's tools of the trade here are 3/8-ounce jigs on 12-pound-test Berkley FireLine, using a barrel swivel with 10-pound test monofilament as a leader. Like the Detroit River and other quick-running bodies of water, it is important to have a bow-mounted trolling motor to keep your lines vertical in the water.

Some of the better areas on the St. Clair River to jig-fish for walleyes during early June are the long stretch above the Marine City power plant, the twisting waters at the head of Fawn Island and the head of Russell Island. The lower St. Clair River forms three channels, and the long flat ahead of Russell Island is one of the first staging areas for the walleyes on their migration north.

For more information, contact: Angler Rod and Sports, (810) 329-2253); Lakeside Tackle, (810) 777-7003); Algonac Chamber of Commerce, (810) 794-5511 or www.algonacchamber.com.

Walleyes can seemingly play hide-and-seek here across the vast expanse of water, and anglers have to work together in order to get a real handle on things.

Saginaw Bay is known by local anglers to offer prime walleye fishing conditions in July and August. But according to tournament pro Mark Martin, the middle of June is not a bad time to fish Saginaw Bay. Anglers who excel in a variety of techniques that takes them from the weedbeds to the depths of the outer bay will do well here. Saginaw Bay is huge, and anglers need to cover a lot of water to find the fish.

"Trolling is the strong suit for knowledgeable anglers on Saginaw Bay," said Martin. "Some will be working the deep stuff looking for those schools of hogs that roam there or they may be working the weeds, but trolling is the money method. Try spinners, cranks and small-bodied baits along the weedbed. Switch to planer boards and deep-diving cranks for the clear water found in the deeper areas. Keep in mind the many islands and reefs throughout the bay. These are generally surrounded by deep water that produce quality walleyes."

For area information, contact the Bay Area Chamber of Commerce at (989) 893-4567 or www.baycityarea.com.

This northwestern Lower Peninsula fishery seems to be on the rebound over the last five to seven years due to DNR plantings. North Lake Leelanau covers 2,950 acres, with depths reaching 120 feet. It is connected to Lake Michigan by the Leland River, which also runs into South Leland Lake, but a dam cuts off passage of fish up into this lake.

Dave Darling, the owner of Tackle Town (231-941-5420), says there are several areas in the lake that first-time anglers might try first.

"The north end of North Lake Leelanau drops down into some really deep water, about 120 feet, and this where most folks begin working for lake trout, but also take large walleyes along the periphery," said Darling. "The areas just below or south of what are called 'The Narrows' on North Lake Leelanau are one of the earliest walleye-producing hotspots on that section of the lake. Warden's Point and Brady Point are also well known for producing walleyes. The south end of North Lake has a bottom formed into several large flat areas with very gradual dropoffs into 80 feet of water, and walleyes tend to roam the area."

For area information, contact the Traverse City Chamber of Commerce at (231) 947-5075 or www.tcchamber.org.

This large expanse of Lake Michigan waters produces year-round quality walleye fishing. While Little Bay de Noc appears huge on a map, the actual fishing areas are fairly limited. Study a chart and you will see there is a lot of shallow water. This bay loves to eat propellers and leave you with a big lower unit bill.

The walleyes have a real tendency to move long distances when heavy winds hit the area. A well-rigged boat with plenty of gas will go a long way to make this a successful outing.

Night-fishing on the reefs with jigs and minnows is a very popular local technique here. You must really know your way around in order to accomplish this safely. A good GPS and knowing how to use it will help.

This is generally clear water, so daytime fishing is often done while trolling the edges of reefs and dropoffs. In-line planer boards are a must to get lures away from the boat, but they also to offer a safety zone when fishing along some of the steep drops. Crankbaits such as Rapalas, ThunderSticks and Bomber Long-A's all will take walleyes. In order to get the cranks down, lead-core line techniques and snap-weights are needed.

From late spring through summer can also produce good walleye catches. According to local fishing legend Capt. Marty Papke (1-800-708-2347), there are several things to consider when fishing during late spring through midsummer.

"The time of day you fish, correct bait presentations (live versus artificial), size of the bait and method of angling all need to be considered, said Papke. "While early mornings and late evenings are good this time of year, night-fishing usually produces the most action, especially when live bait is part of the equation. Trolling is not as productive as jigging, rigging or slip-floating."

There are boat lan

dings off U.S. Highway 2 next to Bay Shore Resort and Tackle (906-428-9687) in Escanaba and the harbor refuge in Gladstone. For area lodging information, contact the Delta County Chamber of Commerce at (906) 786-2192.

This is an untapped resource by Houghton in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and can be a pleasure in several ways, including great fishing and beautiful scenery.

The stocking of walleyes has really helped their numbers, plus a nutritional and plentiful forage base allowed them to grow big. The DNR claims to have taken a number of fish near the 20-pound mark during netting surveys.

"The trophy potential on Portage Lake is a big attraction to veteran walleye anglers," says Gary Lubinski of Houghton. "It's been a slow go in getting anglers interested in this fishery. We felt the pro championship tournament we hosted here last fall would really showcase the fishery, but the weather stayed hot, which hurt the fishing. Also, heavy blows off Lake Superior tended to put the fish down into the mud, but most anglers caught some fish. The largest was an 11-pounder by Andy Kuffer of Algonac."

Wind or no wind, when I was out on the water during the tournament, the graph lit up with suspend walleyes, similar to the way things used to be out on Lake Erie in the 1980s, the best years ever. Despite it being a weekend, there was little boat traffic other than those competing in the tournament.

For more information, contact Superior Bait & Tackle, (906) 523-4944, or the Upper Peninsula Travel & Recreation Association at 1-800-562-7134 or www.keweenaw.org.

* * *
We could have told you about many other Great Lakes walleye hotspots, but in a state like Michigan, that would have taken forever.

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