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Saginaw River Winter Walleye

By Mark Romanack

The entire length of the Saginaw River harbors
walleye opportunities during the winter months.
When the weather is cold ice fishing dominates
and when the weather turns mild don’t hesitate
to break out a small boat and some jigging rods.
The Saginaw River walleye fishery has come a long ways since fish were first introduced in the early 1980’s. As a resident of Saginaw at the time, I remember how amazed folks were to see crowds of anglers trying their luck for walleye on the frozen river. The spectacle made the evening news, the front page of local papers and became the buzz at every coffee shop in town. Keep in mind that just 10 years earlier the Saginaw River was considered too polluted to support fish life!

In fact, during the 60’s and 70’s the Saginaw River resisted freezing even in the coldest weather. Pollution was out of control, but thanks to the Clean Water Act, things were about to get better.

The decades of the 80’s and 90’s witnessed great improvements in both the water quality and the fishing opportunities. Two decades down the road from the first fish plants, the Saginaw Bay drainage system has grown into one of the most popular walleye fishing destinations in the Midwest. Many say that the combined fishing opportunities of Saginaw Bay, the Saginaw River and her many tributary streams rivals even mighty Lake Erie!

It can be argued that this fishery rivals Lake Erie, but one thing about the Saginaw River is an indisputable fact. There are few places anglers can ice fish for walleye on a river. Even the Saginaw River doesn’t produce safe ice all winter long or even every year for that matter. When the conditions are right, fishing is almost always good enough to brag about.

The Saginaw River is little more than 20 miles long. It starts in Saginaw where the Tittabbawassee and Shiawassee River converge and ends in Bay City where the river pours into Saginaw Bay. The majority of the Saginaw River has been dredged to allow ship traffic. Great Lakes ships loaded with road gravel, salt, grain, sugar and other commodities frequently travel from Bay City to downtown Saginaw.

Open water can be found on the Saginaw River most
winters. Some of the best fishing often occurs in late winter
just before the walleye season closes on March 15.
Current throughout the Saginaw River is modest and the average depth is around 20 feet. Cold weather in January will typically freeze a crust of ice that ranges from a couple inches to 10 inches thick in extreme conditions. Literally hundreds of anglers crowd onto the ice when conditions dictate. During mild winters the river remains open and attracts almost as many boat fisherman. Local parks departments do a good job of keeping boat launches open even in freezing conditions.

A big part of the reason walleye anglers find so much success on the Saginaw River is because access is available up and down the river. In addition to several public and private boat launches dotted along the river at strategic points, the cities of Bay City and Saginaw both maintain a ribbon of park land that borders the river. An ice fisherman can gain access to the river at any of these parks. Many of these parks also have boat launch facilities. In most instances an ice fisherman won’t have to walk more than 1/4 mile to reach any of the popular fishing spots.

Among ice fishermen, one lure dominates the winter walleye scene on the Saginaw River. The popular Jigging Rapala has the advantage of tracking into the current, eliminating the problem of line twist. This minnow shaped jigging lure also has some exceptional darting action. Most locals modify the Jigging Rapala by adding a slightly bigger treble hook to the bottom of the lure and adding a small shiner minnow as added enticement.

The size 5 and 7 lures are among the most popular and productive. The Jigging Rapala or other similar lures are best fished on eight or 10 pound test monofilament line. This fishery occasionally produces trophy sized walleye, but the average fish is only slightly larger than the state minimum of 15 inches. The Saginaw River acts as a nursery for growing walleyes and it’s common to catch half a dozen undersized walleye for every legal fish. A bunk board to measure fish is an absolute necessity when fishing the Saginaw River.

When the weather turns mild, it only takes a day or two for safe ice to be converted into open water. Boat fishermen take to the river as soon as open water appears and the ice flows disappear.

Because the average depth of the Saginaw River is 20 feet and the current is modest, vertical jigging ranks as the most popular open water fishing method. A 1/4 to 3/8 ounce jig tipped with a live shiner minnow works best on the Saginaw. Long shank jigs suitable for dressing with soft plastic grubs are the top choice for vertical jigging. Some great jigs for fishing vertical include the Bait Rigs Odd’ Ball and the Fin Spin. Both of these jigs can be fished with live bait, plastics or a combination of both.

The Saginaw River is lightly fished compared to other walleye
fisheries in Michigan. 
The ideal jigging outfit is a six to seven foot medium/light action spinning rod/reel with six to 10 pound test super braid or fused fishing line. The low stretch and thin diameter of these lines makes them the logical choice for deep water jigging.

Drifting with the current and keeping the jig within a few inches of bottom is critical to success. On calm days the boat and jig drift along at the same speed. Little attention to boat control is necessary and fishing is easy.

However, when the wind picks up an electric motor will be required to keep the boat positioned directly over top of the jig. The trick is to use the electric motor to match the boat’s drifting speed to that of the current. Staying vertical with the presentation allows the jig to be positioned close to bottom without dragging on the bottom. This reduces snagging and keeps the jig positioned where walleye can easily spot it. On windy days, those who have mastered the boat control chores of vertical jigging catch the majority of the fish.

The water clarity of the Saginaw River ranges from murky to down right dirty. In dirty water the brightest possible fluorescent jig colors and soft plastic grubs are required for consistent success. In murky water, more natural colors produce best.

Regardless of water clarity, stinger hooks are a must have item when fishing the Saginaw River. Cold water walleye are always lethargic and the stinger hook accounts for the majority of the hooked and landed fish. Fishing without a stinger hook is like fishing with a handicap!

Slow as you go is the best advice one angler can give another when it comes to winter vertical jigging. The most common mistake made by anglers is jigging too aggressively. The ideal jigging stroke is a slow lifting of the jig about six to 10 inches off bottom, followed by a pause, then by a slow lowering of the jig to the bottom. At no time should slack form in the line. Keeping the line tight controls the movement of the jig, slows down the presentation and increases the opportunity to detect bites.

A small boat equipped with a bow mounted electric motor is the ideal
boat for winter jigging on the 
Saginaw River.
In addition to vertical jigging, anglers will find that the many bridges on the Saginaw River routinely hold walleye. Fish both the upstream and downstream sides of concrete bridge pilings. One of the best ways to fish the bridges is with a auto-pilot style electric motor like the MotorGuide Xi5 which can be set on anchor mode. In this mode the electric motor will compensate for current and wind drift, keeping the boat in position so the anglers can pitch jigs without having to worry about boat control issues.

Winter fish are constantly on the move and today’s hot spot can be cold as a flag pole in January tomorrow. The best advice is to hit the river with the attitude that moving frequently may be required to find the best fishing action. That stated, there are a number of river stretches that routinely hold fish. These represent good starting spots.

In Saginaw the point where the Tittabawassee and Shiawassee Rivers converge is always a good destination. Swirling current and moderately deep water seem to stage fish at this location routinely. Further downstream the stretch between M-46 (Gratiot) and M-58 (State) is productive, especially near the Hooter’s tavern. The water just upstream and downstream of the US 675 bridge is also a common fish holding stretch. Moving further downstream, the deep water stretch near the towns of Carrollton and Zilwaukee always holds some fish.

Even in cold conditions the ice on the Saginaw River is never 100% safe. When ice fishing check the quality and thickness of the ice often with a spud. When fishing in groups, spread out and don’t push it if conditions suggest the ice may be weak. Never fish alone and always wear a life jacket when ice fishing or open water fishing on the Saginaw River.