The Walleye Whisperer
September 30, 2010
Instead of profiling criminals, Adam Johnson profiles fish, especially late-summer walleyes. (August 2008)
Adam Johnson use his formula to find late-summer walleyes.
Photo courtesy of Adam Johnson.
Profilers. Television crime shows love them. They're usually portrayed as cops trained in psychology or FBI agents who have the ability to observe a crime scene and determine a criminal's psychological makeup as well as his future moves.
Adam Johnson is a profiler -- one of the best -- but instead of profiling criminals, he profiles fish, especially late-summer walleyes.
"Using a combination of variables," Johnson said, "anglers can know exactly where a particular species of fish is located. I call it 'The Profile' and I use this formula to put me onto fish, because after all, if you can't find them, you can't catch them."
Johnson explained that a particular fish species follows a consistent program over a 12-month period and when you add variables like weather, fishing pressure, recreational traffic, the forage base and others, pinpointing locations and adjusting your presentation becomes easy. Let's look at an example to illustrate what happens during this late-season period.
"I prefer larger lakes for walleyes during the late season," he said, "because smaller bodies of water tend to turn off during August, what we call dog days. Bigger lakes provide a more consistent bite during this period.
"If the forage base is predominantly ciscoes on the big lake, I'll be in open water looking for suspended fish. If the primary forage is perch and shiners, I'll be on either deep midlake structure or very shallow rockpiles and weedlines."
The problem most anglers have, Johnson said, is they continue using tactics that worked during the peak bite months of June and July and fail to realize there had been a transition that requires a change of location and presentation.
Of course, the forage is high in numbers in August, which means your bait may be ignored, even in a crowd of walleyes, but if an angler isn't fishing where walleyes are, chances of getting a bite are zero.
One thing is for certain about fishing during dog days, anglers must work harder for every walleye they catch. The smaller bodies of water seem to turn off and the big-lake bite seems to slow, but big-water walleyes don't shut down completely.
Chris Kavanaugh, DNR area fisheries supervisor in the Grand Rapids office, oversees plenty of smaller bodies of water in the Itasca County regions including one of Minnesota's well-known walleye factories, Lake Winnibigoshish.
"In the bigger lakes you have more diversity of habitat available to walleyes, so there are more places where they can go," he explained. "Some of the bigger lakes, Winni, in particular, typically don't stratify, so if it does stratify, it's only for a very short time until the wind blows again and the water column mixes pretty uniformly from top to bottom. All fish have an optimal temperature range for growth and when they find that range, they feed most actively. In smaller lakes the water can get too warm, not quite a lethal temperature, but it's not optimal, so their metabolism actually slows down and they're not as active."
Kavanaugh, like Johnson, thinks forage can be a factor in determining how well walleyes bite.
"I think there is more forage in midsummer," he said. "Most species in Minnesota spawn in the spring or early summer, so when you get to midsummer you have a huge abundance of young-of-the-year fish that are approaching accessible size for larger predators to chasing after. The perch that spawned in late May that are now 1 1/2 to 2 inches long are a pretty desirable item for a lot of species of fish."
There is one variable that Kavanaugh believes is not always considered when dog days roll around and it deals with harvest.
"It's about the availability of adult fish to catch," he said. "Think about the fish population as a finite number and in May and June when the fishing is good, there are a lot of walleyes removed from the system. Sure, you have fish recruiting into the fishery, but anglers, whether deliberate or inadvertent, target the most aggressive fastest growers. They are the first ones removed. You just have less fish in the barrel, so to speak."
One of Johnson's tricks to trigger bites during dog days is to completely modify his presentation to something that walleyes haven't grown accustomed to.
"Dog days is a perfect time to push the boat away from the landing after the sun has gone down," he said. "The walleyes that are feeding at night don't get harassed much during the early season, so there are still lots of them left."
If Johnson is fishing during the daytime hours, he's likely to grab a rig spooled with lead-core line and troll deep bottom contours with brightly colored crankbaits.
"Walleyes will aggressively hit a lure they haven't seen that is scooting by at a high speed," he explained. "We call this triggering a bite and it works when fish are not actively feeding."
Johnson also believes walleyes holding near the edges of big schools of suspended ciscoes are easy targets that most anglers ignore.
"Fishermen have been programmed to key on structure for walleyes," he said. "They don't know how to find suspended fish and if they stumble onto them, they don't know how to target them or what lures to use."
For suspended fish, Johnson recommends blocking sections of deep water and crisscrossing the spots while watching the sonar.
"You can spot a school of suspended ciscoes really easy and there will usually be some walleyes nearby," he said, adding that it sometimes requires a half-day of searching.
Another dog days technique is using a slip-bobber on shallow rockpiles.
"Walleyes move up to the rocks when it's windy and feed on shiners," he said. "Drop a leech into the mix under a bobber and they can't resist."
If walleyes are over structure, Johnson fashions a live-bait rig with a very long snell tied with fluorocarbon line.
"I use an 8-foot leader and fluorocarbon," he said, "because those
walleyes on structure have received a lot of pressure and they are conditioned to ignore a bait that is preceded by a sinker dragging bottom. With fluorocarbon, line-shy fish won't notice the line."
So, you can still find and catch walleyes during dog days; it's just a matter of sticking to big water and refining your approach. Let's look at some big lakes and how to set up a successful program.
