July 23 ē 12:10 PM

Michigan's Wonderful Winter Walleyes

Simple Rules To Success...

January 01, 2008
Finding and catching hawg walleye takes plenty of hard work. The results can be impressive, I'm talkin' some fish that are 11-pounders that are over 30 inches long and have canine teeth like a junkyard dog. Everyone loves icing walleyes, especially monster fish and you can catch them too, no problem, provided you follow some simple rules that can be shortcuts to success.

First, find the fish. Begin your search long after first ice, when the dead of winter causes a lull in ice action for panfish, pike and other species on local inland lakes. If you are in search of a trophy, concentrate on Great Lakes or connecting waterways that host spectacular runs of huge fish.

Take a peek at the DNR Master Angler records and you will notice the majority come from just a few locations. This is where walleyes grow to huge proportions by feeding on alewife, shad, smelt, emerald shiners, chub and other forage fishes found in tremendous schools that number in the millions. The abundance of forage is the key to growing big walleyes and Michigan has gained a reputation throughout the Midwest as an ice fishing honey hole. The most popular hawg spots include: Saginaw Bay, Saginaw River, Lake St. Clair, Muskegon Lake and Little Bay de Noc found in the U.P. Sure, there are many more outstanding fishing locations but why mess with the rest when you can fish the best? Concentrate your efforts on these hotspots and you will be pleased with the impressive results.

Saginaw Bay And River

I can't say enough about the splendid walleye fishing on Saginaw Bay or the Saginaw River. But I'm bias after growing up with the fantastic fishing close to my home. Heck, in a decade of ice fishing I've entered 5 walleyes over 11 pounds in the Saginaw Shiver On The River Contest; took first place one year and placed in the top five in three other contests, an accomplishment unequalled by any Michigan Outdoor Writer or another fisherman. The Bay and River is my most successful hawg walleye fishing location. I've wet a line in almost every inch of the system and know the water intimately.

District Fisheries Biologist, Jim Baker, Bay City, best describes the fantastic fishing "Saginaw Bay has a tradition of producing monster walleyes, tipping the scales over the 11-pound mark and limit catches when the weather is ideal and ice forms across the Bay. Each year is different, some winters the walleye fishing is outstanding, the best in the entire midwest; the next winter ice is precarious and anglers cannot get out to the good fishing grounds."

Area walleye pro, Don Leuenberger, Saginaw resident, fishes the Bay every day. He has the uncanny ability to find roaming schools and stay on top of hot walleye action. "I start near Linwood, park at the city ramp and run 5 -7 miles northeast to the structure humps that traditionally hold winter hawgs. As the winter progresses and fish migrate south, I move to the State Park or DNR boat launch at the Saginaw River mouth and spend most my time fishing around the man-made island where walleyes congregate prior to the spring spawning run. Look for limit catches in 17-20 ft. of water using a silver/blue #3 Do-Jigger spoon or small white Swedish Pimple tipped with a lively minnow," Don explains. "Warm weather can create runoff which stimulates walleyes and they will charge into the mighty Saginaw River. Begin by looking for them near the warm water discharge off Pioneer St. in Bay City, next hit the Veterans Park. If you don't find fish try traditional hotspots near downtown Saginaw like: Zilwaukee Bridge, Carrolton Island, Bean Hole, Hooters, WMCA Hole or Wicks Park. My hottest river walleye lure is a chartreuse #5 jigging Rapala tipped with a crappie-size minnow. Pump the offering 1-8 inches off bottom and tap bottom every few minutes. Big walleyes will see the lure dancing in the current and slurp the hook with only a light tap-tap, which feels like a bluegill on the line," says Don. Contact: Bay City Chamber of Commerce (979)245-8333,, Saginaw County Chamber of Commerce (989)752-7161,, Frank's Great Outdoors (989)697-5341.

