One of the more unique fishing opportunities that occurs in west Michigan is the lake whitefish spawning run. Every year towards the end of November, they crash the pier heads in full force. They can be caught during the day out in the open water on single eggs or you can wait until darkness and catch them jigging along the pier.
On a normal year, you can count on the run going from around the 15th of November until early December. Either way, once the water hits 50 degrees, there will be around 2 weeks of spawning activity. Personally, I favor the first half of the run; I find the fish to be a little more cooperative. There’s also more room on the pier before word really gets out. This is crowded fishing, often shoulder to shoulder. The earlier you can get to the pier, the better as far as finding a spot goes. While most of the action goes down at night, when they are in thick anytime after 4:00 in the afternoon can be good. Anywhere along the channel walls will hold fish. Spawning occurs over the rocky substrate next to the piers so casting is not necessary. Most of the action happens within 10 feet of the wall. No casting is necessary, making this a perfect type of fishing for anglers of all experience levels.
You’ll see all types of tackle setups on the pier and they all work to some degree. I prefer using heavier tackle than necessary. Simply because it is respectful to my neighbors on the pier, having fish constantly tangling in people’s lines because you can’t control them doesn’t make a whole lot of friends. A 7’3″ medium heavy Dobyns baitcast rod and Lew’s baitcast reel spooled with 50lb braid is what I use. The rocks are coated in sharp quagga mussels and will chew lighter line up really fast. I also use a snap swivel not only because it prevents line twist, but because it acts almost like a steel leader against the mussels.
A long-handled pier net is a must for safely landing fish. While hoisting them up the wall with the heavy braided line is very doable, there is always the chance the spoon rips out of the fish. The last thing I want is my spoon flinging into mine or, even worse, someone else’s face out there.
Any 3/4- or 1-ounce jigging spoon will work as far as getting bites goes. I prefer the lighter version when the current and waves will allow. Working them is simple, a subtle jigging action near the bottom is all it takes. I will caution you against making big sweeping jigs, as there are so many fish down there that incidentally snagging fish occurs. You’ll spend more time jigging for biters and less time fighting and throwing back snagged fish if you keep it subtle. I’ve had success sweetening the deal with either a waxworm or a plastic-scented egg from a Lick em Lures candy chain. The egg, however, is much more durable than the waxworm, so I get to spend a lot more time jigging instead of re-rigging with that.
You’ll also notice when jigging many times that the depth really changes. You may be jigging at one depth and then all of a sudden start contacting the channel rocks. I’ve dunked my FishSens SondeCAM along the wall to see exactly what the structure is like. The boulders are huge and very irregular, so when jigging sometimes you will be fishing on top of the rocks and other times in caverns they create, which may be several feet deeper.
Fall can be brutal here in west Michigan, so come prepared. Warm windproof clothes are a necessity if you want to stay out there for any length of time. Human nature tells us to fish when the weather is nicest. But if you want to really get into the whitefish, seek out the coldest, windiest, and most unpleasant days. Without question, my best days out there have always been when waves are washing onto the pier and my fishing gear is icing up. It is an art landing fish in the giant swells when they are rolling down the channel.
The main reason everyone is out dealing with the elements is because whitefish are amazing eating. One tip I will give to make cleaning whitefish less messy and also improving their flavor is to “bleed” them. A simple cut with a knife or tug on the gills is all it takes. You’ll find the mess inside your cooler instead of inside your fillet of fish. Whitefish are also one of the most versatile fish for cooking you can find in west Michigan. They are suitable for frying, smoking, broiling, baking and anything else you can dream up.
Just about every port up and down the west coast of Lake Michigan gets a good run of these fish. The timing may be a little different for each port as water temperatures vary, but late November will always be a safe bet.