Great Lakes Fisherman

Saginaw Bay Fishing Has Dropped Despite A Lot of Walleye

A detailed analysis of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources fish harvest data points toward a healthier walleye fishery. While commercial fishing is banned from harvesting walleye, the number of recreational fishermen in Saginaw Bay fishing has dramatically dropped over the past 30 years. Is Saginaw Bay at risk of seeing a crash in walleye populations due to the lack of forage fish?

Data From the Michigan Department of Natural Resources

Rising Recreational Walleye Harvest

The entire fishery of Saginaw Bay’ crashed in the 1940s. In 1987 it was designated as an Area of Concern by the EPA. The region has recovered its walleye population, albeit slowly, over the last 30 years. The table below highlights the five-year recreational fishermen’s harvest averages since 1986.

Time PeriodHarvest
Five Year Average 1986-1990 93,495 lbs.
Five Year Average 1993-1997 104,405 lbs.
Five Year Average 2003-2007 150,962 lbs.
Five Year Average 2013-2017 187,025 lbs
Five-year recreational fishermen harvest averages since 1986

In comments by the DNR on the health of the bay and recovery of the species it was noted:

The average recreational walleye harvest in Saginaw Bay over the last 5 years from 2013-2017 was 24% higher than the average recreational harvest from 2003-2007 (ten years ago) and 79% higher than the average recreational harvest from 1993-1997 (20 years ago) and over 100% higher than the average recreational harvest from 1986-1990 (28-30 years ago). The recreational walleye fisheries harvest has doubled over the last three decades as walleye populations recovered and is the best the fishery has been in a generation. The vastly improved recreational opportunities for walleye has occur along side the active commercial fishery as it has existed over the last 30 years and is not biologically threatened by the continuation of that fishery in the future.

Saginaw Bay Recreational Walleye Harvest all sources (charter+open water rec+ice fishery)

Diminishing Perch Population

There is no better example of a crashing fishery than to look at the yields of recreational and commercial hauls for perch over the last 30 years. On the commercial side, five to eight fishermen have been harvesting from Saginaw Bay the entire time. Thus the year-to-year harvest has been fairly consistent. However, the recreational fishing take of perch has absolutely crashed.

Data From the Michigan Department of Natural Resources

So looking at the 31 years (1986-2017) of data by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR), commercial fishing harvested 2.1 million (19%) pounds of perch while the sports fishing has taken over 9.0 million (81%) pounds of perch from Saginaw Bay.

What Happened to All the Perch?

In a Lake Huron Citizens Fishery Advisory Committee Meeting held in August 2019, the MDNR pointed out that while Yellow perch are reproducing very well, they are experiencing high mortality between ages 0 and 1. The main reason for the poor survival of juvenile yellow perch is that yellow perch are the first and favorite menu item by walleyes and other predators.

Lake Huron Citizens Fishery Advisory Committee Meeting August 2019

What Happened to All the Fishermen?

The MDNR has their own vocabulary when talking about recreational and commercial fishing. One bit of data that we found interesting looks to deal with the time of fishermen out fishing. They call it Fishing Effort and it’s the number of hours a sports fishermen are actually out looking for and catching fish. This Fishing Effort has declined since 1986 but leveled off about 2010.

With higher walleye populations and specific size limits, it’s getting easier to catch your limit of walleye. It’s thought fishermen are catching their limit in less time. Thus its “8 in the box ” and then head back to port. However, the overall number of recreational fishermen has declined.

A study by Michigan Technological University in 2018 showed the number of Michigan residents (ages 17-79) who purchased a fishing license in the State of Michigan peaked at 965,122 in 2009. By 2014, fishing license sales had declined to 888,983. From 2013 to 2018, the number of individuals obtaining a fishing license dropped 5%. Assuming patterns from the recent past continue, the number of in-state male anglers could decrease by approximately 62,000 by 2035, to fewer than 650,000 licensed anglers, down from approximately 707,000 in 2014.

Summary and Solutions on Saginaw Bay Fishing

Michigan commercial fishing has a measurable but not overwhelming impact on the Saginaw Bay fishery. With five to eight licensed commercial fishermen operating in the Bay, they are not the sole reason the perch fishery has crashed. In addition, there are not enough sports fishermen, and they aren’t taking enough walleye. It’s pretty simple; less walleye, more perch. The MDNR has some real challenges. Left unchecked, the current walleye population may also crash as sources of forage fish are depleted. The MDNR may be in a situation in which to try to bring sustainability to walleye and perch populations by utilizing both commercial and sports fishing. Here are some ideas

Consider the Following

  • Open the walleye season to include Saginaw River in the Spring.
  • Increase the take limit and adjust size limits on recreational walleye
  • Consider stocking forage fish on Saginaw Bay
  • Allow commercial fishermen to harvest walleye with specific targets to assist in achieving sustainable levels of perch and walleye.

It’s also important for the MDNR to conduct a detailed census on a yearly basis in order to manage these targets. You can’t manage what you don’t measure.

Video – Giant Saginaw Bay Walleyes

Michigan DNR Subsidizes Recreational Fishing With Stocking

The Michigan DNR reported that in 2019, restocking of brown trout, coho salmon, steelhead, walleye, and nine other species and one hybrid were among the 21,281,411 fish stocked in Michigan’s public waters. These fish weighed a combined total of 311 tons.

