The only way the fishing could have been any better is if we had waitresses bringing us cocktails while we were at it.


Brandon Stantons shows off a deep-water Saginaw Bay walleye.


The Farmer’s Almanac says it’s going to be cold winter this year. And that’s got to warm the hearts of Saginaw Bay walleye anglers. The best fishing is often well out into the bay—10 miles or more from shore—and when the ice is iffy, you really don’t want to venture out there. But when it’s solid, it’s where you want to be.

Oh, you can catch them in shallow water, especially early in the winter. But as the season progresses, the fish get a little more finicky and they move deep. And if the ice conditions aren’t good, well…

“When you’re fishing in less than 20 feet of water on Saginaw Bay, you’re generally waiting for the witching hour, the first hour and the last hour of the day,” said Brandon Stanton, one of the best-known of Saginaw Bay’s fishing guides. “But when you get out in deep water, it’s darker out there—walleyes are basically nocturnal—and they’ll bite all day long.

“Last year our good ice didn’t come until the end of February and although everybody marked a ton of fish, they were in a funk. A lot of guys didn’t do real well.”

That was my experience last winter. Marked loads of fish. Caught few of them.





I remember two years back, when the weather was good and cold and we could get out there in January, it was an entirely different story. Almost as soon as I started fishing with Stanton in 29 feet of water one afternoon, we started getting bit.

Almost immediately after dropping my spoon and minnow, I felt a slight tick as I raised my bait in the water column—to try to get the suspended fish we saw on the depth finder to go—set the hook and started reeling. I’d brought the fish up to within five feet of the hole or so—about 15 feet higher than where I stuck it—when the line went limp.

Stanton, eyes locked on to the sonar, reeled furiously to bring his bait up to the mark, jiggled it a couple of times, set the hook and quickly slid a four-pound walleye onto the ice.

“That’s one,” he said. “Fifteen to go.”

Ten minutes later it was déjà vu all over again.

“That’s two,” Stanton said. “Fourteen to go.”

Stanton was convinced we’d catch a limit. And as long as Stanton was on point, cleaning up my misses, I thought that maybe he was right.

We were about 15 miles out on the bay, a more than one-hour ride by snowmobile. It was just the second day that Stanton could get out there, but it was exactly where he wanted to be. Stanton said he’d limited out the previous day, in the same place he left them about six weeks earlier, when we’d killed them open-water trolling. There’s an old saw about starting out ice fishing where you left them in open water. Stanton was proving it.

It was miserable; single digit temperatures, snowing, and blowing like a Southern politician on the stump. But we were comfortable enough in the shanty. Stanton caught a third walleye, fishing a Do-Jigger tipped with a half minnow, when I finally sunk the hook into a fish well enough that it stayed stuck. It was a perch, a nice one, about 12 inches.

“I’d be happy enough to just the catch the perch,” Stanton said. “But you can’t target them out here because they come and go.”

But the walleyes? They live here, Stanton said.

“Out in this deep, dark water, they bite all day,” he said. “You don’t have to get them first thing in the morning or last hour of the day.”





He was proving his point. We’d gotten started around 1:30 p.m., and had the first fish on the ice at 1:45. We picked away at them, missing a few bites, letting an occasional hooked fish get off, but mostly catching them. We fooled around with various baits—I fished a Jigging Rap for a while as well as another spoon, and Stanton switched spoons a couple of times just to see. It didn’t seem to matter; they were biting whatever we dropped. And they were aggressive, too; we’d see a fish on the bottom, start jigging up, and generally got the fish to chase it up until it just couldn’t stand it anymore and nailed it. 

When I slid our 16th (and limit) walleye on the ice, I looked at my watch. It was 5:12 p.m.

Stanton said I might as well catch and release them, if I wanted, as he had to go check on a couple of his buddies that were in a shanty about 100 yards away. In the 10 minutes he was gone—his buddies had a limit of ‘eyes and a handful of perch, including one that would probably go 16 inches, by the way—I caught two more and had two more get off. 

The only way the fishing could have been any better is if we had waitresses bringing us cocktails while we were at it.

Stanton is a long-time outfitter (mostly on the bay, but a willing traveler, too) who actually prefers running ice-fishing charters to boat trips. Unlike most fishing guides I know, Stanton actually started his career by running ice fishing charters—he was a seasonal employee, laid off much of the winter—and expanded into charter boating when he decided to make fishing a full-time gig. He’s done well with it.


 Chris Reinhold with a Saginaw Bay walleye.


A year earlier, the fishing was similar to the way it was that day with Stanton. I remember sharing a shanty one day with Chris Reinhold, who lives on the west side of Michigan, but thinks nothing of driving across the state to chase the ‘eyes on the bay.

