July 23 ē 11:42 AM

Winter's open water walleyes

You Dont Have To Sit On A Bucket...

November 01, 2007
Some things are best served over ice. Walleye fishing isn't one of them. During the winter when a thick blanket of ice limits mobility, and to a degree the use of electronics, finding walleyes can be double tough.

Fortunately, all the water suitable for winter walleye fishing isn't ice covered. Some of the best marble eye waters in the Great Lakes region are rivers that serve up open water action throughout the winter. The fishing isn't easy, but those who don't mind fighting a little ice in the rod guides can cash in on these overlooked walleye destinations.

Where the Action Is

The St. Joe River below and near the Berrien Springs Dam provides good to excellent walleye fishing from November right up until the season closes on March 15.

The same is true of the Tittabawassee River in Midland and Saginaw Counties. The best fall and winter fishing takes place upstream of the town of Freeland near the Dow Dam. Fish are available in good numbers starting in late October, but the fishing actually improves in late fall and builds throughout the winter when spawn-laden fish from Saginaw Bay make their way upstream. Late February and early March can be red hot.

The nearby Saginaw River also offers some excellent open water walleye action in late fall and winter. Weather is the determining factor on the Saginaw River. Because the current is rather slow, a cold snap will freeze the Saginaw River overnight. Normally in November and early December it doesn't get cold enough to freeze out open water walleye anglers.

Fall and early winter are great times to target open water walleye overlooked by others. Mark Romanack photos
The entire length of the Saginaw River from Saginaw Bay to south of the town of Saginaw can hold good to excellent numbers of walleye. Prime spots include the point where the Saginaw River is formed. The Tittabawassee and Shiawassee Rivers flow together to form the Saginaw River. This spot known as Green Point, is a steady producer for fall and winter walleye action.

In downtown Saginaw another popular fishing spot is located between the M-46 and State Street Bridges. Further downstream good walleye action is located near the I-675 bridge.

Good fishing waters in the Bay City area include the stretch just upstream of the Veteran's Bridge, near the boat launch at Woodside Avenue, near Essexville and also at the mouth of the river. On average the best fishing waters in the Saginaw River average 15-30 feet deep.

The Grand River is another great winter walleye fishery. Early in the winter most of the fish will be found in the deeper holes downstream of the I-196 bridge. In late winter fish begin moving upstream and fishing at the 6th Street Bridge in downtown Grand Rapids can be very good in late February and early March.

Deep Water Tactics

Deep water in most of these rivers is anything approaching 10 feet. Meandering holes are ideal for making long drifts with the current and vertical jigging leadheads tipped with minnows near bottom.

This style of jigging requires some specialized gear. An electric motor (either bow or transom mounted) is essential for controlling the boat. The secret to vertical jigging is to keep the jig, water and boat all moving at the same speed. Since it's impossible to control the current speed and the jig moves at the speed of the current, the only variable anglers can control is boat drifting speed.

If the boat drifts too fast or too slow, maintaining contact with the bottom is impossible, snags become a problem and detecting strikes is difficult. When the boat is kept moving at the same speed as the current, keeping the jigs directly below the boat and near the bottom is relatively easy. This keeps the jigs in the strike zone, reduces snags and makes it much easier to detect strikes.

A medium to medium/heavy action spinning combination loaded with six pound test braided or fused fishing line makes it easier to stay vertical and to detect strikes.

Plastic lures can play a role in vertical jigging as well. In clear to lightly stained waters, plastics are usually unnecessary. A clean jig tipped with a minnow will produce well in these conditions. Stained or dirty waters are another matter. Brightly colored plastic lures can be seen further away and help to significantly improve the number of strikes. Using both a plastic bait and a live minnow is a great way to gain the advantage on walleye that are primarily sight feeders.


Water Tactics

During the fall and winter river walleyes can often turn up in surprisingly shallow water. Certain types of forage fish like shad and alewives favor warm water and shallow flats. Walleye aren't shy about following the baitfish, but in shallow water vertical jigging isn't going to work.

To avoid spooking fish with the boat, casting jigs becomes necessary. A light to medium/light action spinning combination loaded with six pound test monofilament is perfect for casting jigs to walleye. The physical characteristics of monofilament line play an important role in jig casting. Line stretch associated with nylon lines helps to prevent the bait from being snapped off while casting. Monofilament also floats, making it easier for anglers to both see the line, see strikes and also to control slack line as necessary.

A 1/16 or 1/8 ounce leadhead jig tipped with a minnow is perfect for most casting situations. In windy weather, using a larger 1/4 ounce jig helps to control slack line and maintain contact with the bottom.

As in vertical jigging, a clean jig and minnow works best in clear to lightly stained waters. In more turbid water, using brightly colored soft plastics improves lure visibility.

Shallow water walleyes are usually very active, even in the dead of winter. The fish are shallow for one reason and that makes them vulnerable targets.

Summing It Up

Sitting on a bucket over a hole in the ice isn't the only way to pass the winter months. Flowing water may be the best way yet to beat the late fall and winter walleye fishing blues.

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