Catchin' Minnesota's Pressured Walleyes

Our walleye factories receive a lot of attention during the summer months, but according to this expert, there is a way to find success under tough conditions.

Mark Courts knows quite a bit about catching Minnesota's pressured walleyes.
Photo by Tim Lesmeister

When a discussion springs up about pressured walleyes, it often revolves around Mille Lacs.

Since this huge body of water is only an hour-and-a-half from the Twin Cities and it has a reputation as a "walleye factory" even as big as it is, there is a tremendous amount of fishing pressure there. Those walleyes in Mille Lacs have seen every style of live-bait rig, every type of crankbait pattern, and every spinner and jig color that has ever graced the boxes of walleye anglers throughout Minnesota. That means the walleyes in this heavily pressured lake are conditioned to anything and everything that gets placed in their range. Unless the forage base is at a low point, walleyes can be tough to catch.

There are other lakes that fit into the same category as Mille Lacs. Lake Waconia just west of the Twin Cities, Lake Osakis, Lake Mary near Alexandria, Winnibigoshish and neighboring Cass all have reputations as productive walleye fisheries, and the result is added angling pressure and conditioned fish.

Is there a way to get around this conditioning?

According to veteran professional tournament angler Mark Courts, there is.

"Walleye fishermen are a predictable bunch," said Courts. "They tend to fish the same techniques on the same structure, and on those lakes that get the heavy pressure, that means there's an entire group of fish that will react negatively to those textbook presentations. In situations like this you should target walleyes that often get ignored with techniques that these fish will react to positively."

With that in mind, let's have Courts instruct us on how he would catch pressured walleyes on those busy lakes.

MILLE LACS

"If you want to get a bait in front of walleyes on Mille Lacs that haven't seen a lot of pressure, you have to go to the weeds," said Courts. "There are big cabbage beds on this lake that are full of walleyes and they never get touched. Muskie fishermen catch walleyes with those big baits, so think about how well you could do if you actually target these fish."

His favorite lure for those Mille Lacs weedy walleyes is the 1/16-ounce Weed-Weasel jig by Northland Tackle or the Lindy Timb'r Rock Jig, both top lures for presenting bait in heavy vegetation.

"In the sparse weeds in deeper water I'll tip the jig with a leech or half a nightcrawler," instructed Courts. "I just cast the jig way out and let it sink to the bottom and then slowly retrieve it back to the boat. You get hung up, but once you get the hang of it you can slip the jig off the vegetation and keep the retrieve going."

Courts added the fact that walleyes will often hit the jig as it slips out of a snag, as long as the lure doesn't pick up any of the vegetation.

In the heavier vegetation, Courts

uses the same jigs but tips them with a plastic trailer. His two favorite trailers are the 3-inch Berkley Gulp Fry and the 4-inch Gulp Sinking Minnow.

"This presentation requires you to go into your bass fishing mode," said Courts, "where you flip the jig into pockets in the vegetation, let it sink to the bottom, hop and pop the jig a few times, and then reel in and move to the next pocket. Walleyes love to sit in the shade of a thick cabbage bed, and they don't hesitate to smack a jig when it drops right in front of them. There is a lot of opportunity for this style of fishing all summer long on Mille Lacs."

LAKE WACONIA

When I fished walleyes with Courts on Waconia we spent the first two hours motoring around watching the sonar until he discovered a school of fish in 25 feet of water. Even after those fish showed up on the depthfinder he plotted a path on his GPS around the outside of the school before we dropped the bait.

"These fish will hit a leech," said Courts as he grabbed a couple of rods set up with live-bait rigs. "We're just going to have to force-feed them."

Force-feeding for Courts was using a No. 8 hook on fluorocarbon line with 8 feet between the sinker and the hook.

"We're just gonna drift over the top of these walleyes and let that leech swim for all its worth," he commented. "This will trigger a bite." He was right.

Unlike typical live-bait rigging, Courts didn't want the 1/2-ounce weight on the bottom.

"This is what the fish condition to," said Courts. "They won't hit a bait that is following a sinker that's stirring up the bottom. With that long leader you can set the hook as soon as you feel the bite."

Courts explained that the wide gap between the weight and the bait is a trick that tournament anglers have been using for a while now to target pressured fish. The idea was pioneered by Terry McQuoid, a legendary Mille Lacs guide, and used by Ron Anlauf to win a PWT event on that same lake. Keeping the sinker off the bottom by fishing the rig vertically off the boat keeps the bottom from getting stirred up, so when you have the walleyes concentrated in a tight spot like we did, you can prolong the bite.

