This year will mark the first time anglers have been able to fish the Saginaw River for walleye between March 15 and the last Saturday in April since the system’s walleye began their historic comeback. In past years, anglers got a taste of the potential when ice disappeared from the river early, and anglers in boats could get on the river before the traditional March closure. Most years, it wasn’t a slam dunk like everyone assumed it would be.
Migrating fish can be tough to catch because they don’t stay in one place for very long; they’re on a mission. I’ve stood on sand bars and watched hundreds of salmon shooting upstream, driven by the urge to spawn and instinct; you’re wasting your time casting at them. With their focus on getting upstream to spawn, fish waste little time getting to their final destination. Dams that block their passage seem to hasten the journey. Generally, they aren’t interested in feeding. They’ve fattened up the whole year to be fast while making the upstream journey.
The glut of mature fish are vulnerable after they’ve completed their spawning chores. The window of opportunity might be small, though. Biologists have reported recovering tags from walleye tagged at the Dow Dam and caught in the Bay three days later. It might take a while for post-spawn walleyes to even think about feeding while recuperating. That makes the window even smaller.
“It used to be that you’d catch almost all males before the river closing and after it opened up again,” claimed Saginaw River regular Dave Militello.
“It’s obvious most of the big females are in the river during the six weeks the river use to be closed. Now I think lots of big females will be caught. It could be almost like poaching. It will save a lot of gas money for people to drive to the Detroit River, but whether the Saginaw produces fishing like the Detroit River remains to be seen.”
Fishing is always a numbers game, and when it comes to walleye numbers, the Saginaw Bay system is on the short end. “We’re estimating there are approximately 7 million plus walleyes in Saginaw Bay,” shared fisheries biologist Jeff Jolley with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. By comparison, biologists estimate there are 90 to 100 million walleyes in Lake Erie right now. Managers estimate that 10% of those fish spawn in rivers like the Detroit, Maumee, Sandusky and Raisin rivers. The majority of Lake Erie walleyes spawn on reefs in Lake Erie proper.
“A higher percentage of the walleyes in Saginaw Bay are river spawning fish versus lake spawners,” said Jolley. “In fact, I would guess that the percentages are almost exactly opposite. A high percentage of the walleye spawn in the Tittabawassee. I’m sure some spawning takes place in the Shiawassee and the Flint rivers, but the main river for spawning is the Tittabawassee.” The Tittabawassee River will not be open from March 15 to the last Saturday in April from Center Street upstream to the Dow Dam. “We don’t have the reefs in Saginaw Bay as they do in Lake Erie,” said Jolley. “We’re trying to change that.”
Jolley said the peak of the walleye run in the Tittabawassee is generally right around the last week of March. The MDNR plans their egg-taking operations at that time, and they have had no problem getting their quota of eggs. “I don’t think the dam failures on the Tittabawassee had much effect on walleye spawning,“ said Jolley. “Turbulence tends to clean and scour the gravel in the prime habitat below Dow Dam. We’ve found strong year classes in the years since the dams failed.” The Edenville Dam that formed Wixom Lake failed on May 20, 2020, and caused the Sanford Lake Dam downstream to breech.
“Fishing has not been the same in the river since the dams broke,” theorized Militello. “There are not the numbers of big fish in the river as in the past,” Militello said he expects most of the rotund females will be above the Center Street Bridge before anglers even realize they were there. Anglers fishing the river this winter have been reporting catching lots of walleyes but almost no big fish and few that are even keepers. With so many aggrieved males in the river, your baits have little chance of dancing in front of a jumbo hen long enough before a dink grabs it.
Anglers who haven’t fished the Saginaw River will find it much different than the Detroit River. “You don’t have the current in the Saginaw River that you have in the Detroit River. The Detroit River is clearer, faster and offers more consistent depths,” said Militello. Anglers in the Detroit River routinely fish 1-ounce jigs when vertical jigging. In the Saginaw River, you can get away with a ¼-ounce jig, and you’ll often do better casting it.
“There’s no current into the Saginaw River especially compared to the Detroit River,” said Militello. “I’ve seen where the current is moving upstream, and you didn’t even need a trolling motor. The dams busting have made a difference. The river doesn’t seem to have the current it once did. The biggest factor is not going to be that the river is open, but the fact that the dams are gone.”
When I asked legendary Saginaw Bay charter captain Ken Rice of Legend Killer Charters (legendkillercharters.com) about his expectations for the Saginaw River and the open season, he didn’t mince words. “I think it’s a terrible idea!” he said. “Just look at the number of walleyes in each body of water. The Saginaw River will not be the same as the Detroit River. The walleyes in the Saginaw River come in at the end of February or early March at the latest and are in the river for a very short time. It could be good, but I doubt it.”
One reason the fishing on the Saginaw River could be boom or bust is the weather. “I’ve fished on the Detroit River after there were 8 inches of rain, and it was still fishable,” Rice said. “You get a rain like that around Saginaw, and it will be over. If we have a seasonable, nice spring, it could be good. But if we get a big rain and a lot of run-off it hurts success because water clarity is key to catching walleyes.”
Biologist Jeff Jolley said the liberalizing of regulations a few years ago had no appreciable effect on the number of walleye in Saginaw Bay. “We’re seeing a succession of strong year classes, which is a result of the reproduction in the Tittabawassee River. We’re betting on the fact that will continue, and opening up the Saginaw River will just provide more opportunities for anglers.”