•Walleye •Smallmouth •Pike
They say that variety is the spice of life. That being the case, it could be argued that Michigan offers fishermen more variety than any state. From the tiny rainbow smelt to Great Lakes musky, Michigan anglers have lots of spices to tempt the taste buds. To my way of thinking, that’s what makes fishing in Michigan unique, special and rewarding.
The Big Three
Of all the game fish species found in Michigan the most abundant and popular among anglers are the walleye, smallmouth bass and northern pike. These three species are so similar in their habitat and food requirements that many of Michigan’s top waters offer exceptional fishing for all three. Cases in point: Lake St. Clair, Saginaw Bay, Little Bay de Noc, the Detroit River, the Saginaw River, Houghton Lake, Black Lake, Burt Lake, Mullet Lake, Indian Lake, Manistique Lake and the list goes on and on…..
If you’re motivated by lots of action and a mixed bag, walleye, smallmouth and pike won’t disappoint.
It’s safe to say that part of the reason walleye, smallmouth and pike are so wide spread and abundant is because as species they are exceptionally versatile in their habitat requirements. These apex predators have evolved into the ultimate survival specialists. Each of these fish are capable of surviving on one forage type today and thriving on a different one tomorrow. Each does well in rivers, natural lakes, impoundments and even the open waters of the Great Lakes.
If these three game fish have one common denominator it would be their use of weed cover. Walleye, smallmouth and pike do well in environments that feature at least some aquatic weed growth. If that weed growth happens to be found adjacent to deep water, all three of these predators are likely to thrive.
Walleye, smallmouth and pike are all schooling fish that prefer to hunt by slowly cruising along weed edges and other cover types, positioning for that opportunity to dart in and chase down unsuspecting prey. As conditions dictate, each of these fish can also adapt to tucking into dense cover and laying in ambush.
Aquatic weeds play a major role in the habitat requirements of these fish, but in the absence of aquatic weeds, once again the walleye, smallmouth and pike adapt.
To the angler interested in catching more of these fish, concentrating on weed growth makes the most sense. Weed growth help to concentrate fish, but weeds also create an environment where the fish feels comfortable and in control. This in turn allows the angler the opportunity to approach close enough to make contact without the fish suspecting danger.
Fishing among weed cover can be frustrating until the angler comes to the realization that snags, fouled hooks and presentation limits are all part of the equation. The ideal situation involves weed cover that’s dense enough to attract and hold fish, yet thin enough to allow anglers the opportunity to ply the weeds with a minimum of hang ups. Weeds that are carpet-like are too dense to fish effectively in many cases. Weeds that are overly sparse tend to hold only the occasional fish.
The secret to fishing weeds is the ability to identify the right kinds of weed growth and optimum water depths. Tall growing weed cover like common pond weed (cabbage) or smart weed and coontail tend to create the ideal hunting environment for walleye, smallmouth and pike. These weeds sometimes grow into dense underwater forests of cover, but more often they form into bunches or clusters surrounded by some open water. The bottom composition dictates how these plants grow and spread. Large areas of soft organic bottom material will allow these weeds to flourish. Patches of harder and less fertile sand or gravel bottoms restrict weed growth.
How dense the weeds become dictates the best fishing presentations. Very dense weeds are best fished with a vertical presentation like a slip bobber. More open weeds can be attacked best with a more aggressive casting option that covers more water and targets active fish.
Fishing with traditional lures and presentations in a dense stand of cabbage or smart weed is sort of like trying to fly fish along a stream bank lined with thick brush. The odds of making a clean and effective cast are next to zero.
Instead, consider using a slip bobber rig appropriate to the species being targeted. For walleye and smallmouth a small to medium sized Carlisle float armed with a No. 4 beak style hook is ideal. Bait this rig with either a small minnow or medium leech and watch what happens. Use just enough split shots to sink the bait and cause the float to tip upright. The split shot is best placed on the line about 12 inches above the hook and bait.
Make short and accurate casts that target pockets or openings among the densest cover. Generally it’s best to set your depth so the bait is 1-2 feet off bottom and in clear view of any fish that might be in the neighborhood.
Slip float fishing is best practiced from a stationary boat. This style of fishing requires some patience and determination. Not every opening or pocket in the weeds is going to hold fish. The angler’s job is to be determined and keep plugging away until fish are located.
The good news is that if a bite is going to happen, it usually happens quickly. Toss into an opening and wait no more than a minute or two. If no action occurs, reel up and make another cast to another pocket. Don’t become overly anxious and leave a spot without thoroughly fishing the area. This style of fishing requires more patience than skill. The best fishing usually takes place in water from 6 to 12 feet deep.
