Racing Summer for Saginaw Bay Walleyes
June 13, 2017
That's what you'll do to catch Saginaw Bay walleyes — or get left behind. Here's expert advice on how to keep up.
By Steve Griffin
Mike Avery tossed deck lines onto the dock, threaded his boat out of the marina and into the Saginaw River and then, reaching Saginaw Bay and the end of the no-wake zone, shoved the throttle forward and pointed us toward the horizon.
"It's smooth, so we're going out a ways. Not as far as some of the guys, but past the 'spark plug,'" a distinctively shaped shipping-channel landmark well known to Saginaw Bay boaters, about seven miles out.
This mid-summer day, we'd go farther out than Avery, Midland-based host of the Outdoor Magazine radio program, often runs. But his 24-foot, triple-tube Angler Qwest pontoon boat is exquisitely seaworthy (as well as wonderfully fishing-friendly), and swift ahead of its 150-horsepower outboard. In 15 minutes or so we were at idle, in 28 feet of water. Mike and fishing buddy Tony Soave deploying a pair of troll-slowing sea anchors, and grabbing rods and side-planing boards.
Side-planers, standard gear on most Saginaw Bay trolling boats out for walleyes, clip onto lines to pull them away from the boat, letting anglers present a fan-shaped array of offerings. Many planers are rigged with spring-tensioned flags that, depending on how they're set up, stand up or lay down when a fish takes the bait. Otherwise, you watch for fish-laden planers to lag behind; some say the toughest challenge in this generous fishery is detecting a bite. When a fish fight nears the boat, the board is unclipped.
Some trollers use larger boards, tethered to the boat from a mast, with several lines held on downrigger-like releases offered by each board.
Most of our nine lines — three each, Michigan's legal maximum — carried Offshore Tackle's Tadpole diving sinkers ahead of thin spoons. Two rods trailed lines with sections of lead-core line; they, too, carried spoons.
Spoons are Avery's first choice in lures. They catch fish, he said, and leave a boat much cleaner than it would be after a frantic fishing day of wrestling nightcrawlers out of containers and onto hooks. Soave, also an experienced Bay angler, is a crawler fan. The friends cheerily traded tackle taunts through the day. Sometimes, as we would later this day, they split the difference and troll with plugs.
A smart-phone chart advised how much line to run between a board and its Tadpole weight to place a lure at the desired depth. To cover the widest range of water, at least until the day's hot zone is determined, and to minimize tangles, the center line usually runs deepest and shortest, moving shallower and longer each line out from the boat.
EXPERIENCE PAYS OFF
Avery has picked up a lot of such tricks in the more than 30 years he's been fishing for walleyes on the Bay. I've fished there about as long, but while Avery specializes in the fish with the white-tipped tails, I get distracted by a varied and far-flung list of fish — and I remain "master of none," as the saying goes.
Where walleyes are and what they want on a particular day — that's the challenge of big, fairly featureless Saginaw Bay.
And it changes, markedly, as summer unfolds.
"School's Out," is as much a Saginaw Bay anthem as it is an Alice Cooper classic rock hit, if by "out" you mean out deep, not out of session. You can almost always catch a few walleyes for dinner virtually anywhere on the Bay. But if you want the big fish, the bragging-sized 6-pounders and up, for which this big lobe of Lake Huron is known, you'd best have a full fuel tank, a seaworthy boat, and an eye on the horizon. That's because the hog-sized walleyes don't hang out shallow when real summer weather sets in.
We're not talking summerlike, but baked-in July and August heat, the kind you feel radiating from your driveway, bulging the skins of home-grown tomatoes, spinning the dial of your electrical meter as your home air conditioner tries to keep up. That lifts the temp of the Bay's shallow waters, sending baitfish and, even more noticeably, big walleyes, out toward deeper, cooler haunts.
But not all of the walleyes. We'll come back to that. And it is a gradual progression, worth your tracking.
WALLEYES ON THE MOVE
Jim Baker, Bay City-based fisheries biologist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources' Southern Lake Huron Unit, said there's a regular pattern of walleye movement, traced through anecdote, jaw-tagged of walleyes and, particularly, fish implanted with transponders read by receivers stationed around the Bay. What the research has shown, said Baker, is fish on the move.
A spring migration of walleyes up the Saginaw, Tittabawassee and other Bay tributary rivers, draws intense angling interest both before and after a six-week fishing/spawning season closure. After spawning, those fish drop back down to the Bay where, "About the end of April, there are a lot of post-spawn walleyes hanging out at the lower (innermost) part of the Bay," Baker said.
Cold fishing conditions, but hot fishing action! "The fish are hungry, and anglers do well close to shore. Weeds are not yet up."
By the end of May, warming waters are moving fish a bit deeper. But in July, they're much deeper.
"We've discovered through hydro-acoustic tagging that as much as 50 percent of the population leaves (inner) Saginaw Bay (roughly Point Au Gres to Sand Point) by the first of July," Baker said. "The bigger fish, especially, go deeper and drop out of the Bay fishery. This seems to be characteristic of the larger fish, more than 24 inches. The fish you catch in the Bay in the summer, most of them are 15 to 20 inches, a few 22 or 23, but the 2-footers and up, by and large, are probably living in the deeper waters of the (outer) Bay and beyond."
