Are you ready for hot ice fishing action? Because the population is booming on Saginaw Bay. Here’s how to get in on the best action…
The huge frozen expanse of Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay has fast gained a reputation as Michigan’s most productive winter walleye hot spot. Anglers travel from the UP and across the state to cash-in on the splendid fishing action. This is walleye fishing at its finest and there is plenty of room, miles of untouched frozen water to accommodate an army of fishermen. Don’t miss the fun-filled action during February when the fast-paced exciting fishery peaks as thousands of walleyes migrate to the Inner Bay.
Fishing will be off the hook for medium size fish but I think there will be a fair number of big trophy fish. Walleyes have a history of growing faster in the bay than almost anywhere in the state. Saginaw Bay and the Saginaw River yield more trophy size walleyes than any body of water during winter.
That’s good news for anglers in search of wall-hanger walleyes that tip the scales over 11 pounds and are eligible for a DNR Master Angler award. Many Wolverine anglers travel across the state in search of big fish, hawgs that strip line from the reel when hooked and leave your heart pounding at the sight of a 30-inch plus walleye swirling inches below the ice.
Saginaw resident Don Leuenberger is no stranger to the monsters that roam the pristine waters of the bay. He fishes nearly every day and I joined him and his sons for a fun outing. We set up along a crack and in less than five minutes Gary was into a dandy fish. I snapped photos of the hefty fish and rushed back to my spot in time to ice three beautiful fish as the sun touched the horizon. Man, it was a great feeling to be miles from shore, on the frozen ice with friends and have large fish constantly on the Vexilar and big walleyes slamming presentations.
“In order to be a successful ice angler you need to be very versatile and willing to cover plenty of water. A reliable ATV or snowmobile is needed in order to reach the walleye fishing grounds found at least four miles off shore. Each season is different, fish congregate in new locations and it is the task of savvy ice anglers to drill enough holes and cover enough water to find fish,” explains Leuenberger. “I usually travel about 8-12 miles daily on my ATV. I begin by drilling holes before dawn in areas where I’ve found fish, I’ll fish a couple hours and move to a new location. My goal is to try at least a half-dozen spots per day in order to locate active walleyes, said Leuenberger. If you want to up your odds at catching winter walleyes, you need to keep moving until you find fish. Don’t make the common mistake of setting up in a dead zone where there are few fish. If you are not catching fish, keep moving until you find an active school,” Leuenberger recommends.
There are several areas of the huge expanse of Saginaw Bay that have produced big catches the last few years. Don’t overlook the deep water fishing found relatively close to shore off AuGres.
Other times fish congregate in the shallower water found on the Pinconning Bar which can be accessed by following the Cody Estey Road to the bay. Many fishermen target the deeper water found near the famous Black Hole. Here fish congregate near the rock structure found along the north side of the deeper water. Black Hole fishermen usually launch ice machines at the turnaround at the end of Coggins Road, while others prefer to drive vehicles towing ice machines onto the shallow flats found where Erickson Road runs onto the bay. Keep in mind that every year an ice crack develops along this area found about ½ mile from shore, and it is a safe bet to follow others when crossing cracks in the ice.
Pinconning is home to the most popular place to get on the frozen expanse. Most fishermen drive onto the ice-covered shallow flats, launch ice machines and travel to the 15-20 ft. depths found due east of the launch. This launch can be found by following I-75 to Linwood Road and turning east, take Pinconning Road through the tiny town and go directly to the bay. There is no launch fee. If you need lures, bait, fuel, etc. turn north on HWY 13 and go about four miles to Frank’s Great Outdoors which has bait, power augers, shanties, ice cleats, clothing, hand warmers, gear and lively minnows. The Linwood Party Store also sells minnows. For an updated fishing report call Frank’s Great Outdoors at (989) 697-5341 or online at www.franksgreatoutdoors.com.
At times walleyes school near the mouth of the Kawkawlin River found about one mile east of the Bay City State Park. Take Beaver Road to the park entrance. Launch fee is FREE with a vehicle license plate, Recreational parking pass or $6 and ample parking available for fishermen towing large trailers, and the lot is patrolled by the DNR. Another launch is found near the mouth of the Saginaw River. Follow Wilder Road east off I-75 to Patterson which goes north to the bay. Fresh minnows are available at The Party Dock near the river mouth at (989) 684-2150.
Bay Walleye Behavior
I’ve chased bay walleyes since their return in the 80s following hefty plants made by fisheries biologists, Leo Mrozinski and Ray Shepherd. From ice-up until ice-out I’ve covered the vast frozen expanse in search of trophy fish. You see, I’m a big fish nut and want to ice trophy fish that push the scales over 11 pounds. I won the Shiver and have landed a couple dozen hawgs in the 11 pound range. It is my opinion, based on years of on-the-ice experience that Saginaw Bay walleyes begin spawning migrations in late January.
Come February, massive schools that number in the thousands pass along the western coast, through the Black Hole toward Linwood. They pause in this region to put on the feed bag and catches soar.
Then, as weather warms and days lengthen, they swim to the southern end of the bay and pass by the State Park and Kawkawlin mouth on their way to the Saginaw River. The migration takes a couple months and come the first part of March, walleyes are in position to charge up the Saginaw River in search of spawning gravel. If we have a long, cold winter, the migration lingers into March. If we have warm weather highlighted by thawing temperatures and rain that causes the Saginaw River to thaw, you can expect a fantastic boat fishery using jigs tipped with minnows in the deep holes from March 1 to March 15; which is the walleye closure.