Lake St. Clair

Lake St. Clair has a legacy of providing superb winter walleye catches with plenty of big fish mixed in," explains Gary Towns, DNR Fisheries Specialist for the region. "Walleye fishermen begin their quest as soon as ice forms; many walk from shore pulling gear on a sled or carrying auger, rod & reel, graph and bait. When thick ice forms most use snowmobiles or quad runners to reach distant points," Towns notes.

Lake St. Clair logs more winter walleye fishing man hours than any Michigan lake, and for good reason: it is located close to Metro-Detroit and the lake is thick with fish. Lake St. Clair is a connecting waterway between Lake Huron, the Detroit River and Lake Erie. Many of the walleyes caught in St. Clair are thought to be transient fish migrating from Huron to Erie or vise versa.

Walleyes are found all along the Michigan shore of Lake St. Clair but public access is limited from Grosse Point Farms to St. Clair Shores. Numerous access locations further north include: Point Huron Metro Park, Metro Beach, Anchor Bay, New Baltimore Swan Creek, Anchor Bay Dr. and Middle Channel Drive.

Anchor Bay is first to ice over and best catches come at dawn and dusk because the water is shallow and walleyes are spooky. This area is well known for fantastic perch fishing and many anglers seek walleyes in 18-24 ft. found near the shipping channel and 12-18 ft. off Grosse Pointe, then move to shallow water in search of yellowbellies. Glow in the dark Swedish Pimples tipped with perch minnows or a sucker minnow head produce most of the low light walleyes.

Lake St. Clair is relatively shallow and savvy anglers catch walleyes by working pockets of deep water. Many times these pockets are surrounded by weed beds and hungry walleyes sulk in the structure and slam offerings that flutter past ambush points. Contact: Anchor Bay Chamber of Commerce (586)725-5148,

Little Bay de Noc

No article on monster walleyes would be complete without mentioning the fantastic ice fishery found on Little Bay de Noc in Michigan's U.P. This region has a reputation for producing huge walleyes and most DNR Master Angler fish come during the winter when pre-spawn hens are gorging on minnows in preparation for spring spawning. As winter progresses females develop larger eggs, it is not uncommon for a 30" walleye to tip the scales over 10-pounds.

Gladstone hosts a fantastic winter fishery, with thick ice and suitable walleye habitat found close. Many anglers park at the City boat launch and motor to the fishing ground with ATV's or snowmobiles laden with ice fishing gear. Hotspots are located less than 2 miles from shore in deepwater hideouts, which is 30-35 ft. deep, providing ample cover, forage fish and ideal habitat for roaming walleyes.

Some locals feel that zebra mussels have cleaned the water in the Bay, making the walleye bite somewhat unpredictable. One day you catch a fish or two and other days they bite like gangbusters.

Most ice anglers use electronics to find and catch fish. Spoons, Pimples and Jigging Rapala are the most popular lures. Some rig a wire stinger hook to the bottom of a #5 Rapala and attach a lively minnow by hooking it through the lips and pinning the stinger in the tail. The set up is lowered within inches of bottom and slightly twitched. When a walleye appears on the graph, the lure is raised a few inches and the rod is jiggled sideways to make the dangling minnow wiggle to mimic the frantic twitching action of wounded baitfish. The subtle presentation draws walleyes from long distances in the clear water, holds their attention and causes them to swim upward and slam the offering.

Don't overlook the great ice fishing available by parking at the Kipling Launch and traveling 2 miles to the structure found along the steep drop-off. Garth Point is well known as a walleye magnet because the water drops from 3 to 24 feet. This is also an area where walleyes congregate prior to ascending the nearby Whitefish and Rapid River. As spring approaches the region is stacked with walleyes that cruise the drop-off in search of an easy meal.

