Editor's note: Bill Ziegler is a retired fisheries biologist who managed fisheries in the southwest U.P. for most of his 34-year career in the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
CRYSTAL FALLS - The long awaited walleye opening day is Sunday.
Many walleye enthusiasts will be venturing out to fish for this very popular game fish. Selecting the proper spot is crucial to walleye fishing success.
Walleye should be active now because their spawning period occurred during a relatively "normal" time this spring. When walleye spawning occurs early, like the 2010 season, walleye often move away from typical locations and disperse into early summer locations.
On opening day, local water temperatures should be nearing 50 degrees, up from 42 degrees when they spawn.
This year, predominantly male walleye should be found relatively close to their spawning grounds on opening day.
Females only stay on the spawning area at the peak and then disperse to other areas of the lake where forage is available. For example, post-spawn female walleye move to mud bars or flats where burrowing mayflies reside.
In most walleye lakes, walleye spawn on the windward rocky or gravelly shorelines and on rock and gravel bars out in the main lake. If the lake has a significant inlet, try looking near or in the lower portion of the inlet. Walleye will spawn on the first significant gravel and rock riffle or rapids.
In reservoirs with a major inlet walleye can typically be found below an upstream dam. Local examples include: Hemlock Falls Dam above Peavy Reservoir, Way Dam above Hemlock Falls Reservoir and just below Horse Race Rapids in Paint Pond.
As gas prices climb trying to pick a walleye lake nearby becomes more important.
A decade ago our area had many good walleye fishing waters close by. Unfortunately, as the Fisheries Division Administration has shifted its walleye management efforts to the Great Lakes, finding a nearby walleye lake with a good population becomes more difficult.
As fewer waters support viable but highly sought after walleye populations, more fishing pressure is focused on the fewer remaining walleye waters and the number of "legal fish" in those waters decreases faster.
Many of the area walleye lakes were sustained by maintenance walleye stocking. The walleye fingerlings that used to go to Dickinson and Iron County lakes were shifted to the Bays de Noc in northern Lake Michigan.
Little Bay de Noc or the mouth of the Menominee River is an excellent walleye fishery. But for those who want to find something closer, some research is necessary.
A few of our local walleye waters have self sustaining walleye populations and are still a good choice for walleye anglers. Michigamme Reservoir (Way Dam), Peavy Reservoir, Perch Lake (north Iron County), Bond Falls Reservoir (east Gogebic County) all currently have adequate walleye populations to produce good fishing.
These are all larger waters and will take some experience to find productive fishing areas. However, the location methods mentioned previously in this article should speed up the process of locating active walleye.
Michigamme Reservoir has spawning inlets of the Deer, Fence and Michigamme Rivers. Peavy Reservoir has the Michigamme and diversion of the Paint Rivers as inlets. In Perch Lake most walleye spawn in main lake areas, and Bond Falls has main lake spawning along with the Middle Branch of the Ontonagon River.
There are no lakes in Dickinson County that have viable self- sustaining walleye populations. Walleye fingerling plants are required to maintain all of them. As a result, walleye populations have decreased and they are not good prospects for walleye fishing.
Iron County has several medium sized natural lakes that are currently self-sustaining. West Iron's Brule, Stanley, Tamarack and Sunset lakes all have adequate populations of walleye due to natural reproduction.
Paint Pond in southeast Iron, Swan Lake (north of Crystal Falls) and Chicagon Lake in central Iron County are also good prospects.
Chicagon Lake is extremely deep (120-foot maximum) and warms up more slowly than the other lakes mentioned. As a result, it typically has the post spawn walleye activity one to two weeks later in the season when it starts to warm up.
Most anglers would like to keep any legal sized walleye they catch, but if that is not important to you, Winslow Lake in north Iron County should be considered. Fishery managers re-established an adequate self-sustaining walleye population in this water to improve a stunted panfish population.
After a major stocking effort an adequate walleye population was established. In 2007, the walleye population was three adult walleye per acre with an average size of almost 17 inches.
To support this goal, the DNR established "No Kill" walleye regulations. This experiment was successful and panfish growth rates and size improved greatly.
Liberalizing the walleye regulations to allow one walleye to be taken per angler was being considered, but so far has not been adopted by the DNR. If care is not taken it would be easy to lose all the effort and investment that went into creating the fragile predator/prey balance of this fishery. In another case, a similar walleye fishery greatly declined when it was opened up to a bag limit of five walleye.
Walleye is a relatively long lived fish and, even without stocking, some semblance of walleye fisheries will continue for a number of years.
A typical symptom of a collapsing walleye population is seen when only limited number of larger (20 inches and greater) walleye are caught with little or no small fish. This is what was experienced at Lake Antoine, Emily and Iron lakes in the last few years.
Two examples of the practical affect of the walleye population decline are the following.
The walleye population of Hagerman Lake in Iron County was five walleye per acre in 1995. When we measured it in 2010 it had fallen to one walleye per acre.
According to DNR Creel Study Summary, it took about 10 hours for an average angler to catch a legal walleye in 1995: in 2010 at that low walleye density it would take over 90 hours to catch a legal walleye.
Past walleye management goals in the Crystal Falls District of Michigan and also in the state of Wisconsin was to achieve a walleye population of a minimum of three adult walleye per acre. Minnesota DNR Fisheries Research Biologist Pete Jacobson said, "Ten walleye per acre is typical walleye population density in good Minnesota walleye lakes."
Northern Minnesota and northern Wisconsin are ecologically very similar to the western Upper Peninsula.
In contrast, prior to 2003, the average on walleye waters that the Crystal Falls DNR District personnel had checked was more than five adult walleye per acre.
West Lake in the Groveland area had 13 walleye per acre during the late 1980s, the maximum density. As no surprise to many local anglers, the Lake Antoine walleye population had declined to one per acre.
Not all walleye fingerling plants survive, although an angler can easily check on maintenance stocking by accessing the DNR Fishing web site at www.michigan.gov/dnr.
Remember, it will take about three to four years after planting occurs to produce adult walleye.
There are several good angling methods for opening day. My favorite is jigging with fathead minnows or dace or plastic baits. It is always good to have some night crawlers with you as well, in case that works better.
As the water warms later in the month leeches are a good bait addition.
A good search method is drifting over structure with a Lindy rig and then anchoring and jigging once the active walleye are located. Drifting a Lindy rig is one way to locate some female walleye (typically larger than males) that can be more dispersed on mud flats.
When the water is cold it is very important to work your bait slowly enough to allow for a walleye to hit.
Many anglers also target fishing in down trees and/or the wood crib reefs that have been constructed in Stanley, Swan, Lake Antoine, Carney, and Hagerman lakes.