By Rick Fowler
According to a small group of older, retired, local fishermen, it’s “sometimes hard for new anglers to distinguish between a walleye and a jumbo perch. They often refer to them as marbleyes, pickerel, or a wall-eyed pike. Doesn’t really matter what you call ’em though, they taste good.” These confusing (to some) identifications were just a few of the tales I heard at the Kipling boat launch recently in Gladstone, Mich. Thus, the text that follows is ample fodder if there are indeed questions of identifying the most sought-after fish in Michigan.
How to identify a walleye? According to fishing digests one needs to look for spiny and soft separated dorsal fins, a single dark spot on the rear base of the dorsal fin, a white-tipped bottom of the caudal fin, large mouth with a jaw that extends beyond the middle of the eye. Better yet, take a ride through the boat launches on Delta County’s Little Bay de Noc and check with the anglers returning from a day on the water.
The walleye fishery in Little Bay de Noc is no secret. In fact, the bay, on the north shore of Lake Michigan, is well known for having tremendous fishing. Locals and regular visitors to the area sometimes refer to the bay as the Walleye Capital of the World. They also point out that inland fishing in the area is spectacular featuring some great places to drop a line.
Walleye fishing in Little Bay de Noc can be downright spectacular. It has 30,000 acres of surface water and has often been called a “fish factory.” The DNR estimates that 400,000 walleyes thrive in these waters with thousands of them spawning in the Escanaba River, Rapid River, Tacoosh River, and the Whitefish River from mid- to late-April.
Each year the DNR harvests eggs from spawning walleyes at the north end near Rapid River. These eggs are used for stocking both Little Bay de Noc and Big Bay de Noc – on an alternating yearly basis – and for stocking inland lakes throughout the state. DNR personnel have been able to reach their quota of eggs in just one day, emphasizing the fact that the population of walleye is stronger than ever.
Fishing Little Bay has changed throughout the years, due in part to the exotic species that have invaded the Great Lakes via foreign vessels. The predominant species that has altered the waters is the zebra mussel. Each one of these thumbnail-size invaders filters the plankton out of one liter of water per day. With millions and millions of them in the bay, they have cleared up the water immensely. While that may sound good, the new clarity often means skittish fish. With the darker tannic, acid-colored water gone, walleyes now seek cover in weeds, feed more after dark, and move to deeper waters.
As the environment has changed, angling techniques also must change. Planer boards are being used more frequently now to keep baits away from boat-spooky fish. Finding the dirtiest water available is another tactic to consider. Walleyes are very light-sensitive fish, but in dirty water they can feed effectively and are not spooked as much by bright sunlight.
The north end of the bay, from Gladstone to Rapid River, holds an ample supply of walleyes year-round. Some of the most popular areas are Center Reef at the north end, First, Second, and Third reefs out from Kipling, and the deep water along the east bank of the bay from the Vagabond Resort south to Hunter’s Point. These areas are great, fish-holding locations throughout the year.
Early in the season, trolling or drifting nightcrawler harnesses is the most preferred and effective method. Crawlers work throughout the summer and into the early fall when larger fish start to migrate back into the bay. Then many anglers switch to trolling crankbaits. The most popular colors include fire-tiger, blue/orange, silvers, and anything with purple.
The outer bay, from Gladstone to Escanaba, is comprised of a deeper water basin surrounded by shallow sand/gravel flats. Early in the season a good location is just out from the Gladstone public beach. Here you’ll find a nice, weed-lined drop-off leading to deep water.
Drifting or trolling crawler harnesses works best until weed cover gets too thick, then pitching jigs tipped with nightcrawler halves or leeches is a good bet.
Another good area to try south of Gladstone is the famous “Black Bottom” area. There is a large weed flat in 8 to 14 feet of water that drops off sharply to depths of 30 to 36 feet. This is a good spot year-round, but really starts turning out fish in mid-summer. From July through September thousands of fish relate to this area.
Walleyes also are caught in the Escanaba River throughout the year. Once the water temperature gets above 70 degrees, however – usually around the end of June most years – the average size of the fish declines, with many being sub-legal. If you don’t have a boat, this is one location you can count on for catching fish. There are new fishing platforms just downstream of the new north shore boat launch located near one of the best stretches of the river.
Carefully managed and protected throughout the years, Little Bay de Noc has emerged as one of the top freshwater fishing locations in the United States. The area has undergone aggressive fish stocking in the past few years to sustain the fishery. With seven high quality boat launches from Garden to Rapid River, boaters have easy access.
Professional fishing tournaments such as the Cabala’s Masters Walleye Circuit, the In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail, the FLW Walleye League Championships, the FLW Bass Series, and B.A.S.S. Tournament Series, all have held competitions here.
In a 1920s Outdoorsman’s Handbook, walleyes were referred to as wall-eyed pike. As stated in the publication, “This species frequents deep places in lakes, rapids, and swift-moving waters. It averages in weight from one to six pounds and seldom exceeds 10 pounds.”
It seems, at least according to this handbook, that walleyes were the most sought-after fish back then, too, even if they were on the small size. Don’t tell that to the thousands of anglers who ply the waters of Little Bay de Noc today. The walleye is indeed king here and despite environment and social changes, a 10-pounder is not that rare anymore.