Minnesota's Bulrush Walleyes

Minnesota's Bulrush Walleyes

Those darned walleyes could be hanging out just about anywhere, but did you ever think they'd be in the bulrushes? Give one of our state's most underutilized walleye patterns a shot this year on these lakes.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Take 100 random walleyes anglers, place them on a Minnesota walleye lake in June and most of them will speed off to a midlake flat, hump or bar. A few savvy anglers will move to the fresh cabbage and coontail to fish the weedline, but they'll never cast near the bulrushes closer to shore.

The walleyes eagerly feeding among those bulrush beds have no problem with this situation. They'll continue to feed, undisturbed by any of these so-called knowledgeable walleye anglers. Oh sure, a few crazy bass anglers might accidentally catch one of these walleyes, but it will most likely be quickly released and dismissed as a fluke.

What's being missed out on is one of the most underutilized and most productive walleye patterns around.

"In the northern half of Minnesota, there is typically a five- to six-week period of time when walleyes are in the bulrushes at various times of the day and are actively feeding on a wide variety of forage," said Scott Fairbairn, a pro angler from the heart of Minnesota's walleye country.

Bulrush is definitely not traditional walleyes territory, growing in water typically less than 6 feet deep. It is generally thought of as good for bass, muskies, northerns and panfish, but not walleyes. Why walleye anglers largely ignore bulrushes is tough to figure out, especially given the presence of so many other species. For whatever reason, if you fish a bulrush bed in June, the odds are good you'll be the only one there going after walleyes.

But there are a few knowledgeable anglers who you might run into, with Fairbairn being one of them. A walleye tournament angler since 1992, Fairbairn was the Professional Walleye Trail "Angler Of The Year" in 1998 and has won several major tournaments. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota with a degree in fisheries and wildlife biology.

Fairbairn said the best lakes for bulrush walleyes are ones with a combination of deep, cold water and expansive areas of shallow water. Walleyes move into the bulrushes early in the season because they warm up faster and attract large numbers of baitfish. Bulrush is usually patchy around a lake and can be used to indicate a change in lake bottom. "Reeds prefer shallow areas, with a sandy or gravely bottom content. Where they begin and end shows transition areas where baitfish can concentrate," Fairbairn said.

Walleyes use submergent weeds like coontail and cabbage as ambush points, but this is not the case with emergent weeds because there is too much open space. Instead, walleyes usually hang close to the bottom waiting for periods of low visibility when they have a distinctive advantage. Low-visibility conditions are created by consistent wind and wave action, cloudy weather, stained water or the setting sun, making it a pattern you can count on almost daily.

Jim Lilienthal is an avid walleye angler and the Department of Natural Resources' fisheries manager for the Little Falls area. He said walleyes spend a lot more time hanging out in the shallows than most people think. While electrofishing the shallows for muskies in late April to early May, Lilienthal said they have come across numerous large walleyes.

"On a lake where our gill-net catches showed very few fish over 20 inches, electrofishing revealed 540 walleyes with an average size of 24 inches," he said.

Bulrush-relating walleyes are there to feed, but that doesn't mean they are easy to catch. There are a variety of techniques that should be employed, and Fairbairn said he approaches these areas with the mentality of a bass angler rather than that of a walleye angler.

Fairbairn and Lilienthal -- along with other knowledgeable anglers such as Chip Leer of Fishing the Wildside, and Terry Tuma -- said these walleyes are catchable if you adjust to the mood of the fish.

"My first choice in these areas would be casting jigs into the bulrush areas and working them around the stalks of the bulrushes," Tuma said.

Tuma also recommended using a softer tipped rod with high-sensitivity line so you can feel the jig moving through the bulrushes and tell if a fish is on.

One of Fairbairn's favorite methods in the bulrushes is using a suspending jerkbait or crankbait in a longer minnow-shaped style. The profile is perfect for walleyes and can be worked through the stalks of the bulrushes much like a jig by using a slow but steady pop-twitch, pop-twitch, pause and retrieve.

As the water warms, walleyes are more aggressive, and Fairbairn usually shifts to lipless rattling baits or crankbaits that require more steady action. Perch patterns can be very effective but it is absolutely critical to experiment with color. These techniques will work on all the waters profiled in this article, though some work better than others depending on the lake.

LEECH LAKE

Leech Lake is one of the best spots for catching walleyes in the bulrushes, noted both Leer and Fairbairn. The action usually picks up a few weeks after fishing opener and stays hot into late June. One of the biggest mistakes Leer sees anglers make when fishing bulrushes is being too loud.