Walleye numbers on this lake are high and Johnson said it helps when the fishery is healthy because it means anglers should be able to find fish biting somewhere. During the early season, anglers targeted river mouths with jigs and crankbaits. Later, as the fish spread out, the live-bait rigs came out. Now it's time for crankbaits and trolling boards.
"There's not much for structure in Red," Johnson said. "It's mostly sand bottom and not too deep. On this lake you really need to get out the lures and troll to find active walleyes."
Johnson prefers to attack Red Lake when he can get some of his buddies to go along.
"It's one of the drawbacks in Minnesota," he said. "You can only use one line per angler when trolling. If you want to have four lures running, you have to take three of your fishing buddies along."
Johnson trolls two lures of differing colors, action and depth on each side of the boat in order to determine a walleye's preference.
"I really work for my walleyes," he said. "Most guys just run out some lures and put the boat in forward. I run a lure for about 20 minutes and if it's not getting hit, I change it. Walleyes will eventually show a preference and then I get the same style on all lines."
Anglers who prefer well-established resorts may be disappointed. There are some hotels in Washkish, but there never has been any resort development, so anglers must use the public landing and launch on the day they fish.
Fishing on Leech Lake has made a tremendous comeback, thanks to a DNR program to increase the walleye population by lowering the number of cormorants and increased stocking.
Johnson said he likes to work the deep structure of Walker Bay during dog days.
"Walleyes will tuck into the rocks in 25 to 30 feet of water and you have to coax them to bite," he said. "This requires some serious boat control and patience."
Johnson uses a live-bait rig with a leech and no less than 3/4 ounce of weight.
"You go through a lot of leeches," he said, "because you want the bait to be swimming strong. Gary Roach told me one time that you have to have real lively bait when you're fishing tough conditions and he was right on. The livelier the leech, the better chance you have of tempting a bite."
Johnson admits there are times when a spot just turns on and walleyes won't hesitate to suck up a leech. This typically occurs during a weather change, so if you see that situation unfolding, prepare for great fishing.
For more information on Leech Lake, visit leechlake.org.
Cass Lake always causes some deliberation for Johnson. Should he start shallow on the reed beds or look for suspended fish? There will be walleyes in both places.
With perch migrating over the tops of the bulrush beds, walleyes like to move up during the low-light periods of morning and evening and feed. Some stay for the day sliding into the shady pockets created by the emergent vegetation. Toss a slip-bobber with a shiner on it or pull a weedless jig and a fathead around the stalks and chances are you'll hook into some nice fish.
On the other hand, ciscoes will be suspended over deep areas and there are plenty of deep-water regions to search.
"It was a hot morning and I was headed over to Allen's Bay to flip a weedless jig into some bulrush beds on the north side of the bay," Johnson said, describing a trip to Cass. "As I cruised past Potato Island on the south side, my sonar showed signs of suspended fish. It was a huge pod of ciscoes and there were big fish all over. There were three of us in the boat, but I only put out two long lines to see if these fish were biting. In two hours, we landed 10 nice walleyes and had a 46-inch muskie right up to the boat."
For more information regarding Cass Lake, visit casslake.com .
Lake Winnibigoshish has been hot for walleyes for the last six years and shows no signs of slowing down. Kavanaugh said there is more than one reason for this.
"I like to think the fishing is getting better as a result of the protective slot regulation that was added to the lake along with some other things," he said. "We did a creel survey the summers of 2006 and 2007 and found the amount of angling pressure might be down a little bit, but catch and harvest rates are really good. Angler catch rates are some of the highest we've seen in the last 40 years. And angler harvest rates, even with the protected slot, shows they're finding enough fish that they can keep."
Another important factor in Winnie's comeback was a shoreline restoration project that occurred a few years back.
"Before the shoreline restoration was done, the spawning habitat in the lake was pretty much limited to the north shore," Kavanaugh said. "Along that south shore and east side it was a desert of shifting sands because of the active erosion. Now that it has been stabilized, particularly on that east side, what we've found is there are areas where we've added spawning rock, but what's more impressive I think is in the areas where we stopped the sand from coming into the lake, wave action has exposed some of the natural gravel that is out there. So, as you go along the shore in the spring, there are pockets the size of a dinner table where it's nice clean gravel. Then you go 10, 15 feet down the shore and there's another pocket and another one. And these are areas where we didn't add that spawning rock. So, what the restoration has done is put us in a position where we don't have all our eggs in one basket on the north shore anymore when it comes to spawning. We get a strong south wind and all the eggs don't get washed up on shore. That east shore is still intact and eggs are in good shape there."
For more information, visit lakewinnie.net .
LAKE OF THE WOODS
If there is one lake in Minnesota with a solid year-round walleye bite, it is Lake of the Woods.
"They've figured out how to target those huge schools of suspended walleyes
," Johnson said. "They use downriggers and troll."
Besides Lake Superior, where downriggers are utilized for trolling salmon and lake trout, Lake of the Woods is the only other body of water in Minnesota where this style of fishing is a common occurrence.
"The guides are out every day so they can consistently stay on a pod of walleyes," said Johnson. "It's pretty impressive to see those guide boats with a half-dozen lines out on downriggers and two anglers fighting big walleyes at the same time. Unless you've tried it, you haven't lived yet. It is fun."
For more information about Lake of the Woods, please visit lakeofthewoodsmn.com .
Some anglers become frustrated during dog days and just wait it out until the early fall bite heats up. Others tough it out, hitting bodies of water with high potential and using techniques and tactics that produce bites. There's a reason why 10 percent of anglers catch 90 percent of the fish.