By JEFF JOLLEY , MDNR Fisheries Manager
It’s springtime in Michigan, and cars, trucks and semis race toward Bay City and points north and south from Flint to metro Detroit. Some of those drivers might be heading to sunny shores and boat launches along Lake Huron.
If you find yourself as a passenger in a car traveling over the Zilwaukee Bridge on I-75, which rises over 100 feet above the Saginaw River, look at the surrounding landscape of eastern Michigan. If time allows, look closer. You will see some domed industrial buildings, and mountains of gravel and stone. There might also be some freighters and barges, as well as some smaller boats cruising the river’s mocha-colored water.
If it were possible, an even closer, deeper dive into the water would reveal a multitude of goldish-brown fish forming a ribbon in the distance. Any rays of sunlight able to penetrate the flocculence of the water reflect white off many pairs of fish eyes. It is the mighty walleye, cherished by many as the king fish of the Midwest. They are aptly named for the membrane over their eyes, in Latin called the tapetum lucidum, which reflects and focuses light.
Walleye are formidable visual predators in low light conditions. And there are millions of them. They come from Saginaw Bay and farther, from Thunder Bay, from Ontario, from southern Lake Huron. They have come for their annual migration to spawning grounds in the arteries of the Saginaw watershed – the Flint, Cass, Shiawassee and Tittabawassee rivers.
Predators of walleye
What nature giveth, nature taketh away. In the early 20th century, over 1 million pounds of walleye was annually harvested from Saginaw Bay. Then along came the alewife in the 1920s – it was a blessing and a curse.
Alewife invaded the Great Lakes when the Welland Canal opened so ships from the interior Great Lakes could bypass Niagara Falls and get to the Saint Lawrence River, the Atlantic Ocean and beyond. That also opened the door for fishes to swim in and colonize this new habitat.
Alewife fell in love with the Great Lakes, and we fell in love with the alewife. Here was the perfect fish food for the Chinook salmon, the new favorite hard-fighting, fast-growing and delicious-tasting focus of the sport fishery of the Great Lakes.
But the curse was that alewife eats baby walleye, and they eat all the things that baby walleye eat. A population explosion of alewife, along with a myriad of other factors, including overfishing and pollution, nearly drove the walleye to extinction.
But new players entered the story, namely zebra mussels and quagga mussels, and fundamentally changed the structure of the food web. These new mussels became the new stationary Roomba of the Great Lakes, and the power was always on. They are incredible at doing their job, which is filtering plankton from the water.
There is an adage among fishery scientists that might apply here: “He who eats the smallest thing, wins.” The alewife lost the food battle with the new mussels, and their population numbers plummeted. Another invader, the round goby, then entered the scene and has become a good alternate prey source for walleye.
Stocking walleye in Saginaw Bay
Attentive fisheries managers had been stocking many walleye into the bay to keep the population on life support over the years in the face of the massive alewife effects. The virtual disappearance of the alewife was what the walleye needed to survive. With their population rebounding, there are more than 5 million adult walleye in Saginaw Bay today, providing tremendous fishing opportunities.
The Saginaw Bay, Saginaw River and surrounding watershed have gone through a remarkable recovery. Environmental repair, protections and increased awareness have resulted in vast improvements in the health of the ecosystem. Dams have been removed, enabling walleye to make it to many of their former spawning grounds.
Water quality has improved, and egregious polluters have been dealt with, but the recovery is not complete by any means. There are visible scars of past environmental damage and some current open wounds. The basin is still considered an area of concern by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The disappearance of the alewife wasn’t enough; the walleye needed these improved environmental conditions, although a great deal of work remains.
The Saginaw Bay/River fishery rivals that of any walleye fishery in the state and ranks up there with Lake Erie, the South Dakota impoundments, Dale Hollow, Lake of the Woods and Green Bay.
Today, walleye is the most sought-after fish in Saginaw Bay, owing partly to the great population recovery. The population keeps growing, and strong year-classes continue to be pumped out.
The limits are liberal – you can keep eight fish a day if they are 13 inches or larger. This year, for the first time ever, the Saginaw River from Saginaw (specifically the Center Street, or Douglas Schenk, Bridge) downstream to the river mouth is open to walleye harvest year-round!
Formerly the season was closed during about six weeks in March and April to let the walleye move through the river to their spawning grounds.
This is about 22 miles of river fishing for anglers to explore.
