May means opportunity for Minnesota walleye fans, thanks to the abundance of great fisheries waiting to be explored. In fact, we‚Äôre so blessed with fish-rich lakes and rivers that simply choosing a place to wet a line can be almost overwhelming.
To simplify the selection process, we‚Äôve tapped the minds of some of the Gopher State‚Äôs greatest walleye warriors to produce a short list of six top destinations to catch the May madness.
MILLE LACS LAKE
Ranking high among Minnesota‚Äôs most storied fish factories, this 128,000-acre slice of walleye heaven offers great early-season action for ‚Äôeyes of all sizes, including sag-bellied trophies. Few know the drill like lifelong Mille Lacs angler and fulltime guide Kevin McQuoid (866-670-8709; www.macstwinbay.com).
‚ÄúThe way open-water season ended last fall, and winter began, we‚Äôre looking for numbers of big fish topping 8 to 10 pounds, plus eaters perfect for shore lunch,‚ÄĚ he says. With a healthy forage base, including a resurgent tullibee population, the lake‚Äôs walleyes wax fat, yet continue hitting anglers‚Äô baits.
Early options abound, but McQuoid favors a no-fail May one-two punch. ‚ÄúThe north end sand is hard to beat during the day,‚ÄĚ he begins. ‚ÄúAnd near-shore rock humps light up in the evening.‚ÄĚ
On the sand, McQuoid drifts and slow-trolls a live-bait rig tipped with a large, lively leech on a size 4 or 6 hook. ‚ÄúI use an 8-foot leader of 8-pound-test Berkley XL, which stands up to teeth and gill rakers better than lighter lines,‚ÄĚ he says.
A half-ounce walking sinker and barrel swivel, to limit line twist, round out the rig. ‚ÄúMake sure the swivel eye is large enough not to stick in the sinker,‚ÄĚ he cautions.
McQuoid typically covers fish-holding contours and the perimeter of rock humps lying in depths from 12 to 20 feet, though the fish move shallower when it‚Äôs windy, and slide deeper if fishing pressure is heavy. ‚ÄúYou‚Äôll find walleyes all the way out to 28 feet, but the most aggressive fish are shallower,‚ÄĚ he says.
A speed of .7 mph is key. So is fishing about a foot off bottom, to keep zebra mussels and native clams at bay.
As darkness nears, McQuoid shifts gears, slinging slip-bobbers over rocky humps rising to within 4 to 12 feet of the surface. ‚ÄúKey on the tops of the structures,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúTip a 1/16-ounce perch-colored Lindy Jig with a leech, hooked just ahead of the sucker for lively longevity, and fish it a foot off bottom.‚ÄĚ
At 15,957 acres, Cass offers a cornucopia of structural and weed-related options for early-season fishing. And plenty of walleyes, too, according to Minnesota Department of Natural Resources test nets and iconic Northwoods guide Brian ‚ÄúBro‚ÄĚ Brosdahl, who can be reached at (218) 340-6051; www.brosguideservice.com.
‚ÄúLimits are not uncommon on Cass, which has so many bays and interconnected lakes you can spend a lifetime learning it all,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúEarly after the opener, the walleyes bite all day long. Then it becomes more of a morning and evening bite.‚ÄĚ
Key areas range from textbook bars, points and related breaklines to emerging weedbeds. ‚ÄúBig bars like Cedar and Dead Man‚Äôs hold fish from mid-May through the rest of the season,‚ÄĚ says Brosdahl. ‚ÄúI focus on 12- to 18-foot depths this time of year. When the wind lights up the bite, a jig and shiner are hard to beat, but a live-bait rig and redtail combo is good, too.
‚ÄúAround the opener, walleyes congregate at the mouth of the Turtle River, and where the river goes from Allen‚Äôs Bay to Lake Andrusia,‚ÄĚ he notes. And keep in mind that Cass is the largest member of the Cass Lake Chain, which also includes Big Wolf, Andrusia, Pike Bay, Buck, Kitchi, Little Rice and Big Rice lakes.
Bro jigs much of the time. ‚ÄúI like dragging a 1/8- to 1/4-ounce Northland Fire-Ball tipped with a leech,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúOn calm days I work it with light hops, but give it a good pop when the wind is blowing.‚ÄĚ
Emerging weedbeds are also hotspots. ‚ÄúEarly in the year, shiners move shallow looking for warmer water and the walleyes follow,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúYou can fish weed edges with a standard leadhead, or cast into the bed with a weedless jig like Northland‚Äôs Weed Weasel.‚ÄĚ
While it‚Äôs tempting to probe the lake‚Äôs farthest reaches in search of walleye gold, Bro says not to overlook fish-holding areas close to the city of Cass Lake. Stony Point is a prime example, along with the maze of bars fanning away from it. And speaking of Stony, the resort by the same name offers anglers a fisherman-friendly base for exploring the system. You can visit www.stonyptresortcasslake.com for details, or the Cass Lake Area Chamber at www.casslake.com for a full rundown of local accommodations.
Brosdahl also sings the praises of sprawling Leech Lake ‚ÄĒ and for good reason. With healthy numbers of walleyes scattered across its 102,000 acres, the big lake offers a wealth of near-shore options in May. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs an absolute blast this time of year, with lots of 15- to 17-inch eaters, plus larger photo fish,‚ÄĚ he says.
‚ÄúShoreline-connected points and islands are hard to beat this month,‚ÄĚ he advises. Top spots include Diamond, Stony, Pine and Sugar points, but the list is almost endless. ‚ÄúIn general you‚Äôre looking for sand, clamshell beds and scattered boulders in depths of 10 feet. But don‚Äôt be afraid to go deeper, down to 15 feet, in high-pressure areas.
‚ÄúLeech fishes similar to Cass,‚ÄĚ he continues. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a clear lake, and the fish really start moving when the wind kicks up.‚ÄĚ
A 1/8- to 1/4-ounce leadhead (here, too, he likes Northland‚Äôs Fire-Ball) tipped with a shiner or leech is a lethal weapon. ‚ÄúIn windy conditions, give the jig a sharp hop to get their attention. When it‚Äôs calm, make 2- to 3-foot rod sweeps, then let the jig fall to bottom.‚ÄĚ Live-bait rigs are also deadly (think leeches on 4- to 6-foot snells), as are leeches suspended under slip-floats. The latter tactic, Bro says, is largely overlooked on the lake.
‚ÄúThese are massive structures up to a quarter-mile long,‚ÄĚ he cautions. ‚ÄúSo good electronics are key as you‚Äôre searching for fish.‚ÄĚ Bro favors a Humminbird setup, though Lowrance‚Äôs HDS Structure and SideScanning units paint an amazingly accurate picture of the underwater world as well.