April 11, 2011
Here's where to find Minnesota's best walleye angling this month, no matter where you live in the state.
Basketball fans tend to love March as they study and plan their NCAA Tournament picks only to end up broken-hearted when the Cinderella team they chose to go all the way loses in the first round, and half of their Final Four teams are finished even before the Sweet Sixteen.
Diehard anglers may or may not choose to participate in the "big dance" but one thing is certain, "March Madness" has nothing on the insanity that is Minnesota's March walleye fishing. Some months have extreme conditions and some months have easy living, but March has both. Probably no other month of the year features some of the best ice-fishing and open-water fishing -- sometimes to be had within miles of each other.
Most of the state is closed to walleye fishing. Oh sure, those walleye capitals like Winnibigoshish and Mille Lacs are still getting plenty of fishing pressure, but it's perch and crappie that anglers are pursuing. The jumbo perch bite is usually going strong in March, offering enough action to keep most anglers on the ice. The crappie bite on lakes like Cass and Gull are also epic in proportion and there are tons of bluegill hotspots that nobody is willing to give up that are yielding big bulls.
The diehard, hardcore walleye anglers, who aren't afraid to mix in a little danger with their fishing, make a run for the border. More specifically: the northern border and the southeastern border. Canadian border waters, the Mississippi River from Pool 2 to Iowa, and two rivers along the North Dakota-Minnesota border are about all that are on the menu for walleye anglers.
These border waters are unpredictable in the month of March. It's the ultimate contradiction of terms. Anglers heading to the Lake Of The Woods area are often wishing and praying for the exact opposite conditions. Anglers dragging their boats to the area are hoping for ice to break, the river to open and landings to clear. Anglers dragging ice-fishing equipment are hoping for cold snaps, thick ice and minimal slush at the landings. Those crazy enough to be committed put their ice-fishing portable in the boat and let the conditions dictate what they'll do.
The Rainy River is home to one of the most epic walleye fishing opportunities in the world. Every spring when the ice goes out on the river, walleye worshippers call in sick, ditch their families and drop everything to get on the river so that they can enjoy catching dozens of walleyes weighing more than 6 pounds with the potential for 10-pound fish and larger.
Meanwhile, only a few miles away, on Lake Of The Woods, anglers pay careful attention to ice conditions and drive out several miles to catch the herds of walleye beginning to move in for the spring spawn.
Hundreds of miles away, along the Mississippi River where Minnesota and Wisconsin meet, a similar contradiction can be found. Anglers drill holes in the ice of the backwaters and sloughs where slack current isn't enough to wear away the ice but offers plenty of food for the walleye. Meanwhile, just a few hundred yards away, boats slide up and down the river working the current breaks for walleyes as they slide upstream to their spawning grounds.
For a lot of casual anglers, these obscene contradictions are too much to handle and the possible safety risks too much to bear. After all, in two short months the season will open again and every single one of Minnesota's lakes will be accessible. Even in the coldest of Mays, the possibility of ice is rarely a serious threat to walleye fishing on most lakes. A May snow squall is nothing compared to the massive snow and ice storms March is capable of, and well known for producing.
That's fine for the crazies. What made these anglers so crazy are their experiences from past March angling adventures. Some might say that walleye fishing in March is like an addiction; it's not always healthy but the craving for it is too strong to ignore and the withdrawal is worse than the absence of it.
Sick stuff, eh?
Pat Burch, Mike Westman and Bryan "Beef" Sathre are three of the sickest anglers in the state; they absolutely love the month of March for walleye angling.
"The trophy potential in March is incredible," said Sathre. "There are often solid numbers of eater-sized fish and you can't hate the weird weather because if you love it, the weather loves you back."
With at least a few blizzards every March, especially during the various state high school tournaments, weather is definitely a factor. It's not the limiting factor, however, for most anglers. Sathre runs Fathead Guide Service out of Bemidji and has no problem loading his fishing gear, for both seasons, and heading up to LOTW for the weekend.
"Weather conditions will do what they want," said Sathre, "but what you have to pay attention to, because it can sink your fishing plans, are the conditions on the ice or on the water."
If there's been a mild winter or a March thaw, ice conditions begin to deteriorate rapidly throughout Minnesota. While Mississippi River sloughs might only get a foot of ice, that ice is beginning to have soft spots and the spring melt water is pulling that ice away from the shoreline, making for precarious conditions. Often anglers have to use a wooden plank to get from the shoreline onto the ice.
Up on Lake Of The Woods, there might be 3 or 4 feet of ice, but a spring thaw makes weak spots and causes enough heaving to mess up access roads to the top ice-fishing spots. All that road salt falling off the trucks at the landings also begins to take its toll in March, even without a thaw. Road salt does a great job when temperatures are in the 20s and the sun is getting higher in the sky and there might be 3 feet of solid ice on the lake, but the landings are total slush and puddles impassable except for snowmobiles.
