“This time of the year you’re always fishing in the top of the water column because they’re on the prowl, but we’re catching them right off the bottom, digging those baits right into the dirt.”
Mick Broughton holds a typical Lake St, Clair walleye.
Brandon Stanton says he loves walleye fishing when the weather’s cold. That would figure; he started his professional career as an ice-fishing guide and didn’t become a charter boat skipper until a couple of years later. But it isn’t simply the nostalgia that Stanton enjoys when the temperature plummets. It’s the fishing. “For one thing, everybody is out chasing deer so you have the lake all to yourself,” said Stanton, who guides around the Midwest but calls Saginaw Bay home. “You’re not playing bumper cars out there.
“And the big fish are out there. People go up into the river to fish but the bigger fish, the big females are in the bay and they stay in the bay until April when they run up the river. And the big females are feeding up.”
Stanton slows down his trolling speed in cold weather, which he says makes for a more relaxing trip. “It’s peaceful,” he said. “You slow your speed way down – 1.1, 1, sometimes even .9.”
Most years, Stanton is well into his cold-weather pattern by November. But last year (Remember last year, when we were out fishing in shorts and t-shirts November?) it was the end of the month before things got right.
I went out with Stanton on the first Sunday in December and we started hitting fish as soon as we got the lines down. We had two—nice ones, four and five pounders—in the live well within a few minutes, but the third tangled up a couple of lines and by the time we got it straightened out, Stanton said we might as well pull lines and run back to where we started and go through them again.
We did. And we never touched a fish. “They move around this time of year,” said Stanton, perhaps the best-known charter captain on Saginaw Bay. “You go back over them and they’re just not there. I think you’re hitting moving schools. You can tell by how golden they were that they’re moving in from deep water. It’s hit or miss.”
We started out on a different troll, hit a fish right away and then hit a triple. After it slowed it was a similar story; we went back to where we’d started, caught one right away, but when we went through the hot spot, nada.
It was seriously cold out; we couldn’t free spool the baits out because the line was freezing on the reel. We had to feed it out by hand. Which, to Stanton, is a small price to pay for late-season angling.
“I don’t know if the shad are still in the lake—I haven’t seen many shad in river much so far and we haven’t had a river bite yet this year—but I think they’re out here eating shad.”
We had our lures running at staggered depths—as adjusted by how much line we let out—and the first few fish hit at mid depths. I asked Stanton if we should adjust the other lines, but he declined.
“You might catch them up high and then, all of a sudden, they move to the bot-tom, so I leave everything where it’s at,” he said. “They change just like that and unless you’re covering your bases, you don’t know when it happens. I want to be there when they move.”
Rather than double back gain, Stanton said we were just going to keep going. And we started catching fish again.
“I really think you’re further ahead to just keep trolling until you find a couple of hungry ones,” he said.
As the day proceeded, we started hit-ting fish on the deeper lines—we were running Bandits and Deep Husky Jerks, which we had out the deepest–and that’s what the fish wanted. Stanton said it was unusual to get them that deep.
Brandon Stanton shows off the day’s catch of walleyes.
“This time of the year you’re always fishing in the top of the water column because they’re on the prowl, but we’re catching them right off the bottom, digging those baits right into the dirt,” he said. “I didn’t see any bait balls on the screen, but the fish were down—maybe the blow the day before drove them deep. I don’t know, usually you’re fishing the top third of the water column this time of year and they come up and get it.”
Stanton said if he had to choose one bait for the cold-weather bite it’d be the Husky Jerk.
“Husky Jerks are my go-tos,” he said. “I think they have a better action, a side-to-side wobble. The fish are a little bit lethargic and they want that subtler movement—the bait’s lethargic, too. It’s not like the summer time when you use baits that shimmy all around.”
We picked away at the walleyes, catch-ing one here one there and at 1:30 p.m. we had 14 in the well and we caught a dandy lake trout, too, which we released. Stanton said he’s been catching lots of them.
“They’re just gorging on the perch,” he said. “In the wintertime they come into the bay because of our bait situation on Lake Huron—there aren’t any alewives—but the minnows and perch are moving in.”
When we hit a fish, Stanton was in no hurry to grab the rod, preferring to give the fish some time to really get it.
“You get a lot of pullbacks this time of year because they’re just picking at it,” he said. “Sometimes you’ve got to feed them line to get them to hold it. This time of year when that board goes back I don’t jump on that rod right away—they just seem to have it in their lips. I want to feed it to them a little bit. But these are good fish; there’s no doubt that there’s a fish on there when that board pulls back.”
