It was a warm morning—hot even, for early June—when I climbed into Mark Gwizdala’s boat in Linwood for a walleye excursion on Saginaw Bay, and you could see the flotilla of walleye boats trolling around a mile or two off shore. But as soon as we cleared the channel markers, Gwizdala took a hard right and headed southeast. We rigged up, mostly with planer boards and crankbaits, and within 30 minutes or so of trolling, we’d boated five keeper walleyes.
That wasn’t extraordinary; Saginaw Bay is just full of walleyes these days.
What was unusual is that we had them to ourselves. While the rest of the walleye fraternity was a mile (or more) off shore, we were in anywhere from five to seven feet of water.
“A lot of guys won’t come in here,” said Gwizdala, a long-time walleye tournament pro, who says he is a big fan of fishing in what he calls “short water” for walleyes. “It’s too much work. They don’t like the weeds and they don’t want to have to concentrate that much.”
Indeed, you did have to pay attention to the weeds. We were trying to stay just on the outside edge of the beds, but any time there was a little rise in the bottom, the plugs would find the vegetation anyway, and we were reeling in lines and clearing them. But the hassle was worth it, Gwizdala said.
“You want to catch fish or not?”
There’s no doubt there are plenty of shallow-water walleyes in the Bay. There have been numerous times over the years when I’ve caught walleyes while bass fishing, in deep summer, casting lures in five feet of water or less. Trolling in there in summer would be brutal, with the weeds and all, but the fish are there. You just have to get to ‘em.
Skinny water walleyes offer their challenges. If it’s dead flat calm, for instance, the bite can be maddeningly S-L-O-W, especially if the sun’s high and bright as it often is in summer. But we had a nice off-shore wind this morning that put a fisherman’s chop on the water and we didn’t complain about the other item than often bums out shallow-water walleye fishermen—all the other fish. There were plenty of those. We caught a number of smallmouth bass and a handful of channel catfish. And we caught enough drum (sheepshead)—including a ginormous specimen—to feed a third-world village. But there were plenty of ‘eyes in there with them.
After our first pass—we were trolling six rods, four on boards, two off the corners with light bottom bouncers—running a handful of hard baits (No. 5 Shad Raps, Shad Dancers and Minnow Raps) and one weight-forward spinner with a night crawler, we decided to retrace our route. We ran directly out from shore into deeper water and made a wide turn before we went back into the shallows. That’s important, Gwizdala said.
“Loop out and around the fish,” he said. “You can really blow the fish out of shallow water running over their heads.”
Our next pass was more of the same. We caught six legal keepers (we put five more in the box and tossed back a legal dink; the size limit had been lowered from 15 inches to 13 recently; more on that later).
“You can go out to deeper water and there are fewer hassles, but maybe you have less cooperative fish out there,” Gwizdala said. “And you’ve got to find them in the water column. In shallow water, you’re always in the strike zone. And if they’re in that shallow water they’re in there for one reason—to eat. They are active fish.”
We made a third pass; it was even more of the same.
Gwizdala said paying attention to little details was the key. While we experimented when we started, we wound up trolling fairly slowly (1.9 to 2 mph) and always downwind.
“Any faster and we didn’t get a bite,” Gwizdala said. “Any slower and your lures aren’t getting where they’re supposed to. And your speed is easier to control going downwind. Going into the wind, you’re bucking around and fighting it the whole time.”
We monitored the in-line boards constantly, too.
“If you’re into fish and you don’t catch one on one of your boards for 15 minutes, you’d better check it,” Gwizdala said. “If it’s all weeded up, they’re not going to hit it.”
So we ran the boards regularly, removing weeds, occasionally swapping out baits; purple was the hot color but just about everything produced, including the crawler.
(Oddly enough, all of our non-target specimens took crankbaits, not the live bait. Go figure.) We wound up with 15 ‘eyes in the box, we boofed off one or two more, and quit well before noon. Good fishing. But that’s how things have been on Saginaw Bay for the last couple of years.
