May 09, 2011
If you are eager for angling action, then don't pass up a chance to hit any of these walleye hotspots this spring.
By Mike Gnatkowski
The face of Michigan walleye fishing is changing. The reason and results are complicated. The once prolific Lake Erie walleye fishery has taken a hit in recent years and major changes are on the horizon. Saginaw Bay's fishery is booming. Multiple years of outstanding natural reproduction has The Bay overflowing with walleyes and the bounty is fueling fisheries as far away as Alpena's Thunder Bay and beyond. West Michigan's drowned river mouths are becoming increasingly consistent trophy fisheries and are benefiting from plants being made in the lakes. Inland lakes are suffering. Most are becoming increasingly sterile, less productive and more dependent on inconsistent years of natural reproduction.
But all is not gloom and doom. Even though Lake Erie's walleye numbers are way down, there are still more than 15 million walleyes in the lake. If you're willing to travel to Saginaw Bay, you won't find a better walleye fishery in the country. Many inland lakes, while not brimming with walleyes, still can provide consistent fishing and many Great Lakes destinations provide the opportunity to catch a real trophy.
"Walleye numbers on Lake Erie are the lowest they've been in a while," said Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment fisheries biologist Gary Towns. "Basically, we had a population of 60 million 13-inch-plus walleyes in the lake in 2005. That number has declined to about 15.5 million walleyes in 2011. That's a 75 percent decline. The reason can be traced to a failure of year-classes. Only one good year-class every three years can sustain a fishery, but we haven't had that. The last good year-class on Lake Erie was in 2003. Since then, we've had total failures or minor year-classes and the fishery has suffered."
Towns pointed out that timing is critical with regard to walleye reproduction on Lake Erie because a good portion of the fish use offshore reefs for spawning.
"When these offshore reefs are subjected to wind, rain and storms in April when the fish are spawning, it doesn't make for successful spawning conditions," claimed Towns.
Towns said the muddy, riled waters also don't bode well for fry coming down the Maumee River, where 80 percent of the walleyes in Lake Erie originate. "The lion's share of the walleyes in Lake Erie come out of the Maumee River," he said. "The Sandusky River is a lesser contributor because of dams that block upstream movement, but planned removal of those dams may help contributions from natural reproduction in the future."
Lake Erie's Western Basin walleye harvest is regulated via a quota system between the bordering states and Ontario. Based on surface area, Michigan is allotted 6 percent of the total allowable harvest.
Even with the depressed number of walleyes in the lake, Lake Erie can be expected to produce some good fishing for Michigan anglers. "There appears to have been a least an average hatch in Ohio and Ontario waters in 2007, which might help this year," said Towns. "Those fish were 16 to 18 inches last year and should be 18 to 22 inches this year, and there will be a fair number of 26-inch-plus fish from the 2003 year-class."
Fishing in the Michigan waters of Lake Erie gets hot in April and early May and remains good as long as the walleyes stay in Michigan waters, which is usually until early July. The walleyes migrate east to deeper, cooler waters in Ohio then. During a typical year, anglers harvest about 100,000 walleyes between Lake Erie and the Detroit River.
According to Lake Erie Charter Skipper Ron Levitan, the best fishing on Lake Erie occurs when there's a south or west wind. "When you get strong north winds it blows a lot of weeds from the Detroit River down into the lake," Levitan said, "Then you have no choice but to head east."
Early in the season, stickbaits are the preferred bait for trolling on Lake Erie when the fish are in 12 to 18 feet of water. Junior ThunderSticks, Reef Runners and Rapala's Tail Dancer 30-Plus are good choices then. Traditional Lake Erie lures, like Hot-N-Tots and Wiggle Warts, produce too. Some time in late May or early June, the fish start showing a definite preference for spoons. Levitan said that spoons are easier to fish, they really don't need to be tuned, and it's easier to keep them deep. Favorites include Wolverine Tackle's Junior Streak and Warrior's walleye spoons in a myriad of gaudy and metallic colors designed to catch fish.
