Walleye Fishing the Saginaw River…
You have to be a little crazy to fish just about any river in January. No, you have to be a lot crazy, but that doesn’t seem to stop the thousands of anglers who step foot on the frozen surface of the Saginaw River every winter.
I can make these statements because I’m one of the crazy guys who are addicted to fishing the Saginaw River in winter. Depending on the winter some years we’re walking on thin ice and others we’re fishing from small boats, but always we’re catching fish and making a spectacle of ourselves to onlookers who watch with both amazement and pity.
I’ve been enjoying this somewhat unorthodox experience since the mid 1980’s and plan on continuing the adventure as long as walleye live in the river and winter puts an end to my other outdoor adventures.
Since walleye were first introduced in the Saginaw River system back in the early 1980s countless anglers have fished among the urban back drop and found walleye action. At times the Saginaw River is so chock full of walleye, catching them becomes child’s play. At other times, finding and catching fish requires a bit more effort.
A number of factors determine how many walleye may or may not be in the Saginaw River at any given time. A wet fall with a significant amount of run off tends to attract more walleye into the river from their summer haunts in Saginaw Bay. These roving schools of walleye can manifest as anything from sublegal specimens to trophy class fish.
A good spring hatch also puts a boost into the number of walleye that call the river their permanent home. Most anglers don’t realize that the Saginaw River has a substantial resident population of walleye. More walleye show up during the annual spring spawning season and then spend the summer in Saginaw Bay.
How many fish stick around and become residents depends in part on the local shad population from year to year. A large shad population helps to insure walleye will find the Saginaw River to their liking. In years when the shad numbers are down, walleye find other food resources Saginaw Bay.
Gizzard shad are a quality baitfish, but they are exceptionally delicate and subject to rapid population swings. Shad crowd into the river during the fall and winter because the water is a little warmer and has more plankton for food. This seasonal forage base phenomenon is usually the building blocks that a good winter fishery is based on.
Ice Fishing Methods
The Saginaw River is relatively deep, wide and slow moving. This is exactly why ice forms in the coldest parts of the winter. While the ice rarely gets more than six inches thick, it often is thick enough to safely support angling efforts.
Because of the rather tenuous ice conditions, I always recommend that anglers carry a spud with them while fishing. Check the ice thickness and condition frequently to insure every fishing trip ends on a happy note.
Jigging is the fishing method of choice among most of the anglers who target walleye along the Saginaw River. An ordinary 1/4 to 3/8 ounce leadhead jig tipped with a shiner minnow is a river fishing standby. This simple approach is also the most subtle of the popular jigging presentations. When walleye are not biting readily, a jig and minnow will usually produce the best results.
Moving up the spectrum of jigging methods, a somewhat more aggressive approach involves the use of jigging spoons. Spoons in the 3/8 to ounce range are popular with anglers. Some tip the spoon with a minnow or minnow head and other prefer to jig the spoon without the benefit of bait.
To wobble and flash as intended a spoon needs to be fished by allowing the bait to sink on a slack line. Simply lifting the spoon on a tight line and dropping the rod tip so the spoon can flutter back to bottom works best. I like to fish a spoon so it is lifted about two feet off bottom and stops about six inches from bottom. This keeps the spoon well within the strike zone of walleye that stick tight to bottom in rivers.
The third group of jigging lures suitable for winter walleye are known as the action swimmers or jigging/swimming lures. Most of these baits are minnow shaped, weighted and the line tie attachment is in the middle of the lure. A small fin at the back allows the bait to coast when allowed to sink on a slack line. Jigging these baits and letting the free fall back to bottom creates a circular swimming motion that works exceptionally well on active fish. The popular choices in this category include the Jigging Rapala and the Nils Master. Yet a different type of action swimming lures are the unique Chubby Darters produced by Salmo. The Chubby Darter is minnow shaped, but the profile is much fatter than other jigging/swimming baits. The eye tie attachment isn’t directly in the middle of the bait, but positioned a little forward. The body of the lure is wider at the head and tapers near the tail. This shape and line tie attachment creates a bait that creates a wobbling action more than a darting one.
The wobble is wider and more subtle than other swimming/jigging lures, creating an action that is best described as a cross between the subtle movement of a jig and the aggressive darting action of baits like the Jigging Rapala.
The Chubby Darter comes in several sizes but the No. 6 is the best size and weight for fishing on the Saginaw River. These amazing lures fish best when they are not tipped with a minnow. “Using a Chubby Darter with a minnow kills the subtle action,” says Saginaw River expert Matt LaFond. “These unique lures are designed to swim and trigger strikes without the benefit of bait. To make mine a little more attractive to walleye, I add fish oil right out of an Omega 3 pill capsule available at health food stores.”
All of the popular jigging lures are best fished on six to eight pound test monofilament line, small spinning reels and medium action jigging sticks. A fluorocarbon leader isn’t a bad idea, but the water in the Saginaw River is rarely clear enough to worry extensively about leaders.
Top Winter Fishing Spots
When ice forms on the Saginaw River the best fishing tends to be in deeper areas of the river. Deeper portions of the river have less current flow, leaving walleye free to cruise around while hunting without using up a lot of energy.
Seek out water from 20-35 feet deep in the lower river near Bay City and a 10-20 feet deep upstream near Saginaw. The further upstream you go in the Saginaw River the more shallow and narrow the river becomes and the more swift the current is.
Productive fishing spots are easy to identify. On any given evening you’re likely to see several dozen to a hundred or more anglers crowding into spots that routinely produce fish. Access is also not a problem. Dotting the shoreline of the Saginaw River both the cities of Bay City and Saginaw have an abundance of public park lands that make it easy to access the river.
Open Water Jigging
On those winters when the ice seems more fleeting than predictable, open water jigging is an excellent option. A small boat equipped with a modest outboard and or electric motor is about all the equipment needed to effectively jig for Saginaw River walleye.
Because the boat launches are likely to be icy, take along a pail of loose sand to make sure you can both launch and load your boat safely. Open water anglers are drifting with the current and subject to a lot of potential snags. Most favor generic round head jigs in the 1/4 to 1/2 ounce range. Colorful grub bodies are an important accessory on the Saginaw River because the water clarity is usually turgid. Fishing with both a grub body and a live minnow is a very popular open water jigging option.
Medium action spinning rods equipped with six to 10 pound test super braid lines are essential for jigging success. The deeper waters of the Saginaw River make for challenging jig fishing. Without the benefit of low stretch super braid lines, it can become difficult to detect subtle walleye strikes.
Some Final Notes
The Saginaw River can offer up excellent winter jig fishing opportunities as early as November and all through the winter season. The walleye fishing season closes on March 15 and normally the fishing action gets nothing but better as winter pushes towards spring.
If the weather is cold you could find yourself ice fishing or in milder weather drifting down the lazy river. Either way, the Saginaw River is hard to beat for walleye action, easy access and beating those “what to do with myself” winter blues!