From mid-April through May, savvy trollers can intercept the walleye migration and cash in on a world class walleye fishery where jumbo fish rule the catch…
In recent years I have been expanding my spring, Saginaw Bay walleye charter offerings because that fishery has been getting better and better every year. During the last two years, late April and May have served up the biggest average size fish of the year for us on the Bay. The fishing is typically relatively close to shore then too and often in shallow water. The majority of spawning there occurs from late March through mid April. After Saginaw Bay’s walleyes spawn, they need to feed heavily to recover from the rigors of spawning. Early spring is a period when the Bay’s baitfish supply is at its lowest point. Smelt though are abundant in the Outer Bay during the spring and the bigger walleyes migrate to that area quickly after spawning to put on the feed bag. From mid-April through May, savvy trollers can intercept the walleye migration and cash in on a world class walleye fishery where jumbo fish rule the catch.
Last year my wife Donna joined me on my maiden voyage for the year on Saginaw Bay. It was a sunny, mid-April morning with a moderate south wind putting a nice “walleye chop” on the water. Even though I mainly fish the Bay out of Au Gres, we decided to launch out of East Tawas. Our plan was to scout the shorelines from Au Gres north for walleyes during the early morning and head off shore to try for some lake trout afterwards. With the south wind, we ran all the way to Point Lookout with the plan to fish our way back to Tawas with the wind.
The day before, I had been fishing on Lake Erie and had been trolling with Thundersticks and Rouges, so we started out the morning with a six rod spread of those same stick baits all deployed behind Church Tackle Walleye Boards. I had a 3/8 oz. rubber core sinker about six feet ahead of the lures and ran them 40 to 60 feet behind the boards. The water was cold, in the low 40s, so I kept the speed on the slow side trolling at about 1.0 to 1.5 mph. We first set lines in about 20 feet of water with the plan to troll in and out covering depths from 10 to 20 feet. We had only gotten a couple lines out when I noticed a board already dragging back signaling a strike. Donna picked up the rod and began reeling it in. When I unclipped the board and Donna took the fight straight to the fish, the hard bend in the rod indicated a big fish. A minute later and a hog-sized walleye surfaced behind the boat slashing back and forth in the water as it tried to throw the lure. Constant pressure held the hooks fast though, and Donna eventually steered the fish into the netting zone where I scooped up the chunky 28-incher.
Glancing over my shoulder, I noticed that the other line had also hooked up with a hard pulling fish. It was my turn on the rod so I carefully recovered line until Donna could disconnect the board and then I fought the big walleye to the net. That was a big one too and we didn’t waste any time trying to get lines back out. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, we never did get all the lines back out. We had lucked into a huge school of jumbo sized walleyes and they were hitting the lures before we could even get the full spread deployed. Along with the walleyes, there were also whitefish mixed in too, and like the walleyes, the whitefish ran big too, up to 28 inches. In fact, the smallest fish we caught that morning was 26 inches. Since we prefer to eat smaller walleyes, we only kept a couple fish that morning. After battling big walleyes and whitefish until our arms hurt, we decided to change things up and head off shore to try for some lake trout. We never caught a single trout, but it was a beautiful day on the water nonetheless.
Where To Catch Them
State and federal researchers are engaged in an ongoing walleye migration study that spans many years and involves both lip tagging and radio telemetry technologies. A lot has been learned about Saginaw Bay’s walleyes’ seasonal movement patterns. What is certain is that about half of Saginaw Bay’s adult walleyes migrate out of Saginaw Bay by the end of spring. Many of those fish move out quickly after spawning too. The reason they migrate out of the Bay is to seek out better food supplies. Saginaw Bay has a robust population of shiners, which are the walleyes’ main prey base there. Shiners build up their population rapidly during the summer as the food chain on the Bay is ideal for them at that time of the year. Over the course of the fall and winter though, shiner numbers get eaten down and by spring, their numbers are at a yearly low point.