“For about 10 years, when I was in my 20s, I went every weekend there was safe ice,” said Reinhold, who is in his early 40s. “I had one day when my brother-in-law and I caught 140 fish—including a 12 pounder. We had our limit in the first half hour, then fished until 3 o’clock and left.”

Well, that would keep you coming back, wouldn’t it?

Our day didn’t start that way at all. We saw fish on the sonar—we were about 10 miles out in 26 feet of water—and could get them to chase our baits a little bit, but they didn’t want to commit. We’d both been using rather light lures, tipped with small or half minnows, so, finally, in frustration, I tied on the biggest Swedish Pimple—which is heavy for its size, because of its shape—that I could find and began jigging it aggressively, drew a fish up (that still wouldn’t bite), but when I free-spooled back to the bottom, a walleye nailed it. 

So that was it, they wanted it on a fast drop, eh? Nope. I fished that Pimple for another 45 minutes without a strike. Mean-while, Reinhold started catching them on a smaller, lighter Do-Jigger. Go figure. At noon we had five walleyes: good fishing, but not what the Bay is capable of showing you.





We went through a mid-afternoon lull, which is not uncommon. Reinhold abandoned the tent and went hole-hopping—to no avail. I took a nap. And by late after-noon, Reinhold decided to make a move. We went about a mile further out and set up just off an ice heave.

This is something I’ve always believed in: fishing near the pressure cracks. Those cracks form where they do for a reason; I suspect there’s an upwelling or some sort of structure change at the bottom that causes the ice to crack at that spot.

As prime time approached—it was about 5:15 p.m. and we were scheduled to start packing up at 5:30—Reinhold caught an ‘eye on a small spoon tipped with two minnow heads.

“I typically like two perch minnows,” he said. “They’ll be like dancing. But they were short-biting this morning—I think I lost four or five fish before I figured it out. So, I went to just the heads and the reason I use two is, if I lose one, I still got one on there.”

I went to a glow-in-the dark Little Cleo, tipped with a minnow head, and I got bit. And then so did Reinhold again. And the next thing you know, we were haul-ing them in. So we didn’t quit at 5:30. We fished until 5:40 when I iced our 18th fish of the day—we had two throwbacks—for our two-man limit.

Zut alors.

Reinhold wasn’t especially surprised. He expects to catch ‘em on the Bay.

“If you want to get confidence in walleye fishing, the Bay is the place to go,” he said. “It seems like it’s easy to get their attention. I was raised pan fishing, but
I like walleye because you play cat-and-mouse with them; I like to pull that bait away from them so they’ll get aggressive and you’ll get that good hit.”

Reinhold said the fishery has changed since he started fishing Saginaw Bay—there are fewer big fish—but “I love com-ing over here,” he said.





“I’m catching smaller fish now, but it’s steady. Saginaw Bay has got one heck of a fishery and it’s always been a good place to go. The first time I fished here I caught them and I didn’t even know where we went—I was out with my buddies.

“One time I stayed for 13 days,” he continued. “I camped out, just came in for propane and food. Man I was an idiot—I wouldn’t recommend doing that.”

Most of the fish Reinhold and I caught were in that 15- to 17-inch range—perfect eaters—though there were some big fish caught by others. Stanton, who was out there that day, had one that would go seven pounds and said the best one he’d caught so far that winter weighed 9-6.

But, in general, the fish are smaller than they were during the glory days of the Bay, but they are also more numerous. That’s why the Department of Natural Resources raised the creel limit (from five to eight) and lowered the length limit (from 15 to 13 inches). And the DNR has not backed off the liberal limit so far, though there are plenty of anglers who are worried that heavy harvest is too much for the fishery.

That attitude seems to be gaining some ground. Jeff Jolly, the Department of Natural Resources biologist who oversees Saginaw Bay, DNR formed a work group, which included citizens, charter boat skippers, a couple of DNR management biologists and research biologist Dave Fielder, to study the situation so the DNR could begin writing a new management plan for the Bay.


A couple of hours on Saginaw Bay yielded Brandon Stanton an excellent catch.


“People remember when the fishery wasn’t good and they don’t want to go back to that,” Jolly said. “What I’ve been hearing is the eight-fish bag and 13-inch minimum size is a little bit too much. There’s a point when people think, even if there is an unlimited number of walleyes, it’s a little bit wasteful to take home so many walleyes.”

Jolly said the DNR is eyeing the 2023 season for implementing whatever changes are deemed prudent. That means we’ll have this winter to enjoy the liberal harvest limits.





And that’s got the guys who like sacking them up hoping the Farmer’s Almanac is right. Stanton certainly does.

“I think we’re on a path to a good winter this year,” he said. “Hopefully we can get started around Christmas. But I’m not making a prediction, I’m making a wish.”



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1 comment

Can’t find enough info. or ice guide service numbers .Perhaps someone could contact me with help hiring.


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