September 30, 2010
Everybody has known for years about the Brainerd region as a great place to catch walleyes. But did you know the ice-fishing on some of the area's lakes could be better than it has been in a long time? (February 2007)
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
Minnesota's heartland is loaded with lakes -- beautiful lakes that are absolutely loaded with fish.
The Brainerd area lays claim to the lion's share of these waters, and Gull Lake is probably the most prominent and the first one that comes to mind, especially if you're thinking about walleyes. Year after year, Gull consistently produces walleyes as a direct result of natural reproduction combined with regular stocking efforts.
However, as good as Gull can be, there are other less obvious lakes that have the potential to produce even better results, but only if you give them a try.
Some of the better options are completely overlooked by most anglers simply because they don't fall into the "classic walleye lake" category and are more apt to be classified as bass/panfish lakes. Most of the Brainerd-area lakes are of the bass/panfish variety, but don't be fooled, because there's walleye gold in those lakes.
Consistent stocking programs have helped bolster existing walleye populations and have also created fisheries where they did not exist, and it's the latter that gets overlooked most often. Natural producers like Gull already have a reputation for kicking out walleyes and receive more than their share of attention. Attention means pressure that can result in a well-educated audience and fewer biters to go around.
North Long, Round and even the upper lakes of the Gull Chain are more apt to fall into the bass/panfish category but do have fishable populations of walleyes, and receive a lot less pressure. Those in the know have been cashing in on this incredible opportunity for years and have tried to keep a lid on the good news. Solid numbers of fish in the 15- to 20-inch range is what the fuss is all about, and that can make for a quality experience no matter where you are.
They say that timing's everything, and there's no doubt that the first-ice period is probably your best bet for hooking up with "off the radar" walleyes. There are many great opportunities for getting your pole bent, but it's just that you may have to make a logistical change, or adjust your tactics.
"I like to get out as soon as possible, but I'm not willing to walk that far for it," said professional angler and full-time Nisswa guide Richie Boggs. "By early January, you can usually find safe ice everywhere, and I can pretty much go wherever I want, which opens up all kinds of options. When I start working main-lake structure, I'll wait until there's enough ice to safely support a four-wheeler or a snowmobile. There are just too many spots to check out and only so much time in a day, and you can't cover enough ice on foot."
Even though there are plenty of other great opportunities close by, Boggs can't ignore Gull and will still spend at least some of his time working specific areas that he has confidence in.
"Gull has it all, including slow-tapering flats that break quickly into deeper water, as well as a ton of offshore structure like deeper bars and humps," Boggs said. "It has hard sand breaks, breaks with gravel, breaks with rocks, as well as rock- or gravel-covered humps. It also has hard breaks off of old weedlines, which is another potential hotspot.
"A lot of anglers concentrate on the main lake, but there are fish from one end to the other, including the southern bays of Wilson and Steamboat," Boggs continued. "I'll start with breaks in the main lake or back in a bay, head for the humps, and then maybe move back to the breaks or maybe to another lake."
Pro fisherman John Janousek of Nisswa is another fan of Gull Lake.
"Anglers will start with shoreline breaks and then completely give up on them once they head for the deeper structure," Janousek said. "They'll spend the rest of the season driving right over active fish trying to find the next hotspot, but they could be missing out!"
Boggs and Janousek both rely on Northland Tackle's Buck Shot jigging spoons in the 1/4- to 3/8-ounce range tipped with minnow heads to find and catch walleyes, and will use them all season long. They also drop an insurance bait down another hole just to keep ol' marble 'eyes honest.
"Besides using a jigging spoon, I'll rig a shiner on a red hook and suspend it below a slip-bobber and set it to ride within a foot or so of the bottom," Janousek said of his hot late-ice tactics. "The key is adding just enough weight to keep the bobber floating without allowing the minnow to pull it under. The weighting tactic produces less resistance and can help keep a fussy fish from spitting the bait before you get to set the hook. The jigging spoon will draw fish in and they won't always take it, but they just might hit the minnow. Some days, it's all spoons, and some days, it's nothing but bobbers. You never know for sure what they're going to want at any given time, so it can pay to offer a variety."