"You can't go barreling in there with your motor and expect to find fish," he said. "You have to approach the area slowly with your trolling motor and use a precise casting approach to comb through the rushes."

There are fields of bulrushes on Leech Lake with walleyes, but the best spots need to be carefully searched out. These pockets that hold fish include divots along a straight edge of bulrushes, small clumps off the main bulrush area, and also deeper holes inside a main bulrush bed.

"The key is to cover the water before you get to an area, and don't stop looking if you don't find them," said Leer. "The best areas change from year to year."

Both anglers said their favorite spots were large bays like Steamboat and Boy, with an average depth less than 10 feet. These areas are especially effective in June but should be fished throughout the summertime.

For more information, call 1-800-833-1118 or go to

www.leech-lake.com.

CASS LAKE

When fishing the bulrush beds on Cass for walleyes, Leer uses a search-and-adjust method. He'll begin by casting a jig like th

e Mimic Minnow or Mimic Minnow Spin tipped with plastic or a minnow into the reeds. Slowly retrieving the lure gives the walleyes time to come up and make a reaction strike, though it tends to target aggressive fish.

Once the action slows, Leer switches to a jig shaped to glide through the weeds that also has a plastic weedguard. Tipped with a minnow or piece of crawler, Leer casts deep into the bulrushes for neutral walleyes. If the fish are in a negative mood, he'll use a float system along the outer edge of the reeds.

The best bulrush beds on Cass are found alongside each of the islands as well as several points around the lake. Allen's Bay is a good spot to begin, especially if the big lake is windswept.

For more information, call 1-800-356-8615 or go to

www.casslake.com.

LAKE WINNIBIGOSHISH

Winnibigoshish might not have a lot of bulrushes, but the walleyes tend to stay in them throughout the summer, said Chris Kavanaugh, DNR fisheries supervisor for the Grand Rapids area. Even in midsummer, scores of walleyes are caught along the shoreline.

Walleyes move into the bulrushes in late May attracted by abundant numbers of spawning minnows. Kavanaugh said this continues until the lake reaches the low 60s and the minnows move deeper. Many walleyes stay, however, because by then the young-of-the-year perch are moving shallower. These perch, which average less than 1 1/2 inches, are an excellent forage base.

The east side of the lake is where the best bulrush beds are found, especially around Tamarack Point and the area around Bowen's Flats. The Narrows between Cutfoot Sioux and Winnie are also good. On the west side, the walleyes are up in the area of the Third River Flowage.

Additional information can be found at

www.lakewinnie.net or by calling the Deer River Chamber of Commerce at 1-888-701-2226.

NORTH LONG LAKE

North Long Lake in Crow Wing County is blessed with lush bulrush beds in each of its three large bays that could be treated like three separate lakes. Brainerd-area fishing guide Dan Eigen has thoroughly fished most of the lakes in this lake-rich region of our state and said when he thinks of bulrush walleyes, he thinks of North Long.

Eigen fishes the bulrushes in June and the fall, but he rarely takes clients into them. Fishing the reeds is more difficult for inexperienced anglers, he said, because you need precise casting abilities and retrieving skills to prevent getting hung up.

One of the biggest challenges with North Long bulrushes is narrowing down the best locations. Try the bulrushes adjacent to deeper water first, especially those with current such as in Merrifield Bay.

For more information, go to

www.explorebrainerdlakes.com or call the Brainerd Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce at 1-800-450-2838.

GULL LAKE

I first discovered the phenomenon of bulrush walleyes on Gull Lake 15 years ago in a rather embarrassing way. I was fishing at night and became disoriented going back to the launch. I flipped on a spotlight to get my bearings, only to find I was in the middle of a large bulrush bed. I instinctively shot the light down to the water to see how shallow it was and was met with a sea of shiny eyes looking at me. I was on in 5 feet of water, and that shoreline, as I later discovered, had been beaten by the wind all day.

Ever since this accidental discovery, I have fished Grassy Point along Gull's north shore as much as I can in June. The best bite tends to occur right after the sun slips below the horizon by using minnow-shaped crankbaits cast into the pockets of the reeds.

Several points on the southern end near Wilson Bay and Steamboat Bay turn on when the water temperature rises. Gull has a large population of fish under 17 inches because of high fishing pressure, said Tim Brastrup, the DNR's Brainerd-area fisheries manager. "More catch-and-release will help that situation, but the lake still has a lot of big walleyes," he said.

For more information, go to

www.explorebrainerdlakes.com or call the Brainerd Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce at 1-800-450-2838.

