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Saginaw Bay's roller coaster ice fishery


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Thom McCollum caught this 12 pounder on Saginaw Bay last year during the Argo Ice Adventures jigging with a Northland Tackle Forage Minnow Spoon. The fish had a DNR tag making it an even more unique trophy. Mark Romanack photos

January 01, 2012
For those who enjoy chasing walleye across Saginaw Bay's many miles of ice, the adventure has been bitter sweet recently. During the last two winters fishing success on the ice has been sporadic at best and often downright frustrating.

Saginaw Bay has enjoyed some "good days," but overall the number of anglers who are struggling to catch fish has rapidly outnumbered those who seem to be on fish. In part, the poorer than normal ice fishing success can be blamed on bad ice conditions and weather that have collectively prevented anglers from fishing as diligently as normal. It's still brutally obvious that even when the fishing conditions have been good, the fishing has not followed suit.

What's even more frustrating is this is the same body of water that routinely puts out limit catches of walleye in the open water season and often does the same for ice fisherman. Obviously Saginaw Bay has plenty of walleye. The question becomes, why is this fishery seemingly on fire one day and ice cold (literally) the next.

A Constant

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State Of Change

Bodies of water like Saginaw Bay are in a constant state of change. The very makeup of the food web is constantly changing and forcing primary predators like walleye to adapt their feeding habits.

During the last two years Saginaw Bay has experienced an abnormally high concentration of gizzard shad, a forage species whose population has historically seen frequent spikes and subsequent declines. Gizzard shad are surviving in the Great Lakes at the extreme northern limits of their habitat. Often huge die offs of these fish occur in the winter when the water temperatures drop below the levels gizzard shad can tolerate.

Huge die offs of shad create an abundant and easily slurped up food source for walleye. In part this readily available food source could explain why the bite on Saginaw Bay has been slow and or sporadic.

Other changes in the forage base may also be occurring. One of the signs that points in this direction is the dramatic increase in the number of lake trout caught in Saginaw Bay over the past few winters. Biologists believe that Lake Trout would normally stay in Lake Huron, but have been making winter migrations into Saginaw Bay to seek out food. This phenomenon is in direct relationship to a dramatic decline of alewives in Lake Huron. Without alewives to feed upon, it makes sense that lake trout would invade Saginaw Bay to take advantage of more abundant food resources.

The increasing number of lake trout being caught by anglers targeting walleye seemingly came to an end during the winter of 2010/11. Doug Deming of Fish Point Lodge is on the water daily with clients targeting walleye. "In the winters of 2008 and 2009 we caught lake trout while walleye jigging almost every day on the water," says Deming. "In 2010 the number of lake trout we caught all but dried up, suggesting that lakers are finding enough food out in Lake Huron and haven't had to make the trek to Saginaw Bay."

Deming also has another theory as to why the winter of 2010/11 was so spotty for walleye fishing. "Think back to the summer of 2010 for a moment," says Deming. "We had one of the hottest summers on record. When the water temperatures in the Inner Bay spiked to 80 degrees the baitfish sought out deeper and cooler water. The walleye naturally followed them. Although those fish eventually returned to the Inner Bay it was slow process and the winter of 2010/11 produced poorer than usual walleye fishing."

That's the bad news. The good news is that the summer of 2011 was not nearly as hot and walleye seemed to stay in the Inner Bay all summer long. "I'm confident that the winter of 2011/12 will produce much better winter walleye fishing than last year," says Deming.

Deming has another concern regarding Saginaw Bay. "The number of anglers who hit the ice is staggering," says Deming. "Typically walleye don't move around as much in the winter as they do in the open water months. When anglers find a big school of fish, word travels fast and they can literally pound those fish to death."

"In the winter it's common to catch a higher percentage of adult spawning class fish compared to the open water season," says Deming. "It very possible that we are harvesting too many adult fish during the winter months and potentially hurting our natural reproduction efforts in the process."

Talk of establishing "slot limits" on Saginaw Bay was briefly entertained by the Natural Resources Commission at a winter meeting in 2010, but discounted as a viable management option. One of the NRC officers commented to that the state doesn't want to complicate fishing regulations any more than they already are.

It appears that it's up to anglers themselves to limit their harvest of adult walleye from Saginaw Bay by practicing selective harvest. Harvesting smaller fish and releasing larger adult fish can play a huge role in maintaining a healthy spawning stock without sacrificing fish for the table.

Active Or Passive?

Signs suggest that during the winter of 2011/12 Saginaw Bay anglers will once again be treated to world class winter walleye fishing action. Catching "your share" boils down to incorporating fundamental angling methods that have proven themselves over and over again.

Jigging is an active form of fishing and tends to produce a higher percentage of walleye from Saginaw Bay than tip ups or other set lines that are more passive. Because three lines per person are allowed in Michigan, the most successful anglers favor jigging with two rods and then set out one tip up or a dead stick for their third line. This strategy covers both the active and passive forms of ice fishing.

Active jigging tactics can be broken down into three categories including using leadhead jigs, jigging spoons and jigging/swimming style baits.

