Finish the hardwater walleye season on a good note at these eight late-bite lakes.(February 2008).
Photo by Ron Hustvedt Jr.
February is the shortest month of the year and, coincidentally, the last month of walleye season, a fact many anglers consider cruel and unusual punishment.
Around the state, walleye action is not as hot and heavy as it was earlier, but some ice-fishing locations are just beginning to turn on.
The lakes listed below represent some fine late-season walleye spots, but they are by no means the only lakes where you can catch a mess of walleyes. Any lake with an abundant walleye population may have a strong late-ice bite, but some fare better than others.
Generally speaking, lakes that received plenty of ice-fishing pressure shouldn't be considered. Mille Lacs is one of the best walleye lakes in the state, but most anglers don't consider it a great late-ice lake due to wintertime pressure.
Fishing pressure is a huge factor anytime, but especially during the winter, said Terry Tuma, an ice-fishing expert from Outdoor News.
"You can have some great spots that should hold walleyes, such as a midlake hump or point extending to the basin of the lake, but if there's lots of fish houses around that spot, you aren't going to find as many walleyes as you may think," he said.
Walleyes migrate from heavily fished areas to secondary structure nearby or other parts of the lake with similar structure but not as much pressure. A key to success this time of the year is to stay away from crowds, and if you can't escape, go to the edges of the areas they are fishing.
Like a good hunter, the late-season walleye angler should scout around to find the best fishing. Here is a rundown of lakes around the state where a last-minute trip may be worthwhile.
Lake of the Woods
While the other lakes aren't listed in any particular order, Lake of the Woods is first because it is the best choice for late-season walleyes.
"I'd rate it my number one lake for the late bite," Tuma said, noting the walleye season on Lake of the Woods extends until April, while inland must close in February.
"Usually in February and afterward, I like to go out a bit deeper into water 30 or 40 feet deep," said Pat Burch, a frequent Lake of the Woods ice-angler and winner of the 2007 Minnesota Tournament Trail Championship walleye tournament.
Tuma agreed that deep-water locations are best during the late season and added that an angler should be willing to move around to find the best location.
"Find some structure, cut a hole, and use your electronics to check for fish down there. If you don't mark any fish, change locations and repeat the process. Keep moving until you find them," he said.
Tuma said some nice concentrations of walleyes might be found in 14 to 17 feet of water. (Continued)
"The shallow-water bite tends to be an evening bite, but if you find the food, you'll find the fish," he said.
Burch said he usually stays in an area motel. Go out of Wheeler's Point toward Pine Island and drive out a total of seven to eight miles. His other option is to fish the rocks around Arneson's Rocky Point. "It's a good time over there in a sleeper house, but there's nothing for a night bite, so don't feel like you need to stay on the lake anytime past 4:30 p.m. because you'll catch nothing but eelpout after that," he said.
Tuma and Burch recommend fishing Lake of the Woods with a jig tipped with a minnow head or a vertical jigging spoon with a minnow head.
"Pink is a great color on this lake," Burch said. "I outfished everybody last year with pink Angel Eye jigs and pink and gold jigging spoons."
For more information, contact Lake of the Woods Chamber of Commerce at (800) 382-FISH or online at www.lakeofthewoodsmn.com.
Upper Red Lake
Known for many years as a crappie fishing mecca, Upper Red Lake anglers have been dealing with walleyes more in recent years. Last year was the first ice-fishing season that walleyes could be taken from Upper Red. This promises to be another great year of walleye fishing -- if you can find them.
"They are scattered all around the lake and they like to roam," said Bryan "Beef" Sathre of Fathead Guide Service. An avid Upper Red ice-angler, Sathre said he runs and guns on other lakes but not on Upper Red.
"The lake is a big bowl and doesn't get very deep nor does it have much structure, so I always check with the local bait shops to find out where they are congregated," he said.
Sathre looks for the virtual cities of ice houses and drives near them but not too close.
