Walleye By The Bay…

Not so many years ago, Saginaw Bay was best known as a walleye fishery focusing on crankbaits and trolling. At its peak, the crankbait phenomena became so intense major lure manufacturers started producing specialty colors only available at tackle shops along the shores of Saginaw Bay. For more than a decade, crankbaits ruled on Saginaw Bay. Anyone fishing something other than one of those “vogue” crankbaits was considered out of the loop!

Interestingly enough, the crankbait bite Saginaw Bay was so famous for eventually fizzled as changes no one could have predicted started taking place on Saginaw Bay. The Bay like any fishery was and is in a constant state of change. As the zebra mussel infestation of the early 90’s reached a peak, the waters of Saginaw Bay were converted from algae rich and a pea green in color to almost gin clear. Literally countless zebra mussels filter plankton 24/7, leaving in their path water that’s gin clear and often void of baitfish.

Certain species of baitfish that feed on plankton, like gizzard shad for example have declined in recent years. With the decline of gizzard shad, the crankbaits that did such a wonderful job of imitating this once prolific forage species started losing their edge.

Struggling anglers started using more traditional walleye lures like the always popular crawler harness. For the past few years the crawler harness in various forms has dominated the fishing scene on Saginaw Bay from Bay City to AuGres.

Ironically, another change in forage has opened up a whole new chapter in the ongoing saga of Saginaw Bay. For reasons no one seems to completely understand, the alewife population of Saginaw Bay and the Lake Huron basin has declined dramatically in recent years. While losing another important forage species might seem like bad news for walleye fishermen, it’s actually turning out quite differently.

It turns out the alewife is not only a forage species, they are also an aggressive predator feeding on young walleye and perch fry without mercy. The moment the alewife population started to decline, the survival rate of naturally reproduced walleye in Saginaw Bay began to skyrocket. In recent years record hatches of walleye have fueled a walleye fishery second to none.

The Crankbait

Bite Is Back

The current population of walleye in Saginaw Bay is off the charts and all those fish are creating a sport fishery that rivals the magnitude of Lake Erie. Any time a fishery finds itself with an abundance of predators and limited forage species, the stage is set for a colossal crankbait bite. Crankbaits are one of the most versatile walleye lures, and on Saginaw Bay the fish catching value of these lures has never been stronger.

Simply put, crankbaits catch fish in cold, cool and warm waters. By simply manipulating the lure type and action and of course trolling speed, anglers on Saginaw Bay are tapping into walleye catches that are impossible to equal with other lure types.

What Makes Crankbaits So Deadly

Probably the single most important feature of a crankbait is the fact they are the ultimate lure for depth control fishing. A floating/diving style crankbait can be depended upon to dive to a predictable depth time and time again. By simply controlling two simple variables, anglers can literally aim their lures at the depths walleye are found using. The most pronounced variable that controls crankbait running depth is lead length or the distance the lure is set behind the boat. In general, the longer the lead length the deeper the lure will dive.

The easiest and most efficient way to monitor lead lengths is with a line counter reel. To get the most from these reels it helps if all the reels being used are the same size, manufacturer/brand and all are filled to capacity with the same line type and diameter. Juggling these variables reduces the repeatable accuracy of line counter reels and their ability to help anglers catch more walleye.

The second variable related to crankbait running depth that’s important to consider is line diameter. Thinner lines have less friction in the water and enable crankbaits to achieve deeper depths.

Most serious walleye trollers agree that 10# test monofilament is the ideal choice for open water walleye trolling. Since most of the walleye taken in Saginaw Bay are found suspended 10-15 feet below the surface, the need for super braid lines and the extra depth they enable is negated.

The depth guide Precision Trolling (www.precisionangling.com) takes the guess work out of determining crankbait running depth. Known as the “Troller’s Bible” this must have fishing aid clearly maps out the running depths of hundreds of popular crankbaits, enabling anglers to simply locate fish on their sonar and then aim their crankbaits precisely to the depths where fish are found in the water column.

Besides the obvious advantages of precise depth control, crankbaits are deadly for other reasons. Available in a wealth of shapes, action types and colors, crankbaits do a magnificent job of imitating the primary forage of walleye. In addition, crankbaits can be fished at all the common trolling speeds, making them more versatile than spinners which function best at slow speeds.

More On Trolling Speed

The typical troller on Saginaw Bay is moving at or near 2.0 MPH. That all around average speed is typically one of the most productive, but varying from the norm has its advantages on Saginaw Bay.

