February's Walleye Hotspots

February's Walleye Hotspots

Excellent prospects await Buckeye State walleye anglers this month. Try these proven public waters for odds-on excitement now! (February 2006)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

With winter winding down, Ohio's lakes will soon be open and its rivers running ice-free. One of the most sought-after species is the walleye, and Ohio has a good selection of waters in which purebreds seem to fare the best. Some of the better inland walleye waters are in the northeastern portion of the state, though the fish can be found in other areas as well.

Here's a look at three of the best places to go for inland walleyes in Ohio this spring.

MOSQUITO LAKE

Long considered by the Ohio Division of Wildlife to be one of the state's top inland lakes, Trumbull County's Mosquito Lake has been rated as the best overall walleye water for the past couple of years. Several strong year-classes are present, with good numbers of adult fish in the 13 to 21 inch range. Mosquito's walleyes fatten up on gizzard shad and young panfish.

Mosquito Lake, a relatively shallow, windswept reservoir, lies in a flatland setting. Stretching north to south in a bean-like shape, 7,241-acre Mosquito Lake reaches a maximum depth of about 30 feet near the dam; the average depth is much less. A few islands dot the lake. Shoreline flats tend to hold submergent vegetation like milfoil, though weeds were limited last season.

Zebra mussels have made their way into Mosquito, so water clarity has been on the rise over the past few years. The clearer water has extended the weed growth out to deeper water, particularly in the southern end of the lake.

The Route 88 causeway splits Mosquito Lake into two separate basins. Roughly a third of the lake is found north of the causeway. The extreme upper end of the lake is managed as a propagation area, and no fishing is permitted there. The off-limits area is well marked with buoys.

In addition to the weedbeds, stumpflats are a favored type of cover for Mosquito Lake walleyes. Several submerged roadbeds are also present. During the early season, submerged willows hold not only walleyes but crappies as well. Wave-washed gravel points, flats and humps are also important walleye attractors during the early season.

Mosquito Lake serves as a broodstock lake for the Ohio Division of Wildlife. As such, it is well stocked to ensure a good supply of fish not only for anglers but also as future breeders for the ODOW's walleye program. During spring 2004, more than 15 million walleye fry were introduced into Mosquito Lake via several stockings. The ODOW spreads the stockings out to help ensure that conditions are prime for at least one or two stockings.

The fish are also released in shallow, quick-to-warm areas in which conditions are better for the production of the zoÖplankton vital for the survival of newly stocked walleye fry.

As of last spring, the agency estimated the adult walleye population (fish 13 inches and greater) to be about 64,000 fish. Creel surveys conducted during the 2004 season showed walleyes represented about 42 percent of the angling effort. Harvested walleyes averaged 15.2 inches.

Early-season walleye fishing at Mosquito Lake generally means fishing in shallow water. Many walleyes are taken in water less than a foot deep! Light leadhead jigs tipped with a minnow or twister tail body are popular. Pitching jigs up against the shore can be a slow way to fish, but a productive one when the fish are holding in very shallow water.

Deeper areas may be worked by means of a controlled drift driven by the wind. It's possible to pull walleyes out of fairly shallow water (under 4 feet or so) by drifting; a boat doesn't seem to spook the fish. Waders do very well on Mosquito Lake for the first month to six weeks after the ice has come off the lake. From late evening well into darkness is the best time to fish.

Another good early-season tactic is trolling in the stumpfields. One of the more productive areas is the large stump field found in about 6 to 10 feet of water southwest of the causeway. This area was productive for me during an early-season trip to Mosquito Lake last spring. Gold and black crankbaits worked best for my group during that outing. Let out just enough line to tick the top of the stumps, or you'll be snagged much of the time.

Another good stumpfield is north of the causeway adjacent to Rattlesnake Island. Deeper stumps are in the main basin area (known locally as "Red Barn"). This area is south of the causeway. The "cemetery" area along the southeastern shore of the lake is another popular walleye area.

Don't rule out deeper water during the early season, particularly for larger fish. Bigger females often hold in the depths and can be dredged out by pulling crankbaits on leadcore line.

