The world of sport fishing is often one big cycle of events. Lures and presentations that work in the spring also tend to work again in the fall. Classic example, in the spring just about the time walleye are moving up onto the spawning reefs, subtle action crankbaits are one of the best ways to catch these fish. Late in the fall when the water temperatures are about the same as early spring, those very same crankbaits get red hot again.
Walleye are opportunistic feeders. Currently the Saginaw River is chuck full of gizzard shad and many fish from Saginaw Bay have made a “feeding run” into the river to capitalize on this abundant and protein rich forage base.
It’s nice that as fishermen we have these dependable fishing cycles we can count on year after year. Sometimes however the cycles that impact on walleye fishing success or failure aren’t as easy to predict.
Recently while jig fishing for walleye on the Saginaw River our boat and many others fishing near us were enjoying exceptional success. In the past several years the Saginaw River has produced impressive numbers of walleye in the late fall and during the winter months when weather conditions keep the river open.
Catching 30, 40 or even 50 fish a day has become almost routine at times and on the better days much larger catches are common. Most of these fish however are on the small side and in fact the majority must be put on a bump board to confirm they are long enough to keep!
In response to this exploding fishery, the Michigan DNR even lowered the size limit to 13 inches and raised the daily bag limit to eight fish to help trim some of these over abundant and pint sized walleye from the system. The DNR has been openly concerned that too many walleye in the Saginaw River and Saginaw Bay could potentially damage the vulnerable forage base.
Ironically, the fish we were catching recently on the Saginaw River were anything but pint sized. In fact, our average fish was about five pounds and we boated several fish in the seven to eight pound range!
Jake caught these obviously healthy walleye at the mouth of the Saginaw River. Upon cleaning these fish and others in the catch, virtually every fish was choked full of gizzard shad.
To be honest, it has been some years since I’ve witnessed walleye fishing this good on the Saginaw River. As I was enjoying an exceptional day on the water, I couldn’t help but wonder exactly what conditions had set up such an unusually good catch of adult sized fish.
On the drive home I started thinking about past years when big walleye were common place on the Saginaw River. In those days water levels in the Great Lakes were higher and the volume of water coming out of the Saginaw River was much greater.
When we get wet falls and the water level in the Saginaw River swells, we also tend to get pushes of walleye from Saginaw Bay making “feeding” runs into the river. This fall was exceptionally wet and the run of walleye in the Saginaw River has also been exceptional. Not only are there lots of fish in the river, the average size is many times larger than we have experienced in many years.
So lots of rain and plenty of run off is in part responsible for attracting a better than average fall walleye run. High water is only part of the reason walleye head to the Saginaw River. Late in the fall when the waters of Saginaw Bay start to get icy cold, one of the forage species walleye depend upon also make a pilgrimage to the Saginaw River.
The gizzard shad found in Saginaw Bauy are actually a southern species that thrive best in temperate waters. In Saginaw Bay, shad find themselves living on the ragged edge of disaster for much of the year. While Saginaw Bay and the Saginaw River are nearly ideal habitat for gizzard shad during the spring and summer months, in the fall and winter water temperatures and plankton levels drop to a point that these important but delicate baitfish find themselves in a constant struggle for life or death.
Gizzard shad are so sensitive to sudden changes in water temperature, they often die by the millions when a cold snap rapidly drops lake or river water temperatures several degrees. In the fall gizzard shad pile into the lower Saginaw River where the water is a little warmer and plankton levels are much higher than Saginaw Bay.
So now the fishing picture on the Saginaw River starts becoming a little clearer. A good walleye bite typically occurs when run off from fall rains swells the river and also attracts an abundance of gizzard shad.
The final piece of the puzzle come in the fact that gizzard shad numbers are also cyclic and routinely rise to staggering numbers in some years while crashing to surprisingly low levels in others. Mild weather, especially during the winter months is critically important to sustaining large numbers of shad in the Saginaw Bay and River systems. The last two winters have been exceptionally mild and as a result the Saginaw River is currently choked with gizzard shad.
So not only is the Saginaw River experiencing the ideal water levels, gizzard shad numbers are rather high right now compared to the 10 year average. Based on two recent trips, it’s amazing to see that every fish on the fillet board is literally chucked full of gizzard shad.
Walleye live in a life cycle that repeats itself over and over again. Understanding these cycles is one of the best ways to be at the right spot at the right time.
With so many shad in the river system right now, common sense suggests that walleye would be hard to catch, but the reverse is true. Instinctively walleye seem to understand that the abundance of gizzard shad in the river now is a temporary thing. Walleye and other primary predators routinely binge feed in these conditions, wasting no time “stocking the freezer” so to speak.
As fishermen our job is to recognize these brief but unique fishing opportunities and to capitalize on them. After all, it might be awhile before fishing conditions like what we are currently experiencing on the Saginaw River are enjoyed again.