LAKE MARY

"Lake Mary has always been one of my favorite walleye lakes," said Courts, "but you are definitely talking about some pressured fish there."


"Lake Mary walleyes do show a preference for the shad-shaped crankbaits," said Courts. "I just keep them over the tops of the weeds, and if I slip off the edge of the vegetation I grab a rod that has a deeper diver on it and make a few casts parallel to that weedline. At night those walleyes are off the bottom and feeding, so you don't have to use a lure that brushes bottom."
 

Courts said this Douglas County lake has always been loaded with walleyes, but for some anglers who fished there often, they were questioning that statistic, because fishing for walleyes on the traditional spots during the daytime hours wasn't generating bites.

"The walleyes that are there have changed their habits and they bite at night," said Courts. "These fish also like those cabbage beds that rim the lake."

To cover both o

f these situations, Courts will set up a slow drift over the vegetation after the sun goes down and cast crankbaits.

"Lake Mary walleyes do show a preference for the shad-shaped crankbaits," said Courts. "I just keep them over the tops of the weeds, and if I slip off the edge of the vegetation I grab a rod that has a deeper diver on it and make a few casts parallel to that weedline. At night those walleyes are off the bottom and feeding, so you don't have to use a lure that brushes bottom. You need one that dives just deep enough to stay on top the weeds, or when you're on the edge, keep the lure a foot or two off the bottom."

LAKE WINNIBIGOSHISH

Big Winnibigoshish has become the darling of walleye anglers in the past few years because this lake has maintained a consistent walleye bite from opener through fall. The word spread fast, and those fish have taken on the personality of their cousins in Mille Lacs. They are getting a lot more finicky about what they will eat.

"On Winni, now I just change baits," said Courts. "Everyone else is using leeches and nightcrawlers, and I'm heading out with a livewell full of red-tailed chubs and rainbow shiners."

Courts said the best approach for Winni walleyes is the live-bait rig on the reefs and points that are spread all over the bottom of this big basin.

"I'm using fluorocarbon line and a No. 4 hook, and I make sure that minnow I'm sending down is lively and swimming hard. When that minnow gets tired, I'm replacing it with one that's fresh."

Courts stresses that when using a live-bait rig with a small hook you must use a rod with a softer tip and have the drag set perfectly on the reel.

"If you don't pay attention to these minor details," said Courts, "I guarantee you will lose fish because they will pull those small hooks right out."

CASS LAKE

On Cass Lake, Courts uses a two-tiered approach to catch the pressured walleyes there. He keys on the sharp dropoffs and the bulrush beds.

"I use the same routine on the dropoffs that I do on Winni," said Courts. "A live-bait rig with a minnow at the base of this breakline will get bites, but if the fish out there won't cooperate, I don't hesitate to hit the bulrush beds. Most walleye fishermen don't even consider the bulrushes an option."

Using a weedless jig and a scented plastic trailer, Courts casts right into the bulrushes.

"It's not as thick as it looks from the surface," he said. "You can slip a jig through there pretty effectively. You feel those perch there tugging on the plastic body and then it stops. The next thing you feel is the walleye inhaling the jig."

Courts also likes these bulrush beds at night and uses a lighted slip-bobber to dangle a glow jig tipped with half a nightcrawler or a leech.

"You never see too many boats on any lakes at night and they're missing a tremendous walleye bite," said Courts. "Those walleyes move up onto those shallow bulrush flats at night to feed, and I can't imagine anyone not enjoying it when that bobber disappears under the surface."

LAKE OSAKIS

"On Osakis the walleyes get pounded everywhere," said Courts. "They get beat up in the bulrushes, in the weeds and on the midlake structure there. Those fish have seen it all."


Big Winnibigoshish has become the darling of walleye anglers in the past few years because this lake has maintained a consistent walleye bite from opener through fall. The word spread fast, and those fish have taken on the personality of their cousins in Mille Lacs. They are getting a lot more finicky about what they will eat.
 

On a lake that gets a lot of daytime pressure like Osakis, Courts may consider going out after the skies get dark, but he doesn't consider this a good option on this lake.

