BAY CITY — Typically by late October/early November, big lake walleyes have begun moving into the rivers, generally following the bait fish — mostly shad — upstream. And that happened this year on the Saginaw River; anglers were catching lots of good fish, then they started running with fewer good ones in the mix.
“It was like fishing in the nursery: all small fish,” said Brandon Stanton, a long-time Saginaw Bay/River walleye guide. “I think the shad went back out into the bay and the fish followed them. One fish we cleaned the other day had more than 30 shad in its belly. That’s what they’re doing out there.”
And that’s what we were doing out there, 13 miles off the mouth of the river, where Stanton has been stacking them up for a while.
The sonar indicated there were a fair number of fish in 30 feet of water, some right on the bottom, the rest up to about halfway down in the water column. Stanton started out setting large minnow baits (Bandits) 100- and 120-feet out, so they’d run 15 to 17 feet down, according to the app he had on his cell phone. He hooked them on small boards and within an hour we had six walleyes in the live well and failed to hook up on a handful of additional strikes, something that happens when the water’s as cold as it was, Stanton said.
On four other rods — two with boards, two without, right off the gunwales — he ran similar baits (Flicker Minnows, Husky Jerks and Bandits) and attached snap weights (1 ½ ounces). On the board rods, he sent them back 50 feet before the weight, then an additional 25 feet. On the gunnels rods, the baits were 30 feet behind the weights and then out an additional 30 feet.
The Bay was as smooth as a young Al Green when we started, but the wind picked up a bit and put a nice fisherman’s chop on the water. The bite continued fairly consistently, but the inside rods — the ones with the weights on them — started going off a lot more regularly. The sonar showed that the bulk of the walleyes had moved down in the water column, some of them belly to the bottom.
“A lot of guys would have just put eight high lines out,” Stanton said, “but if you don’t have your low lines out you won’t know if the fish change. You want to cover all your bases because in a blink of the eyes, they’re back up high again.”
We could have simply run the lines out farther back, without the snap weights, Stanton said, and gotten additional depth from the plugs. But that only would have complicated matters.
“Why run 200 feet of line and pray that the fish aren’t crossing each other and getting tangled up when you run 75 feet back,” he said.
The fish kept biting on the inside rods (the deep ones) but we didn’t bother running the outside line deeper in case the fish moved up again. At 2 p.m., after about five hours of actual fishing, we caught a triple (all on the inside rods) and had 30 fish in the live well — two short of the four-man limit.
An hour later, we still had 30.
“I’m not ashamed to go in with 30 fish,” said Tim Soper, one of our foursome.
Ah, but Stanton, who said this was his last open-water trip on the Bay this season, was determined to catch a limit. It took 30 more minutes to catch our two for the limit, but we caught two more as we cleared the lines.
It was outstanding, which is how walleye fishing has been on Saginaw Bay this season, Stanton said.
“This year the fishing on the bay was out of sight,” he said. “Ridiculous. Excellent. The wind kept us off the water a lot, though; we were down about 40 trips this year because we were blown off the water.”
The key, Stanton said, was running appropriate lures for the water temperature.
“Flicker minnows — this year they almost always went on Flicker Minnows, but in this late season I like to troll really slow with the biggest baits I can — the Husky Jerk 12, the Smithwick, Bandits. We run baits that have good action at slow speeds. During the summer we run smaller-profile baits and we run them a little bit faster.”
We fished at 1.1 to 1.2 miles an hour all day, all on the electric motor. A couple of times Stanton turned on the outboard and bumped up the speed — for never more than about a minute — then backed it back down. Except for that 90-minute lull, we caught fish continuously.
Stanton, who has been running charter trips for about 15 years, said he actually got his start taking anglers on ice-fishing charters before he became a boat captain. And he can’t wait to get back to it, he said.
“I’m ready for the ice,” he said. “Ice fishing is my passion — I was always laid off in the winter from a lot of my jobs so that’s how I got started. I can’t wait to get back at it.”
It won’t be too much longer.
Bob Gwizdz is a longtime outdoors writer and has also worked in public affairs for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.