Anglers who trailer their own boats will find good launch facilities in LaPlaisance Bay at Luna Pier, Otter Creek and Bolles Harbor. In Brest Bay, you can launch at the Raisin River in Monroe, Sterling State Park and Detroit Beach. Contact the Monroe County Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-252-3011; or go online at firstname.lastname@example.org for information on amenities and accommodations in the area. To book a charter with Captain Ron Levitan, contact him at (248) 684-4237; or online at www.passintime.com.
While the majority of Lake Erie's walleyes spawn on the lake's reefs or in the Maumee River, a good percentage spawn in the Detroit River. When Lake Erie's walleye population was 60 million, it was estimated that as many as 10 million of those fish spawned in the Detroit River. Now that Lake Erie's population is down to 15 million, it's logical to think that the number entering the Detroit is probably reduced to 2.5 million or so. The peak harvest of 100,000 is probably closer to 25,000 fish now. Still, the chance to catch a limit of walleyes and a potential trophy is very real in the Detroit River.
"The Detroit River produces a lot of viable walleye eggs," claimed Gary Towns. "The question is how much do they contribute to the overall reproductive scheme of things." In the past, it was thought that the walleyes in the Detroit River were strictly from Lake Erie, but studies have shown that walleyes from Lake St. Clair and even Saginaw Bay can be found in the river, and it has its own increasing population of resident walleyes.
The Detroit River is a major waterway and fishing success can vary within the system. Last year was a perfect example. "I talked to several old timers who said it was the best fishing in 50 years in the middle portion of the river," claimed friend Jim Balzer. "Fishing in the Wyandotte area last spring was just incredible. Not only did we catch lots of walleyes, but the size also was very good. I personally released more than 20 fish over 8 pounds and caught two over 10 pounds."
Balzer said that conditions were very consistent, the weather was pe
rfect and he caught a limit nearly every trip. Fishing was not as good last spring in the lower part of the river in the popular Trenton Channel.
Migratory walleyes typically begin entering the Detroit River in late March and their numbers peak in April and May. The critical temperature that triggers the run is 40 to 42 degrees. It's then that the walleyes begin spawning in earnest. The big females are the first to enter the river followed by aggressive males. 40- to 50-fish days were not uncommon just a few years ago, but fishing is much tougher now, although catching a limit is still not too difficult.
Anglers use bow-mounted trolling motors to slip the current to keep their lines vertical. Bites can be very subtle and hard to detect. A sensitive rod and superline is almost an essential. Leadhead jigs in a rainbow of colors ranging from 1/4 ounce to 3/8 ounce are the preferred bait adorned with plastic, minnows or both.
Two boat-launch facilities are available on the lower river at the city-run Elizabeth Park in Trenton and Erie Metro Park in Rockwood. Farther upstream, anglers will find good facilities at the mouth of the Ecorse River in Wyandotte and at Ballenger Park near the Ambassador Bridge. For more information, call the Metropolitan Detroit Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-DETROIT, or go online to www.visitdetroit.com.
It's ironic that Saginaw Bay's walleye fishery is booming while Lake Erie's has slipped. You'd think that the fisheries would parallel each other. Saginaw Bay's walleye fishery continues to flourish partly because of where the spawning takes place.
"Most natural reproduction in Saginaw Bay is coming from its feeder rivers," said Lake St. Clair Fisheries Research Station fisheries biologist Mike Thomas. "Lake Erie has river and lake spawners and when everything meshes, the lake has a banner year."
"The majority of the walleyes in the bay are reproduced in the Saginaw River system," said Alpena Fisheries Research Station biologist Jim Johnson. "The Tittabawassee is the chief source, but the Flint River is almost as good, and you have the Shiawassee and you have fish from the Rifle River."