DNR staff made 449 stocking trips to 857 stocking sites, including Great Lakes, inland lakes and rivers. Eighteen specialized stocking trucks traveled 106,000 miles over the course of 2,693 hours to get the job done.

The total includes more than 3 million walleye spring fingerlings. These fish are reared in ponds by the DNR and tribal partners, with extensive support provided by local sporting organizations. 

Source: Email communications: “DNR News: 21 million fish stocked, Wildlife Habitat Grants, help the hungry” Oct. 29, 2019.

Sources for Michigan Commerical Fishing

Michael Hardy

Michael Hardy is the owner of Thumbwind Publications LLC. Michael was born in Michigan and grew up near Caseville. In 2009 he started this fun-loving site covering Michigan's Upper Thumb. Since then, he has authored a vast range of content and established a loyal base of 60,000 visitors per month.

View all posts by Michael Hardy →

19 thoughts on “Saginaw Bay Fishing Has Dropped Despite A Lot of Walleye

  1. Good luck trying to convince the sports fishermen that commercial fishing can help the overall population. I know some that complained about the creel limit being increased to 8 and the size limit being reduced to 13 inches.

    1. Decrease size and Increased take is good but forget adding the herring. They are going to eat the small bait fish as well just adding to the Potential problem.

    2. This article is repleat with errors. For instance, walleyes have not been stocked in the bay in many years and the have been stocking ciscos for years too. How about stopping all commercial fishing to see how perch numbers respond? Netting could be the tipping point keeping perch numbers depressed.

  2. are you going to allow posts from both sides. Commercial Fishing will destoy our Saginaw Bay like it did before. They are locusts that wipe out a resource and then move on.

    1. Typical fear mongering to rally a mob. Commercial fishermen are mostly multi-generational family businesses. They are very hard working folks who have a vested interest in maintaining sustainable
      populations of fish that perpetuate their livelihood. Please stop the hatred against good Michigan families.

      1. If they cared about maintaining a sustainable fisheries then stop netting perch. Their own words claim they are drastically low. No netting of any Gamefish/Sportfish. Lack of doing so shows lack of care!

  3. There are many reason for the demise of the perch population. Our eco system is 100% different than it was in the 1960 thru 1980 than it is now.
    Evasive species filtering the very food that small perch eat. Lower water depths that take away minnow and small perch cover and spawning grounds.
    More big Pike, Cormorants nets in front of spawn ing rivers also play a huge part.
    Walleye eat perch in cold water, but not all year.
    There were walleye in the Saginaw Bay until they were decimated in the 1960’s.
    Local sportsman organizations donated thousands of man hours and dollars to turn the Bay into a world renowned Walleye fishery .
    People travel from all over the country to come fish the Saginaw Bay and spend millions of dollars in our surrounding area. As a sportsman and local business owner that is founded on the walleye industry. I’d prefer no netting of walleye was done.
    Currently the local commercial fisheries cannot supply enough perch to our local restaurants right now. By taking another species a like walleye on your agenda is a recipe for DISASTER.
    Captain Mark Pieniozek

    1. I appreciate your opinion as we all have one. I disagree with some parts of it though. Why is it okay to let them net perch but not walleye? Is it soley since your a walleye guide? They get the okay to legally net walleyes you sir will be having less clients to guide. You say there is not enough fish to supply the local restaurants huh well if they didnt distribute 80-90% to Chicago & New york (Their own words) there would be plenty. Our resources are not staying local so why continue to let them net local. Netters are hurting the local bussinesses more than they are helping by a huge margin. As I run a local bussiness also and the netters are hurting my business. Stop all netting of Gamefish/Sportfish Immediately.

  4. Planting herring is a terrible idea, they are not a forage fish. They are a predator fish that eats small fish. They grow to the 20 inch range and will prey on young perch. Opening the bay to commerical fishing for walleye is not a solution. They have demonstrated time and time throughout the Great Lakes and the world they can quickly reduce fish populations and devastate them. To argue commercial fishing has not contributed to the decline of perch in the bay is laughable. The walleye and perch in Saginaw Bay need to be managed to support the sportfishing industry and all the jobs and the 1000% + greater economic impact it creates for businesses and communities around the bay.

  5. No to commercial fishing how about increasing the number of daily limits on walleye to like 5 or 7 days worth taking time off work to make the trip for more ppl

  6. Why have limits, there’s a lot of people that travel a long ways to fish the Bay. To travel 200 miles both ways to only to keep 8 fish is a waist. I love to fish but to travel that far and cost me a least $100.00 for 8 fish it’s not worth it.

  7. I use to fish little bay de noc until the nets took all of em. Look at the business up there now. Dont repeat it please.

  8. How bout not closing the season on the rivers in the spring! Instead impliment a slot limit on size and let everybody enjoy the sport instead of only those who can afford the equipment to fish the bay! Also the weather dictates fishing the bay as I have all the gear to fish it but only made it out 3 times this year because of the conditions! Our license fees paid for the walleye so why should a commercial fisherman be able to profit from that? I wish we could all be heard but we all know the DNR will do what ever they can profit the most from! I just hope our deer don’t start eating rabbits!

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