Stand-Up Jigs

In the leadhead jig category a stand up style jig is a superior choice because it insures the hook point will be in position to deliver the best hook set even when the jig is motionless on bottom. The best stand up jigs for walleye fishing feature a light wire hook that can be easily penetrated into the tough jaw of a walleye. Avoid using jigs with tempered hooks designed for bass or saltwater fishing applications.

There are a number of stand-up style jigs on the market suitable for winter walleye jigging. Top choices include the Bait Rigs Odd Ball and Northland Lipstick Jig. Both these jigs perform best when tipped with a lively emerald shiner minnow hooked through the lips.

Jigging Spoons

Jigging spoons like the classic Swedish Pimple produced in Michigan by the Bay de Noc Lure Company have produced countless walleye over the years. These baits continue to be popular in the face of growing competition because quite simply they work. Tipped with a minnow head or a small shiner minnow, the Swedish Pimple continues to lead the pack in jigging spoons. Other good jigging spoons to consider include the Do Jigger also from Bay de Noc Lure Company, Cobra Spoon by Wolverine Tackle, Little Cleo by Acme Tackle and the Luhr Jensen Krocodile Spoon.

Jigging/Swimming

In the Jigging/Swimming category the classic Jigging Rapala in a No. 5 or 7 sizes are hands down the most popular option. Another similar lure is the Moonshine Shiver Minnow that comes in a wider assortment of colors compared to the Jigging Rapala.

In a similar category, but a little different there is a number of body baits designed for wintertime vertical jigging. The Salmo Chubby Darter is a good example of a whole new class of winter jigging lures. Like other jigging/swimming baits the Chubby Darter has ample action, but a little slower drop rate that at times really triggers strikes.

A growing number of ice fishermen are actually using lipless crankbaits in a capacity similar to the Chubby Darter. These baits tend to have lots of rattles and work best when walleye are very active and feeding aggressively.

Summing

Up The Hard Baits

Any fisherman after winter walleye is going to be well served by having an assortment of all the above lures at his or her disposal. When the fish seem to be lethargic and not biting well, the stand-up jig is going to be the top producer. As walleye become more active the jigging spoons and jigging/swimming lures start to really shine.

Tip Ups

And Dead Stick

Jigging produces the lion share of walleye caught on Saginaw Bay, but tip ups and dead stick rigging can produce bonus fish. The best tip up designs are those that cover the cover the hole preventing light from entering and the hole from refreezing. A number of manufacturers produce excellent products in this category.

A tip up rigged for walleye should feature 10-12 pound test monofilament as the main line and a 24 inch fluorocarbon leader of 8-10 pound test tied directly to a No. 6 treble hook. A couple split shots on the line above the leader is ample for keeping the bait positioned a couple feet off bottom.

For bait, nothing beats a very lively emerald shiner minnow hooked lightly through the skin of the back so the minnow is positioned horizontally in the water.

A dead stick is similar to a tip up except that a rod and reel are incorporated for fighting the fish. A dead rig rod can be either a baitcasting or spinning outfit equipped with 10 pound test monofilament as the main line and a 24 inch leader of 8 pound test fluorocarbon line as a leader. At the terminal end a No. 6 or 8 treble hook is tied directly onto the leader. A couple split shots are used to weight the minnow down.

The dead rod can be rested on a bucket within easy reach of the angler. Some fishermen open the bail and use a rubber band to hold the line on the spool. Others use a bait feeder style reel like the Okuma Avenger 20a with the spool resistance set so light a walleye can grab the bait and swim off without feeling resistance.

When a bait feeder style reel is used the fish can pull line off the spool even when the bail is closed. The second the angler turns the reel handle or engages the bait feeder switch, the reel locks in for setting the hook. Popular in saltwater fishing applications, bait feeding reels have a lot of handy uses in freshwater fishing as well.

Mobility Matters

Staying mobile on Saginaw Bay is critical to success. Too many anglers head directly to an area they have heard is producing fish, pop up their shelters and camp out for the day.

It's a good idea to sit tight for the first hour or two in the morning and again in the evening when walleye are most active and most likely to be biting. During the day it pays to move around a little, sampling different spots and searching for new groups of fish. It only takes a bite or two to confirm the location of your next "hot spot," yet most anglers don't play the run and gun game while ice fishing.

Keeping your gear to a minimum, organized and as portable as possible is a big part of making those midday moves as necessary. Stick with easy to set up and tear down shelters, like the many flip style shanties or a shelter mounted on skis that can be towed like the Ice Master by Legend Manufacturing in St. Johns, Michigan. If moving becomes a chore, you won't remain mobile and fishing success is bound to suffer.

This winter stay mobile and also versatile by being prepared to fish using all the common presentations. In the end, it's almost always the guys who work the hardest who catch the most fish.

If You Go: Fish Point Lodge, www.fishpointlodge.com offers lodging and guided fishing trips.

OJ Herman Company, www.ojherman.com in Bay City features repairs and maintenance on power augers and sells ice fishing tackle, shelters.

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