"Last year, we ice-fished into the middle of March and the weekend after our last trip on the ice several trucks busted through," said Sathre. "Conditions change that fast in March, so be careful and take precautions."
Open-water anglers don't have it any easier. While the main channel of the Rainy River along the Canadian border or the Mississippi River in the south might be chugging along, the public landings could still be socked up in ice. The solution to that problem is simply to launch your boat onto the ice at the landing and push it to the river. While it's not recommended, check out a boat landing used by walleye anglers on either body of water and you'll see this practice commonplace.
If have read all these precautionary tales and are more excited th
an ever, then read on for tactics and techniques for catching walleye in these magical locations. If you are unable or uninterested in fishing during this time period, then congratulations! You have enough sanity to keep things moving while those diehard walleye anglers catch fish.
LAKE OF THE WOODS
This also includes the Rainy River but there's not too much of a trick for catching fish on the river. The trick with the Rainy River is determining when it will open. The river can be socked in with ice halfway through March and then pop in a series of days. Some years it never opens up in March. Surf the Web or contact the Lake Of The Woods tourism folks at 1-800-382-FISH.
That's a good number to call for updated ice conditions as well. Lake Of The Woods tourism does a great job checking in with their resorts along the southern shore and compiling those reports into a weekly fishing report. That fishing report also includes details on ice conditions, which can change quickly depending on the temperatures.
Assuming the ice is good enough for an angler to drive on with a truck, car, snowmobile or ATV, drive out five or six miles to the main lake. Don't off-road it, however. Keep the tires on the plowed paths and if you don't want to find your own spot, head to the outposts where all the other fish houses are located.
Resorts like Sportsman's Lodge have dozens of houses on the lake and they'll drive you out to them, no problem. Pay the landing fee, and you can drive on many of these roads yourself.
Be sure to bring extensions for your ice auger because the ice can seriously be well over 3 feet thick. It would be a shame to drive all that way only to find you would not be able to fish! Ice trolling is becoming more and more popular thanks to the teachings of renowned ice "trollers" like Tony Roach and Bryan Sathre. This technique simply means drilling plenty of holes on and around a specific fish-holding location so that anglers can follow the fish and cover an area much like they would trolling or casting during the open-water season.
Buckshot rattle spoons work great this time of the year, Sathre said, as do lures like the Hexi-Fly and Moxie Minnow. "Tip them with the head of a fathead or shiner and use your Marcum LX-5 to show you how high the fish are sitting in the water column," he advised. Once the madness of getting on the ice and to the fishing location has subsided, the fishing is really quite sane.
Another awesome walleye-fishing experience can be had along the Mississippi River from the Ford Dam in St. Paul down to the Iowa border. This includes Pool 2, which is not a border water but is a catch-and-release-only area. Mike Westman runs a guide service on Pool 2 and said that March is one of the best times of the year to go walleye fishing.
"This too can be a fantastic time of year for the biggest walleyes and a chance at a good 10-pound-plus sized fish," said Westman. "We also get into some of the biggest saugers of the year at this time, with sizes averaging around 20 inches."
Pool 2 is a very downtown type setting while the pools below that are more rural. Keep an eye out for floating debris, which could end a fishing trip pretty quickly.
Pat Burch runs his own guide service on Lake Of The Woods, Mille Lacs and the Mississippi River, as well as any other lake his clients want to fish. He is a walleye-fishing fiend who has been known to fish one part of the week up on Lake Of The Woods and then the next part of the week on the Mississippi River. Three years ago, during a 2008 Minnesota Tournament Trail walleye tournament, he was the second best angler on the ice competing at the time.
"The way we caught them then was by pole-lining crankbaits in 13 to 17 feet of water," Burch said. Using a similar tactic to hand lining, anglers use heavy to medium weight fishing poles and drag crankbaits close to the boat.
"The way to properly rig a pole-line is to drop down a line with an 8-ounce weight on the end and attach two three-way swivels," Burch said. "The first three-way swivel should be positioned about a foot off the bottom with about 10 feet of monofilament attached to drag behind the boat. The second three-way swivel should be another foot up and have a 25-foot monofilament leader line."
If it was good enough for him to beat out the top anglers around the state, it should be good enough for you too! Just remember that there's more to the river than just the water immediately below the dam, where so many anglers stack up.
"Everybody goes to the dams but there are fish to be caught along the rip rap shorelines, the wing dams, around creek mouths -- all in 2 to 6 feet of water," Burch said.
Both Westman and Burch said blade baits work great at this time of the year on the river as well. Anchoring up on a good location or using the trolling motor to slowly work a shoreline are the best methods for casting blade baits.
"Jigging is the best all-purpose way to catch those river walleye," Burch said. "A 1/4-ounce, long-shank jig tipped with a rib worm is really all you need most of the time."