Bays de Noc, Escanaba River
The spots are rare indeed in Michigan where all in one day you can catch our “Big Four” (trout, walleye, bass and salmon), but in the Escanaba area, it’s a virtual no-brainer.
I managed to hit three out of four on a recent June weekend, and only missed the salmon action by a few weeks, so it’s easier than you think to hit ’em and get ’em all here. All locations I fished are within a few minutes’ drive of each other. There are plenty of charter captains for hire, or if you bring your own boat, plenty of launches.
Bassin’ in the Morning
Shoots of new growth reeds were just poking a foot or so above the rocky shallows of Little Bay de Noc between Escanaba and Gladstone in June when we got into position and began casting. We were floating a stone’s throw from U.S. 2, and the drivers there must have wondered what a couple of bass boats were doing on this bay known for its great walleye action. The words “bass” and “Bays de Noc” don’t usually go together.
We wanted them to just keep on wondering and keep on going, because we were having some of the best early season smallmouth fishing we’d ever experienced, along the bay’s shoreline just north of the Terrace Bay Resort.
Nearly every cast we made brought a strike from smallies that were basically untapped except by a few knowing locals who were letting the secret out: Bay de Noc is not just for walleyes any more. It’s on fire for smallmouth, too.
While we had our best luck along the west shore off U.S. 2, but we also tried the upper tip of the Little Bay north of Gladstone where fishing is usually great as well. But with the action we experienced in the shallows of mid-bay, we figured, why move?
Tubes proved the best bait in the shallows here, plopped into the reeds and just along the edges, which lured the nesting smallies out to play.
Escanaba in da Afternoon
After catching and releasing more than 30 smallies in Little Bay De Noc, we drove to the top of the bay and then north on M-35 several miles to the tailwaters of Boney Falls dam on the Escanaba River. We passed up accesses in the lower river closer to the NewPage paper mill for one maintained by the Escanaba River Association below the dam.
Here, the river has cut through the land’s rocky backbone to create a top tailwater trout fishery. It’s wide, and at some accesses downstream it’s also tricky wading due to bowling-ball-size rocks, but here we found the bottom with few obstructions to stumble over. The current is moderate after the spring runoff is done and it also has a great trout population a mile or two below the dam, both planted by the association and native.
A smooth rock face sloped gently to the river’s edge where we entered the stream. We waded cautiously at first as the tannin-colored water made it hard to see bottom, but we soon got used to it. Depth stays pretty even, and we could wade nearly across the 50-yard-wide stream here. We knew that because all the fish we saw rising that day were on the opposite side from us. The solid rock bottom is interspersed with pockets of sand and gravel, giving enough places for insects to eke out an existence.
Tying on stone and caddis fly imitators, we inched closer to the feeding fish, and soon were holding our first of several 10- to 12-inch brown trout. What we caught on our short visit is pretty representative of what you’ll also find, says Bill Duckwall of Marquette’s Uncle Ducky Outfitters. Because the river warms in late summer due to the dam, fishing is usually best now through July.
“You’re going to get mostly brown trout there, but you’ll also find some rainbows as well. Though there’s some bigger fish in there, I would say 10- to 12-inches would be average,” Duckwall adds.
“We guide both wading and drift fishing on the Escanaba. The upper Escanaba closer to Gwinn is more brook trout fishing. There are brookies throughout the system but as you get around Boney Falls impoundment, that becomes a warm water fishery (except for the tailwaters). But if you get on up the river about 20 miles, especially where the West Branch comes into the Middle Branch, you’re getting into brook trout country, and you’ll also find browns and rainbows, too,” he says.
“It’s good for fly fishing below the dam because the river’s so big, and when you go north, that’s where it starts tightening up, but there’s a tradeoff because that’s also where the good brook trout fishing is.”
Along with patterns mentioned, soft hackle flies also work well. There’s also a smattering of small mayfly hatches like blue wing olives, Duckwall says.
If you fish for walleye, you know that sooner or later, one of your destinations should be the Bays de Noc. Little Bay, which is actually not little at all, has been the site of several premier walleye tournaments, including the PWT tour.
