About half way between the southern and northern boundaries of Saginaw Bay lays Au Gres. This small, fisherman friendly town is well known as a summer walleye destination for world class walleye fishing; however during the spring, Au Gres serves up perhaps the best walleye angling of the year, especially for larger fish. After spawning, many of “the Bay’s” walleye migrate northward up the western shoreline, and that migration route goes right past Au Gres.
During the spring, schools of smelt stack-up along the shorelines from Au Gres to Tawas and that concentration of baitfish halts those migrating walleyes as they “pause” their migration to put on a smelt feed bag. Savvy anglers take full advantage by trolling, casting and even jigging for walleyes that average bigger than at any other time of the year. After the smelt move out, baitfish numbers are often temporarily very low in the Au Gres area, so remaining walleyes are easy pickings for trollers in the know.
Spring and the warming waters draw in tons of baitfish and walleye numbers explode in the Au Gres area creating one of the most consistently awesome fisheries this author has ever experienced. Oftentimes, the spring fishing at Au Gres is close to shore, which is ideal for small boat anglers and even shore bound fishermen can cash in at times too. Au Gres has become my favorite place to chase spring walleyes, so read on for the scoop on how to take advantage of this world class walleye fishery.
Last year I moved my boat from Lake Erie to Saginaw Bay on April 16. A few days before I arrived at Au Gres, my two new Mercury motors were delivered to Au Gres Marine, so my first order of business once I got there was to get those new motors installed. On April 16 my repowered boat was ready for some break in on the Bay. A friend of mine, Capt. Bill Carter went on a boat ride with me that morning as I tested out the new Mercury 150 HP FourStroke main engine and I also put some break-in hours on the new Merc 9.9 HP ProKicker too. The motors ran great, but I decided to just try the prop off my old motor and it was not the correct size for the new setup, so I eventually headed back to shore to change the prop. My plan was to head back out on the Bay again and besides testing the new prop, also get in some fishing too. Unfortunately Bill had to fulfill some honey-do chores, so he couldn’t join me for the afternoon voyage. After running around for a while, I decided to set up for a trolling pass going with the southwest wind along the drop-off north of the Au Gres River towards Pt. Lookout.
The water temperature was just above freezing with some icebergs still bobbing around here and there. I deployed a three rod spread with two shallow running, gold/purple, Smithwick, Rattlin’ Rouges and one deep diving, Tennessee Shad, and Husky Jerk Bait. With a 3/8 oz. rubber core sinker installed five feet ahead of each lure, and a turtle slow trolling speed of just below one MPH, I adjusted the setback to 60′ on the Rouges and 40′ on the Husky Jerk to present the lures about 10-13′ down in waters 15 to 22 feet deep. All the lures were run way out away from the boat off Church Tackle Walleye Boards. In the clear, fairly calm waters, getting the lures out away from the boat is a must. I marked pockets of baitfish and large fish concentrations while I was running around breaking in the motors, so I had a planned route that would take me over those promising waters.
There wasn’t another boat in sight as I set the last rod in the holder and then fine-tuned my speed and autopilot course. The winds were light and the sky overcast, so I wasn’t really surprised when a Rouge board dropped back signaling a strike. When a second board started bouncing and dropping back and then my third one also started doing a walleye dance, I couldn’t help but smile. I was pleasantly surprised when the first fish I netted turned out to be a dandy 27 incher. The remaining two fish also turned out to be large fish too: Both of them were 26″.
After resetting lines, I phoned my absentee buddy Bill to rub it in about the fish I was catching. Before I even got off the cell phone, I had two more fish on. One got off, but the other one, another 26 incher, was deposited into the live well with the others. Before I could reset any lines, the remaining lure hooked up and after battling a dandy 28 inch walleye into the net, I had technically limited out in just 10 minutes of fishing, but I decided to keep fishing though, so I tossed the big walleye back and reset my lines.
I phoned Bill again to rub more salt in the wound, but he was skeptical and thought I might be just kidding him, so I made a friendly bet with him: He would have to clean my fish if I was not telling the truth. I kept fishing for another hour and hit pockets of fish all along that long, winding trolling pass that ended at the end where Pt. Lookout gives way to Gravely Shoal. All my fish were nice sized that day too, between 24 and 28 inches long. The only lull in the action occurred when I trolled over a shallow spot and all my lures hit bottom and loaded up with zebra mussels. I even hooked up with a salmon briefly, but couldn’t hold onto the hard fighting silver bullet. Over the next week though, besides limiting out on walleyes on every trip, we also caught several kings as bonus fish too. During the early spring, Au Gres anglers can catch king salmon, steelhead, lake trout, whitefish and even Atlantic salmon, which certainly spices things up.
I phoned Bill when I was ashore and met him at his fish cleaning station. I had put the walleyes into a five gallon bucket and when he laid his eyes on those dandy pigs, he just shook his head, got out his knife and added fish cleaning to his honey-do list.
How to Catch Them
During the early spring, when smelt are present, walleyes will exclusively key in on that baitfish source with reckless abandon. Naturally then, lures that imitate smelt are going to work the best. Since the water is still very cold then, baits with good action at slower trolling speeds seem produce the most action. I have tried literally hundreds of different lures then and Shallow Rattlin’ Rouges and Deep Husky Jerk Baits are my two favorites. These are the three hook sized lures that are about the same size as an average sized smelt.
Productive colors vary from day to day, but Rouges in purple/gold/white and black/gold/orange have been consistent produced for me over the years. Husky Jerks in green/gold/orange and blue/silver/orange are also awesome on those smelt chasing walleyes. I typically run a six to eight rod spread with six lines off Church Tackle Walleye Boards to spread things out and saturate the water with offerings.
