BAY CITY, Mich. – Michigan’s Great Lakes Bay Region is eager to show off its rebounding walleye population, as the Cabela’s National Walleye Tour visits Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay June 14-15 for the second event of the 2018 season. The national pro-am tournament, which features television coverage on NBC Sports and the Pursuit Channel, features the best walleye pros in the sport, including Korey Sprengel, fresh off another victory at the season opener.
Sprengel has never fished Saginaw Bay, yet he enters the tournament brimming with confidence.
“It’s a summertime Great Lakes bite, and I feel very comfortable on the Great Lakes,” explained the Ranger-Mercury pro. “It’s exciting to visit a new body of water. I’ve heard it fishes a lot like Green Bay. The nice thing about the Great Lakes is that there is no shortage of fish. I grew up open-water fishing; trolling is what I love to do.”
Despite his lack of experience, Sprengel plans to approach Saginaw Bay like any other event.
“Nothing will change; I will still put in five or six days of practice time. I really don’t get too carried away with where everyone is fishing and where the supposed hot bite is. I’ll look at my Lowrance electronics and decide where I think the fish are at.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum is Cabela’s pro Steve Vandemark, who lives in nearby Linwood, Mich. Even with a deep fund of local knowledge, Vandemark is not exactly sure how the tournament will play out.
“The migration is a little bit behind this year,” Vandemark said. “The ice came off later, and they spawned later. Right now, there are still bigger fish in the inner bay, and there’s still going to be fish there by tournament time.”
Vandemark refers to the inner bay as anything south of Charity Island. When the water temperature reaches 70 degrees, the bait disperses and the walleyes are quick to follow. Vandemark believes many people will stay in the inner bay and several will choose to make long runs.
“You’re going to see some people run. They might go all the way up the west side to Alabaster and Towas City, which is over 50 miles. On the east side, people might go all the way to Port Austin, which is roughly 60 miles. All this depends on the weather and on your equipment.”
Vandemark described the fishery as extremely healthy, both for numbers and size.
“Twelve years ago we had an excessive amount of small fish. It was almost like the ecosystem crashed. We lost a lot of forage. It has taken a long time, but the bait is back, and the walleye fishing has steadily improved. Now, one-day tournaments are taking upper 20s or lower 30s to win. It’s looking the best it has looked in 15 to 20 years. The size of the fish we caught over the winter season was remarkable. There’s a lot of fish in the system too. Thirty or 40 fish in a day is not uncommon.”
The local expert expects most of the field to be trolling, although swimbaits, lipless baits and glide baits could potentially come into play.
“We don’t have the structure that Green Bay has, which means you’re more limited here. Most folks troll, but there are areas where casting is viable. I’m going to say 95 percent of the people will be trolling. We’re already into a good harness bite.”
Based largely on water temperature, Sprengel also believes trolling crawler harnesses will out-produce trolling crankbaits.
“Spinners shine more when you have bug hatches,” Sprengel said. “A crawler smells and tastes more like a bug than anything else we use. Plus, walleyes are suckers for anything that goes by really slow. It has a lot of action, and it has a lot of scent.”
Sprengel and Vandemark agree that the key to winning the tournament could be finding stained water that has bait present. Whether that perfect combination is found in the inner bay or the outer bay remains to be seen.
“The outer bay perhaps has bigger fish, but less numbers,” hypothesized Vandemark. “A lot of those big fish aren’t there yet though, because we’re quite a ways behind in the migration. The 50- and 60-mile runs are possible in the right weather, but even then, they’re a major gamble. The farther away you get, the less crowding there will be. Those runs cut your fishing time almost in half.”
Sprengel said he’ll analyze all the variables, but it might be a gamble worth taking.
“On the Great Lakes, those closer fish tend to get picked on, get abused,” Sprengel added. “So the long runs can pay off. Sometimes it’s about finding fish off the beaten path that haven’t seen baits and are easier to catch.”
Vandemark described a northeast wind as “worst-case scenario,” especially for the outer bay. In good conditions, he predicted the winner would have a two-day total weight of nearly 60 pounds.
“My best guess is that high 50s will win. The winner could even possibly crack 60 pounds. I don’t think you’ll see a lot of high 50s though.”
Anglers will take off each day at 6:30 a.m. Eastern time from Veteran’s Memorial Park, located off John F. Kennedy Drive in Bay City. The daily weigh-ins will take place at Wenonah Pak, located at 111 Center Ave. in Bay City, beginning at 4 p.m. The full field fishes each day with the winner in each division being determined by the heaviest cumulative weight.
The National Walleye Tour consists of three regular-season events and a year-end championship. Each regular season event is a two-day, pro-am tournament and delivers over a 100 percent payback. Pros compete against other pros, and co-anglers compete against other co-anglers.