While pre-fishing one tournament with PWT pro Sheldon Meidinger of Bismarck, N.D., a few Augusts ago, we hooked into nice walleye only a few yards from downtown Escanaba. We cast and bounced jigs and hard body baits off old pilings in Escanaba’s harbor area near the town’s concrete-encased freighter, and also found them at the edge of the ship turning basin at the freighter loading dock to the north. Other PWT anglers also had success trolling crawler harnesses just above the weeds in mid-bay.
On my visit, we also went out during the day on Little Bay de Noc, and fished that evening off the mouth of the Ford River south of Escanaba, catching a few there.
But as local charter skipper Dick Stafford says, walleye catches are most consistent in the outer bay’s shoals, mostly off the Garden Peninsula. “Some of the shoals to target include Minneapolis, Corona and Drisco,” says Stafford, a 25-year veteran of fishing here.
“From May 15 through the first week of June, walleye will be in close and in large numbers near most of the river mouths. Then there will be a lull and the fishing starts back up as soon as the alewives start moving to deeper water. They’ll gorge on those in the shallows,” he says.
Concentrate on Little Bay at that point. “As July approaches, they’re along the full shore from Gladstone to Cedar River. Look for points and structure, but the best fishing is generally out of the bay along the shoals if you want consistent catches.
“We generally troll for them using crank baits behind boards with lead core in deeper waters. If you’ll be using a floating Rapala or Bomber-type lure, put out three colors of 18-pound test lead core in 30 or 31 feet of water and you’ll be sure to be about 28 feet down.” In other words, perfect depth for Esky ‘eyes.
From October to ice-up, walleye fishing erupts again during the famed “Halloween bite.” Stafford says that by late October when the action peaks, all but the smallest charter operators will have already pulled their boats because of the likelihood of ice. But if you’ve got a smaller boat, head here then and you won’t be disappointed.
We had no luck when we fished salmon with Stafford in early June because we were too early, he said. But from the last week of June to mid-August, it’s gangbusters here.
Besides Lake Michigan plants from our state, Wisconsin salmon also take their summer vacation here to dine on the area’s forage fish. Add what’s left of northern Lake Huron salmon that come searching for prey, and it gets really intense through summer as the schools converge “Every year we still get lots and lots of alewives here,” Stafford says. Like everywhere in the lakes, sizes are down.
“What used to be 18 to 22-pound fish are more like 10 to 15 pounds now. For salmon, we fish south of Escanaba, from the Ford River mouth down to Cedar River. We also go to areas around St Martins, Summer and Poverty islands.
“Between Escanaba and Manistique there’s a jut of land off the Garden Peninsula that goes all the way to Door County in Wisconsin, and fishing is good there too,” he said.
“Our high point for summer salmon is around July 18, give or take a week. Then from the third week of September through mid-October we have the native salmon come in and they can be fished just off shore in many locations,” Stafford says.
The Bays de Noc also has an added spring trump card: steelhead both on big water and in rivers like the Sturgeon, Cedar, Whitefish and Rapid. And that’s not even counting the city of walleye shanties that forms on the bay each winter. That’s another reason to come to this area holding fish for all seasons.
When You Go
Bill Duckwall of Uncle Ducky Outfitters books guided trips to many U.P. trout streams. Contact him at 877-228-5447, or go to www.upflyfishing.com.
Contact Escanaba-area charter skipper Dick Stafford at 906-789-0110. He fishes both salmon and walleye. For walleye and bass tips and where they’re hitting, check Rapid River’sSal-Mar Resort, 906-474-6918.
Check with the Bays de Noc Convention and Visitors Bureau (800-533-4FUN) for places to stay. Good ones include the older Terrace Bay Resort (906-786-7554), and the friendly Sleepy Hollow Motel (800-47l3-3410), or beachfront cabins like Sandy Shores Resort (906-786-3625) or for gamers, the nearby Chip-In’s Island Resort & Casino, (800-682-6040).