LINWOOD, Mich. -- A lot of anglers were bummed after warm temperatures and high winds broke up the ice on Saginaw Bay a couple of weeks ago. As the water re-froze, there were a lot of thin spots and open cracks that made it unsafe to run 5-10 miles offshore to the traditional walleye grounds.
"In one way it was a good thing," said Mark Martin, a professional walleye tournament fisherman from Twin Lakes who, with partner Mark Brumbaugh of Arcanum, Ohio, runs the Ice Fishing Vacation School on Saginaw Bay each February.
Both Brumbaugh and Martin have won the Professional Walleye Trail championship in summer, and in winter they haunt the ice from Lake Erie to the Upper Peninsula in pursuit of their favorite quarry.
"We couldn't go offshore, so it forced us to look for fish closer in, and we found them," Martin said as he led a caravan of about two dozen shanty-towing snowmobiles and four-wheelers out of the Linwood Beach Marina and 9 miles south along the ice near the shoreline to a spot about a mile offshore from the southern end of Saginaw Bay.
"We caught walleyes, and a lot of nice ones 20-28 inches," he said. "They have to be in here because their food is here. We opened up a couple to eat and we found baby crappies in their bellies. I've never seen that before. When you clean a walleye you almost always find (open water) fish like smelt and emerald shiners and gizzard shad."
The ice breakup brought police department warnings to anglers after four people died when their machines went through the ice on the bay. The only relatively safe ice has been in a wedge at the southern end out to about 25 feet of water, but even that region has some thin spots and shifting cracks that require a lot of caution.
Brumbaugh carried a set of long aluminum ramps on the front of his four-wheeler that would let the machines bridge gaps if the ice opened up.
"That's why I like to come out here with the school," said Norman Adams of Freeland, who said he spends as much time on the bay as he can each February. "Coming out in a group like this is the safest way. You get to fish with a great bunch of people, and they'll find the fish."
Like most of the anglers, Adams was fishing jigs tipped with minnows, although he had several hits on a "dead stick" rig -- a minnow on a bare hook under a float.
It was a glorious day on the ice, with sunny skies, temperatures in the 20s and nearly windless. The fishing was so-so, largely because several hundred people had decided to take advantage of the conditions and the ice resounded to the steady rumble of machines moving across it.
But some anglers in our group managed five-walleye limits and most ended the day with one to three.
"Talk about stupid," Martin said as he watched three snow machines come directly through the middle of his group of shanties, passing within 10 feet of them. "They have all of that good ice to run on outside of us, but they have to come right through here. Some of these people need a lesson in common courtesy."
Martin and Brumbaugh had located a spot near an island in 10-14 feet of water, so clear that fishermen could see sticks and pebbles on the bottom. They found that the best technique was to drill two holes close together and drop the lure down one hole and watch it though the other.
"In water this clear you can see the walleyes come in," Brumbaugh said. "I don't like putting a (underwater) camera down in conditions like this. I think they're a lot spookier. You're better off just eyeballing them."
Larry Smith of Keweenaw came from the Lower Peninsula to help teach the school and was one of several anglers who landed fat whitefish up to five pounds. Local fishermen said they had seen a lot more whitefish in the shallows this winter, mostly because the fishermen normally were much farther offshore.
"Most years I don't start fishing until I reach 27 feet of water at a place about 7 miles out," said Will Hamilton, who lives in Bay City and fishes the ice four or five days a week. "When we had that big breakup and the people got killed, I heard from a friend that they were catching them on the bay near the (Saginaw) river mouth and that the ice was good there, so I thought I'd try it. It's been good. But it's important here to either come out real early or just at dark. I don't know if it's because that's when the fish get active or because there aren't as many people thumping around, but that's when I've caught most of mine."
That pattern ran true for Martin when he decided to fish for an hour at the end of the day. In 30 minutes he landed a walleye, broke off a big whitefish trying to pull it through the hole and lost two more walleyes.
"The restaurant is staying open late for the group to come in, but it's too bad we have to leave," he said. "If you sat here for another hour, you'd see the whole bottom covered with fish."