During the spring, walleyes need to recuperate from the riggers of the spawning process. It takes a good supply of baitfish to feed all those hungry, post spawn walleyes and with shiners in short supply, the bigger walleyes, that require the most food, move out until they find a fully stocked buffet table of baitfish. After spawning, millions of big walleyes head north following the western shoreline of Saginaw Bay until they run into schools of smelt. Smelt have been making a slow comeback in Lake Huron. From Au Gres north, walleyes caught during April and early May are likely to have smelt in their guts. During the early spring, schools of smelt stage off shore close to where they spawn, which is in the upper reaches of streams and along shorelines. The Au Gres to Tawas area teems with smelt during the spring, and therefore that area also attracts walleye too and is a great place to fish during that period.
Walleyes prefer dirty water over clear water because baitfish school up in grungy water big time. Spring runoff and heavy rains on farmlands cause a lot of silt to wash into the Bay. These blooms of dirty water off the river mouths pull in massive concentrations of walleyes. Strong spring winds also stir up silt from the bottom of shallow parts of the Bay too causing cloudy water conditions where baitfish and walleyes will gather. My theory to explain this phenomenon is that baitfish have an advantage over predatory fish in dirty water where visibility is restricted and hide in that muddy water to escape predation. Since almost all the area baitfish hide in the muddy water, walleyes have no choice but to go after the baitfish in the mud. When walleyes are caught from muddy waters though, they almost always have empty guts, so the walleyes are not very successful at catching bait in those conditions but they will stay in the mud until it clears up, probably just to keep on top of the baitfish schools until conditions improve and they can start gobbling them up again.
The Bay rarely muddies up entirely. Instead there will be patches of muddy water bordered by transition water that gives way to clear water all in patchwork around the Bay. The best places to fish are usually in the transition water where water visibility is at least 2 feet. There is a website that displays daily satellite photos of the Great Lakes that shows water conditions on Saginaw Bay nicely on clear days. Do an Internet search for “Coastwatch MODIS” and you can study the Bay and plan your fishing locations more precisely during the spring.
How To Catch Them
Consistently catching early spring walleyes relies upon specialized trolling techniques. Saginaw Bay’s spring eyes’ can be targeted with the some of the same spring trolling programs that work well on Lake Erie. Water temperature and clarity along with the baitfish that the walleyes are feeding on determine what lures will work effectively. Early in the season, when the water temperature is in the 30s and low 40s, I use smelt imitating body baits. Thundersticks, Rattlin Rouges and Husky Jerks (three hook models) are my favorites. These are still shallow diving lures with the short bills that have that slow, wobbling action. Speeds vary a lot then with speeds under 1 mph being best when the water is in the 30s, but when the water warms into the 40s, I bump the trolling speed up some to over 1 mph. Black/silver, black/gold/orange and gold/purple have been long time productive patterns for me.
As the water temperature rises into the high 40s, faster-action, deep-diving crankbaits with longer bills seem to get more bites. Trolling speeds with these lures are 1.2 to 1.8 mph. My favorite lure for this period is the #7 Shad Rap in either Natural Shad or black/silver patterns. In dirty water, I’ve caught a lot of fish on the SR5, Suspending Shad Rap in the Silver pattern. I also frequently catch fish on Deep Jr. Thundersticks, Deep Husky Jerks and Deep Rattlin Rouges too. I mix up the lures at the beginning of the day and keep changing things up until I find a hot pattern and then put a bunch of those hot lures in the water.
When the water temperature hits 50 degrees, that’s when smelt seem to migrate out of the area and the walleyes move deeper and hold close to
the bottom where they scrounge up gobies,
perch and other tidbits. This is when crawlers fished behind bottom bouncers start to produce
a lot of action. Walleye numbers will drop off
and the fish will be scattered, but what fish are there will typically be very catchable. A slow bottom bouncing presentation with a wide spread of crawlers where you can cover lots of water will show the maximum number of fish your lures. This is typically not fast paced action, and the fish will hit very lethargically with hookups sometimes being barely noticeable, but with patience, we fill up the live well in those conditions very consistently.
The author offers fishing charters specializing in Lake Erie and Saginaw Bay walleyes. Contact Mike Veine at www.trophyspecialists.com or 734-475-9146.