ROUND LAKE

Round Lake in Crow Wing County is clearer than Gull and stays relatively cool into June.

Similar to North Long, this lake features a very expansive zone under 5 feet of water that quickly drops into the 25-foot-plus basin of the lake. Bulrush beds are usually adjacent to deep water and usually hold walleyes later into the summer. Walleyes cruise the bulrushes in the early season. Then they stay near by, moving in during lowlight periods or after a steady wind has blown into a bulrush-rich shoreline. Anywhere where the bulrushes are close to the basin of the lake is a good place to begin on Round, though the 14-foot hole on the western side of the lake just might be the ideal location.

For more information, go to

www.explorebrainerdlakes.com or call the Brainerd Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce at 1-800-450-2838.

FISH HOOK LAKE

Doug Kingsley, DNR fisheries supervisor for the Park Rapids area, said Hubbard County's Fish Hook Lake has some very good bulrush beds on the northern shore and southwest corner, and is probably one of the better fisheries in the area for bulrush walleyes.

Fish Hook has a strong walleye population, with high numbers in the 16- to 20-inch range, and has great potential for a 30-inch or larger walleye.

The south shore features large, shallow flats with plenty of bulrushes near the boat access, and is a good place to start, said Greg May, owner of Northern Bait in Park Rapids. The mouth of the Potato River along the north shore offers current, a defined point and deep water nearby, giving it great potential for walleyes all season. Light jigs tipped with a minnow or leech yield the most results. Because the lake has good bulrush beds on several shorelines, start with the side that has received the most recent wave action.

For more information, call Northern Bait at (218) 732-5113 or go to

www.parkrapidscvb.com.

LAKE JESSIE

Lake Jessie in Itasca County features fast-dropping shorelines riddled with points and bays. Tim Onraet of Jessie View Resort said one of his favorite spots is where the creek flows in by the public landing on the southern end, although this entire shore can produce walleyes. "From opener until June, you can pitch a jig in there and pull out some nice walleyes," he said.

Lake Jessie's bulrushes can receive high pressure during the day but are vastly underfished during the evening. Onraet said shiners are effective until mid-June wh

en leeches and nightcrawlers become the bait of choice for jig-throwing walleye anglers.

"Depending on the water conditions, the reeds end abruptly in 6 feet of water, and the walleyes hang there well into the summer," said Onraet. A 1999 DNR survey revealed a whopping 22 walleyes per net averaging around 1 pound. Onraet said the numbers are down a bit right now, but are still very respectable.

Additional information can be found by calling the Grand Rapids Area Convention and Visitors Bureau at 1-800-355-3740 or going to

www.visitgrandrapids.com.

LAKE OSAKIS

A lot of anglers fish the bulrushes of Todd County's Lake Osakis, though the presence of anglers in other portions of the lake proves that not everybody goes after them in the shallows. Norm Clyde of the Fisherman's Corner in Osakis said walleyes sit in the bulrushes throughout the summertime.

Weedless jigs tipped with fatheads or leeches are the first choice, followed by plastic worms, grubs and tubes on a weedless rig. Crankbaits trolled along the weed edges are also productive at dusk and dawn. Clyde said the outlet of Curtis Creek on the western end between Miller Point and Three Mile Bar is good, not to mention the bulrushes off Moon Bar on the northern end near Battle Point.

Additional information can be obtained by contacting the Osakis Chamber of Commerce at 1-800-422-0785 or at

www.lakeosakis.com.

MILLE LACS

John House is normally a walleye angler, but when he caught a mess of walleyes in the bulrushes of Isle Bay, he knew he was onto something.

"It was mid-June and we were fishing in the bay for crappies because the main lake was too choppy," said House. "We were pitching plastics in the bulrushes around Malone Island and the walleyes were smashing our lures like bass." Wide-gapped 1/8- and 1/16-ounce mushroom-headed jigs tipped with a plastic rib worm and pitched to the edge was the most effective technique he found.

Kit Nelson, fisheries manger for the DNR's Aitkin area office, said walleyes are opportunistic feeders that take advantage of the minnows and perch pushed into the bulrushes by the wind and waves. The best bulrush beds on Mille Lacs are usually near creek mouths or current areas. These non-traditional areas on Mille Lacs are most productive when there is a good chop on the main lake and a moderate chop in the bays.

For more information, call the Mille Lacs Area Tourism Council at 1-888-350-2692 or go to

www.millelacs.com.

So when you can't find the walleyes on the flats, humps or bars, rush to the bulrushes!

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