UNIONVILLE — Right at 4:45 p.m., Tom Goniea, who was staring at the depth finder in the portable shanty we shared five miles out on the ice of Saginaw Bay, announced: “There’s a fish.”
I turned and looked, just in time to see Goniea set the hook. Even before I could reach out and grab the transducer and get it out of the hole, Goniea slid a walleye through it and onto the ice.
It was our first action of the afternoon. Doug Deming, who was occupying a permanent shanty a few yards away, had caught one 30 minutes earlier. It was slower than I had hoped; we were out the first day that the thermometer showed above freezing after dipping below zero several days in a row. I’d hoped the heat wave — heck, it was in the low 30s — would inspire a bite, but I hadn’t even felt a fish breathe on my bait, let alone inhale it.
That changed roughly 25 minutes later as I felt a slight tick on the end of my line and I slammed home the jigging Rapala. I was in the plus column, too.
Sadly, that was it. Deming, our host for this fishing safari, said later that he had one more halfway up the water column before it got off. Goniea swung and missed at another. I never felt another touch.
“I think a lot of it had to do with the weather,” said Deming, long-time proprietor of Fish Point Lodge. “They were finicky. I marked quite a few but they just weren’t biting. I don’t know what the barometer was doing, but. . .”
There’s always a but, eh?
Deming said he caught four the night before and had been catching his five-fish limit almost every evening. Deming prefers the evening bite, which is not uncommon among walleye fishermen. If you go out in the morning, fishing conditions often get worse as the day goes on as walleyes are known as photosensitive fish.
“Though I have caught a lot of fish between 11 and 1,” Deming said. “Some guys have been doing all right in the morning.”
We were fishing in 15 feet of water in what the local guys call “the slot” on the edge of Thomas Reef.
“It’s a big elongated bowl basically,” said Deming. “The fish are always on the move, but they haven’t been moving a lot in this cold water.”
Deming and Goniea fished Rapalas all afternoon. I’d had on a jigging spoon (Do-Jigger) tipped with perch minnows until 5 p.m., when I figured it was time for a change. Ten minutes after I went to a small Rapala and a large minnow, I scored.
“I like the Rapala,” said Deming, who fishes daily. “I just like the action of it. And I like to match the hatch — smaller lures and smaller minnows. The fish will definitely tell you what presentation they want — if they want it jigged aggressively or slowly — and if they want perch minnow versus walleye minnows or even just the minnow head.
“In deeper water — 24 to 30 feet — I like the spoon. I think the flutter’s better in deep water and the baitfish in deeper water are bigger — it goes back to matching the hatch. It’s no different than summer fishing; give them what they’ve been feeding on. When you’re cleaning the fish, that’ll tell you the size, too, but you’ve got to catch on before you can clean ‘em.”
Deming said orange and gold Rapalas have been his best baits (I caught mine on a perch-colored Rap and Goniea’s was all orange). Any color of glow-in-the-dark spoon has been pretty good, too, he said, “but smaller lures have been the ticket for me.”
Deming said fishing has been outstanding this winter.
“It’s been the best ice fishing we’ve had this early in a long while,” he said. “The ice has cooperated — we’ve had consistent, good ice and though it’s been a struggle with all the slush since it warmed up, if guys get on the trail out there and stay on it they can pretty much get around. And when the stuff freezes again they’ll able to stay on top unless we have a drastic weather change.”
Deming runs a track vehicle (an Argo) and can take up to three anglers on a guided trip. Slush and snow don’t bother him, though they slow him down a little.
Deming said back-to-back winters with inconsistent ice conditions the last two years have left guys hankering for that good Saginaw Bay bite.
“There’s a lot of fish in that 18- to 21-inch range,” Deming said. “They’re cookie cutter fish, though I did have four throwbacks last night, the first time in a while I’ve caught short fish. But that’s good for the future. There’s a lot of fish out there right now and if you’re in the right spot and they’re aggressive, you can catch them. “
Deming said his dance card is filling up fast — his guided trips include lunch, either at the lodge or on the ice, where he served us hot soup and sandwiches, but he has a few openings in February and will have more if the season lasts well into March. Meanwhile, he has cabins for rent for do-it-yourselfers and he’ll gladly tell you how to get to where the action is.
“Just follow the tracks,” he said.