Locating winter walleyes and patterning the migration can be tricky business. Only the school of hard knocks will put you on fish, you gotta be there, get your line in the water to have a reliable handle on easy fishing. It helps if you have reliable contacts with cell phones that call when the bite is hot. Savvy anglers go on Michigan Sportsman and hit the Saginaw Bay walleyes for up to the minute fishing reports.
It goes without saying that winter walleyes put on the feedbag when the setting sun touches the horizon. This is certainly the case on Saginaw Bay and anglers who are patient and continue fishing when darkness falls are often rewarded with hefty catches. There are so many fish that just about anyone will catch them if they follow a few easy steps.
Begin by seeking water that is at least 15 feet deep. Bay walleyes like to congregate in the 17-20 ft. range. Look for cracks, ice jams with tall slabs of ice pushed upward and drill holes near them. Walleyes often congregate near open spots, cracks or push ups that hold baitfish near the surface.
Use electronics to see your lures and mark fish. Don’t make the common mistake of spending your entire time thumping bottom with lures. Raise them 12-36 inches off bottom and allow predatory walleyes to swim under them. Once a walleye is directly below your bait, give it plenty of wiggles/jiggles to key the interest of active fish. Once the walleye hones in on the lure, twitch it upwards a few inches at a time to entice the fish upward, then pause and let the walleye move in for the kill. Most walleyes will swim kissin’ close to the minnow and suck it in by venting water at lightning speed through their gills. The strike is identified by a solid thump…Now, set the hook!
Stay comfortable! Use a shanty, wind block or pop-up shelter to protect you from the arctic-like brutal conditions. The amount of time you spend on the ice can increase your chances at success. It goes without saying in order to maintain your concentration on the fine details of ice fishing; you must be comfortable, warm and have excellent finger dexterity.
Use lively bait. Sure, you can catch plenty of fish using plastics, cut bait or minnow imitation lures, but if you want to consistently ice walleyes use live bait. I’m talking minnows, not just any minnow, but crappie size on small lures and larger minnows when the bite heats up or using a big lure. Perhaps my deadliest presentation is two crappie minnows hooked lightly through the lips using a small Do-Jigger spoon made by Bay de Noc Lures, Gladstone.
Winter fish are somewhat lethargic and they often slowly approach your lure. Don’t make the common mistake of jigging too rapidly and spooking fish. Jig it a few times and pause, keeping the enticing lively minnows slightly above the walleye. The pause is when the minnows take over; they begin swimming and moving on the hook, which draws the attention of the nearby predator. That’s when the smell and movement of the silvery live bait causes the predatory instincts to take over and cause strikes as wary ‘eyes gulp the offering.
Dead stick tactics work well during the day and when fish are neutral. When walleyes go off the bite you can entice strikes by using small lures like an Easy Prey, Swedish Pimple, Buck-Shot or Rattl’n Flyer spoon tipped with live minnows. Drop the offering halfway to bottom, put the rod in a holder and let it remain stationary. Walleyes will come up to investigate. Do not make the common mistake of jigging, which will spook wary fish. Instead, slowly raise the minnows, pull the walleye upward and he will slam the bait before it reaches the ice. Another dead stick trick is to use a single #8 red Octopus style hook attached through the skin on the back of a lively minnow. Put a size #7 split shot about 10 inches above the minnow. Again, key strikes by slowly raising the minnow when you see a walleye on electronics.
Keep minnows alive by placing them in a Coleman-style cooler with lid. Once you reach the fishing grounds remove lid and poor water from a hole in the ice into the cooler. This conditions bait to the water temperature of the bay and gives them fresh oxygen. Replace cooler water several times each outing and minnows will keep good color and provide the brand of enticing thrashing wiggle on the hook that draws walleyes from far away.
Drill three holes in the ice; one for left-hand rod, center hole for electronics transducer and another for right-hand rod. Use two different lures when jigging to determine which lure walleyes prefer. Some ice anglers prefer a small Swedish Pimple or Rattl’n Flyer on the left rod and a #3 Do-Jigger or Jiggin’ Rapala on the right. The right rod is jigged more vigorously than the left to determine if fish want a fast jigging action or slower jigging style.
Use a small barrel swivel 18 inches above the lure to keep line from twisting. Use fluorocarbon leader attached to a size #10 premium Duo Lock snap for attaching lures.
The last few years’ safe ice has formed during cold weather in January and come February the walleye fishing kicks into high gear as thousands of fish migrate into the inner Saginaw Bay. At times, limit catches of 5 walleyes come fast and when you are marking fish and fighting walleyes the action is hot as a July firecracker.
Gear Up For Ice Fishing
If you expect to catch winter walleyes, you will need plenty of gear. Transportation is required in the form of quad runner, snowmobile or four-wheel cart. A snowmobile is the ticket in deep snow and ideal for crossing open cracks in the ice. ATVs are quiet on the ice and don’t spook fish, ideal on slick ice with no snow and can be easily transported in a truck or van.
Modern ice nomads use GPS, handheld or mounted on the quad, to map fishing destinations, record hotspots and return safely to the vehicle after dark. Savvy ice anglers put chains on tires or drill sheet metal screws into tires for traction on slick ice. A power auger is needed to drill holes in ice. Shanty, sled, wind break or pop-up shelter is needed to stay warm and keep wind and blowing snow out of your face. Most anglers bring a small space heater, lantern or light and a flashlight is a must when you pack gear for the run back to shore. Don’t forget Icearmor clothing–Arctic boots, headgear, fingermits, and toe and finger warmers. Bring something to drink to stay hydrated, food or snacks, bag for fish you catch and a ladle to remove ice from hole. Oh yes, ice rods rigged with spinning reels and clear mono line. Don’t forget electronic fish locator. When the sun sets you will need a flashlight.