More Dense Weeds
Sometimes weed growth is too dense to justify casting traditional lures like jigs, but there is a reasonable amount of open water between the weeds and the surface that can be trolled. This zone of water is best trolled with crankbaits. Time and time again I’ve employed this presentation to catch amazing numbers of walleye, smallmouth and pike. What makes this presentation so deadly is that crankbaits are the one lure that can be trolled to very specific depths. The goal here is to present the crankbait about a foot above the weed tops where fish can easily spot the lure and snags and fouled hooks are kept to a minimum.
The always popular Precision Trolling book is the obvious way to determine how deep various crankbaits dive on specific lead lengths. Without this guide the angler will have to determine running depth by trial and error, wasting valuable fishing time and limiting the catch in the process.
Trolling crankbaits over the top of emerging weeds is sort of like structure trolling only without the structure. I prefer to fish a couple lines straight out the back of the boat and a couple lines rigged on in-line planer boards. If the weed growth covers a large area, the in-line board rigs will undoubtedly catch the majority of the fish. For smaller pockets of weeds, the flat lines shine and become equally productive.
The most productive baits for targeting all three species are small to medium sized shad lures or high action wobblers. Good shad baits to try include the Salmo Executor, Rapala Shad Rap, Cotton Cordell CC Shad and Berkley Flicker Shad. Top high action wobblers include the Salmo Hornet No. 5, Storm 1/4 ounce Hot n Tot and Rapala Rattlin’ Fat Rap. Stick with natural colors when fishing in weed cover.
Scattered weed cover opens up the options a little and allows anglers to cast effectively with traditional fish catching lures like jigs. Not any jig however is a good choice for pitching into weed patches. Select a jig that has the eye tie coming out the nose of the lure instead of out the top. Traditional jigs that have the eye tie on the top of the lead head are known as 90 degree hook bends and they tend to create an annoying spot where weeds and other debris can catch on the jig.
Jigs with the eye tie coming out the nose are classified as 60 degree jig bends and this configuration allows the jig to be pulled or worked through weed cover without picking up nearly as many pieces of debris.
Only a handful of commercially produced jigs meet these requirements. The 1/8 and 1/4 ounce versions of the Northland Stand-Up Fireball, Bait Rigs Slow Poke and the Lindy Little Joe Timb’r Rock Jig are good choices. Of the three my favorite is the Slow Poke that is designed to be fished either with live bait or with soft plastics. The other two designs are made for fishing with live bait.
A leech, minnow or half a nightcrawler will all catch fish in the weeds, but simply keeping bait on the hook is a challenge. Instead, when fishing weed cover, I prefer to use soft plastics that stay on the hook better and provide more visibility and action.
Some great soft plastics to try include Berkley’s Gulp Minnow and the Yum Grub. Both are exceptionally soft, have great action and are impregnated with scent and flavor enhancers that help trigger strikes.
To effectively pitch jigs into weed cover requires a good quality spinning outfit. I personally favor a six foot/six inch medium action rod or a seven foot medium light action rod for pitching jigs. The Guide Select series from Okuma are wonderful quality IM8 rods priced to sell at around $95. A small to medium sized spinning reel loaded with 10 pound test super braid line is also essential to success. Super braid line allows the angler to detect when the jig is making contact with the weeds easier than using monofilament. Also, because super braid is very thin and has next to zero stretch, the angler can pop the jig through weed jungles with amazing ease. Many strikes occur immediately after the jig has been popped through a particularly dense clump of weeds and settles back to bottom.
For walleye and smallmouth I tie a short (24 inch) leader of 10 pound test fluorocarbon line to the super braid as a leader. Pike tend to bite right through both the super braid and fluorocarbon leaders. When pike are the primary target, a heavier leader of 20# test fluorocarbon will eliminate most of the bite off problems.
Unfortunately when it comes to jigging, bite offs are part of the game. To completely eliminate the bite off problem would require using steel or titanium leader material which would limit the number of bites from walleye and smallmouth in the process. Compromise is the only solution when targeting a mixed bag and pitching jigs into pike infested waters.
Summing It Up
Michigan’s top three game fish are without question the walleye, smallmouth bass and northern pike. So often these fish live in the same waters and same spots that we routinely take them for granted. The opportunity to fish all three species on any given day is a blessing. My advice? Go for the mixed bag and enjoy every minute spent chasing the big three.