Minnesota's Southern Prairie Walleyes

Minnesota's Southern Prairie Walleyes

Whether you're looking for a pounder for the frying pan, a big catch for the camera or a wallhanger for the wall, one of these lakes has the walleye you want. (January 2007)

A majority of our downstate walleye anglers may not like to admit it, but the truth is that the lower tier of counties in Minnesota resembles Iowa more than it does most of our state.

Although local residents will proudly point out that this is certainly a part of "The Land of 10,000 Lakes," the terrain in the south differs greatly from that of the north. When the winter wind blows downstate, the flat landscape becomes a playground for swirling snow, with only an occasional river valley or grove of trees to keep the land from becoming a virtual sea of white.

Of course, as you progress farther northward in Minnesota, it becomes obvious why our state received its nickname. To the north of Minneapolis, it seems as though towns, trees and highways are all that separate one lake from another. A majority of the northern lakes are deep and clear, loaded with structure, and many have the ability to self-support their walleye populations through natural reproduction. Not coincidently, it is also these same lakes that receive the most fishing pressure in the state. Walleye anglers from points far and wide travel to this region in search of their prey. However, this does not mean that walleyes are absent beneath the ice on the southern prairie. An angler just needs to know where to look for them.

To the south of State Highway 60 from Mankato to Faribault, the distance between lakes increases. This is farm country, and fishable water is widely scattered. The landscape here is generally flat. In the winter months, snow blows freely across what was once an expansive open prairie, and during the summer, corn and soybean fields blanket much of the land.

Lakes containing deep and clear water are confined to a few scattered valleys where small spring-fed ponds give anglers a miniature glimpse of what can be found farther to the north. While these small lakes are popular with panfish, northern pike and bass anglers, only a few are considered to be walleye water. Although relatively deep, the size and structure of these lakes will not usually support natural reproduction of walleyes. In addition, the abundance of predators found in most of these lakes lowers the survival rate of stocked fish. Thankfully, there is another option.

The prairie may have been devoid of the sparkling clear glacial lakes of northern Minnesota, but it was not created dry. Vast wetlands covered thousands of acres in several locations. Through the course of time, many of these shallow lakes, swamps and sloughs have been tiled and partially or completely drained for agricultural use. Others have been protected to preserve waterfowl populations in the area, with their water levels too low to prevent winterkill and support game fish. Several have gone virtually untouched and are well known for their rough-fish producing capabilities, but little else. What about the rest of them? Well, that's where the walleyes are.

For several decades, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has been managing many of the sprawling, shallow prairie lakes in southern Minnesota for the purpose of creating walleye fisheries. They have had excellent results. Walleye fry have been stocked in these lakes by the millions. Aerators have been put in place to reduce the ever-present threat of low oxygen levels during the winter. Although the bottom dynamics of these lakes may not be ideal for walleye reproduction, the fertile and shallow water warms quickly in the spring, resulting in extremely rapid growth of stocked fish. This promotes a fast return of productivity following the occasional and inevitable winterkill. Also, while bass and pike are certainly present, they do not pose as big of a threat to juvenile walleyes as in the smaller spring-fed lakes.

The ingredients are all there: millions of walleye fry, an excellent survival rate and the ability to quickly gain girth. The results can be some of the best walleye fishing in the southern half of the state, if not all of Minnesota.

Let's take a closer look at a trio of these downstate prairie lakes. Although they are in differing stages of reclamation, all three are currently putting smiles on the faces of walleye anglers.

ALBERT LEA LAKE

As ice-anglers enter southern Minnesota from Iowa on Interstate 35, they don't have to wait long to get a glimpse at one of our 10,000 lakes. In fact, they get a low-flying bird's-eye view because I-35 spans Albert Lea Lake just a few miles before intersecting with I-90. As visitors look across this expansive lake, they may have no idea that a welcoming committee of walleyes is hidden beneath its surface.

Albert Lea Lake is on the southeast corner of the city that shares its name in Freeborn County. At more than 2,500 acres, Albert Lea is also shallow. Depths in the main body of this lake seldom surpass 5 feet, with a 6-foot maximum. However, deeper water is located in a channel that feeds into this lake from neighboring Fountain Lake within the city of Albert Lea. The inlet has been dredged in the past and reaches a depth of 14 feet.