“I always say the Bay is as good as it’s ever been, then it surprises me and gets even better,” Gwizdala said. “Back in the day they used to be all eight pounders, but there a lot of fish in the system now, no doubt about it, and it can only carry so many.”
That’s where the shorter size limit comes in. The Department of Natural Resources said the length/age ratio of Saginaw Bay walleyes was lower than it should have been, indicating that there were too many walleyes for the prey base. The DNR not only lowered the size limit, but it raised the creel limit to eight a day (up from five). The fish heads figured the best way to solve the situation was to let anglers take more fish out of there. So we discussed whether or not we should have kept those short, but legal, fish, just for the good of the Bay.
“There’s not much meat on a 13-inch walleye,” Gwizdala said.
That’s true enough.
Gwizdala isn’t the only Saginaw Bay walleye aficionado who believes in fishing skinny water.
Doug Deming, who has run Fish Point Lodge in the southeast corner of the million-acre bay for 30 years and has been chartering walleye trips for the last 25, says he fishes shallow more of the year than he does deep.
There are a handful of keys to catching them, Deming says, but the main one is tolling as slowly as you can stand it.“I usually start the end of April or the first of May depending on weather conditions—there’s a lot of wind in the spring—but my target depth is two feet to eight feet. There’s no need to get any deeper than that most places on the bay, especially in Quanicassee-to-Sebewaing area that I fish. The emerald shiners are packed in pretty close to the banks and after the walleyes spawn, the fish, especially the males, stay in there and gorge on them.”
“I troll anywhere from a half a mile an hour to no more than a mile an hour,” he said. “Two-tenths of a mile an hour can make a big difference.” Once he finds the speed they want it, he’s there.
“You can be struggling in the morning and all of a sudden you’re sorting fish.” Deming fishes with night crawlers more often than not. “I think it’s more of a natural bait,” he said.
“The Quanicasee River, after a rain, comes blasting through there, washing those things all out into the lake. Ask a fly fisherman what’s the most important thing about it—it’s not how good you cast, it’s how well you match the hatch.”
So Deming pays a lot of attention to the color of the blades and the color of the beads he uses. If there hasn’t been a lot of rain, he’ll use lots of blue and silver beads (like shiners) or sometimes perch-colored blades as the walleyes eat plenty of them, too. If there’s a mayfly hatch going on, he goes to root beer-colored beads and copper or gold blades.
As the water warms—he says 74 degrees is the turning point—Deming starts experimenting with crankbaits, but he doesn’t head out to deeper water until the water is consistently in the 80s.
“There have been plenty of times when I’ve pulled a bunch of fish—22- to 26-inch fish—in six feet of water where the weeds came up four feet from bottom. You have to stay over the top of them. Guys run eight miles out to catch five or six fish and I’m sorting them in close.
“I’m not a bottom bouncer. I want the bait up. If I’m in six feet of water, why do I want to be running on the bottom? I start out in the morning staggering my lines, sometimes running them only two or three feet behind the boards, then I adjust. It depends on where the fish are coming.
“As the sun gets up they may move out a little deeper—say 10 feet—but as evening comes they’ll move back in.”
Deming uses small weights—mostly in-line, half ounce—just enough to tick the tops of the weed beds.
“You can use snap weights,” he said, “but I like the in-lines because they seem to track better. You have to be above the weed beds.”
When the water temperature gets up into the 80s, Deming fishes deeper water. But as soon as it begins cooling off again, he moves back in.
“When the water gets up to 80 degrees consistently, you’re losing oxygen and the fish leave and go to deeper water. But in the fall they find their way right back in again and I use the same pattern in the fall.”
The bulk of Saginaw Bay walleye anglers fish deeper, often in 20 feet of water. But both Gwizdala and Deming agree that if you do so, you’re running past a lot of fish in skinny water to get out where you’re going. And according to them, you’re doing so for no reason at all.
- Written by Bob Gwizdz