Minnesota's Walleyes of Summer
September 30, 2010
Walleye fishing can get a little tough during the summer months, but you can improve your chances of success on these lakes.
By Tim Lesmeister
As the skier buzzed by the boat about 30 feet away, I wondered aloud if the noise would have an adverse effect on the mood of the walleyes we were chasing. "Nah," said my good friend and guide Mark Courts. "It bothers you a lot more than it does the fish."
Halfway through that sentence, Courts stood up, reeled down on what had inhaled his bait, and set the hook. A split second later the skier came down off balance and parted the water with his face right in front of our boat. Courts looked over at me, smiled and said, "There is a God."
In fact, we had planned to be off the water before the pleasure craft got there. Start early and be gone in a few hours. With the fish still cooperating, though, both Courts and I couldn't convince ourselves to leave.
"If you want to catch walleyes in the middle of the summer, you're going to have to put up with a few jet-skiers and water-skiers," said Courts, "unless you want to get onto a big lake or head way up north. The skiers are not as bad on those lakes."
Courts travels the country fishing walleye tournaments and testing his skills on unfamiliar waters. He deals with crowds in many of these locations and his opinion is that they are not much of a factor other than being a frustrating entity to the anglers who are getting encroached on.
"The walleyes get used to the boat noise," said Courts. "Plus the fish are pretty deep this time of year so all that commotion on the surface is not even noticed by fish at that depth."
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
What the adverse influences generated by recreational boat traffic does is cause an angler to lose focus on his or her mission, and this is not a good scenario when the fishing conditions lean toward the tough end of the spectrum. Courts explained that the forage base is well developed and the fish are well conditioned by now, even to the best bait presentations. Catching walleyes in the peak summer period requires a lot of good technique.
"Fish are not hard to find in the summer," said Courts. "What's tough is getting them to bite. What becomes the most important factor now is having hardy bait."
Courts keeps his night crawlers in fresh bedding and in a cooler. They stay plump and happy there. His leeches are in a container that water can flow through just like his minnow bucket. His baitwell is oxygenated and the water is continuously renewed or recirculated. When he sends down a leech, minnow or night crawler, the bait is in perfect condition and doing the job he sent it out to do.
"Even my crawlers are swimming," said Courts. "They wiggle and squirm on the end of that hook and the walleyes eat them. If the night crawler is limp and just hanging off the hook, I replace it with a fresh one."
His leeches are also working hard.
"I don't let them ball up on the hook," said Courts. "I want those leeches swimming, trying to rip themselves off that hook. If the bait just lies there half-dead, you won't get bites."
Courts is amazed at how many anglers fail to maintain their bait. They buy crummy night crawlers right before they take to the water or their minnows are in old buckets with stale water.
"It's the most important thing you can do in the middle of summer," said Courts, "and that is to use the liveliest bait and maintain it in perfect condition. Use lively bait and you will catch fish when no one else can."
So pamper those minnows, worms and leeches, and when they get tough enough to handle the heat, take them to a few of these lakes and let them catch some walleyes.
LAKE OF THE WOODS There are two methods that anglers incorporate on the summer walleyes on Lake of the Woods. One is the live-bait rig on the reefs with a leech or night crawler, and the other is trolling crankbaits with downriggers.
"I key on the structure during the lowlight periods with a live-bait rig," said Courts. "Then from midmorning until late afternoon I chase those suspended walleyes with crankbaits."
If you're using your own boat and don't have downriggers, Courts recommends using deep-diving crankbaits that are pulled even deeper with snap-weights. Spread the lures out on both sides with the use of trolling boards and you have the ultimate setup for those suspended Lake of the Woods walleyes.
"You'll find that the suspended fish tend to be bigger than the walleyes on the structure," said Courts, "although the live bait can mean a lot of bites and a lot of fish, maybe not the quality but surely the quantity."
For more information, contact Lake of the Woods Area Information at 1-800-382-3474.
LAKE INDEPENDENCE In the past few years, metro anglers have discovered that Lake Independence has become one of the best walleye lakes in the area. Likely due to the fingerling stocking that occurs there every other year, the walleyes are not only present in numbers but they are big.