Despite the presence of an aerator, this lake is very susceptible to freeze-out. The last to occur was in spring 2004. Originally believed to be a devastating winterkill, test-netting done by the DNR later that summer revealed that a substantial population of adult fish had survived. Before the fateful freeze, the lake was very productive, with 6- to 8-pound walleyes part of the catch. It is now known that a fair percentage of this size of fish are still present, along with many smaller 'eyes remaining from earlier stocking. Plus, more than 2 million walleye fry were planted in Albert Lea Lake during the summer of 2004 and again in 2005. These fish have exploded in size. Those introduced to the lake in 2004 are very numerous and should produce plenty of action throughout this winter and into the future.

With the exception of the area near the inlet, Albert Lea Lake receives very little fishing pressure. As soon as ice conditions make it possible, the channel becomes a city of its own. Permanent shelters become numerous, and anglers seated on overturned pails and in portable houses also are a common sight. The water directly below the Fountain Lake dam often remains open throughout the winter, and some walleye anglers find success casting jig-and-minnow combinations into the frigid pool.

As the inlet nears the main lake, ice-anglers get results with shiners and fathead minnows placed on tip-ups or rattle reels. Fish are more difficult to locate on the lake itself. Surrounding the mouth of the inlet, the northwestern portion of the lake draws the attention of tip-up anglers, but the condition of the ice must be closely monitored here. In addition to moving water beneath the ice, the aerator is located nearby. The area to the east of I-35 is a popular destination where anglers gather near the lake's numerous points and narrows.

Before the winter of 2004, Albert Lea Lake was also home to some impressive northern pike, catfish, largemouth b

ass, jumbo perch and crappies. Without any additional stocking of these species, their numbers are assumed to be very low now. However, Fountain Lake is populated with all of the above species and did not succumb to the freeze-out. With the ability to pass from this lake into Albert Lea Lake, a somewhat natural restocking is being done on a gradual basis. This will make it possible to encounter these fish on occasion, but it will be on a limited basis for several years.

Plus, more than 2 million walleye fry were planted in Albert Lea Lake during the summer of 2004 and again in 2005. These fish have exploded in size. Those introduced to the lake in 2004 are very numerous and should produce plenty of action throughout this winter and into the future.

The main public access to Albert Lea Lake is in Frank Hall Park. A pier and plenty of shoreline fishing are available at this location, making this a popular summer destination as well. Other accesses are located in Big Island (Helmer Myre) State Park on the northeastern shoreline off County Highway 38, and along County Highway 19, which is commonly referred to as South Shore Drive.

For more information regarding Albert Lea Lake, contact the Albert Lea Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-345-8414, or visit www.city.albertlea.org

LURA LAKE

This 1,200-acre lake with a maximum depth of 9 feet is primarily on the southern border of Blue Earth County near Mapleton, and it extends to the south into Faribault County.

Lura Lake has not suffered the effects of a winterkill since before 1994, most likely due to the operation of two aerators. The result is a fishery stocked with walleyes, which now vary in size from recently planted fingerlings to fish in excess of 10 pounds. Last winter was very productive, with photographs of numerous trophy fish being displayed by smiling anglers in area establishments.

Access to the ice is available within Blue Earth County's Daly Park, which is an expansive and wooded campground on the northeastern shore of Lura Lake. This beautiful park is on Blue Earth County Highway 191 four miles south of Mapleton. In the summer months, a fishing pier and nearly a mile of shoreline angling are available at this location. Access is also available in the northwestern bay near the aeration system.

Lura Lake has long been known as a productive fishery. During the winter months, anglers scatter across the ice, taking most of their fish between sunset and sunrise with shiner or fathead minnows on tip-ups. The most patient, and quiet, anglers can also pick up an occasional fish on a jigging spoon.

Lura Lake has not suffered the effects of a winterkill

since before 1994, most likely due to the operation of two aerators. The result is a fishery stocked with walleyes, which now vary in size from recently planted fingerlings to fish in excess of 10 pounds.