"There's sure to be some walleyes biting at night on Osakis," said Courts, "but you can count on a great night bite on those clearwater lakes, and that doesn't fit the profile of this lake. The water clarity is just not that great. On Osakis I will troll spinner rigs and count on finding the more aggressive fish there during the daylight hours."

Courts likes to stick to the community spots on Osakis, which are the midlake humps and bars, but while everyone else is dragging live-bait rigs slowly on this structure, he is tying on a heavy bottom-bouncer with a fluorocarbon leader and a shiny silver spinner blade.

"On any lake where you find walleyes, there are always some biting somewhere," said Courts. "It's just a matter of covering ground and finding them."

Should Courts find a school of aggressive walleyes on the edge of a hump while trolling spinner rigs, he marks that spot and switches to a live-bait rig, which allows him a more precise presentation to target that concentrated school of fish.

"You never want to pass up a school of hungry walleyes that are concentrated on a piece of structure," Courts said.

OTTER TAIL LAKE

"Everyone loves Otter Tail Lake because it has that classic textbook walleye structure and there are a lot of fish there," said Courts, "but not too many fishermen even think about those suspended walleyes there."

Courts considers the suspended walleyes in lakes such as Otter Tail as being a solid option because these fish get so little pressure.

"Guys just don't know how to deal with suspended fish," he said, "so when you do get good at it, they're pretty easy to catch. In Otter Tail you have tullibees, and the water clarity is good and that means you're going to have walleyes suspending."

Getting good at catching suspended walleyes, according to Courts, means getting good at finding them. That means you have to be willing to prowl the depths with one eye on the sonar until you happen upon a suspended school of tullibees that are surrounded by some hungry walleyes.

"When I find the suspended walleyes on Otter Tail," said Courts, "I send down a spinner and use a snap-weight to get the bait into the fish. The spinner sits above a nightcrawler harness, and I've had my best luck using fluorocarbon line with this setup."

The reason for the snap-weight is that you have the ability to make quick changes to cover a lot of depth ranges.

"Those tullibees can stack up in the water column, and those walleyes can be above, below or out to the side of these baitfish," said Courts. "You need to find the active, feeding fish, so you might have to cover water from 18 to 30 feet down on one pod of these baitfish. With the snap-weight you can make a pass, switch to a heavier weight and st

rain those depths until you find fish that are willing to hit that spinner rig."

LAKE WASHINGTON

Never one to pass up a hot walleye bite, Courts followed a tip down to Lake Washington just north of Mankato in Le Sueur County where he discovered that a lot of other anglers had picked up on the promise of finding a hungry bunch of walleyes.

"There were a lot of boats on the lake, and this was on a weekday," said Courts. "These walleyes were getting pressured but I joined the crowd on a point halfway across the lake from the boat landing."


On Cass Lake, Courts uses a two-tiered approach to catch the pressured walleyes there. He keys on the sharp dropoffs and the bulrush beds.
 

Courts dropped a live-bait rig with a leech and had a bite within seconds.

"It was a real nice sheephead and it put up a great fight, but it wasn't what I was after," he said. "I didn't have any bigger minnows along so I stuck with my game plan, and after an hour I caught a lot of sheephead but no walleyes."

Courts decided it was time to get out the underwater camera.

"There are a lot of walleyes in Lake Washington and I figured being the middle of summer they might be pretty tightly bunched, so I went to that sunken island in the middle of the southeastern basin and began looking around the base of it."

It was a couple of hours of watching the screen and seeing a lot of sheephead, bluegills and bullheads before Courts spotted his first walleye.

"I had just dropped into 22 feet of water and there was this dip in the bottom next to an old log that was stuck in the silt, and a foot off the bottom was a walleye," said Courts. "I could see some other fish, which turned out to be walleyes just inches off the bottom."

Courts rigged a 1/8-ounce jig and tipped it with a fathead and started vertical jigging right over the top of those fish. They were hungry.

"I caught a couple dozen nice fish from 16 to 24 inches and let them all go," he said. "They were nice healthy-looking walleyes and put up a great fight. I'm not sure everyone has the patience to do a search like I did, but sometimes you have to pay your dues if your going to get lucky."

There are plenty of great walleye lakes in the state of Minnesota, and some are well-kept secrets where the walleyes only get harassed by a few anglers in the know. But if you're on one of those bodies of water where the walleyes are popular, you should be fooling them instead of letting them make a fool of you.

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.