During the early spring, active walleyes will often be suspended as they seek out and attack schools of smelt. Because the fish may be below the maximum running depth of some lures, savvy anglers add weight to bring the baits into the strike zone. I favor simple, rubber core sinkers for that task because they are cheap, won’t damage the line, and can easily be added, changed or moved up or down the line in seconds. In fact rubber core sinkers do more than just take lures deeper: They also block lure fowling debris from sliding down the line all the way to the bait, allow shorter setbacks and generally make life easier for fishermen in the know. They come in weights that range from 1/8 – 1.5 oz. I mostly use 3/8 ounce weights during the spring, but sometimes I will use lighter or heavier ones when the conditions dictate.
Extremely slow trolling speeds are often necessary to entice lethargic walleyes into biting. As a general rule, if the water temp is in the 30s, I keep my speeds below one mph. As the water warms into the low 40, speeds of 1 – 1.3 mph seem to get better results. When the water warms into the mid to high 40s, then speeds in the 1.4 – 1.7 range will put the most fish in the box.
As the water warms up past 45 degrees the smelt runs are about over. After spawning, smelt typically move to deeper water and scatter. When that happens, many of the Bay’s walleyes, especially the larger, adult fish, continue their migration northward into the open waters of Lake Huron. Studies have shown though that about half of the adult walleyes stay in the Bay year round. After the smelt leave, the walleyes that stay around seem to head to the bottom and stay their where they feed on gobies, perch and anything else that will sustain them until their main forage base of shiners move into the area.
This is when a radical change in fishing tactics is necessary. When the stick bait bite dies, I quickly change over to spinner/crawler rigs fished right on the bottom in deeper waters that range from 25 to 35 feet. Since the water temperature is going to be very cold then in those locations, a very slow trolling speed is necessary of less than 1.0 mph. At that time of the year walleye numbers are not very high, but the ones that are there are typically hungry so it still makes for some good fishing.
During the late spring and summer I typically use just a half a crawler on my harnesses, but during the early spring in that cold water, I use full, big night crawlers as they seem to work best. My favorite spinner patterns are silver/red or chartreuse/orange and I rely on bottom bouncers to put the spinners right in the walleyes’ faces. That spinner/crawler bite actually will last well into the summer period too and is super consistent for catching Saginaw Bay walleyes over a wide range of waters and time periods.
As the warm weather of late spring warms up the Bay, I increase my trolling speeds keeping things moving as fast as the fish will tolerate. This allows me to cover the maximum amount of water while trolling and faster trolling speeds will increase the bite to catch ratio significantly.
When shiners start to move into the Au Gres area, then crankbaits and spoons really start to shine. Shad Raps and Hot N’ Tots are my favorite cranks then. The #7 Natural Shad pattern Shad Rap has been one of my favorite lures then for over 20 years. If the water is dirty or stained though, the #5, Chrome/Shad pattern Rattling Shad Rap is awesome bait. Hot N’ Tots work best when walleyes are aggressively feeding. Flashy chrome or fire/tiger patterns are consistent spring producers. My favorite spoons are Moonshine Walleye Spoons and the Crab Cakes pattern has been especially hot in recent years.
One doesn’t need to troll though to get in on the action when the walleyes are feeding on smelt. Some anglers simply anchor up along shoreline drop-offs and cast and jig for marauding walleyes. Casting with body baits can be extremely productive too as can vertical jigging with a jig and minnow. Shore bound anglers wade out as far as they can and cast lures taking some nice fish. I’ve even caught walleyes still fishing from shore with dead smelt. This type of fishing is best done during the low light periods of morning, evening and after dark when the fish are more inclined to move shallow.
Where to Catch Them
During the early spring, when walleyes feeding on smelt big time, the waters right out in front of Au Gres are often full of fish. Some years though, like in 2013, the best fishing was close to shore, but north of Pt. Lookout. The waters near Whitefish Point are also a consistent producer then too.
During the day, smelt and their pursuing predators are usually found in deeper water just off shoreline drop offs. Waters 15 to 25 feet are usually a good place to start looking for fish. As the water warms up and the smelt move out, then deeper waters in the 25 to 35 foot range seem to hold the most fish. When lots of shiners start showing up, the warmer, shallow waters seem to draw the fish like a magnet. I’ve caught walleyes then in waters from 10 to 15 feet deep. That shallow water shiner bite can be good right out in front of Au Gres, but increasing fishing pressure then often negatively impacts the fishing there, especially on weekends. The waters south of Pt. Au Gres down to the Rifle Bar and even south to the Sagining Bar often hold massive schools of walleyes then. I have even gotten into some world class walleye fishing from Pt. Lookout to Whitefish Point along those shallows.
As spring closes in on summer and the water warms to swimming temperatures, walleyes will scatter out over a lot of the Bay and the walleye bite goes bonkers in hundreds of locations. This is when fishing reports brag of limit catches all over the place from shallow waters to the deepest parts of the Inner Bay.
Planning a Trip to Au Gres
Au Gres is set up really nice for traveling anglers with plenty of lodging, camping, and eatery choices. They also have bait shops and all the normal things you would find in a small, northern Michigan town. There is a very nice DNR boat launch right at the mouth of the Au Gres River that is one of the best places to access the Bay. A few years ago I put together an Au Gres Travel Guide that details many of the businesses and attractions in the area. You can find it on my website at trophyspecialists.com where I also post regular fishing reports from Mid-April through the end of summer.
The author offers fishing charters specializing in Lake Erie and Saginaw Bay walleyes. Contact Mike Veine at www.trophyspecialists.com or 734-475-9146.