Be advised that Lura Lake should be traveled on with great care. In addition to areas of open water created by the aerators, numerous points and narrows can be the source of weak ice.

It has not only been Lura Lake's walleye population reaping the benefits of mild winters. Northern pike, largemouth bass and crappies have occasionally been stocked in the lake throughout this time, and it is favorable for natural reproduction. Test-netting has shown that all of these species are present in large numbers and sizes. Look in the lake's smaller bays for panfish and bass. Pike can be found roaming around the lake. Jumbo perch are also naturally present in limited numbers and will usually be found near the walleyes. There are some very large fish of all species lurking here. This is a lake that is currently at the top of its game and should remain there as long as mild winters continue to make it possible.

For more information regarding Lura Lake, contact The Greater Mankato Area Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-657-4733, or visit www.greatermankato.com

LAKE ELYSIAN

Lake Elysian in the northwest corner of Waseca County was severely damaged by winterkill in 2004. Test-nettings revealed that very few fish survived, but the DNR has since restocked the 1,900-acre lake, and millions of walleyes are finning here once again.

The 2.5 million fingerlings released in the summer of 2004 have prospered. Early in 2006, anglers were already reporting some of these fish were surpassing 16 inches. The abundance of fish should make a limit for the frying pan a distinct possibility this winter.

Deeper than the average prairie lake, Lake Elysian has a maximum depth of 13 feet. As with the previously mentioned lakes, the winter walleye bite is best after sunset, but because of its depth, Lake Elysian is more likely than the others to spit out a walleye or two during daylight hours.

This lake does offer some substantial bottom and shoreline structure. Rockpiles in the southern portion will occasionally hold groups of walleyes, as will the narrows in the same area, and where several of the lake's points drop off drastically into the deepest holes. Otherwise, fish are scattered across the vast flats, with the northeastern bay near Elysian being one of the more productive areas.

In addition to shiner and fathead minnows working well, jigging spoons, glow jigs and plastic tails placed beneath the ice can attract walleyes.

Lake Elysian is a few years away from reaching its full potential, and it will be quite some time before trophy walleyes begin to appear again. Although a few pike, bass and panfish may have survived the latest freeze-out, no additional stocking of these species had been conducted as of spring 2006. Eventually, these fish may be restocked, but this is not likely to occur before the walleyes are able to secure a place of dominance in the food chain.

A Waseca County park supplies access just to the north of U.S. Highway 14 near the city of Janesville. There is also a large public landing one mile east of the town of Elysian on State Highway 60.

For more information regarding Lake Elysian, contact the Elysian Tourism Center at 1-800-507-7787, or visit www.elysianmn.com

OTHER OPTIONS

Other similar lakes on the prairie that have walleye-producing capabilities include Eagle and Loon in Blue Earth County, Walnut in Faribault County and Hanska in Brown County. Some prairie lakes will have problems with oxygen depletion even during mild winters. It would be wise to check on the status of these fisheries before venturing in their direction.

Other similar lakes on the prairie that have walleye-

producing capabilities include Eagle and Loon in Blue Earth County, Walnut in Faribault County and Hanska in Brown County.

There are several things to keep in mind when searching for winter walleyes in a prairie lake. Remember that these lakes are very shallow, so fish will spook easily. Silence in a fish house

and on the surrounding ice is very important. You will want to place your tip-ups far enough in the distance to diminish the spooking factor. Also, it is necessary to use extreme caution on all of these lakes in the winter. Each of them has a history of swallowing a vehicle on occasion.

Finally, be aware that stocking programs heavily support these fisheries. At certain times, especially with the smaller fish, the bite can be fast and furious. If all of these fish are harvested when they are caught, it will deplete a lake of larger fish in the future. Please do not keep more than you can eat, and practice catch-and-release.

* * *

For more information regarding ice conditions and local angling reports in south-central Minnesota, contact The Bobber Shop at 1630 North Riverfront Drive in Mankato, 1-800-628-5612, or www.bobbershopfishing.com

Find more about Minnesota fishing and hunting at: MinnesotaSportsmanMag.com

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