Pure Michigan's Saginaw Bay has earned its reputation as a "walleye factory" and one of Michigan's premier fisheries. "The Bay" (as our locals call it) produces walleye year round, but hands down the most productive time for anglers to hit the Go Great Lakes Bay waters is the spring post-spawn time frame.
After spawning, walleye put on the feedbag, and by-and-large the most productive way to catch these fish is a live bait rig known only as the "walleye spinner". Walleye spinners are essentially elongated versions of the iconic nightcrawler harness that has caught countless fish for generations.
Walleye spinners are fished using two primary presentations:
- Bottom bouncers for structure loving fish
- Tadpole divers for fish that suspend and feed on emerald shiners
The harness length that works best for bottom bouncer fishing is a rig about 40 inches in length. For targeting suspended walleye, the ideal harness length is about 60 inches.
Bottom Bouncer & Spinner Rigs
Walleye spinner rigs like these colorful options are one of the best ways to target Saginaw Bay walleye in the spring.
The bottom bouncer and spinner rig is considered the universal walleye presentation, in that it works on just about any body of water. Anglers who follow a few simple rules can do no wrong when it comes to targeting the Saginaw Bay's bottom-loving walleye:
Fishing the bottom bouncer and spinner rig is a slow motion presentation that's best when anglers troll between 1.2 - 1.5 MPH. The most important step in fishing this rig is getting the boat speed set and stabilized before dropping your rig to the bottom. Once the boat is moving at a steady speed, open the bail on the reel and free spool the bouncer and spinner to bottom. The second the bouncer hits bottom, the spool will stop spinning for an instant.
At that critical moment, put your finger on the reel spool to stop line from playing off and troll for a few seconds to let the line pull tight. After a few seconds, remove your finger from the spool and let the bouncer free fall to bottom a second time. As soon as the bouncer hits bottom, click over the reel handle and put the rod in a conveniently located rod holder.
Set in this manner, a bottom bouncer will tick along the bottom making "soft contact" every few feet. Meanwhile, the trailing spinner rig is precisely positioned just off bottom, where walleye can see it and where the harness won't foul on zebra and quagga mussels that litter the bottom of Saginaw Bay.
Spinner rigs or "nightcrawler harnesses" are among the best terminal tackle for targeting walleye in spring.
Bouncer rigs fish best on medium to medium/light action bait casting gear and 10-12 lb. test monofilament fishing line. Part of the magic of fishing a bouncer and spinner effectively is using a rod with a soft enough tip that the angler can detect bites without the fish feeling resistance and dropping the bait.
Bouncer and spinner rigs are commonly fished as flat lines straight out of the back of the boat; the size of the bottom bouncer depends on the water depth. A one ounce bouncer fishes nicely down to about 10-15 feet of water. A two ounce bouncer fishes well in water up to about 25 feet deep and a three ounce bouncer is required when fishing in water deeper than 25 feet.
Tadpole Divers, Spinners, & In-line Boards
In-line boards like these are popular among Saginaw Bay fishermen who often use them to target suspended walleyes with a combination of spinner rigs and Tadpole Divers.
The bottom bouncer bite on the Saginaw Bay is well documented and produces fish all spring and into summer. It seems that some walleye are always to be found on the bottom, but the Saginaw Bay also hosts a huge population of walleye that prefer to suspend in the water column and feed on the abundant population of emerald shiners. To catch these suspended fish, anglers must use rigs and presentations designed especially for open water suspended walleye.
Catching these suspending walleye starts with selecting a trolling sinker that effectively achieves the depths these fish are most commonly found at. The Tadpole Diver made by Off Shore Tackle (right on the shores of Saginaw Bay in Port Austin, Michigan) is hands down the most efficient means of targeting suspended walleye in the Bay.
Tadpole Divers come in several sizes, but the No. 1 and No. 2 sizes are most popular with walleye trollers. Shaped like a tadpole with a big head and a slender tail, the Tadpole Diver has a diving lip and dives much like a crank bait does. The difference is that the Tadpole Diver achieves significant depth quickly because it's also made of molded zinc that's negatively buoyant.
The spinner is attached to the back of the Tadpole with a swivel and a round snap is used to attach the Tadpole to the fishing line. The snap rides in the elbow of the tow arm on the Tadpole which allows the Tadpole to dive and drag the spinner to depth. When a fish is hooked, the snap slides to the forward position on the tow arm of the Tadpole, converting the diving weight into an in-line weight that has near zero resistance in the water.
Tadpole Divers are ideally suited for targeting suspended walleye with spinner rigs. Typically, once the Tadpole is set back the desired distance to achieve a target depth, the Tadpole and spinner are fished in combination with in-line planer boards to gain more outward lure coverage.
Walleye fishing on the Saginaw Bay has become so well known that anglers from around the Great Lakes travel here in spring to sample the world class walleye action.
The Off Shore Tackle OR12 Side-Planer is also manufactured on the shores of Saginaw Bay and has for decades been the standard that all other in-line boards are judged by.
In-line boards like the Side-Planer are preferred for spinner trolling presentations because they function flawlessly at the slower speeds required for fishing spinner rigs. When a fish is hooked on a Tadpole Diver fished on an in-line board, the weight of the struggling fish will cause the board to sag and pull backwards in the water.
The angler simply needs to reel in the board and the fish together until the board is close enough to the boat it can be quickly removed from the line. Once the board is removed from the line, the fish is fought to net. Using in-line boards, anglers are able to keep steady pressure on a hooked fish from the instant it is hooked... all the way until the fish is flopping in the bottom of the landing net!
A Deadly One-Two Punch
Guest blogger Mark Romanack's son, Jake, is co-host of the Fishing 411 TV series and fishes regularly with his Dad on the Saginaw Bay.
Fishing bottom bouncer sinkers in combination with a spinner rig rates as one of the best ways to consistently catch Saginaw Bay's bottom-loving walleye. Using a Tadpole Diver armed with a spinner rig and fished in conjunction with an in-line planer board is another consistently effective way to target walleye on the Saginaw Bay.
Fishing both presentations at the same time is the best of both worlds and allows anglers to harvest both bottom hugging and suspended walleye at the same time. Best of all, here in Pure Michigan, anglers can run three lines each when trolling.
A pair of anglers fishing a six rod spread consisting of four Tadpole Divers fished on in-line boards and a pair of bottom bouncers fished as flat lines can effectively cover the entire water column. The spinner rig is hands down the most effective fish catcher on Saginaw Bay. Fishing these live bait rigs on both bottom bouncers and Tadpole Divers is the fast track to a livewell full of walleye.
Looking for even more ways to enjoy our Pure Michigan freshwater playground? Check out our trip planning tips for the waterfront obsessed!