September 30, 2010
Once so barren it was called the Dead Sea, Mille Lacs Lake is again rich in walleye gold.(January 2008).
Photo by Ron Anlauf.
Once mockingly called the Dead Sea, Mille Lacs Lake is again a favored destination for Minnesota anglers hoping to strike walleye gold.
Consecutive years of poor management and unfavorable conditions in the 1990s spelled near-disaster for the state's second largest lake.
Kevin McQuiod, owner of Mac's Twin Bay Resort, grew up on the lake. He's seen these things happen before.
"All lakes go through cycles that can either stack the odds against you or with you, depending on the existing conditions," he said. "Baitfish populations and dominant year-classes of fish definitely play a role in how dramatic the cycle becomes, and how long it lasts.
"We've actually had excellent ice-fishing for the past couple of seasons and it should be great again this year. The open-water action has been phenomenal since opening day and that should carry us right through the ice-fishing season. In fact, the action and pressure had been so intense that the DNR was forced to tighten the slot restrictions to control the open-water harvest, but they should be relaxed again for the start of the ice-fishing season." (Continued)
Explosions of bait and a shortage of top end predators like walleyes can spell disaster for anglers. On the other hand, an abundance of predators and a shortage of bait can result in a windfall for those aware of the situation. Jumbo perch also fit into the equation, as they will feed on some of the same food supplies as walleyes, which includes plenty of immature perch. Good numbers of jumbo perch present in the system can help quickly correct an overabundance of baitfish, and right now the big lake's carrying a solid population of big perch.
Trends are what you look for when trying to size up the opportunity for a good ice bite and the trends have been positive.
Those hitting Mille Lacs at first ice have plenty of great options to choose from, including shallower rocky reefs and bars, old weedbeds and sand breaks like those found on the north end of the lake. Where you start your quest is more a matter of where you can safely get to, and that can vary greatly from year to year but almost always is restricted to the shallows. Because of its sheer size, Mille Lacs is affected by a stiff wind more so than shallower protected lakes and a new sheet of good ice can literally move, leaving some areas with dangerously thin ice and that can create a deadly situation. Before giving it a go, make some calls, check with the resorts and be sure it's safe before you get on the ice.
Some of the early-ice hotspots include Jack's Twin Bay (where Mac's is located) where there are all kinds of shoreline rocks, including a rocky point in the bay, and Hawkbill Point at the mouth where it meets the main lake. Heading up the east side there are Big Point, Hunter's Point, Lakeside Reef, Agate Reef and many more rocky points and smaller reefs that are still unnamed. From the northeast corner and across most of the north end of the lake are shallow sand flats that drop into deeper water, which can hold plenty of first-ice walleyes. Heading down the west side there are Garrison Reef, Brown's Point, Indian Point and Rocky Reef. The bays between the points are mostly sand and have accompanying breaklines that can also hold fish. Across the south end, there are big shallow bays, including Cove, Wahkon and Isle and is where you can find productive weedbeds.
Although you can find active fish during the day, most of the shallow action takes place just before and just after dark, especially on the rocks. "On our end of the lake we work a lot of rocks starting with those in the 6- to 8-foot range. Most of the fish turn on an hour or so before dark and you might want to get out early and get set up and then wait them out. Walleyes will start to show up a little earlier, though, and in a dark house, you can actually see them by getting down on the ice and taking a look for yourself, but they usually aren't turned on enough to take a bait until late in the day," Kevin McQuiod said.
John Odle of Rocky Reef Resort in the southwest corner of the lake has a couple of major shallow rock reefs in front of his place and agrees with Kevin and said, "It typically starts happening between 3:30 and 4 p.m. and will last for an hour or so after dark. You can catch fish all night long, but it gets pretty spotty and is not as intense as the action just before and just after dark." The weedy bays on the south end of the lake can also give up some walleye gold early on, and is another sunup or sundown proposition. The deeper edges of the deepest weeds are a good place to start looking and you better get up early or stay late if you plan to get in on the fun.
Good daytime action typically requires some depth and whether you can get to it or not will depend on the ice conditions. The sand break in the northeast corner of the lake is a good early-season producer and has the depth to provide steady daytime action. So do the sand breaks between rocky points like St. Alban's Bay and Wig Wam Bay. Basically, the breaks are big, shallow, slow-tapering sand shelves that extend out into the main lake and then drop quickly into the basin. The top might run from 8 to 10 feet and the base can bottom out in 14 to maybe 20 feet or so of water. Try working the base of the dropoff during the day and then on up to the top of the break toward dark. If you're dealing with rocks, try working the deepest edges during the day and then move up on the top edge at sunset.
It's hard to beat a jigging spoon for sticking early-season walleyes and the noise and commotion it creates can really turn them on. Smaller spoons like Northland Tackle's 1/4-ounce buckshot tipped with a minnow head are perfect for working shallow water and are the hands-down favorite for picking off active fish. Early in the season, an aggressive jigging stroke can be more effective than something softer and subtler. Later on after the walleyes have had a chance to see it all, subtle becomes much more effective. If you're watching your lure on a depthfinder, you can quickly see if a hard snap is spooking fish. In that case, you might have to slow it way down and even let the bait sit perfectly still at times.
Once the sun drops and it becomes good and dark, the spoons can slow down a bit, but there's another great option that can help keep you getting your pole bent and that's using a dead rod or a bobber rig. "You can keep using a spoon after dark but you better have at least one bobber rig set up. For whatever reason a minnow suspended below a bobber can really make a difference and it can pay to mix it up a little," McQuiod said.
