6,999,000 Walleyes

6,999,000 Walleyes

That's how many were left after morning on northern Green Bay, yet everybody came in loaded with fish.
Hugh had told me that walleyes would be cruising the bottom of Green Bay as thick as clover in 111 fallow field, but I didn't believe him Walleyes are a sometimes fish, here today and gone tomorrow, but these were supposed to be different. The season didn't open until May 21, quite some time after the spawning season, and then the fish stayed around in the northern part of Green Bay off Michigan for two months after that. He said you could take limit catches of 10 husky fish throughout June and most of July. And you could do this in broad daylight while trolling from an outboard on flat broad water. That was laugh, because everyone knows...

Just then my rod jumped and came to life in my unbelieving hands. I jerked the tip up. The slender glass archer over and stabbed at the water. The clutch was set loosely and the six-pound monofilament line ran out with a high pitched whir-r-r-rá I tightened the clutch a trifle and began working the fish toward the boat. He was a deep fighter and heavy enough to put weight into his runs, but at last, he surfaced and I scooped him into the net. As he lay shimmering in the bottom of the boat. I took a good look at my first Green Bay walleye.

The walleye is a beautiful fish, with a black back, and golden-yellow sides flecked here and there with little black scales. His body is thick through the middle, and he has a small head and a high, spiney dorsal fin. He's often called a yellow pike or yellow pickerel, but he's in the pike-perch family and is more perch than pike. This one went better than two pounds

"You don't have to stare at him so hard," Hugh said from the stern Drew is thin, redheaded, and sunburned, and is a fine friend for a fisherman to have away from home. But he was slightly suspect even more so than the average angler. Hugh Worked for the chamber of commerce in near-by Escanaba and I had a feeling that the tall tale was part of his stock in trade. I didn't believe a fifth of what he said, and right now, I had the feeling he was going to ruin everything.

"Hold on a minute," I said "Haven't you heard haw to fish walleyes? When you hit one, you circle in that same spot. These babies travel in schools, and where there's one there's likely to be more. Let's get our bearings and circle."

He laughed "It would probably take us all day to get our limit here. We'll go down where the action is."

He was the guide, so I didn't argue. After all, he'd let me put out a line as soon as we were clear of the shore. He said he didn't want to fish there himself, but would be glad to go slow enough for me to trail a line.

We were off the northern shore of Green Bay, an inlet near the head of Lake Michigan. I'd arrived at Escanaba the night before, lured by Hugh's improbable tales. We'd launched an auto-top boat at a public-fishing site beside the highway three miles south of the city early in the morning. A stiff inshore wind was blowing across the bay, raising the water to a mean chop, and the early June sky held the threat of rain. Out in the middle of the bay the water was blue-black, but here along the sand-and-gravel shore it was churned to a murky dun.

Under Hugh's approving eyes, I'd tied on the one rig that will consistently outfish any other for Green Bay walleyes. It was a night-crawler harness-two small flashing spoons ahead of three hooks in tandem. I'd put two worms on the rig. Both were hooked through the collar on the top two hooks, the tail of the second worm being pinned to the bottom hook. Now I had only half a crawler left on the hooks.

I put on two fresh worms and tossed the rig hack into the rolling bay. A little dipsey sinker about three feet ahead of the hooks pulled the line down, and I could feel it ticking along the sand and gravel below.

Ahead of us, a long line of white rollers was breaking along a curved point of land. There were a dozen boats scattered in the area, and as we drew near, Hugh tossed his own line overboard. We trolled along in the trough of the waves parallel to the beach, and our boat bobbed rhythmically.

As we trolled by the other boats, Hugh began to frown. Now it's coming, I thought. Now he'll tell me why fish aren't hitting today. It's either too calm or too rough, too cold or too hot, too soon or too late.

"This won't work," Hugh said suddenly. "The wind is pushing us toward shore. We're in too close right now. But if I put on more speed to climb out of the trough, we'll be going too fast for walleyes." You had to give him credit for that. No one could argue with his logic. It was perfect.