"I'll usually stay away from the main group -- never more than half a mile -- then find some secondary points to fish. Upper Red is becoming a lake where if you can get away from the crowds you'll do better," he said.
Usually that requires driving two to six miles on the ice.
"I realize that's a broad range, but it shows how much walleyes can move around. You can have hot and heavy action for a while and then the fish move out fast," he added.
Burch said he takes a simplistic route on Upper Red.
"I drive out a few miles and find the depths from 12 to 14 feet, drill a few holes, throw a bobber and minnow into one hole and a jigging spoon in the other," he said.
With some of those world-famous slab crappies still swimming around, Burch said he makes it a priority to catch a few.
"In the process of crappie fishing you'll catch a lot of walleyes, too -- it's enough to keep you busy most days," he said.
Sathre said big pike on Upper Red aren't afraid to go after a walleye rig and sometimes he uses summer gear to catch both species.
"I'll put on a summer rig like a fireball jig-and-minnow and bounce it off the bottom to bring in a walleye or a pike," he said.
Sathre said jig sizes may vary, but he usually uses a 1/16-ounce and never larger than 1/8-ounce.
For more information, contact the Upper Red Lake Area Association at (218) 647-8913 or visit online at www.UpperRedLakeAssn.com.
For some reason, lakes with a high percentage of natural reproduction tend to be good for late-season ice-fishing. It's not something the DNR has published in an official study, but many of the anglers consulted for this article said they prefer that kind of water in the late-ice season.
The lakes usually feature creeks or backwater areas beneficial to walleye reproduction, said Corey Bechtold, an avid angler and a moderator at www.FishingMinnesota.com.
Lake Bemidji fits the profile and the Bemidji fisheries office reports that the walleyes were all born from natural reproduction. The lake is also full of structure where walleyes like to hang out, particularly in the late season.
"There is so much structure around the lake where you are going to find the walleyes and during this time of the year, I actually like to begin to work shallower again," Sathre said.
One of his favorite locations is a rockpile smack dab in the middle of the lake.
"This is a great spot throughout the year and it's probably my first choice for the late-ice period because you can fish the shallows or deeper areas without moving very far," he said. "If the walleyes aren't where you thought they'd be, you don't lose a lot of fishing time searching for them."
Sathre's other top winter location is a bar on the far southern end of the lake near the entry point of a river into the lake.
For more information, contact the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce at (800) 458-2223 or online at www.bemidji.org. You may contact Fathead Guide Service online at www.fatheadguideservice.com./"
The DNR's Bemidji fisheries office reports Cass Lake's walleyes are numerous and healthy, good news for walleye anglers and especially ice-anglers because these walleyes bite throughout the late ice-fishing season.
Healthy 2001-03 and 2005 year-classes should provide plenty of smaller and medium-sized fish, while healthy numbers of fish from earlier years may provide an opportunity to land a real trophy.
Sathre fishes often on Cass in the winter but said his mobility is limited because of pressure ridges on the main lake. Four-wheelers or snowmobiles are often needed to reach these locations, but it can be dangerous if it's a big ridge. Walking is an option, but that uses too much valuable fishing time.
"There's plenty of good fishing near shore, so if you can't get out there, don't worry too much about it," Sathre said.
One of his favorite spots is a bar directly off the Highway 2 boat landing at the southwest end of the lake.
The southwest corner of Star Island is another good location for late-season walleyes, he said, and the humps on the south end are also worth checking.
Allen's Bay on the western shore connects Cass Lake and Lake Andrusia, and features plenty of humps to keep an ice-angler busy for an entire weekend, not to mention islands and points that are good walleye locations this time of year.
For more information, contact the Cass Lake Chamber of Commerce at (800) 356-8615 or visit online at www.casslake.com.
Pike Bay, east of the town of Cass Lake, is deceiving, since it looks like part of the larger lake because of a narrow channel connecting it and Cass Lake. But ask any anglers that fish both lakes and they'll tell you they are two distinctive bodies of water.