There are no horsepower limitations at Mosquito Lake, though there is a 25-m.p.h. speed limit for the lower lake and a 15-m.p.h. limit for the upper portion. It's possible to move boats from the upper to lower basins by going under the bridge, but clearances can be iffy when the lake is full, especially if it's bumpy out. Watch that windshield!

Good access to the north portion of the lake is available at the private ramp at the Causeway Sporting Goods store. A nominal fee is charged for launching.

South of the causeway on the eastern shore is an excellent ODOW ramp and large parking lot. In the southern end of Mosquito Lake boats may be launched at the state park access and the Mosquito Lake Marina. A large fishing pier on the south side of the causeway provides good shore-fishing access.

Bait and tackle may be obtained in Mecca at the Causeway Sporting Goods store on the east side of the lake. Call (330) 637-7076 for more information. Also, try the Mosquito Lake State Park Marina off Route 305 at (330) 637-2075.

PYMATUNING LAKE

Currently, Ashtabula County's 14,650-acre Pymatuning Lake's walleye population isn't on the same level as Mosquito's. However, catches made during the summer of 2004 indicated good numbers of fish about to reach legal size. This, coupled with what's left of the mature fish that kept angler interest high the past two years or so, should keep Pymatuning on the must-fish list this spring.

This border water is shared with Pennsylvania, and management of the lake falls under the administration of both the Ohio Division of Wildlife and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. The PFBC stocks walleye fry on an annual basis, with the numbers exceeding 20 million fish over the past couple of years.

Pymatuning's walleye population dynamics have been in a state of change over the past few years. Once a place where catches of numerous sublegal fish were common, smaller fish were few and far between from 2002 to 2004. Springtime surveys conducted by Pennsylvania fisheries managers found mostly legal-sized fish in the nets. Fall studies revealed low numbers of young walleyes from springtime stockings.

Why the low recruitment? The most popular theory attributes it to competition and predation by populous alewives in the lake. These herring both muscle in on the limited early-season food sources and prey on young walleyes.

The bottom line for the past few years has been that there are far fewer walleyes, but larger ones. Fish in the 20- to 26-inch range were caught with fair regularity, with some in the 30-inch trophy category. During an April tournament held by the Western Reserve Walleye Association, the top team brought a five-fish bag to the scales that weighed 18 pounds.

Last summer, high water temperatures did kill some adult walleyes in Pymatuning. During the peak of the hot weather, a tour around the lake by Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission personnel revealed slightly over a dozen dead walleyes. Unfortunately, they were all legal-sized fish, the largest measuring 28 inches.

On the positive side, anglers last summer reported many more short walleyes than they had in recent years. Reports from other anglers told the same story. Apparently, a fairly strong year-class of fish in the 13-inch range last summer swims the lake. These fish will be legal-sized this spring.

Shallow, windswept Pymatuning is bisected by a causeway that connects Andover to Espyville, Pa. The northern portion of the lake averages about 12 feet deep. The southern portion is deeper on the average, but plenty of shallow water is present.

The upper portion of the lake serves as a nursery water that's closed to fishing. The nursery water feeds the main lake via a spillway located near Linesville, Pa.

Submergent weeds are common, mostly milfoil and curly pondweed. Gizzard shad, alewives, young carp and panfish keep the walleyes well fed. Small yellow perch have been particularly plentiful.

During the early season, Pymatuning's rocky points and humps are the first sites to get the attention of both boat anglers and waders in search of 'eyes. The spillway is a popular early-season spot, because the ice comes off the lake there first. Space is limited, and if you seek solitude and seclusion as part of your angling experience, it'd be better to go elsewhere.

Early-season walleye patterns at Pymatuning are numerous. Many fish are taken in shallow water, and that's where the majority of anglers spend their time. Fish, often larger ones, may be taken from the depths as well, so it pays to use different tactics.

The most popular shallow-water technique is to target fish moving up on spawning areas, including rock-gravel humps and points. Some of these areas are longstanding wading grounds, and you'll witness an influx of anglers making their way out to them during the evening hours. Most waders arrive an hour or two before dark and stay until midnight or so.