Because the waters of Saginaw Bay are very clear, trolling too slow can actually reduce the number of bites an angler is likely to get. This is especially true of crankbaits which generate a reactionary strike response. Trolling too slowly will invite walleye to follow the lures and eventually lose interest.

When the water temperatures are between 60-75 degrees, a somewhat faster 2.5 to 3.0 MPH trolling speed will trigger a higher number of strikes most days. At these faster trolling speeds, walleye are forced to react to the passing lures rather than playing the cat and mouse game. Also, faster trolling speeds significantly increase the hook up ratio as more pressure is applied to the hook point when a fish strikes.

Nothing If Without Boards

Crankbaits are magnificent walleye lures, but without the help of planer boards to cover more water and reach out to spooky fish, the walleye catch on Saginaw Bay would plummet. Both in-line boards like the popular Off Shore Tackle Side-Planer and dual board mast systems work equally well at catching Saginaw Bay walleye. Which board type an angler chooses is largely a personal choice that in most cases boils down to boat size and how many lines an angler is likely to fish.

Small boat anglers tend to favor the in-line board and use a modest number of lines. Anglers who have bigger boats favor the dual board mast system and the option of fishing maximum numbers of lines/lures.

Starting in April, walleye anglers on Saginaw Bay will be able to fish three lines per license. No doubt adding these extra lines will encourage more anglers to step up to dual board mast trolling systems. The extra lines that this trolling gear is designed to handle amounts to a walleye harvesting system when used correctly!

For those who opt to fish with a mast system, the line releases selected becomes a critical concern. The weakest link of any dual board mast system is the line release. If the line release fails the whole system fails. Home made line releases are a classic example of being penny wise and fisherman foolish. By investing in good quality line releases an angler is maximizing the fish catching power of planer boards. My all time favorite line release for walleye is the classic Off Shore Tackle OR-10 (yellow in color) release sold at every major fishing tackle retailer. This release simply can’t be beat for walleye trolling, day in and day out.

Hot Crankbaits To Consider

I personally have enjoyed crankbait trolling success on Saginaw Bay with no less than a dozen different crankbait brands and models. Most crankbaits will work at times, but only a select group tends to hammer walleye day after day.

Leading my personal list of favorites is the Salmo Hornet No. 6. This high action and wide bodied crankbait is amazing when it comes to triggering walleye strikes. This lure is also the only crankbait that comes with a satisfaction guarantee. The Real Crappie, Viking and Clown are excellent color choices to consider with the Hornet crankbait.

Next up, I feel the Reef Runner 400 Series Rip Shad is a walleye killer. A couple colors stand out and it’s hard to beat Bare Naked and Pink Lemonade.

Thirdly, the old standby Storm Hot n Tot catches Saginaw Bay fish consistently. The original 1/4 ounce model is my favorite and I like color options that have the red lips.

A fourth choice for crankbait trolling on Saginaw Bay is the Deep Husky Jerk No. 14 from Rapala. This bait has a more subtle action and seems to produce a little better when the water is on the cool side. Clown is hands down my favorite color choice.

Timing Is Everything

It’s almost always true with fishing that timing is a big part of success. The best crankbait bite on Saginaw Bay starts in early May and runs through mid July. Water temperatures from 50-75 degrees represent the calendar periods when walleye are the most active and likely to strike at fast moving lures like crankbaits.

This period of time also represents the dates when weather conditions in the Great Lakes region are the most stable. Warm, relatively stable weather is exactly what a crankbait troller is hoping for. The more volatile the weather, the less likely a killer crankbait bite will develop or last for any length of time.

To zero in even closer, the last week of May and the first two weeks of June will find walleyes literally on fire across Saginaw Bay.

Putting It All Together

To be successful trolling crankbaits anglers need to have all the bases covered. It’s important to fish at the right time of year, select the proper crankbaits and colors, monitor the depths fish are using and use lead lengths to carefully control lure depth. Perhaps the most important skill of crankbait trolling is to understand the importance of accurately duplicating what’s working. Pay attention to details and the mystery of crankbait trolling and catching limits of Saginaw Bay walleye will be an open book.

Lastly it’s important to realize this bonanza may not last forever. We have no idea if or when the alewife population will rebound on Saginaw Bay. If and when it does, the natural reproduction we’re currently enjoying may quickly come to a screeching halt. The best advice? Go fishing soon while the action is at its best.