A super abundance of alewives assured that young-of-the-year walleyes were eaten until 2003, suppressing the walleye reproduction. Once the alewives began to disappear, the walleyes bounced back. We've had strong year-classes in the bay every year since. If you only need one good year-class every three years to sustain a fishery, you can understand why Saginaw Bay's walleye fishing has exploded the way it has. Now the Bay is totally supported by natural reproduction.
"It's pretty ridiculous usually," said guide and walleye pro Bill St. Peter of The Bay's walleye fishing. "Usually you can catch a limit in an hour or two. You'll catch walleyes from 8 inches to 8 pounds, so there's a bunch of good year-classes out there, and some of those fish should be getting pretty big this year."
There is a good night bite in the 6- to 10-foot shallows in early spring as fish drop down out of the river systems. During May through early summer, hot bites take place in 12 to 18 feet of water on both sides of the Bay off the Pinconning and Saganing bars and Callahan and Thomas reefs. Anglers troll crawler harnesses, crankbaits and spoons all with good success.
Studies have shown that many Saginaw Bay walleyes spend a short time recuperating in The Bay before heading north to AuGres, Tawas and eventually Thunder Bay and beyond. "The big females seem to migrate more," said Jim Johnson. "They may be searching for larger prey found in the northern part of Lake Huron so the migration could be explained by the forage base, but they are coolwater fish too."
Johnson said that 90 percent of the walleyes in Thunder Bay are of Saginaw Bay origin. Walleyes find the confines of Thunder Bay to their liking in the spring where they gorge on abundant gobies before following smelt to deeper water. Rebounding smelt numbers has changed summer walleye patterns off Thunder Bay. It's common now to find schools of walleyes in 60 to 130 feet of water suspended just above or in the thermocline chasing 5-inch-and-bigger smelt. Deepwater trolling tactics, normally reserved for catching salmon, are now making big catches of walleyes throughout the summer months off Thunder Bay.
Thunder Bay's walleye fishery starts right after ice-out and continues to be hot in the shallows in the bay through May. Anglers pull body baits behind in-line boards between 6 and 18 feet of water. Some of the hottest action occurs after dark. Some walleyes remain in the bay during the summer to gorge on gobies, and anglers use deep-diving crankbaits and crawler harnesses for fish up to 10 pounds. Target 15 to 40 feet of water then. Try off Partridge Point, Sulfur Island, Scarecrow Point and South Point. Others head deep to target the suspended fish using divers, lead core and downriggers.
For information on amenities and bait shops in the area, contact the Alpena Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-425-7362, or go online to www.alpenacvb.com.
WEST SIDE PORTS
Walleye numbers in Michigan's west-side drowned river mouth lakes are thriving because they have been receiving regular plants over the past few years. "We haven't been able to stock many of the inland lakes recently because of Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia (VHS)," said Central Lake Michigan Management Unit fisheries biologist Mark Tonello. "The Great Lakes and connecting waters have already tested positive so we can continue planting there." The result has been a buildup of strong year-classes in most of the drowned river mouth lakes and great fishing in the big lake water adjacent to those ports.
"Muskegon and White lakes are topnotch fisheries," said Tonello. "Portage Lake has been planted regularly and they're year-round fisheries. Spring and fall are the best; ice-fishing can be productive and a lot of guys do really well trolling at night." Tonello said that besides the plants fish come over the Hamlin Lake dam and a wild population of fish in Manistee Lake also contributes to the fishery.
Tonello shared that Muskegon Lake has received 400,000 fingerlings in 2010; 200,000 in 2008; and 200,000 in 2006. White Lake got substantial plants in 2009 (138,000) and 2005 (226,000). Portage Lake has received smaller plants, but on an annual basis. The result is great walleye fishing in the drowned river mouth lakes that is not fully utilized. They also represent the best place to catch a trophy 'eye for the wall.
For more information, contact the Central Lake Michigan Management Unit office at 231-775-9727.
To sample Michigan's best walleye fishing in 2011 you'd better head to the big water. That's where the action is bound to be!