A small shiner on
a red hook or maybe a colored jighead suspended below a float that can barely stay on top is a terrific combination working the midnight oil. A bobber that barely floats will create less resistance and is less likely to be detected by a fish that can be unbelievably fussy. The extra color of the hook or jig will help you be noticed and you can try different colors, but it's pretty hard to beat something red.
As the season progresses and good ice develops, more and more of the deep structure becomes accessible and there's a definite migration from shallow to deep.
"We start the ice season by working the shallow rocks and then move to deeper and deeper rock bars and humps as soon as we can. The deeper rockpiles provide the best opportunity for finding active daytime fish and the action can be good and steady. Start by working the tops of the rocks and then move down the sides, especially later on in the season. A big key to getting in on the hottest action is being there ahead of the plow trucks and all of the traffic and commotion a crowd can create," McQuiod said.
John Odle makes similar moves and starts with the shallow rocks and then moves to deeper rock transitions. "We have a lot of good fish-holding structure on our end of the lake including Rocky Reef and the transition where the reef flattens out and the big boulders change to a lot more rubble and then drops into the main lake basin. We also have some deeper rock humps that we set up on as soon as we can, but you can never overlook the shallows. There are fish on the shallow rocks in the 7-foot-deep range all season long, but you had better be stealthy if you plan on catching any. Shallow fish can be extremely spooky, especially if they've already been worked over. That means being quiet, staying put, and leaving the lights off. There's usually a good bite between 6 and 9 a.m. and then again just before dark, but most anglers either don't know it's happening or are looking for something else."
While McQuiod and Odle move to deeper rocks, many of the resorts head for the mud flats, including Hunter's Point, Fishers, Terry's and MyrMar. The flats are basically mid-lake clay/marl structures that rise up quickly out of deep water and are relatively flat on top. Most are surrounded by 35 to 37 feet of water and top out at about 24 feet and all can produce walleyes at any given time, but some of the favorites include the Boot, Seven Mile, Sliver, Eight Mile and Seguchie. The thing is you can always get away from the crowds and you don't have to fish where everybody else is. Most fishermen are where they are because the more popular spots are easy to find (plenty of houses). With a good map (and there are some excellent ones including the ReelBottom map) and a GPS, you can find your own hotspot, and have at least some of it all to yourself.
Most of the fish turn on
an hour or so before dark and you might want to get out early and get set up and then wait them out. Walleyes will start to show up a little earlier, though, and in a dark house, you can actually see them by getting down on the ice and takinga look for yourself.
The mud can be counted on for steady daytime action (especially early on), and usually starts as soon as you can safely get there. The top edge is a great place to start looking for fish and it may require drilling quite a few holes and making some moves before you find enough of them to make it worth your while. Look for points, inside turns, and anything different than the rest of the flat to hold the concentrations. As we head into midwinter and beyond, start working down the deeper edge of the flat, all the way to the base where it flattens out.
Although you don't have to go through a resort to get on the lake, the resorts mentioned are those that usually plow a road to mud. The ability to drive to a flat on a plowed road can save you plenty of time and is your safest option.
Jigging spoons are again the top choice for working deeper water, but you might have to go a little heavier to get the job done. Spoons in the 3/8- to 1/2-ounce range are the ticket, and should be tipped with a minnow head, a tail, or maybe a whole minnow like a smaller fathead. A bobber or set rig is another good option and a combination of both is a good way to get started, that is until you determine just what it is the fish are looking for. Another good option is the use of a tip-up, especially later in the season. Some of the major rock bars and mud flats are massive in size, and a tip-up will let you explore different areas and depths all at the same time.
Fisheries Department area manager Rick Brueswitz stated that, "Overall, the lake is in good shape. There's a good representation of walleyes in the '02, '03 and '05 year-classes as well and a huge '06 class. What it means is there are plenty of 18- to 26-inch fish, and larger. We have to manage the lake within a "safe harvest level" and the steady action and heavy fishing pressure forced us midseason to restrict the keeper slot from 16 to 18 inches. Right now, we are looking at relaxing the slot Dec. 1 to a total of four fish of which one can be over 28 inches and the rest under 20, but that can change, so be sure you have the latest info before hitting the lake."
Brueswitz also suggested that although good winter action will usually carry into the summer, a great open-water season doesn't always mean a great winter. "The variable is the spring perch hatch which shows up late in the summer and has more influence on the fishing than anything else."
For more lake information, go to www.dnr.state.mn.us and click on fishing and go to Lake Finder, or call the Fisheries Department at (218) 678-2629.
That being said, the outlook is still promising for what could be a banner year for Mille Lacs anglers working the hardwater season. If you've ever thought about trying the Dead Sea, now's the time. Whether you're in a rental house, or in a portable pulled behind an ATV, or even out in the open (if you're crazy), it might be high time to try the Dead Sea.
Contact info: Agate Bay Resort, (320) 684-2233; Fischer's Resort, (320) 684-2221; Hunter's Point, (320) 676-3227; Mac's Twin Bay, (320) 676-8709; Myr Mar Resort, (218) 678-2629; Rocky Reef Resort, (320) 532-3431; Terry's Boat Harbor, (320) 692-4430. For lodging info, call the Mille Lacs Area Tourism Council at (888) 350-2692 or go online to www.millelacs.com./"