At 4,700 acres, Pike Bay is considerably smaller than Cass Lake. Still, it's larger than most area lakes and is home to tons of walleyes. It's also a great late-season ice-fishing destination and a favorite of Sathre.
"I've closed the ice-fishing season on Pike Bay the last few years because it just produces more walleyes this time of the year than any other lake in the area," he said.
Sathre's Pike Bay tactics are similar to the techniques he uses on Cass and Bemidji.
"I'll search underwater points and inside turns in 13 to 18
feet of water until I find fish," he said. "Then I'll drill a ton of holes so I can move around the area as the fish move."
If he's on a spot for 10 minutes and doesn't mark anything, he moves. If he's with many anglers, he'll spread them out and heavily work an area.
"I really watch my electronics and underwater camera, which I like to hide under structure on a string," he said.
After Sathre settles on a spot, he drops a red-fish-colored eyedropper on a bobber with a shiner minnow or fathead.
"This is my dead stick method. I usually just let it sit there as I work a big shot rattle spoon with a pinched fathead minnow head," he added.
For more information, contact the Cass Lake Chamber of Commerce at (800) 356-8615 or visit online at www.casslake.com.
West Battle Lake
Located 20 miles east of Fergus Falls in Otter Tail County, West Battle Lake is often overshadowed by nearby Otter Tail Lake. Both are good late ice-fishing destinations, but the majority of anglers prefer the bigger, better known Otter Tail.
The Fergus Falls fisheries office reported West Battle's walleye population is in good shape, thanks to a very strong 2001 year-class that has provided very consistent catches.
Anglers are asked to protect the current year-class as they mature by practicing catch-and-release.
Take a look at West Battle on a map and the first thing you see is a network of holes and humps, often creating excellent nearby fishing locations. The structure also provides an opportunity to find spots away from the fishing pressure.
Alex Kelm of Ben's Bait and Tackle, a West Battle ice-fishing veteran, said you can't go wrong by setting up beside a dropoff in 25 to 30 feet of water.
"I usually use a plain hook tipped with a shiner
minnow," he said.
For more information, contact the Fergus Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau at (800) 726-8959 or online at www.visitfergusfallas.com
An avid walleye angler wanting to close the season in style should take a week off and drive along Highway 2 between Bemidji and Grand Rapids stopping often to fish the numerous hotspots. This portion of the state is home to some of the greatest late-ice walleye lakes and big ol' Winnie is midway of the drive.
Many anglers know that Winnie is a good early-ice lake for walleyes, but after the late-ice season arrives, most anglers forget about walleyes and go after perch.
"This time of the year, you'll do best on any isolated hump that tops off at 22 to 24 feet deep," said Tom Neustrom of Walleye Visions in Grand Rapids.
Some of Neustrom's favorite locations include the tip of Bena Bar and the humps on the north end a half-mile from shore.
"The ice during the late season is generally pretty good, but watch out for the pressure ridges just like on all big lakes," he said.
A pink-and-gold buckshot rattle is his favorite lure and best fishing times usually occur in early afternoon and anytime on a cloudy day.
"Winnie tends to have a late day and evening bite," Neustrom said.
For more information, contact the Lake Winnie Resort Area Office at www.lakewinnie.net. Neustrom may be contacted at (218) 327-2312 or online at www.mnfishgpros.com
The last stop of the Highway 2 walleye run, Pokegama is a good late-ice walleye lake for anglers who like the nightlife.
"You can do quite well on Pokegama fishing a little later in the evening from 5 to 7 p.m. or even later," Neustrom said.
Late-ice locations tend to be in the 24- to 30-foot range, with the best fishing near the humps and islands.
The same walleye rigs that work on the lakes highlighted above work well on Pokegama.
For more information, contact the Grand Rapids Area Convention and Visitors Bureau at (800) 355-9740 or online at www.visitgrandrandrapids.com.
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Always check with a local bait shop for the latest conditions and fishing reports before heading out onto the ice. Pressure ridges are sometimes tough to spot and driving through the ice can quickly ruin a good day of fishing or worse!