May 01, 2017Saginaw Bay serves up some of its best fishing of the year during the spring. If this year is anything like last year with an early spring, then the fishing on the Bay will start heating up in late March or early April and as the spawn progresses, with more fish spilling out into the bay from the rivers, that fishing picks up steam all though April and well into May right along with the warming waters. The walleyes move around a lot during the spring, so a savvy fishing strategy that takes advantage of those seasonal migrations can put people on world class fishing all through this period.
Last year we had some fantastic walleye fishing out of Au Gres during late March and early April. Unfortunately, I was fishing on Lake Erie during that hot period and missed most of it, but I certainly heard about it from other fishermen who cashed in big-time with a catch of the biggest walleyes of the year along with regular, bonus salmon, trout and steelhead too. When I moved my boat to Au Gres in mid-April, the trolling bite was still going very good close to shore, but that only lasted for a short period. With the unseasonably warm water temperatures we had last year, the walleyes were sent packing to deeper water sooner than normal. We then had to change over to spinner/crawler rigs and pick away at the lethargic fish on the bottom in waters from 20-35 feet deep. After rains, we also focused on dirty water areas near the river mouths where post spawn fish like to stage after exiting the rivers. Another hot spot for spring walleyes is where they spawn in the Bay.
Many parts of Saginaw Bay feature a shallow, gravel or rock bottom (less than 15' deep) and the burgeoning walleye population of the Bay now claims a lot of those areas as spawning habitat during the spring. I know of several huge areas that have tons of male walleyes scattered over these graveled shallows during the spring, but with the clear water conditions often found there, they are only fishable when there is a fair chop on the water to mask the presence of the boat.
On May 5 we had ideal conditions for a spawning spot, so I made the short run there and set up without another boat in sight. I deployed a simple spread of spinner/crawler rigs behind bottom bouncers taken way out away from the fish spooking presence of the boat with Church Tackle Walleye Boards. A precise trolling speed of 1.3 to 1.5 mph was achieved with my Mercury 9.9 kicker motor and if the wind blew us too fast, I would deploy one or two small drift socks to slow things down to my target speed. We didn't get any bites at the first spot, but when we set up in spot number two we started getting hits right away. The fish were all male walleyes leaking milt and all of them were about the same chunky size in the 20 to 24 inch range. The action was steady for hours until limits were in the live well and smiles were impregnated on everyone's faces. The only downside was cleaning all the milt off the back of my boat after the trip.
This fisherman is all smiles after catching a couple big spring Saginaw Bay walleyes. Michael Veine photo
Last spring, I attended a Saginaw Bay fisheries workshop at Bay City put on by Sea Grant. One of the presentations there was about "reef" spawning walleyes on the Bay. A Purdue University study showed that there is a lot of spawning being done in areas outside the rivers, so another study was conducted in four areas to assess how much, if any, walleye spawning was happening in those locations. They conducted an assessment of four known, historical, walleye spawning areas by placing mats down on the lake bed to collect eggs.
Another part of the study looked at stomach contents of known egg eating fish too. They surveyed rocky areas off North Island, Duck Island, the Coreyon Reef and a site at the Saginaw River Mouth and found evidence of walleye spawning at all sites. While I have never tried any early spring fishing at any of the sites they surveyed, I do know for sure that there is spawning going on at several areas on the west side of the Bay just from my fishing experience catching them in the act and my guess is that there is a lot more open water spawning going on in a lot more places too, all of which can make for good fishing locations when the timing and conditions are right.
After the spawning activities are pretty much over on the Bay and in the Rivers, walleyes tend to spread out more, but they do tend to gravitate to dirty water if available. We have mostly very clear water by Au Gres unless we get a lot of spring rains that cause the rivers to flood silt into the Bay. Therefore, at that time of year I rely very heavily on MODIS satellite images (https://coastwatch.glerl.noaa.gov/modis/region_map.html) to locate good walleye waters then. I look for stained water that will appear tan or green on the map and plan my fishing locations accordingly.
This is going to be fairly shallow fishing and many of the best locations are over emerging weed beds, so fishing tactics should focus on suspended fish as the bottom dictates. In those areas, I like to run a combination of crankbaits and spinner/crawler rigs with Hot N' Tots and Shad Raps being my favorite May cranks on the Bay. I put crankbaits on my outside and middle boards and then run crawlers off the inside boards along with two flatlines off the gunnels. You can add a little weight to the crawlers to take them to depth. I use light bottom bouncers or rubber core sinkers. Spoons will also work in these shallow, stained water areas, too, after the water warms to the point that walleyes will chase those faster moving lures.
As the water warms up, and more weeds emerge in the shallows, the better fishing tends to move deeper and by early to mid-June, I'm typically fishing exclusively in water over 25' deep. There, a spinner/crawler rig fished behind a heavy bottom bouncer is hard to beat, and this fishing pattern holds up until I change over to structure spots later in the summer. Spring is my favorite time of the year to fish, and lately Saginaw Bay is my favorite place for springtime fishing.
The author offers fishing charters specializing in Lake Erie and Saginaw Bay walleyes. Contact Mike Veine at www.trophyspecialists.com or 734-475-9146.