Saginaw Bay Walleye

By Capt. Dan Manyen

If you asked PWT Pro’s Mark Brumbaugh or even My Cousin, Rick (Big Foot) LaCourse what body of water they liked fishing the most in walleye tournaments, it’s my guess they would say the waters they are the most familiar with, that being their home waters of Lake Erie. Oh I’m sure they have had outstanding tournament days on varied bodies of waters. But I think nothing beats the familiarity of the waters you grew up fishing on.If you’re a long time and dedicated fisherman of your home waters you know the life cycles, seasons, habits and movements of many, if not all the specie you chase there. Of course being in the exact same spot you were the year before when you killed them, will not guarantee that same success this year.  Too many variables having to do with the weather, water temps and the whole ecosystems time table can change in a year’s time.  Usually though, when knowing your home waters, things will not vary so much from year to year, that at least you’ll have a pretty good game plan formulated, given what particular time of year your fishing. With that said, I’d like to talk about my home waters of Saginaw Bay. Of course our walleye comeback began a little after Lake Erie’s. But I’ve been chasing everything from perch to catfish for 40+ years on the Bay.  And the Walleye, personally and primarily since the early/mid 80’s and exclusively in my Saginaw Bay walleye fishing charter business the last 6 years.


One of the mind sets by almost everybody who comes to the Saginaw Bay is “Fish Deep for Big Walleyes”.  And in part, that’s true.About half of the Big tournaments have been won near or North of the Charity Islands, where the water depth can reach 40+ feet. And, when this game plan works, 40 pound weigh-ins are not uncommon.  But, I can’t tell you how many people (including myself) fishing in the many tournaments held on the Bay, put to many eggs in this deep water basket, hoping to catch those 5 (weigh-in) monsters in deep water, rather than a bunch of 3 to 5 pounders in shallow water. This mind set has ruined many a pro’s game plan and tournament standings, even after being on the big ones during the preceding practice days.  So, if you’re planning a fun filled fishing trip to the Saginaw Bay, you might want to consider fishing where the fish stay hungrier and save the time used on that 30 mile one way trip. With a little over 6 years and about 180 trips under my belt chartering on the Bay out of my 25′ Grady White, I’ve noticed a few things about those deep water monsters.  For one, they seem to be a lot fussier, have a narrower feeding window, and are more susceptible to weather changes, than those in the shallower water.  In my last 2 years of chartering, I can count on one hand the days I’ve fished in over 12 feet of water.  Now, if you know the Saginaw Bay, this zero to twelve feet of water mark takes up an impressive amount of the inner Bay.  And I’ve caught an impressive amount of what I would call (weigh-in) walleyes in this skinny water. It’s my opinion that the Bays water temperature plays a big part in the migration of these (bigger walleye) to deeper water.  Very seldom in the last few years has this inner Bay water heated up to the point to chase many of the bigger hogs into that deeper water zone.   Of course, the very biggest variable as to where the walleye go, travel and stay is forage.  And a lot of things have changed in the last few years, that keep’s the vast majority of baitfish in shallower waters. I’ll touch on this in the next segment.


Saginaw Bay has many non-native species that have either been introduced by the DNR for fishing opportunity, or have taken advantage of industrial mistakes along with bad foreign shipping practices and policies.Smelt, Lampreys, Shad, Alewife, White Bass, White Perch, Ruffee, Gobies, Drum, Steelhead, Brown Trout and all the Salmon species, are all implants.  And I guess you would have to be from another planet, not to know about the most famous of our Great Lakes invaders the Zebra Mussel.This little mollusk caused quit a stir when discovered and was supposed to cause everything from industrial shutdowns to total devastation and possible extinction of many other hard shell and bottom living creatures.  On Saginaw Bay it has indeed had a very “visible” impact. Seeing bottom in 10 feet of water was never possible when I was growing up on the Bay. In fact, just seeing your feet in knee deep water was rare.   The phosphorus levels back then, kept the waters always looking like that (coffee with cream) color.  This new water clarity has done quit a few different things, and has forced some changes in the walleye fishing technique game on the Bay.  Clear water equals more light penetration and that equals more WEED Growth.   And I mean Lake Okeechobee style weeds that now thrive all over the Saginaw Bay in depths approaching 10 feet.  And when heavy winds blow on the Bay for any length of time, the down wind waters get choked with floating vegetation.  This abundance of weeds also has a positive note. The nursery and cover it provides for the fry of all these new arrivals as well as the reared and planted walleye fingerlings, has in this writers opinion done more to help versus hinder.


