ZILWAUKEE — Tom Goniea has never had a problem catching walleyes through the ice on the Saginaw River. He’s had plenty of days with plenty of fish. The problem he’s had is catching keepers.
So when the first fish of our recent morning excursion (it came through the hole at 8:36 a.m.) measured a little more than 16 inches, Goniea felt like a weight had lifted off of him.
“That’s my first keeper walleye here in three years,” the Lansing-based Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist said.
It wasn’t the only one either; over the next 30 minutes or so, he iced four more ‘eyes — three of them short — but the largest was right at 18 inches. (And, just for the record, sitting within feet of him, I managed just one short walleye, taken on a Do-Jigger spoon tipped with a tiny minnow.)
We started just at good light that morning, with Goniea drilling four holes in 24 feet of water. Goniea has a pair of identical two-man shanties that he can put side-to-side and allow two guys to fish two holes each, comfortably.
We were slightly handicapped by our bait; neither of us knew a bait shop that opened early enough for us to get there for first bite and the local bait shop Goniea frequents didn’t have any walleye minnows. He bought a handful of large golden shiners (pike minnows) and a couple of dozen perch minnows that were even on the small side for those.
But we made do and the perch minnows were good enough. Goniea began jigging a Rapala tipped with a perch minnow and a jig with a shiner, but after a couple of bites he went to two Raps. I went with a Jigging Rapala and a spoon, both tipped with small minnows.
There were fish there from the start, according to the depth finder, but they ignored us until Goniea scored. Then it was all go for a burst (a lot of the guys around us were catching them, too) and then . . . nada. The fish disappeared from the depth finder. And although we moved around and prospected some, we were finished.
One thing I noticed was that by the time the bite was finished, the current had picked up markedly (you could tell by the way the line trailed downstream when we dropped a lure). Ideally, we would have moved to a place where there was a seam — say, a deeper hole or behind a rock pile or boulder — where the fish might have settled to get out of the current, but neither of us knew of such a place nearby. My guess is it would pay to spend some time there in the boat this summer and get an idea what the bottom looks like.
But when we left, we went straight to the bait shop where Goniea bought proper walleye minnows for the next morning. He was there at the crack of dawn, he said, and started where we left them. And the day started as a reprise of the previous — at noon, he said, he’d caught four fish, one barely a keeper.
So he moved, he said, about 250 yards, and started fishing. And started catching
“All I can say is, ‘Wow,” Goniea said. “Drilled two holes and on the third lift, bam, a 21-incher. Dropped it back down and five lifts later, a 17-incher.”
It gets better.
“Over the next five hours I landed 40 fish with 13 over the legal 15 inches,” Goniea said. “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.
“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 guy, 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, no need to be selfish,” Goniea said.
He’s a good ambassador for the DNR — and the economy. The two were going straight to Cabela’s to gear up for more, Goniea said.
I fish with Goniea about a half-dozen days a year and we’d made tentative plans to explore Lake St. Clair for perch in the near future. But I’m afraid that’s falling by the wayside.
“It was the best fishing day of my life,” Goniea said.
Smart money says that if you’re looking for Goniea any weekend between now and ice-out, I can tell exactly where he’ll be. On the Saginaw River, fishing for walleyes.