Some walleyes are caught using tip ups spooled with light 6-8 lb. clear monofilament. Lively minnows are set within inches of bottom using just enough split shot to keep the line vertical. Many more trophy fish come on minnows attached to large spoons jigged 6-10 inches off bottom. Likely lures include: #7 hammered chrome Pimple, Little Cleo, blue/silver Pimple, white/chartreuse #3 Do Jigger, Crocodile, white/orange Do Jigger and a variety of Nils Master or jigging Rapala. Contact: Delta County Area Chamber Of Commerce (906)786-2192,

The Mighty Muskegon

West Michigan has several outstanding walleye hotspots along the Lake Michigan gold coast. Popular locations include: Lake Mackatawa, White Lake, Pentwater Lake, Manistee and Portage Lake. Each in their own way provides fast-paced walleye fishing fun but when it comes to monster walleyes few can compete with Muskegon Lake. Usually by late December or early January a thick layer of ice covers Muskegon and savvy anglers take advantage of the ice to set up on likely walleye holding areas and jig lures for splendid catches. Muskegon River hosts one of the largest runs of monster walleyes known in the state. The DNR takes eggs from ripe hens in mid-April by electro-shocking hundreds of fish near Croton Dam. In the winter you can expect to find Croton-bound walleyes cruising Muskegon.

Some of the best fishing begins in the western end where prespawn hens congregate in the 30-50 ft. depths. Heavy lures are needed to reach bottom and large Swedish Pimples, Cleos and #9 Jigging Rapala tipped with minnows get the job done. One trick is to dress the large Rapala with a crappie size minnow on all five hooks. Some anglers feel this extra-large presentation, called a "Christmas tree" lure by locals who adorn the Firetiger color lure, gets the attention of big fish and keys savage strikes. Walleyes are found throughout Muskegon Lake but well-known strongholds are found in deep water, away from drop-offs. The shipping channel is a natural, along with the deep water off the Muskegon Museum Of Arts and the 27-33 ft. flat found southwest of middle channel.

Most winter fishermen park at one of the numerous boat launches found on the Muskegon. Come late winter when roaming fish migrate east to the shallower water near the Muskegon River inlet, easy access is found at the Hwy 120 boat launch. Some fishermen concentrate on the North Channel Ruins area which has pilings and 15-21 ft. holes.

Winter fishermen drill multiple holes in several locations until they find good concentrations of fish, using modern electronics like Vexilar to mark bottom hugging walleyes. Winter walleyes are nomads; they roam throughout the system until early spring. The trick to good fishing is to find where fish are holding and set up on top of the school. Contact: Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce (231)722-3751,

Jigging Strategies

Drill three holes about 18" apart, the flasher transducer is placed in the center and lines rigged with lures are jigged in outside holes. Make certain you can see lures on the flasher at all times and when a walleye appears, coax him into striking by mixing radical jigging with subtle twitching. After a series of slight rod tip twitches, the rod is held stationary; lure is slightly above the fish mark on the flasher. Strikes occur when the walleye glides kissin' close to the stationary lure. If the fish does not accept the lure, more jigging/twitching is used and the lure is raised slightly higher in an effort to draw fish upward which can cause a savage strike. Walleyes will follow lures several feet off bottom and strike or inhale the hooks by venting water through their gills at lightning speed. Fresh bait can make the difference between solid strikes and no fish on the ice. When walleyes are very close to the lure, it is the seductive swimming/finning action of a live minnow that excites them into taking the hook. Change minnows frequently and carefully thread the minnow onto hooks by passing the barb through the lips, to keep minnows alive.

If you have a walleye on the flasher, looking at your offering but it will not bite, reel up, grab a new lively minnow and hook it through the tail and drop it to the waiting fish. Halt the descent by closing your bail to stop the offering slightly above the target. The tail-hooked minnow will swim frantically on the lure, quivering like it is injured, sending sound vibrations through the water and a visual cue that commands an instinctual bite from walleyes.

Keep minnows alive by transporting in a Coleman style water cooler with screw on lid to prevent spills. Once you reach the fishing grounds, drill a hole and immediately give the minnows fresh water. Replace old used water with new until minnows are lively. Water in coolers should be fresh at all times, plan on changing several times each outing.

Icing a monster winter walleye is the goal of most Michigan fishermen. Your dream can come true if you make the move to waterways that hold big fish and use the above fishing tips.

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