(Originally printed in Great Lakes Angler magazine 2015.)
I remember the first time I fished the Saginaw River through the ice, as clearly as if it were yesterday, even though it was 25 years ago.
It was a warm(ish) afternoon, up in the high 30s, as I recall, so when my buddy and I got on the river, right in downtown Saginaw, we didn’t even bother to bring an auger with us. We figured we’d either fish the same holes that the other anglers had fished that morning, or kick open any skimmed-over holes that had been used the previous few days.
That’s exactly what we did, in the shadows of the Temple Theatre, smack downtown. I baited up a jigging Rapala with a couple of small perch minnows on the treble hook, opened the bail on the spinning reel, and let the bait down toward the bottom.
The first time I raised the rod tip to jig, I was actually setting the hook; an ‘eye had intercepted the Jigging Rap on the drop.
About a minute or so later, I had a 17-inch Saginaw River walleye lying on the ice.
Could it possibly have started any better?
We only caught a few more fish that day, a couple of them short of the 15-inch legal limit mark, but the concept of ice fishing for walleyes on the Saginaw River had been indelibly etched into my brain.
I’ve been back a lot of times since, both downtown and well downriver of that spot. And though I can’t say I’ve ever had such a memorable experience—catching a walleye first drop, the first time you fished the place?—I can tell you I’ve caught a lot of fish and shared in many other anglers’ positive experiences as well.
But I’ll gladly l tell you that, if anything, the fishery has gotten nothing but better since that first experience.
Fisheries biologist Jim Baker, who runs the southern Lake Huron fisheries management unit for the Department of Natural Resources, concurs. Baker says the walleye population in the Saginaw Bay/River system is quite possibly at an all-time high.
“I can’t give you an exact number but the walleye population in Saginaw Bay is certainly in the millions,” Baker said. “It’s massive and it’s stable and a large percentage of those fish migrate up the Saginaw River.”
Last winter’s walleye bite on the river “was kind of hit or miss,” Baker said. “It stayed cold so long that by the end of the season, there weren’t a lot of fish moving through. Sometimes you get a little bit of an early spring movement of walleyes in the river under the ice, but I don’t think the fish started to move in the river in good numbers until after the 15th of March.” (March 15, of course, is when walleye fishing closes on the inland waters of the Lower Peninsula.)
“I was out there one day late last winter with, oh, about 250 of my closest friends—you know, the kind of day where you have to get someone to lift his foot to drill a hole—and it was absolutely dead,” Baker said. “No one was catching anything. It can be like that sometimes.
“But it can be highly productive, too.”
Jamie Sochocki, a 26-year-old hard-core angler and a big fan of the Saginaw River, will attest to that.
“Every year it seems to be getting better and better,” he said. “The last two winters it seems like I’m catching about 30 undersized fish every time I go. And I’m catching three to five keepers every time out, too.
“The closer you are toward the Bay, the more throwbacks you catch,” he continued.
“Farther upstream you catch fewer fish but they’re larger. Last year I caught 15 that were seven pounds or better—I keep a scale with me and if I catch a big one, I weigh it right there and release it. The biggest one was 9.7 pounds.”
Sochocki said he fishes the river on the ice about four days a week and will cover the whole 20 miles of river, from where it begins as the confluence of the Tittabawassee and Shiawassee Rivers, all the way to its mouth at the Bay.
Sochocki—who is an excellent bass fisherman during open-water season—says he likes to get started chasing eyes on the ice well before sunrise.
“I had most of my fish last year before I saw half the people who were fishing even get on the ice,” he explained. “Most of the people walk out to the edge of the channel, drill holes, and start fishing. I like to drill 15 to 25 holes and look around, and I’ll spend a lot of time going from hole to hole until I get it going.”
Small drop-offs along the flats, before they plunge into the river channel, were the ticket, Sochocki said.
“Last year any smaller flat with a drop of two to four feet near the channel was phenomenal,” he said. “I got out there first thing in the morning to get away from the crowd. You have to—if someone goes out there and starts drilling holes in less than 10 feet of water, he’s spooking the fish.”
Aside from their spookiness, the shallower water fish offered him more options, Sochocki said.
