Dead of winter perfect time for catching massive walleyes
Written by Herald Palladium   
Tuesday, 03 February 2009 22:20
If the idea of crawling out of bed sometime around 3 a.m. on a below-freezing, snowy winter day to go fishing seems less than appealing, Bob Warner thinks it makes sense.

Warner, who operates Lucky Duck Charters out of Shamrock Park in Berrien Springs, likes to be on the St. Joseph River at 4 a.m. where he can catch walleyes that have been feeding in shallow water before they move deep.

"You get out there before the boat traffic spooks them," he said. "You'll get the bigger walleyes before daylight."

How big? Warner’s best is 14 1/4 pounds, but larger fish are out there and he says winter is the prime time for lunkers. His assertion is backed up by data from the state’s Master Angler Program. Michael Frisco of Coloma took a 15.47-pound walleye from the St. Joseph on March 14, 2007 and Lonnie Halsea of South Bend caught a 14.12-pound ’eye from the river on  Feb. 21, 2006. Both fish ranked among the top five walleyes caught in the state during the last three years.

Warner is not afraid of nasty weather, saying walleyes often bite best during some of the worst cold spells. He thinks the baitfish become sluggish, making them easy pickings for walleye.

“I tend to fish the shallow edges where you have a deep hole,” Warner said. “I assume they’re coming out of the shallows after feeding at night. I’m not afraid to be sitting out there are at 10 a.m. in deep water, pitching a jig into 4 feet of water.”

He tips his jigs with plastic tails or minnows, but also uses blade baits such as the Silver Buddy or Heddon Sonar, or Lindy rigs with 3⁄8 or 1⁄2-ounce slip sinkers baited with minnows.

“You’ve got to feel bottom to be successful,” Warner said.

 He uses a stinger hook to increase hookups.

But Warner, who has fished the river since 1973, said the walleye fishing this year has been poor.

“None of the (large) females are moving up from Lake Michigan and staging for spawning,” he said. “I think the main problem is that they (the Department of Natural Resources) didn’t plant any walleye.”

Jay Wesley, the DNR’s fisheries biologist for southern Lake Michigan agrees, up to a point.

“It’s true, mainly because of the VHS virus, we’re not stocking any walleyes above Berrien Springs,” he said. “Our Niles and Buchanan stockings have been eliminated, at least temporarily.”

The DNR has not planted any walleyes above Berrien Springs for the last two years out of the fear it might spread viral hemorraghic septicemia, which can kill fish. In a normal year, it puts 25,000 1 to 11⁄2-inch walleye fingerlings in at Niles and 25,000 at Buchanan. Wesley said it has continued to stock 50,000 walleyes between Berrien Springs and St. Joseph.

“They grow so fast that within two years they’re at the 15-inch (minimum size limit),” he said.

Wesley said the overall walleye population remains good.

“We’ve been going in and shocking (to sample fish populations) and we’re not seeing any reduction in the adult population. In fact, we’re seeing so many, we could do a brood stocking.”

But in the long run, reduced planting will hurt fishing because there is little natural reproduction of walleyes in the river, he said. He hopes to resume stocking above Berrien Springs in 2010.

Warner, who also fishes for steelhead, is hoping for an uptick in the walleye fishery. Success on any given day, he said, is often tied to the skill of the anglers he has fishing.

‘“We’ve had days when we’ve come in with 10 or 12 walleyes and the next day you can come in with one,” he said.

To fish with Warner, call (517) 617-1492.

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