July 23 • 12:10 PM

Saginaw Bay's Winter Double

Catching feisty whitefish through the ice right along with the traditional walleye

January 01, 2008
Fans of Saginaw Bay's winter ice fishery got their wish last winter. Super-cold temperatures early in the season encased the Bay in a solid cover of ice, which made it easy to access the depths that harbor the Bay's winter walleyes. With plenty of safe ice, ice-anglers had a banner year icing limits of the trophy walleyes that the Bay is famous for. What anglers didn't expect is a little added bonus. More and more anglers are reporting catching feisty whitefish through the ice right along with the walleyes. The combination makes for a unique winter double.

"Walleye fishing was good on the Bay last year," said Jim Diedrich who keeps tabs on the winter fishing while working at Hoyle's Marina near Linwood. "We had good ice last year and there were walleyes all the way from Bay City State Park to Standish. There were lots of baitfish that kept the walleyes in the inner bay."

Diedrich said that you really didn't have to go too far to catch walleyes on the Bay last winter. Most of the time Diedrich said he did well in the 10-12 foot depths, which is only a few miles from shore. The fishing usually starts in shallow when safe ice first forms and then moves deeper as the winter progresses. The migration reverses itself as spring draws closer. Hawg 'eyes can be caught in as little as four or five feet of water just before ice-out.

Jigging is by far the most productive method for Saginaw Bay's winter walleyes. Spoons, like the Swedish Pimple and Do Jigger, are standard fare for Saginaw Bay walleyes. Colors vary and anglers should have a good selection of colors to experiment with on any given day. Orange/gold, blue/silver, chartreuse/silver and glow-in-the-dark colors are proven producers. Tip the spoon with a minnow. Some anglers chop the minnow in half and use just the head; others will place several perch-sized minnows on the treble. Both tactics will work when the fish are active. Stinger hooks can help nail some of the short biters or when the walleyes are not especially aggressive. Some ice-anglers also do well with swimming lures, like the Jigging Rapala or Nils Master.

Most anglers practice some variation of the lift and drop to attract cruising walleyes to their offerings. The standard routine is to lift the rod a foot or so and allow the spoon to flutter back to bottom. Allowing the lure to crash bottom creates a puff of sand simulating a feeding baitfish. It's a good idea to hold the bait just off bottom then for a few seconds. Giving the lure a jiggle, quiver or shake before beginning the jigging motion again will often trigger interested, but apathetic, walleyes into striking.

A flasher or underwater camera can be a great help when tempting finicky walleyes. Being able to watch the walleyes and determine how they react to your jigging motion and bait can give you some insight on what you need to do to trigger strikes. With the help of electronics you can also quickly decipher if there are fish in the area and whether you need to make a move. Most anglers wouldn't think of heading out on to the Bay without a flasher or underwater camera.

For some reason, dead rods or tip-ups are not that effective on Saginaw Bay walleyes. You'd think that a lively shiner minnow would be more than any walleye could resist, but it seems that the jigging motion is often necessary to entice walleyes to strike. Tip-ups, Slammers and dead rods are productive for other species in the Bay though.

While most anglers head out onto the Bay during the winter expecting to catch walleyes more and more anglers are discovering that the Bay has a burgeoning population of lake whitefish that provide not only great sport, but also great eating. The opportunity to catch both trophy walleye and whitefish during a single outing offers Saginaw Bay ice-anglers a unique experience.

"Sport fishermen are not taking even a fraction of the lake whitefish available on Lake Huron," claimed fisheries biologist Jim Johnson who works out of the Great Lakes fishery Research Station in Alpena. "The commercial harvest on the lake is in excess of five million pounds that is split between commercial and tribal fishermen."

Until recently, about the only time Lake Huron sport fishermen had a chance at catching Coregonus clupeaformis was in late fall when the silvery member of the trout family moved into the shallows to spawn. A popular fall whitefish fishery develops off the Tawas piers. Once ice forms over the bays many anglers just assumed that the whitefish retreated to deeper water where they spend the summer months. Johnson said that because the whitefish might be feeding on zebra mussels or round gobies winter fisheries might be developing on places like Saginaw and Tawas Bays.

Increasing numbers of anglers are already taking advantage of the burgeoning numbers of whitefish found in Saginaw Bay during the winter months. "Ever year we are catching more and more whitefish," offered Jim Dietrich. "Last winter I didn't even fish for them and I caught four or five, but there are guys who are targeting the whitefish. They'll use either spawn or a spoon with a short dropper rigged with a wax worm. I think if guys really targeted them and used some of the techniques that they use in Traverse Bay and other places they could do really well. I think it's a fishery that's just going to continue to grow." A standard tactic for winter whitefish is to chum an area with salmon eggs or corn to draw the whitefish schools into an area and then fish for them with baits and lures.

