BAY CITY — If there’s one thing I’ve become convinced about fishing this year — if you want to be successful — it’s the importance of having a Plan B when you set out in the morning. Virtually all of our play books have had to be altered this season because of the weather. It has rarely been as forecast.
For instance, I recently met up with Mark Gwizdala and Ken Shear — a couple of fairly hard-core walleye anglers with whom I’ve fished a fair amount over the years — on a day when the weather guys said we could expect fairly flat seas. But when we arrived at the mouth of the Saginaw River, there were small craft advisories, the winds were 20 to 25 mph, gusting to 30, and Saginaw Bay was rougher than some of our roads.
So the original plan — run out to deep water and troll spoons —became immediately suspect. We stuck our noses out far enough to see it was going to be unpleasant, if not downright impossible, to fish out there. So Gwizdala, a sometimes tournament pro, said we’d stay inside and troll with spinners and nightcrawlers instead.
It was bumpy enough where we were (in 13 feet of water) that it took a while to get a good troll going; Gwizdala put the electric bow-mount motor down and used it more to steer than propel the boat as the wind was pushing us along at a little better than 1 mile an hour as it was.
We used bottom bouncers and in-line weights to get the baits down and, in short order, we started catching fish. We had five that would keep — they only have to be 13 inches on Saginaw Bay — as well as several throwbacks on our first troll and about the time the ride started getting a little too bumpy (we were in a little less than 17 feet of water by then, about an hour after we started) we pulled lines and ran back in shallow to start over.
Shear, who was running the rods on the port side of the boat, and Gwizdala each did things a little differently. Shear ran a half crawler on a single hook behind his spinner rig. Gwizdala used a more conventional nightcrawler harness. Both caught fish, but Shear’s single-hook rig out-produced Gwizdala’s set-up for a short period.
According to Shear, his catch rate has gone up considerably since he’s gone to the shorter presentation.
“Just from an engineering standpoint, if you’re running something this long,” Shear said, holding his fingers about 8 inches apart, “there’s an awful lot of room for them to miss the hooks. With the half-crawler (and he had it run up the shank of the hook so only an inch or so of worm was trailing it) they’re more likely to get the whole thing.”
That, of course, got Gwizdala going on how Shear was either too poor or too cheap to use whole crawlers and there was a good bit of trash talk between the two whenever one side or the other of the boat hooked a fish.
Our second troll was much like the first, except the number of short fish picked up a bit. (And, for the record, both the half crawler and the full crawler attracted their share of throwbacks, though Shear did seem to hook a slightly higher percentage of his bites.)
On our third troll, the catch rate dropped off as we got into a school of white perch that seemed like it stretched for miles. That’s one downside to fishing crawlers. Everything — catfish, sheepshead, whatever — will hit them. We only boated a couple of ‘eyes, when we pulled lines and started over.
Whether we got on a slightly different line this time or the white perch had moved along, who knows, but we commenced to catching walleyes — and one absolute dandy yellow perch — again. There were still a fair number of shorts mixed in with the keepers, but when we stopped to count fish we had 17 walleyes in the live well. It was getting hot (though the wind kept things bearable). Gwizdala asked what we thought. Both Shear and I said we were happy with what we’d accomplished; we already had more fish than any of us really wanted to clean anyway.
“You know, these are the glory days of walleye fishing, right now,” Shear said. “If you want to catch big fish, maybe not as much, but really these are the fish you want for the table, anyway.”
Gwizdala agreed; every time he thinks the fishing on Saginaw Bay couldn’t get any better, he said, it does. And the regulations — it’s been three years since the Department of Natural Resources raised the daily creel limit to eight fish and reduced the minimum length to 13 inches and there doesn’t seem to be any impetus to go back to five fish and 15 inches — seem to agree with that assessment.
But Shear was right about our catch; we were loaded up with fish running from about 14 to 17 inches. Perfect eaters. And it looks like it’ll stay that way for a while as we released almost as many as we kept, most of them just short of the mark.
Can Saginaw Bay walleye fishing get any better? Personally, I don’t see how.