Last winter I couldn’t help but feel sorry for a lot of fishermen who were trudging out onto the frozen surface of Saginaw Bay. Not a few, but lots of anglers were walking out in hopes of finding the amazing walleye fishing that Saginaw Bay is fast becoming known for producing.
I’ll give these ice walkers an “A” for effort, but trudging to the best fishing on Saginaw Bay on foot is like hitchhiking from Michigan to California! In all due respect to those who are hoofing it, there is just too much space out there to make walking a suitable option.
Mobility on Ice
I’ve preached it before and will continue to remind anglers that catching walleye is mostly about first finding them. Mobility either on the open water or the frozen surface of sprawling fisheries like Saginaw Bay is critically important to fishing success. Without the ability to cover water quickly and efficiently, the chances of consistent fishing success are fleeting at best.
The machines an angler might consider for accessing the frozen surface of Saginaw Bay are many. Snow machines, ATVs, UTVs, airboats, amphibious track vehicles and even pick-up trucks find their way onto the ice. Of the many vehicles that can get a guy out onto the ice and back, some are obviously better than others. In my mind using a pick-up truck to access ice fishing spots is foolishness at the highest level. Even in Minnesota where the winters are much worse and the ice much thicker on average than Michigan, pick-up trucks routinely break through the ice. Using a pick-up truck in Michigan to access ice fishing is more than risky, it’s downright foolhardy.
Both ATVs and UTVs represent a more practical option for transporting fishermen and their gear out onto the frozen surface of Saginaw Bay. The advantages of these machines are many. An ATV or UTV provides a smooth ride, they move quickly over both normal and pack ice surfaces and these machines can transport a lot of gear and people.
The down side to wheeled machines is they don’t do well in deep or drifted snow and they are next to useless if slush is an issue. Removing the wheels and adding track units helps both ATVs and UTVs traverse the always changing environment of Saginaw Bay, but the cost of adding tracks is substantial and tracks are not practical for using on normal terrain.
Tracked amphibious vehicles are another option for accessing the frozen waters of Saginaw Bay. These vehicles of course have the advantage of being able to float should they break through the ice. That piece of mind is worth something, but getting one of these vehicles back onto safe ice should it break through is no simple or safe process. To say that it’s dangerous to get a tracked amphibious vehicle back onto the ice is an understatement. Unless you own a helicopter there is no safe way of achieving this goal!
Tracked amphibious vehicles are also notoriously slow compared to UTVs and ATVs and these machines also have little in the way of suspension to soften the ride.
An airboat is unique in that it can literally get anywhere on Saginaw Bay good ice, poor ice or even without ice. The down side to airboats is they are stupid expensive to own and maintain. Countless outfitters have toyed with the idea of owning and using an airboat for ice fishing operations and most eventually abandon the idea due to the outrageous cost of maintenance and of course fuel.
That leaves only one practical option for ice fishing. Snow machines are in my mind the most practical machine for accessing places like Saginaw Bay in the winter months. Wide and long track style machines made for hauling and towing heavy loads are the best option for ice fishermen. The Ski-Doo Skandic and Arctic-Cat Bear Cat are two proven machines that are built to haul people and gear across deep snow, slush and uneven surfaces.
The Skandic is the overwhelming choice of professionals like sheriff officers, state police, conservation officers, department of natural resources personnel, search and rescue staffers and national park service employees. The Skandic stands out because this machine has exceptional power and the ability to ride over top of deep snow and slush even when pulling a heavy load. Available in both two stroke and four stroke models, the Skandic two stroke is prized for its amazing power and torque while the Skandic four stroke combines exceptional power with outstanding fuel economy. Both machines are ideal for ice fishing applications when properly outfitted with studs on the track to increase traction.
A growing number of serious ice fishermen have also come to the same conclusion that a wide/long track snow machine like the Skandic is tough to beat when it comes to navigating massive fisheries like Saginaw Bay. “I’ve used the two stroke Skandic for two seasons now and can’t imagine a better performing machine,” says Jake Romanack of Fishing 411 TV. “Not only does the Skandic ride smoothly over deep snow and slush, it has the power to pull several flip shacks rigged in tandem.”
Anyone serious about ice fishing will also become serious about customizing their machine to make them more user friendly on the ice. A host of accessories are available that can transform an ATV, UTV or snow machine into the ideal ice fishing chariot.
Some of the most important are racks for mounting augers and spuds, boxes for transporting valuable accessories like portable sonar, LED lighting and track studs in the case of snow machines and chains in the case of wheeled vehicles for moving efficiently on slick surfaces.
The Role of Electronics
Back in the day, ice fishermen sat on a bucket that doubled as a means of transporting fishing poles. These days, serious ice fishermen are depending on Global Positioning Technology to get them on the fish and portable sonar to help them catch those fish.
Whatever vehicle an ice fisherman uses to access the ice should feature a dependable GPS unit mounted to the handle bars where navigation functions can be easily performed. For most machines a five, seven or nine inch unit is ideal for GPS navigation. This unit should be equipped with an aftermarket mapping chip such as those produced by LakeMaster and also Navionics that show contour lines, submerged structure and other fishing features.