He pointed ahead "Let's watch those two boats a minute." I twisted my neck to look. "They seem disgusted," I said. "Just sitting there, holding their rods, not even running the motor. Doesn't look too good, huh?"

There was movement in the boat nearest shore. The stern fisherman twisted around and yanked the motor into life. He headed the bow straight into the waves, perpendicular to the shore, and hunched over his rod again.

"Why, certainly," said Hugh. "I should have figured it out myself." He turned our bow into the waves. "We'll drift fish," he said.

Then I caught on. I'd done the same thing for walleyes myself when the wind was too strong. Trolling walleyes requires a very slow speed, slow enough to keep your hooks six inches off bottom. Trolling down wind with a stiff breeze at your back will almost always be too fast, no matter how slowly your motor can run. On days like that, you troll into the wind, which cuts speed to a walleye crawl. When you want to come back across a likely spot, you just shut off the motor and drift with the wind. That's usually speed enough.

"Perfect for today," Hugh said. "We can prospect all depths from five to twenty feet - we're sure to find fish someplace in between."

Suddenly I felt a light tapping on my line. I pulled, the fish pulled back, and a minute later I lifted in a small yellow perch. Hugh beamed as I released it. "That's good news," he said. "The perch are in, which means walleyes will be close behind. There's nothing a walleye likes better than a perch for dinner. And while he's in a feeding frame of mind he'll snap up every wiggling worm that comes across his bow."

I tossed my rig back in and let the line run while the sinker settled on bottom. Suddenly Hugh shut off the motor. "Fish," he said. I glanced at his rod. It was whipping wildly.

"Hang on to him." I yelled. "I'll get the net." I raised my own rod and started cranking furiously on the reel. The light glass jumped and the reel buzzed. I stopped cranking but the reel still sang.

"Hurry with the net," Hugh shouted. "He's getting close."

"I'll match you for it," I yelled back. "I've got one on now." Hugh whipped his fish on one side of the boat while I kept busy on the other side. Walleyes normally aren't heavy-fighting fish, but these packed a wallop. I stole a couple of looks to watch Hugh boat his fish, and it was fatal. My walleye switched directions and the hook tore loose. I drew in an empty line.

"Too bad," Hugh sympathized. "Sometimes they strike pretty light. They're full, but just can't resist a squirming worm."

We kept moving into the wind until we lost the bottom completely. We then shut off the motor and the boat turned broadside to drift shoreward with speed that was beautifully slow and steady. Hugh hooked another fish, but it was small so he released it.

We found the best fishing in 12 to 15 feet of water, and the downward drift was more successful than the return troll. By 11 a.m. I was ready to apologize.

"Hugh," I said. "I didn't believe a word you told me about these Green Bay walleyes. Now I'm convinced. There's nothing you could tell me now that I wouldn't take as sworn truth."

Hugh's sunburned features crinkled into a laugh "Want to know something? The fishing isn't good today." I looked at the strings of fish trailing along beside us. "I believe you," I said earnestly. "Here it is not yet noon and we're still four fish short of our limit." "These things will slow up now," he said. "It almost always does at midday. We'd probably have to fish another hour to get four more. This east wind doesn't do the fishing much good; it should be from the southwest for a really good day. Let's go in."