“In shallow water there’s not very much current, so you can use pretty light baits—small Little Cleos and small jigging Rapalas. If you get out in the current, you have to have at least a half-ounce bait just to stay halfway vertical. And in shallow water I always use a dead stick, too, and it seems like I caught half my fish last winter on that dead stick.”
The current changes throughout the day—even though the nearest dam is many, many miles upstream on the Tittabawassee River. When it gets to ripping, Sochocki gets out of the channel and tries to find eddies or current breaks. Other than that, he rarely fishes anywhere that he can’t find fish on the sonar, he said.
“I use a Vexilar and if I’m marking fish, I keep changing baits until I can get something to go,” he said. “You can bring them up from the bottom and catch them right under the ice, just like perch. But there are a lot of non-target species in there (such as catfish and drum) so you don’t want to depend totally on your depth finder. If I’m marking fish and I don’t catch a fish for 20 minutes, I’ll start walking. I move around a lot.”
I only got on the river personally once last winter, with Tom Goniea, a Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist who works out of Lansing, but makes the two-hour drive from his home to where I-75 bridge crosses the River downstream from Saginaw a handful of times each winter. Goniea says he never has trouble catching walleyes on the River, but catching keeper-size fish is another thing all together.
Indeed, I spent a half day on the river with Goniea and a buddy of his two years ago and although better than 40 fish hit the ice that morning, only one passed the 15-inch mark on the tape measure. Not this year; Goniea broke the mark with the first fish he stuck, a 16-inch eater. He caught several more fish during the next couple of hours—including an 18 incher. But the fish I caught? Short.
We were fishing with perch minnows that day—the local bait shop where we live didn’t have any walleye-sized minnows—and Goniea, who prefers a proper walleye minnow, said he thought that might have played into the short-fish equation. When we left that day, we went right to a local bait shop to buy proper minnows for the next day’s fishing. Goniea was there at the crack of dawn, he told me later, and started right where we’d left them. The day started as a reprise of the previous excursion—at noon, he said, he’d caught four fish, just one barely a keeper.
So he moved, he said, about 250 yards upstream, and started fishing...and started catching
“All I can say is, ‘Wow,’” Goniea told me. “I drilled two holes and on the third lift, bam, a 21-incher. I dropped it back down and five lifts later, bam, a 17-incher.
“Over the next five hours I landed 40 fish with 13 over the legal 15 inches,” he reported. “Do the math—that’s a fish every eight minutes and a keeper every 23 minutes.”
The best fish of the day was a 22 ½-inch female, Goniea said, by far the largest walleye he’d ever taken through the ice on the river.
“I lost one at the hole that would have put her to shame,” he said. (Isn’t that the way it goes? The big one always gets away.)
Goniea said he struck up a conversation with a fellow—who turned out to be a buddy of a buddy—who was there with his son. Goniea invited the lad, who was fishless, to sit next to him in his shanty, lent him one of his rods, and the youngster caught six ‘eyes, including a keeper. He set the dad up with a jig and stringer hook (his go-to rig, tipped with a walleye minnow) and dad caught five including a keeper. Both had never caught a fish through the ice before, Goniea said.
“Hey, when the fishing is that good, there’s no need to be selfish,” Goniea said.
“The Saginaw River in 2014 was the best walleye fishing I’ve ever seen anywhere,” he said. “For me it was phenomenal. But for others I heard from, it was frustrating. If you get in the right place, the walleye fishing can be outstanding. But if you don’t, you’re going to catch fish, but you’re going to do a lot of sorting. Keepers can sometimes be hard to come by.”
One thing everyone who fishes on the Saginaw River agrees on, however, is you have to be careful when venturing forth. Last winter, the ice was up to two-feet thick on some stretches of the river and there was good ice from freeze up through the end of the season. Other years, when there are temporary thaws over the course of the winter, the ice can get very iffy—especially around the bridges, which often tend to congregate anglers—quickly. And some years, the ice is never safe at all.
So, if you go, ask around at the baits shops for ice conditions and safe stretches, pay attention to where you see anglers congregating, and try to follow the same pathways out on the ice.
If it starts warming or raining, don’t be foolish. That ice can get eaten up quickly by the current. Be careful out there.
- Written by Bob Gwizdz