It’s really funny to me when I see and read about a lot of these “Breakthrough” techniques in those (walleye specific) magazines. Oh, they have changed, refined or varied the technique in some form or fashion, but usually it’s a spin-off of what we’ve been using for years.  Case in point. Back in the late 80’s I started using an egg sinker harness rig on the Bay.  I knew we could catch walleye on harnesses, but how to get the harness down while trolling in water 12 to 18 feet was the problem.  I figured a variation to the Bass fisherman’s Carolina rig would work. So I slid a big egg sinker on the line first, fallowed by a #6 bead, then tied on a barrel swivel, fallowed by the 4 foot leader and harness.  Ran all this down the planner board tether and wall’ a, she worked, and worked great.  I would closely compare this rig to the Snap weight and harness rig of today.  I could continue with a few more borrowed and refined techniques that have their roots from the old ways and days, but why. Let’s talk about what works now.I guess the best way to catch a quantity of Saginaw Bay walleye is to troll. And nothing beats trolling the Storm Lures Hot-N-Tot. From day one, the Tot, along with its variations (Rattle Tot) has been king for catching walleye on the Bay.Funny thing is, it seems to have that distinction only on Saginaw Bay. The Wiggle Wart is know and used better on Lake Erie. And the Thunderstick seems to work better on Little Bay DeNoc.  I assume the forage type, size and demeanor has everything to do with this variation.The next best method is harness rigging. And the Bay seems to have its own tackle development technology in that area.  Along with the snap weight system talked about earlier, we have the Pa’s Lure.  An Erie Derie type lure with a diving bill molded in it’s face, which takes your offering down fast, to depths only accomplished by tons of line being let out on other offerings. People on the Bay have modified it some, by removing the single #4 gold hook that comes stock on the back and adding a harness of varied lengths in its place. The only downside to this rig is that it will spinout when trolled too fast.Another rig that is never heard of is the “Spoon Rig.”  A bud of mine won a big local tournament a few years back using it, but it hasn’t seemed to have caught on. A beaded keel sinker in the right weight is tied on first. Then taking the hooks off a big Oak Leaf Spoon, it is attached to the keel sinker.  Then, the 5 foot harness rig is attached to the back of the spoon.The spoon, much like a dodger used on the big lakes for salmon, acts as the attractor to get the walleye to move to your baited harness.  I should add here, that snap weights could be used in any of these instances. And in fact, could and are used in many deep water applications when using practically any live or plastic baits, to get the offering down to the strike zone.  One final technique that was working great last year, was trolling Hot-N-Tot Pygmy’s baited with a crawler.  Another Erie Derie look alike, this little lure seems to have a charm and action all its own. And it comes in some very light weight sizes. It seemed to me, that the main key for its success last season was its light weight and the locations where it was used.  Guys were finding small openings or channels through the thick close to shore (5 to 6 feet deep) weed beds. Then laying down a GPS plot course around and through these weeds, while trolling the Pygmy’s as short as 10 feet off inline boards.The results were unbelievable. There are a lot more techniques that work on the Bay. I’ve just touched on the ones that produce the most fish.  Being a charter captain and having as many as 6 people at time fishing from my boat, I can run as many as 10 lines.This pretty much keeps me trolling and using the Plastics.   The shear mess and energy involved using anything else would kill me in 1 day. I can and have caught as many as a dozen fish per season over 10 pounds, with many more in the 5 to 7 pound range.   All of them in waters 12 feet deep or less.Most all of us Charter Captains on the Lower Saginaw Bay fish this way and target the most, versus the biggest on our trips.   You can find a few of us right here on this sites Charter Captains List.But, don’t just think deep water when coming to the Saginaw Bay.   You can find the biggest guys eating at the best smallest restaurants sometimes.Capt: Dan Manyen, Walleye Express

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