Cold-weather delight for pier anglers
Michigan’s late fall is good news for those who want to catch whitefish along the Lake Michigan coast. As this column was being written in early November, pier anglers at St. Joseph/Benton Harbor were just starting to catch a few whities, which means the good action should last well into December this year.
“My best fishing happens when the water is from 45 down to 40 degrees,” says Martin Moore, a pier veteran who fishes the structures at St. Joseph as well at South Haven to the north. As of this writing, the temps at St. Joe were still in the mid-50-degree range.
A few years ago, Martin Moore took this writer under his wing and taught him a lot about fishing whitefish and steelhead from the piers. He spends a lot of time out there, and has put together a system that works.
Like most pier anglers I’ve met, Martin has a secret or two for catching whitefish that he’ll probably take to the grave, but he’s a helpful sort of guy, happy to share plenty of info to get folks started in their pursuit of whitefish. Here’s an overview.
Martin likes 10-foot, medium-action spinning rods, reels spooled with 20-pound test Power Pro braided line. While few whitefish weigh over two or three pounds, the heavier gear helps fight the occasional steelhead, brown or lake trout that takes the bait intended for whites. Plus, the heavier rod handles the weighty sinker that’s necessary to keep the bait on the bottom in the strong currents found around most Great Lakes piers.
The best long rods have limber tips, which show when a fish has the bait. The braided line works well because good spots for late-fall whitefish often are around rocky bottoms covered with sharp-edged zebra mussels. The braided line averts abrasion and resists breaking. And Martin uses the same rods and line when float fishing for steelhead in the warmer months.
The focal point of the whitefish rig is a 1-3-ounce pyramid sinker, the best shape, Martin has found, for keeping the current from sweeping his lines into each other or into other anglers’ lines. The sinker is clipped to a sinker holder that slides on the main line. A bead goes between the sinker holder and a swivel gets tied to the end of the braided line. The swivel holds a 4-foot leader of 8- to 12-pound test fluorocarbon, to which Martin ties an Eagle Claw No. 6 Single Salmon Egg Hook.
“I always sharpen hooks right out of the package before baiting up,” Martin says, noting that brand-new plated hooks aren’t nearly as sharp as you can make them with a hook file. One to three eggs go on the hook.
Most pier fishermen make their own out of simple materials such as PVC pipe, duct tape and rebar (the classic configuration at St. Joe/Benton Harbor where the rebar can be pounded into sand-filled holes in the concrete), but the right design depends on the pier. Some piers call for rod holders that attaché to railings; others necessitate rod holders attached to the angler’s cooler or cart.
Bait and Prep
Some whitefish anglers use fresh salmon eggs; others use waxworms. Both baits catch fish, but Martin feels carefully cooking and then brining eggs produces bait that will outfish most others.
He starts with loose eggs or eggs carefully separated from the skein, preferring Coho roe, but also having success with spawn from king salmon and steelhead.
“I boil the individual eggs until they are just a little thicker than peanut butter—about three minutes boiling time,” Martin says. “I strain them with a wire sieve, then immediately put them in ice water to stop the cooking process.”
After the eggs are cold, Martin brines them for more flavor, and for a little more toughness to stay on the hook. His simple process also preserves the roe for a long time.
“I sugar cure them,” he says. “It’s just one cup of canning salt (or other salt without added iodine) and one cup of sugar and to preserve them. Soak ’em in that for 24 hours or at least overnight.”
At that point, they’re ready to use or to freeze.
“The reason to sugar cure them is I can thaw out a 2-ounce cup of eggs and if I don’t use them all in a day of fishing, I can put what’s left in the refrigerator and the eggs won’t go bad—even if they’re in there for a whole season.”
Whitefish come in shallow in the fall to spawn and while there, eat whatever happens to be available. Martin has found lake trout eggs, minnows, fly larvae and even zebra mussels in their stomachs. Most of their activity is focused around rock bottoms, so that’s the best place to put bait, Martin says. Long casts might be impressive, but on many piers, swinging for the fence puts your bait on sand, where chances of fish contact are less than with a short lob near the pier, where the bait lands on rocks.
Martin offers some practical advice for catching these tender-mouthed fish that might tweak the sensitivities of those with a catch-and-release ethic.
“I use a four-foot leader so the fish can take the bait and eat it before he feels any resistance,” Martin says. “By the time the fish bends the rod, he’s usually gut-hooked, which means the hook won’t pull free.”
Note that most whitefish anglers keep their catch and that Michigan has no size limit and that the Great Lakes creel limit is 25, so releasing a fish that swallowed the hook usually isn’t consideration.
Martin suggests angler should pre-tie a bunch of hooks on leaders and wrap them on a swim noodle before heading out to the pier. Doing so makes it easier to quickly change the leader after sharp rocks nick it, or after you snip the leader to put a fish in the cooler, hook still in its gullet.
Martin also recommends pier anglers invest in good ice creepers for their boots as wind and waves can turn the concrete pier into a dangerous skating rink. He hot-glued a throwable PFD to a square of plywood that he uses to sit atop a bucket—and have to throw to any unlucky angler who might slip into the frigid water. So far he hasn’t had to use it.
On The Table
Martin says that in his house, whitefish less than two pounds get filleted, double-breaded and pan-fried. Bigger ones get brined and smoked. He notes that fresh whitefish fillets are a bit soft, and suggests that soaking them overnight in water in the fridge firms them up for frying.
A common myth is whitefish shouldn’t be frozen.
“You can freeze them, I haven’t had any problem with it,” Martin says. “I freeze them in a one-gallon zip bag, half-fill it with water, roll it tight to get the air out and zip it tight. It’s like the old-fashioned technique of freezing fish covered with water in a milk carton.”
Catching whitefish can be a hit-or-miss ordeal of hanging tough in cruddy weather, and anglers have to put in some time on the pier. But once you experience success and serve them up for a family meal, you will, more than likely, go back for more.