CHEBOYGAN — I was told, when I arrived for a couple of days of fishing on Mullet Lake, that the bite had been pretty tough but the fish that were being caught were high quality. It proved to be true; over the two days I fished with a group of about 30 anglers, I heard of just one walleye and one pike that were short of the minimum size regs (15 and 24 inches, respectively). All the rest were solid keepers.
“There don’t seem to be a lot of fish around, but the ones that are here are tanks,” said Pat Bentley, one of the pro staffers at Mark Martin’s Ice Fishing/Vacation School that was held here.
That struck me as interesting as Burt Lake, which is considered Mullet’s sister lake — they are connected by the Indian River — is just the opposite: there are lots of fish to be caught but sometimes it’s tough to find keepers. And, talking to a couple of local anglers, that seemed to be the conventional wisdom on Burt and Mullet.
“That’s generally true,” explained Tim Cwalinski, the Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist who oversees the area. “Mullet has less consistent natural reproduction. We’ve proven that over the years with our fall walleye surveys.
“Burt has more consistent natural reproduction,” he added. “We see it every time we go there. Burt has more obvious spawning habitat — you can see the gravel on the banks. But with that better reproduction comes higher densities and lower growth rates.”
The lakes are really quite similar in some ways: both are two-story lakes (meaning they support both warm- and cold-water fisheries) of about the same size; Mullet covers 16,630 acres, while Burt is 17,120. But the main difference is Mullet reaches a much deeper maximum depth (148 feet) than Burt (73 feet). And there’s a lot more of that deep water on Mullet, too.
Mullet has a three-fish walleye limit, while Burt’s is the state’s standard five. Beginning April 1, Mullet’s walleye limit goes back to five fish, as a couple of years of outstanding walleye reproduction there make the more conservative limit unnecessary, Cwalinksi said.
And natural reproduction drives the bus, Cwalinski noted. To illustrate, he pointed to past stocking efforts. In 2013 the DNR stocked a half-million walleyes in Mullet Lake and during the fall shocking survey DNR staffers caught 10 per young-of-the-year walleyes per hour. The next year, when the DNR did not stock, the survey produced nearly the same results. And the next year, again with no stocking, the DNR found the best year-class ever.
“That just shows you how many more fish natural reproduction can produce in a good year,” Cwalinski said. “All the stocking we did from 2010 to 2013 didn’t produce as many young-of-the-year total as that one year-class.
“Just when we thought walleye levels had fallen so low it would never bounce back, Mother Nature gave us the best year-class we’ve ever seen.”
One of the local anglers I spoke with — who owned a place on Mullet — told me he mostly fished for pike on Mullet, but if he wanted to fish for walleyes, he generally went to Burt. But the pike fishing, he said, is outstanding; he averaged about 2.5 pike every time he went.
Over the course of the two days I fished I saw some very nice pike taken, measuring in the high 20 inches to mid 30s and even one that was 40 inches. They were fat, too, not snake-like as pike sometimes are. Cwalinski said the deeper water in Mullet would explain that.
“Both have good perch forage bases, but Mullet has smelt, too, because of that deep cold water,” he said. “That helps with the growth rate.
“Pike that have access to cold water in the summer are generally in better shape than they are in real shallow warm lakes,” Cwalinski added. “You can have all the forage you want, but if you don’t have cool water to escape to, you won’t see as much growth as you do in lakes with that escape habitat.”
Ah, but enough of the biology, let’s get to the fishing. I spent the first day in a shanty with Joe Giuliani, a tournament angler/guide from the Canadian Soo, who has been on Martin’s pro staff for a handful of years.
Giuliani did not catch a fish during his two days of pre-fishing for the school and our day together did not change that. I fished my butt off, jigging with a variety of spoons and body baits, sometimes tipped with a large minnow, sometimes a small one, sometimes a half minnow, sometimes with two minnows, and even for a while with none. I never touched a fish.
The next morning, again with Giuliana, I caught a pike — a just-keeper that took a minnow on a slip bobber. That was it. That afternoon, I went fishless sharing a shack with Bentley, who managed one ‘eye, caught jigging a Slender spoon with a minnow head on it. (He’d caught one that morning, too, on a Jigging Rapala tipped with two minnows.)
So that was it. It was a tough bite, but the fish that were caught were boast-worthy. Were I to head back, I think I’d concentrate on pike. But several guys caught three-fish limits of ‘eyes over the course of the event, which proves just one thing: it’s fishing.