We boated our rods and turned back toward the landing site. "Don't these fish ever wander away?" I asked. "Are they always here for the whole two months? And what makes them stay?" Hugh set the motor on a slow course and jerked a thumb at the fishing grounds behind us. "This is just one spot that happens to be handy. There're a thousand places just as good in these waters. This is what they call northern Green Bay, but it's really two other bays-Big Bay de Noc and Little Bay de Noc. There are better than 200 square miles of water in those bays, and probably 100 miles of shoreline. The fish are all over. They stay here because it's natural for walleyes. There's an abundance of spawning areas, lots of food, and plenty of room to roam." He also told me that there are smelt and perch by the jillions in these waters --ideal walleye feed. Last winter commercial fishermen netted 3 million pounds of smelt through the ice. A five-year-old perch here will grow, on average, three inches longer than a five year-old perch in southern Green Bay. Hugh kept talking as we rolled slowly through the chop. There had always been walleyes in Green Bay, he said, but nothing like the present population. Eight years ago, walleyes started turning up in staggering numbers on the stringers of sport fishermen and in the commercial nets. The increase was so marked--about 11 times the previous 15-year average-that state fish experts ran up to Green Bay to see what it was all about.

The experts were able to pin down what had happened, but they couldn't explain precisely how. In going back over the records, they found that 1943 was the decisive year. Then there were an estimated 100,000 fish in the spring spawning run, and Green Bay walleyes fish population. During the next two years, the spawning runs grew smaller, down to half the 1943 level. Then the number of walleyes suddenly started to were well on their way out as a major increase. By 1948 grown walleyes swarmed in the bay as if it were a hatchery pond and they've kept on swarming ever since.

How come? Biologists studied the scales of fish in the 1949 run and found that nine out of ten fish taken had been spawned in the spring of 1943 Those 100,000 fish had produced well over 2,000,OOO big, husky, mature walleyes. How did this phenomenal hatch come about? The experts themselves would like to know. The best they can say is that the 1943 spawning season must have been ideal-a perfect combination of conditions for the propagation of walleye eggs. As I listened to all this a question formed in my mind, "Just how many walleyes do you figure there are in Green Bay?" I asked Hugh. He rubbed his chin. "Walleyes attain legal size (around 13 to 15 inches) during their fourth year," he replied. "They begin to die out from natural mortality when they're between seven and ten years old. In Green Bay now there are probably seven generations of walleyes. Just make a guess and say that each generation averages around a million fish. What would that give you?" I calculated "Seven million walleyes." Hugh shrugged. "One guess is as good an another. No one's going to count them." We put our boat ashore and cleaned our fish on the beach. Screaming gulls fluttered overhead, snatching up the guts as fast as they were offered. Many boats were coming in now, and the beach was a busy place. There were half a dozen boat trailers parked on the sand and three times that many cars beside the highway. Almost everyone we saw was loaded with fish.

As we packed the boat and gear. I took out a map and said I'd like to fish some more in a different spot. Hugh ran his Anger around shoreline. "Try it here at the head of Big Bay de Noc. There's a sand beach there beside the highway where you can launch easily. Or run down the west side of Stonington Peninsula. There's a 90-foot limestone cliff that runs most of the way down the peninsula. You'll have to find a break in it. The water drops off fast and you'll have to go deep, but it's all rock and walleyes love rock. Or try the west side of the Garden Peninsula. ThereÕs a bunch of beautiful little bays and harbors there, not many people, and lots of campsites. You can spend six weeks exploring around here and have fun every minute. You're never far from fish." He paused, then asked, "What are you going to do with your fish?" "I don't know. Find some ice, I guess." "We'll take care of that," he said. "This is a commercial fishing port. We'll have those fish packed in crushed ice and shipped to your home. It won't cost much and your wife will have them bedded down in the freezer by the time you get there." We drove to the docks, where a man packed my catch and shipped them off for a little over $3. "Now you're free to travel," Hugh said I thought of the Garden Peninsular I'd been there once years ago and had seen a little bay shaped like a fishhook. It was a beautiful spot, and had stuck in my mind across the years. Now I decided to visit it. I dropped Hugh off at his car parked in downtown Escanaba "Thanks very much," I said. "And do you know what? I believe you about those seven million walleyes." HughÕs eyes crinkled with his ready grin. "Not seven million now, you know weÕve seen guys catching fish all morning. Only about 6,999,000 left." The End

Editor's note: This story was fist appeared in the June 1957 "Outdoor Life"

By Woodie Jarvis


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