Gull's water clarity is exceptionally clear, therefore active fish can be found in deep water. Janousek will often team up with Boggs to work the lake and will typically fish a little shallower than his buddy.
"Richie likes to work deeper, down to 25 feet or more, and I'll usually start a little shallower, say maybe 17 to 18 feet deep," Janousek said. "Most of the time we'll both catch fish, but it doesn't hurt to work some different depths until you find the biters."
Jason Erlander of Sportland Bait in Nisswa caters to anglers fishing the Brainerd area and has a good handle on exactly what the local lakes have to offer.
"Most of them produce good numbers of small fish, or smaller numbers of big fish," Erlander said. "Gull is one of those rare lakes that can produce numbers of smaller fish as well as some real hawgs."
Next on the "to do list" is Upper Gull, which could be the area's best-kept secret, and is a lake that has been giving up some serious fish in the 26-inch range, and bigger specimens being routinely caught. It receives much less attention than the big lake and is more likely to fall into the bass/panfish classification because there are lots and lots of shallow weeds. Somebody better tell all of those big fat walleyes that they must be lost.
Most of the Upper Gull action takes place on shoreline breaks and points because there isn't much in the way of offshore structure. Water clarity on the upper lakes runs darker than Gull, and most of the actio
n occurs a little bit shallower, which means less than 20 feet.
"There are a couple of humps and they do produce some fish, but quick breaks near old weedbeds is where a lot of the walleyes are caught," Erlander said about Upper Gull.
Anglers will set up on the breaks in the evening. They use big shiners and bobbers, and stay until after dark. They don't always catch that many walleyes, but they're usually lunkers.
Upper Gull is connected to the main lake by a channel, but beware because the channel is more of a river and has plenty of current. Current can mean dangerous ice conditions and it should be avoided when traveling from one lake the other.
"There are creeks that dump into the upper lakes and then into the main lake, and there's current in the channel and around any of the narrows, so be careful," Janousek said.
Cullen Lake is another connected "upper lake" that has been kept under wraps and has been pleasantly surprising the few anglers making the effort. They have been rewarded with some dandy-sized walleyes.
"The Cullen Chain receives little pressure and has been producing 20- to 27-inch fish," Erlander said.
Another option is Round Lake, which is east of Gull directly across Highway 371, and is connected by a culvert. Like Upper Gull, Round is much more of a bass/panfish lake than it is a walleye factory, but thanks to regular stocking, it does have a decent population of nice-sized fish.
"Round is a numbers lake," Erlander said. "They're not that big, but they're not that bad, with most running in the 14- to 18-inch range."
Janousek has spent some quality time on Round and has uncovered a few secrets to finding fish.
"Although there is a fair amount of deeper offshore structure that can hold fish, one of my top spots is a shoreline break off of a slowly tapering sand flat that has gravel thrown in for good measure," Janousek said. "I actually found the spot by accident. I was punching holes and looking for fish when I started catching and catching. After dropping an underwater camera down a hole and taking a good look, I could see that I had set up on a transition from sand to gravel. Anglers could move in around me and catch a few fish but not nearly as many as I could off of that transition. As far as depth goes, I'll spend most of my time working down to maybe 18 feet, because you'll run into mud if you try to head any deeper.
"My presentation for Round is the same as it is for Gull, and I'll almost always be using a jigging spoon along with a bobber-and-shiner combination," Janousek continued. "The key is not setting up too far away from each other. The idea is to use the attraction of the spoon to get them to take the shiner, so try and stay within 4 feet or so of the other bait."
North Long lies straight east of Gull and directly south of Round, and is probably closer to a natural walleye lake than the rest of the bass/panfish waters, but it still requires regular stocking to support its healthy population of fish.
"North Long is a unique lake that produces numbers of nice-sized fish, as well as some heavy-duty models," Erlander said.