Hennepin County's Lake Independence has but one decent sunken island right in the middle of the lake and that's where all the walleye anglers seem to end up. The fish are exposed to rigs, jigs and crankbaits out there and get really smart. If you want to chase some uneducated walleyes, attack the weedline.
On Lake Independence, where there is vegetation, it is milfoil. The milfoil line extends out to about 12 feet of water then there is a narrow band of sparse grasses and milfoil beyond that into about 14 feet of water. The walleyes lie right on this transition line. The best way to catch them is with a bottom bouncer and spinner rig.
Since you are dealing with a lot of sunfish on this lake, the best bait on the spinner rig is a scented plastic worm on a two-hook crawler harness. You'll feel the little fish pecking on the worm, but they can't pull it off. When the walleyes hit, you'll know it.
For more information, contact the Three Rivers Park District at www.threeriversparkdistrict.org or call (763) 559-9000.
NORTH LONG LAKE Last winter, there was a mystery hole in the ice on North Long Lake just north of Brainerd. Even in
the coldest temperatures, there was a section of the lake that would not freeze. Why this situation existed stumped a lot of scientific minds and confused a lot of nearby residents, but one guy who lives in Brainerd and chases bass and walleyes all over the country as a professional angler had the right attitude.
"Since it's not affecting the walleye population in a negative way, who cares," said Adam Johnson, a touring pro who lives near the lake. "North Long is one of the most consistent walleye lakes in this region, and if she wants to expose herself a little bit in the wintertime, that's up to her."
Johnson says that the central basin of the three produces well into the midsummer months due to the cisco forage base.
"Tullibees or ciscoes - call them what you like - move into the deep, cooler water temperatures," said Johnson, "and North Long is deep, has good oxygen at deeper levels and the tullibees thrive there when the shallower water temperatures get too warm. The walleyes follow these suspended tullibees into that deep water and sit outside the school until they get hungry. Spot the school on your sonar, get through it with a crankbait and you will catch some nice fish. There are a lot of walleyes in North Long and they are fun to catch when they suspend near those big schools of ciscoes."
For more information, visit the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce Web site, located at www.explorebrainerdlakes.com.
PELICAN LAKE Whenever they're asked to give up a secret lake they've been holding close to their vest, these pro anglers squirm like a snake crossing a hot road. When the pressure was put on Courts, he finally relented and said, "A few years ago I would have admitted I wasn't too impressed with Pelican Lake just south of Ashby, but the last couple of years this is my go-to lake when most of the others are slowing down."
Courts says the Grant County lake is shallow and not what you would call loaded with classic walleye structure, but the summer walleye bite barely slows down when many of the lakes in our state are dead.
"There are a lot of walleyes in Pelican," said Courts, "so you always can find a bunch of fish that are willing to hit a crankbait or a spinner rig."
Courts says since there is little structure you will typically be using techniques that let you cover water and search for a school of fish keying on forage or suspending.
"Trolling crankbaits works well," said Courts. "Use a long, skinny bait with a big lip that gets it down deep. During the lowlight periods when the fish are usually more active, this works well. If you're out in the middle of the day a crawler harness on a spinner rig is your best bet."
For more information, call Dave's Sport Shop at (218) 747-2901.
PINE MOUNTAIN LAKE A lot of people drive through Backus to get to those big lakes up north to fish for walleyes and muskies. They drive right past Cass County's Pine Mountain Lake, which might be a better option than where they're going.
"It's one of those in-between lakes," said Johnson. "It's in between all those well-known lakes in Brainerd and Walker. The walleyes don't get completely ignored, but they probably have an inferiority complex."
Johnson says you should not be fooled when you look at a map of Pine Mountain. There are actually a lot of deep-water spots where walleyes will go.
"With the exception of a few tiny rises on the bottom, there doesn't seem to be a lot of places where walleyes will hold," Johnson said. "Don't be fooled. Those long-tapering points and inside turns hold plenty of walleyes in 20 to 25 feet of water."