Springtime has arrived throughout all but the uppermost reaches of North America, ushering in some of the best angling of the year for everything from perch to pike.
It’s an exciting time for all anglers, but particularly so for anyone targeting mobs of migrating walleyes headed to their predictable pre-spawn and spawn locations. This game is played wherever walleyes are found, but the big-league action takes place in a handful of premier systems. Walleye factories like the Mississippi River, Lake Erie and the Detroit River, Saginaw Bay in Michigan, the Missouri River, Wisconsin’s Green Bay – including the Menominee and Fox Rivers – and Northern Minnesota’s Rainy River represent a few of the premier arenas.
We asked two top walleye guides, Brian Bashore and Tony Roach, to share their favorite presentations for targeting springtime ‘eyes.
The Missouri River is prolific walleye water. Just ask Sioux Falls, South Dakota NWT tournament pro and guide, Brian Bashore. The St. Croix pro-staffer and co-owner of The Walleye Guys Guide Service says the mighty Mo near Chamberlain, South Dakota is the place to be once the ice clears from the river.
“There’s about a five-mile section of the river in Chamberlain that’s loaded with rocks and prime spawning habitat,” Bashore says. “The main channel loads up with males first, and as the weather warms they start sliding up shallow. This area of the river stays hot from the pre-spawn – which can start as early as late February through mid-March – all the way through the post-spawn period.”
Bashore says guides and other anglers in the know start the early season by dredging the main river channel with heavy jigs or bottom-bouncer rigs. “A lot of fish are caught in 20-30 feet of water out in the main channel early,” he says, adding that dragging a bottom-bouncer rigged with a live minnow is one of the better ways to target them. “You’re pretty much just drifting or slipping with the current, moving along anywhere from around .5 to 1.2 MPH. I’ll often drag a bottom bouncer rig because it keeps the minnow in the strike zone just above the bottom, and you don’t foul your hook with the slime that collects on the bottom over the winter. I’m typically spooled up with 15-pound Seaguar Smackdown braid and fishing a 10-pound Seaguar Gold Label fluorocarbon leader.”
Two years ago, in the midst of a pandemic, Mercury Pro Team member Tom Huynh entered his first walleye tournament on a whim with friend and campground neighbor Nate Wolske.
While Huynh considers many traditional walleye methods to be monotonous, the competitive fire burned, and this Anglers Insight Marketing (AIM®) Weekend Walleye Series Minnesota Division event on Leech Lake represented an opportunity to try something new. Fast forward to 2022 and Huynh is now widely considered the hottest professional walleye angler in the sport. While Huynh’s success in such a short time frame is astounding, his journey to the sport’s summit is even more perplexing.
For starters, the 42-year-old grew up not in the heart of walleye country in North Dakota, Minnesota or Wisconsin, but in Charlotte, Arkansas, where his family operated a small cattle farm. As a child, he fished for catfish, panfish and an occasional bass. It was catching those bass that first piqued his interest.
“We did have little largemouth bass in our clay-colored farm ponds,” recalled Huynh. “I would walk the bank and work the edges with a Mepps® spinner. The older I got, the more I wanted to bass fish. It was more intriguing to me – working a bait instead of just sitting and waiting for a catfish to come to me. Growing up, we didn’t have much for TV, but the few channels we could get had fishing shows on weekend mornings, including bass tournaments.”
In 1999, after two years at Arkansas State, Huynh moved to the Fargo-Moorhead area on the North Dakota-Minnesota border to study computer information systems at Minnesota State University Moorhead. To help fund his education, he took a job in a nail salon. While Huynh finished college and earned his degree, he discovered a true talent with nail art. Today, Huynh owns and operates two Polished Nail Spa locations in Fargo, where he employs 27 nail technicians.
Effective Jan. 1, 2023, the possession season for walleye will be open year-round on the lower Saginaw River in Bay and Saginaw counties from the mouth of the river, upstream to West Center Street (Douglas G. Schenk) Bridge.
The same regulation is in effect on the Lake Huron waters of MH-4 (see page 20 of the 2022 fishing guide) including Saginaw Bay. The daily possession limit for walleye remains at eight walleye with a 13-inch minimum size limit on these same waters.
The Michigan Natural Resources Commission approved this regulation Dec. 9, 2021, to increase fishing and harvest opportunities on the Saginaw Bay walleye population. Prior to this new regulation, the season used to close March 16 and reopen the last Saturday in April.