A pink 1/8-ounce leadhead jig tipped with a chartreuse twistertail is perhaps the most popular presentation. Other anglers tip their jigs with fathead minnows. A small floating Rapala is another good choice.

There are many humps that attract walleyes that can't be reached by wading. Local protocol suggests that boaters who would like to share a spot with waders should ask permission before moving in.

Another good early-season tactic is long-line trolling with small diving minnow plugs. The best bite is from twilight into the first few hours of darkness. Keep your baits a couple of feet under the surface while working areas in the 3- to 5-foot zone.

Not every walleye is doing the same thing at the same time. While most anglers were concentrating on shallow fish last spring, other anglers worked the deeper zones on leadcore line. These trips yielded many walleyes in the 18- to 26-inch range.

Stumps are a factor in Pymatuning. Some anglers do well pitching jigs to visible wood in the north end of the lake. The large stumpfields south of the causeway also hold fish.

As of this writing, the horsepower restriction on Pymatuning remained at 10 horsepower, although discussions have been raised on changing the restriction. A limit of six fish, all of which must conform to the 15-inch minimum size, is in effect.

Boat launches are on the Ohio (western) side of the lake off Pymatuning Lake Road. Bait and tackle and up-to-date fishing reports may be obtained at the Duck and Drake, (440) 293-2439, located across Pymatuning Lake Road from the Birch Landing south of the causeway.

The nearby state park has boat rentals available from this launch area.

LAKE MILTON

Alliance walleye expert Punky Ball considers Mahoning County's 1,684-acre Lake Milton to be a "sleeper" lake -- one with a good walleye population that sometimes gets overlooked.

Ball is president of the Western Reserve Walleye Association, a group that includes in its activities several fishing tournaments at Ohio's better inland walleye waters. Typically, Lake Milton is included on the tournament list each year.

Lake Milton is downstream of Berlin Lake, which is also a top walleye water. Ball considers Milton to be just as good as the better-known Berlin.

Lake Milton is within the state park of the same name. The reservoir flows from south to north, attaining a depth of about 30 feet at the dam. Interstate 76 crosses the lake at its midpoint.

The ODOW stocks Milton with fingerlings to augment what's produced naturally. Over 171,000 1- to 2-inch fingerlings were stocked in 2004. A degree of natural reproduction occurs in Berlin Lake, and fisheries managers expect that fish passing from Berlin down to Milton will make a significant contribution to the fishery in the next few years.

With its more developed shoreline, Milton doesn't have a lot in the way of shoreline wood to hold fish, nor does it have significant weed growth. For this reason, anglers must pay more attention to subtle changes in depth that can attract and hold fish. The food base is composed of gizzard shad and yellow perch.

While the walleye fishing typically peaks around early-to-mid May at Milton, Ball deems it a good early-season lake as well. "The best early-season spots are the sunken islands north of the Interstate 76 bridge," he noted. "They can be found on most lake maps."

Another good early-season option, according to Ball, would be the piers on the Interstate 76 bridge. He said jig-'n'-minnow combinations are excellent for w

orking both areas.

As fish disperse to other areas, Ball says, walleyes relate to subtle bottom changes, at times to variations of less than a foot. He also noted that the fish frequently move around, and so it takes a versatile angler to score consistently.

Trolling becomes more popular on Lake Milton once the water warms up Ball reports that Lake Milton also has a strong white bass population, and that the opportunistic walleyes often suspend below schools of feeding white bass to feed on the easy pickings.

Watch your electronics for signs of schooled bait, and for following game fish. Spinner-crawler rigs pulled behind bottom bouncer sinkers are productive on Lake Milton later in the spring.

Early-season fishing isn't limited to these three waters. The Ohio River, the upper pools in particular, offer good walleye fishing that could heat up in February. If so, concentrate your efforts in the tailrace areas and around the mouths of feeder creeks.

Maps of all three lakes can be downloaded from the ODOW's Web site,

www.dnr.ohio.gov/wildlife.

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