As summer progresses, the biologist said, the big-fish action moves from inshore places like off Linwood, the Slot, "to the Charity Islands and waters beyond, the northeast area called the Steeples, reefs such as Hat and Flat Iron.
Sidebar: Speed Demons
OK, nobody ever called a walleye an especially aggressive, or even speedy, fish. Surely not a speed demon. In fact, on Saginaw Bay speed actually can be the demon: going slow enough is often the key to a catch.
Anglers dragging nightcrawlers on harnesses know their best results come when the wire of the walker is tracing a line in the featureless sand bottom. That's usually less than 1 mph! But even spoon fans get more takers when the hardware wobbles more slowly than madly, maybe 2 mph. That's double the speed of crawler harnesses, and the two methods don't mix well.
How do you best go slow? Some trollers use a smaller, "kicker" motor once they've reached their fishing grounds, often linked to the steering of the big motor.
Then, too, sometimes what we call an electric trolling motor really is used that way. Mike Avery's big-water pontoon has a massive MinnKota i-Pilot trolling motor, fed by triple batteries guided by its internal GPS to troll just where and how fast you ask it to.
Others stay with the big motor, but reduce its thrust by using a flip-down plate. That's the system on my 17-footer, and it works quite well.
Another, popular approach on the Bay is the use of one or more sea anchors or trolling bags, or even plastic pails on ropes, tossed overboard to provide drag and slow down the boat.
Pay attention to your speedometer (and/or GPS), so you can duplicate a speed that pays off. And remember, the same engine RPM produces notably different speeds when going upwind compared to downwind. Sidewind is a drag, usually resulting in tangled lines and other mayhem.
— Steve Griffin
"The really large fish are often caught incidentally by those fishing for trout and salmon. There are a few fish caught in 70 feet of water off Alabaster, and I've even heard of some caught in 100 feet of water by people who are going after lake trout."
There's talk of night catches off Thunder Bay well to the north, and Grindstone City and Port Austin in the Thumb region, "probably living in the vicinity of reefs, feeding on gobies (which are abundant) and things like that."
These aren't necessarily one-time visits, either. Baker said one tagged fish was traced to waters off Harbor Beach on Lake Huron two summers in a row, the Inner Bay in-between.
And yet, good fishing for "eaters" remains available in shallow water. Fishing with Avery that hot summer day last year, I grabbed a bouncing rod before all of a half-dozen lines, each trolling a Hot 'N Tot crankbait, were set in the shallows to which we returned. In waters just 7 feet deep, we were running plugs 8 feet or so behind the side-planer boards so they wouldn't drag on the bottom and its weeds. Two hours later, we'd about doubled the livewell count, to a total of 17 fish, seven shy of the newly liberalized Saginaw Bay creel limit.
We were fishing weedbed edges and even above weedbeds, a tactic Baker agreed can pay off.
"You have to know the Bay, and where the weeds are," he asserted. "They're depth dependent, and tend to grow back in the same spots from year to year, with adjustment for Bay water levels. Some are located off the Pine River, and the Pinconning and Callahan reefs, in waters 8 to 10 feet deep."
No matter where you fish, Baker said, walleye fishing seems to peter out in August. "Warm water temperature probably puts the fish off their feed," he said, "at the same time that baitfish are big enough to be of interest."
Gizzard shad are particular and abundant favorites at that time of year. "Walleyes just chow on those."
But fishing can be tough. "So, the fish are not as hungry, and they're living amidst this great smorgasbord. It's a difficult fishing challenge."
All the more reason to get out there — and catch dinner-sized walleyes shallow, or bragging-sized ones in the deeper waters. And do it now!
LOOSER RULES FOR
BETTER BAY FISHERIES
When Mike Avery and I fished for Saginaw Bay walleyes for the first time 30 years or so back, we were targeting fish that were largely the products of drainable rearing ponds that ringed the Bay and were operated by the DNR and local partners.
Each year the ponds produced millions of 2-inch walleyes, and the Bay put thousands of fish in anglers' coolers. Managers wondered what share of the catch was coming from the ponds and what share the Bay and its tributaries produced. When mass tagging technologies were developed to enable computing the ratio, the answer was a surprise.
Nearly all of the fish that anglers were catching were spawned naturally. The Bay's walleye population, having been re-established by fish from the ponds, could now spawn all the walleyes the Bay could support, freeing pond production for planting in other Michigan waters.
At the same time, the Bay was undergoing major changes: zebra and quagga mussels cleared the water, changing the food chain and favoring growth of weeds. Alewife numbers collapsed, and walleyes that had feasted on small alewives turned to yellow perch instead, and they now eat most of the millions of perch the Bay produces.
Astoundingly, the Bay that had virtually no walleyes in the 1970s now had too many, and to bring it back into balance fisheries managers decided to enlist anglers, instituting special regulations that boosted the daily creel limit from five fish to eight, and lowering the minimum length from 15 inches to 13.
"Help us out, you fishing conservationists," they seem to say. "Catch and cook some of these fish."
Well, OK then.
Baker calls the new regulations "pretty well received," adding that while it's too early to identify results, "We think we're moving in the right direction. We'd like to see better balance between walleyes and the forage base. We might be seeing some indications that perhaps perch have responded," and perhaps are surviving in slightly higher numbers.