Portable sonar used for fishing comes in two flavors including flasher units and liquid crystal two dimensional sonar. Flasher units, especially color models, have historically been favored for ice fishing situations because they function in real time. A color flasher marks the bottom, lure and fish using different colors of light making it possible to monitor how a fish is reacting to a lure or jigging cadence.
Modern liquid crystal sonar is also growing in popularity among ice fishermen. Over time these machines have become faster at processing data and are now rivaling flashers at producing real time images. Some anglers argue they prefer the two dimensional screen of a LCS because it’s easier to monitor and interpret than the fleeting flashes of light produced by a flasher unit.
Another type of electronic aid is starting to show up in ice fishing circles. Satellite based two way communicators like the Garmin inReach allow a text message to be sent to another phone or another inReach unit anywhere in the world.
These unique electronics tools are idea for fishermen who often seek out remote areas where cell phone coverage is fleeting or non-existent. An inReach unit ranges in price from $350.00 to $450.00 for different models and requires a modest monthly data plan.
Working Fish with Sonar
Sonar in the ice fishing world is used a little differently than sonar in open water fishing situations. Because in ice fishing the angler is sitting perfectly still, a sonar unit is only capable of marking what is directly below the angler.
As a result the way fish mark on a LCS is different on the ice than in open water. In open water the boat and fish are both moving. In this situation the fish moves through the transducer cone creating a return that appears as either a blob or as an arch on the screen.
In ice fishing situations the sonar unit is stationary and fish moving in and out of the transducer cone appear as a solid line on the screen. Other objects like the fishing lure will also appear as a solid line. Baitfish schools appear as clutter or little dots on the screen.
When jigging for walleye, the angler should make sure the gain on the sonar unit is turned up enough that the lure easily marks on the screen. The lure should mark as a thin, but steady line that lifts and drops as the lure is jigged.
When a fish enters the picture a second and heavier line will appear on the graph. Here’s where it gets interesting. Some of the fish that appear will strike the lure almost immediately, but a great many simply lose interest and drift off. To try and trigger strikes from these fish, lift the bait up in the water column slowly while trying to entice the fish to give chase. This cat and mouse game becomes interactive and allows the angler to determine how active a fish might be and also how interested that fish may be in a particular presentation.
Often the fish will follow the bait up off bottom and strike the lure. Sometimes the fish will follow the bait up off bottom and then lose interest. If the fish drops back down to the bottom, drop the lure back down and repeat the whole process.
If a walleye gets a good look at a particular lure (say a jig and minnow combination) but doesn’t bite, it’s a good idea to switch to a different lure type such as a jigging spoon or jigging/swimming bait to see if the fish will react better to a different lure type. By experimenting with different lure types and how fish are reacting to those various lures, an angler can determine what presentations walleye are most interested in on any given day.
The One-Two Punch
On Saginaw Bay there is no way to predict on any given day if the fish are going to prefer a jig, jigging spoon, jigging/swimming type lure or a static presentation like a dead stick. A good set up in this case is to fish two rods and use one for jigging and a second as a dead stick.
A dead stick is simply a live minnow fished using a small jig suspended near bottom. This rod is placed in a rod holder and left motionless. When a fish is attracted by jigging, often that fish will strike the dead stick, not the lure that is being actively moved.
The best set up for a dead stick is a rod with a very soft action and light tip, light (4 to 6 pound test) monofilament or fluorocarbon line and a quality spinning reel with a good drag system. The goal with a dead stick is to enable the walleye to pick up the bait and swim off without feeling the resistance of the rod.
Jigging rods can be a little stiffer and set up with braid, monofilament or fluorocarbon line depending on the angler’s personal preference. Braided line with a three foot leader of fluorocarbon line as a leader is popular on the Bay among anglers who fish inside shelters. Unfortunately, braided line absorbs water and will quickly freeze when fishing in the open air.
A good choice when selecting braided line is a high visibility color like yellow or orange that makes the line easy to see in the low light conditions of a shelter. The break strength of this braided line can be 8, 10, 15 or even 20 pound test depending on the various brands and diameters.
The ideal knot for attaching super braid to fluorocarbon leader material is the double uni-knot. To see how to tie this knot visit the site, www.animatedknots.com.
Pack a Lunch
One of the final tips that are important when fishing Saginaw Bay is coming prepared to fish all day. The best bite is almost always going to be the first hour or two in the morning and again the last hour of the day. That stated, there are fish to be caught during the middle of the day.
The midday time period is a great time to branch out and explore new spots. If you can find a few fish and catch them during the middle of the day, those spots are almost certain to be red hot early and late in the day.
Packing a lunch is the only practical way to spend the time it takes on Saginaw Bay to become proficient at finding and catching fish. Our crew packs along a small gas grill so we can take a short break and fix a hot meal during the middle of the day. It’s amazing how a hot meal on the ice improves the mind set and willingness to fish hard all day long.