We fished another hour, and added one more walleye and hooked a giant perch that got off when I tried to flip it in the boat instead of going for the net. Stanton said we could stay and get our limit fish, but I had had enough. We already had more than we wanted to clean.
It might have been my last Great Lakes outing of the season had not Mick Broughton called me a short time later and told me he was catching them on Lake St. Clair, and invited me to join him for a day. Why not; December, I’ve decided, is the new November. And Lake St. Clair walleye fishing is a feel-good story.
There was a time—back when Lake Erie was known as the Dead Sea—that St. Clair was probably the top walleye fishery in Michigan. But about the time Lake Erie really got going, Lake St. Clair started to fade, caused by changes in the lake: re-duced nutrient loading and zebra mussels combined to clear the water, which is not the best.
“As you know, walleye don’t like clear water for the most part,” explained Todd Wills, the chief research biologist at the Department of Natural Resources Lake St. Clair station. “Stained water is a little easier on them.
“Recruitment from the Thames River, which was really important to the lake went down. It wasn’t what it was in the ‘70s.”
So why did it reverse course?
“We attribute that to the strong year-classes coming out of Lake Erie,” Wills said. “Year-classes in 2015, 2018 and 2019 were all very good. 2020 was not bad either so were telling everybody that the good old days are now. The 2018 year-class is only two years old but it’s very robust.
“Fast forward to now and we have natural reproduction going gangbusters in Lake Erie and those fish are coming up in the Detroit River, Lake St. Clair and the St. Clair River. The whole system is a walleye factory and it’s just a great fishery. It’s incredible. It’s been quite the turn around.”
I’ll attest. But it took some doing to get me to see the light.
When I went out with Broughton, it was cold—a cloudless sky with bright sunshine, not exactly prime conditions for walleye, which are notably photosensitive. And if that wasn’t bad enough, there wasn’t a breath of wind; the surface was as smooth as Lionel Richie. The first place we stopped—where Broughton had left them the last time out—the water was as clear as the distilled stuff. Those conditions showed up in the fishing. We trolled for an hour and a half with nothing to show for it.
So we picked up, went out a little deeper to another of Broughton’s usually productive spots and it was the same story: vodka-clear water that, according to the fish finder, didn’t have a finster anywhere around it.
So Broughton got on the outboard and drove, covering miles, until he slowed down and stopped.
“The water’s greener here,” he said. “I’m just looking for a little more stained water. Clear water and high sun are not a good recipe. It’s a good boating day.”
We set lines in about 15 feet of water, Bandits on planer boards, and though there wasn’t much showing on the depth finder, one of the boards started pulling back. I grabbed the rod. It was a nice ‘eye.
The bait was 38 feet back of the board. The next rod that went was 44 feet back. Then the 38-footer went again.
After a bit, we doubled back through them—and we didn’t touch a fish—then turned around. Some clouds appeared and the wind picked up and one of the high lines (22 feet back) went. It was a nice fish.
Mick Broughton nets a Lake St. Clair walleye.
“We have a pretty good grade of fish right now,” Broughton said. “They’re a little bit bigger than last year. And there are some six-, seven-pound fish.”
Broughton said St. Clair’s walleye fishery started going downhill when the Great Lakes water levels dropped—which started in the ‘90s—and stayed down until the water level began rising again. “There’s just more fishable water now,” he said.
“There’s more structure and there seems to be more bait around. It seems like the last five or six years it’s been coming on and now everybody knows about it.”
Broughton said the walleye bite is good pre-ice on St. Clair—as it is on Lake Erie—because the fish are moving into areas where they’ll stage before the spring spawning run.
“Lake St. Clair is a shallower bite than Erie,” he said. “Nineteen feet is the deepest part of it. But we’re using the same baits—Bandits and Deep Husky Jerks—as we do on Erie and nobody’s using anything else. Thicker-bodied baits—like a shad-type bait—doesn’t seem to work as well on Lake St. Clair as they do on Saginaw Bay and Lake Erie, where there are more shad.
“Lake St. Clair’s just all-around good,” he continued. “The muskie fishing’s great, the smallmouths . . . it’s just an all-around great lake, especially this time of year when you don’t have to deal with so many boaters. Other than smallmouth, it’s an under-rated lake.”
And the muskies. It’s world-class fishery for both bass and ‘skies and the panfish action is pretty top-notch, too. Now, it looks like walleye fishing is getting there as well.
We caught a couple more (both on high lines) and called it at six fish. Maybe not Lake Erie results, but not bad for just days before Christmas. Wouldn’t you agree?