Johnson recommends you spend less time looking on the sonar and more time fishing high-percentage spots.
"The walleyes in Pine Mountain like to hold tight to the bottom and you might pass over fish if you rely too much on your locator to pinpoint schools."
For more information, call Larry O's Bait and Tackle at (218) 587-3627.
RUSH LAKE "It's my home lake," said Courts. "That gives me an edge over the average guy because I've been fishing Rush for a while. The past few years have been some of the best walleye fishing we've had in a long time."
Courts describes Chisago County's Rush Lake as two basins, one east and one west, which typically fools a lot of anglers because their first reaction is to fish the western basin because it looks so "fishy," with all the structure and the islands and bays. That's not always going to be the right move.
"East Rush can sometimes be an easier place to find a big school of walleyes because they don't have as many places to spread out into," said Courts. "On West Rush the walleyes can spread out on all that structure and you find five here and 10 there. On East Rush when you find a school of walleyes, there are a lot of fish in that group."
Courts likes to chase Rush Lake walleyes with a live-bait rig and either leeches or night crawlers.
"If you're getting into panfish, move deeper," he said, "and watch your sonar. You can often spot walleyes a couple of feet off the bottom and you need to raise the sinker up to get the bait in the zone."
For more information, call Fish Lake Bait and Tackle at (651) 674-4734.
SAND LAKE Sand Lake in Itasca County is a fun lake to fish in the summer months, according to Johnson. This is because of the diverse structure.
"If you want to troll," said Johnson, "set up on the sharp, straight breaklines in the smaller basin on the southeast end of the lake. If you want to work tight turns on deep midlake structure, work the big basin."
Johnson claims that an angler can work the cuts, turns and sunken islands between the big island and the narrows for a week and still not find all the nooks and crannies there.
"If you have a GPS with a plotter, run it while you're working a live-bait rig slowly along a depth range," said Johnson. "You will be amazed at what's not on the map."
Johnson says the walleye numbers seem to be getting better each year and the catch rate he is obtaining proves that.
"Sand is a great lake in the summertime. Work deep," he says, "and you can catch and release 25 or 30 fish a day at a minimum. That's after spending an hour or two finding them, which is always the No. 1 toughest thing to do when you're fishing for walleyes. Fortunately on Sand Lake, there are enough walleyes that you don't have to spend all day finding a school of fish. An hou
r at the most or you're looking in the wrong place."
For more information, contact Frontier Sports at (218) 832-3901.
SHAMINEAU LAKE It was on Morrison County's Shamineau Lake that Courts and I were bombarded by recreational activists bent on showing us how adept they were at hopping the boat wake on a single board. It never ceases to amaze me how skiers fail to comprehend that anglers don't care one iota that they can do these stupid human tricks. There wasn't a single fishing boat on the other side of the lake. But then, who would be there to watch?
We were set up on the west side of the big island on a sharp breakline. It was a slow process by 11 a.m. when the personal watercraft and ski boats hit their peak. But the walleyes were still there, and we were getting bites every 10 minutes or so and pulling in some nice 2- and 3-pounders.
The presentation consisted of a live-bait rig with a leech and about eight feet between the weight and the bait. Courts had me tie on a hook that seemed way too small, but he was adamant that there would be no bites without a No. 8 hook.
"These leeches can't be dragging on the bottom," he said. "You want them swimming off the bottom, looking like they're struggling. The smaller hook allows this to happen."
It must have worked. The other boats that migrated to where we were fishing weren't having anywhere near the luck we were.
"It's the combination of good bait and presenting it properly," said Courts. "You can't tempt a walleye that's fat and happy with a hot dog, but give him a New York strip and he might want to take a bite."
The morning bite was actually pretty strong. Courts says that's due to the routine that the fish get into as they take up their summer pattern, and once you figure out where the fish are and when they will be biting best, you can follow that schedule from day to day until an unstable weather pattern disrupts the flow.
For more information, call Charlie Brown's Bait and Tackle at (218) 352-6112.
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Sure it can be a tough bite during the summer, but what are you going to do, not go fishing?
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