This relatively large lake has huge, slow-tapering sand flats that drop quickly into deeper water, as well as plenty of offshore humps that have some rock and gravel that can run as deep as 25 feet. The combination of clear water and suitable structure can make for steady deep-water action. All of it can hold fish, but you can never rule out the shoreline breaks.
Sylvan is another lake that deserves mentioning, and is one that doesn't get the notoriety or the pressure that some of the others do.
"Sylvan doesn't put out big numbers, but the ones it does give up are exceptional," Erlander said. "It has only a couple of offshore humps, but it does have plenty of shoreline breaks and deep breaking points that can hold fish."
This overlooked big-fish fishery is straight south of Gull and is actually connected to Wilson Bay by a couple of smaller lakes and a channel.
Lake Edwards lies approximately six miles straight east of Nisswa and is a stocked lake that has been relatively quiet for a number of years -- at least until recently. Guide Toby Kvalevog of Brainerd has seen a definite increase in the Edwards action as of late, which would indicate the lake is carrying a good population of predators like walleyes and a reduced amount of available baitfish.
"We saw the bite pickup during the open-water season with a lot of good catches being made, and when that happens, it usually carries right through the winter period," Kvalevog said. "All lakes go through cycles, and when the conditions are right, it's definitely something to take advantage of."
Edwards doesn't have too much offshore structure, but it does have plenty of shoreline breaks.
"There are only a couple of deeper humps, but there are a lot of steeper breaks, especially on the north end of the lake," Kvalevog said. "There are also shoreline flats that extend out to the middle of the lake with good breaklines that should definitely be checked out."
Pelican Lake lies a couple of miles straight north of Edwards and is in a class by itself. It does have a reputation for producing numbers of nice-sized walleyes and does receive some pressure, but it can be too good to pass up.
"There are plenty of fish to go around and you don't have to follow the crowds to get your share," Janousek said. "Pelican is loaded with fish-holding structure, with most of it being shoreline and offshore breaks. It has huge, expansive shallow flats in the middle of the lake that break quickly into deeper water. All of those breaks have the potential to hold decent numbers of active fish.
"With miles of shoreline and offshore breaks, there isn't enough time to fish it all, so I'll look for points and inside turns that can help to concentrate fish," he continued. "To find the biters, you have to be willing to move, so you better be mobile. I'll stop on a spot, drill a few holes, and start jigging with a spoon and watch the depthfinder and see if anything shows up. If I draw a blank, I'll pick up and head for the next spot, and keep going until I see fish. If I'm seeing fish but not catching, I'll probably move on but might come back later, like right before dark."
Being mobile usually means portable fish houses and four-wheelers or snowmobiles, depending on ice conditions and snow levels. And on the lakes mentioned, you're really on your own for getting around. A light snow pack could allow for car and truck travel, but you had better be sure you know where you're going and what you're doing before venturing out.
A combination of clear water and deep breaks is a good recipe for finding deep-running walleyes, but you can go too far.
"You can find fish on Pelican down to 25 feet or so and deeper, maybe a lot deeper, but most of really deep fish will be small," Janousek said. "Yanking fish out of super-deep water is a death sentence and you won't be able to release the ones you catch. It's unethical to keep pulling up and releasing fish that you know aren't going to make it."
Before you head out for the great unknown, it would be a good idea to acquire as much knowledge as you can. Sportland Bait (218/963-2401) at the corner of County Road 13 and Highway 371 can give you an update on the latest ice conditions, provide you with everything you may need, and even point you in the right direction for getting your trip started. You can also call Brainerd-area guides Richie Boggs, (218) 963-4410, and Toby Kvalevog, (218) 839-5598.
For more information on access locations and such, check out www.dnr.state.mn.us, click on "fishing" and go to "Lake Finder." Or you can just call the DNR at (218) 828-2550. For lodging information, call the Brainerd Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce toll-free at 1-800-450-2838, or find them online at ExploreBraineredLakes.com.