Thoughts are that the increasing numbers of whitefish cruising the waters of Saginaw Bay are the result of newfound food sources. "I know for a fact that the whitefish are eating zebra mussels because the ones we caught had them in them," claimed Dietrich. Whitefish are opportunistic bottom feeders eating a smorgasbord of wigglers, nymphs and other aquatic insects, fish eggs, small minnows and crustaceans. The whitefish is sought after by commercial fishermen because of it delicious flavor, size and schooling behavior. Typically, whitefish run from three to six pounds. The state record is 12 pounds, 14 ounces.

It was a couple of winters ago when I joined Larry Scharich and Pat LaPorte on a trip to Saginaw Bay for winter walleyes. We launched at a public access near Linwood and headed southeast to some coordinates Larry had saved on his GPS. After a four or five mile ride Larry's GPS indicated we were at one of his hotspots and we spread out to ready our gear. Larry's friend Ron Goidosik was fishing in the same area can came over to chat. Pat and Larry drilled holes while I dropped the transducer to my Vexilar FL-8 flasher down the hole. The screen read 17 feet, which is usually a productive depth for walleyes in the Bay. Pat was going to share the seat in my Fish Trap shelter so we drilled two holes in which to jig, and punched two holes to set Slammer tip-ups in. Ron had never seen one of the contraptions and came over to inspect it. I explained how the Slammer worked, kind of like a downrigger on ice, and how I'd caught a number of different species of Michigan game fish on the rig.

"Well if you catch a walleye on that thing it will be the first walleye I've ever seen caught on a tip-up in the Bay. Tip-ups just don't seem to work on the walleyes here," claimed Ron.

Pat LaPorte with a Saginaw Bay winter double. Mike Gnatkowski photo
"Oh well," I said. "It's another rod in the water and there's always a first time!"

After setting a pair of Slammers Pat and I set about concentrating on our jigging technique. Fish were showing up with regularity on the flasher and a couple of times our jigging lifts were met by solid resistance, but we missed the fish and a couple pulled free after a short battle. Finally, Pat's hook set bent his ice rod double under the pressure of a heavy fish. The fish ran in short bursts and bulldogged towards the bottom. It was several minutes before the fish passed under the hole and I saw the white-edged fins and the opaque, glassy eyes of a sizable walleye. As the walleye twisted under the hole Pat steered the 'eye's head into the opening and I pounced on it like a cat on a mouse and flipped it on to the ice. The walleye was fat, glistening in the morning light and weighed about 7 or 8 pounds.

"That's more like it," grinned Pat as he held the walleye aloft for some photos. We quickly subdued the fish and went back to jigging. In short order Pat nailed another walleye of about four pounds and were we both intensely concentrating on jigging when we heard the sound of the Slammer going off. Pat deftly used his left arm to backhand me across the chest as he scrambled to his feet and skated to the rod that was jabbing down the hole in the Slammer rod holder.

"This is another good fish," he declared as I ambled up to the hole after recovering from the blindsided crosscheck. Right then the fish took off on a sizzling run.

"Pretty spunky for a walleye," I observed. The fish stopped to bulldog for a few seconds with some violent twists thrown in before taking off on another burst. After a few minutes the runs became shorter, and I moved closer to the hole to get a glimpse of the fish. As the fish flashed past I saw the silvery scales.

"It's a whitefish," I declared.

"Are you sure?" queried Pat.

"Ya. It's a big whitefish," I reiterated.

The shiny lake whitefish powered past the hole one more time before Pat could steer its head into the hole where I clamped my fingers behind its gills and flipped it on the ice. The tiny treble that was imbedded in the back of the shiner minnow was stuck firmly in the roof of the whitefish's diminutive mouth. The whitefish was about the same size as Pat's bigger walleye.

When we told several other ice-anglers about our catch they weren't too surprised.

"We've been catching them all winter," said one pair of anglers. "In fact, we caught three just a couple of days ago."

Last winter, Larry Scharich said that while ice-fishing on Saginaw Bay he routinely saw whitefish passing in front of his underwater camera, sometimes two or three schools per day that numbered a dozen or more fish.

Ice-anglers who venture onto the frozen expanses of Saginaw Bay this winter might have to make a decision. Do I fish for walleyes or whitefish? Both fish are spirited fighters under the ice, but I'd give the edge to whitefish. Both have firm, flaky white meat and are fantastic on the table.

It's a dilemma that all ice-fishermen would like to have!

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