Understanding the walleye's world may give you an edge on the coming season. (April 2008)
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
Adam Johnson is an aquatic biologist. Does his understanding of the underwater world make it easier for him to find and catch fish?
Yes. Johnson's understanding of a fish's environment and the transitions and stages a species encounters during the season means not only can he place a species to a specific body of water; he can also pick the perfect bait.
But what about us anglers who don't have the benefit of a biology degree? Are we cursed to wander the lakes and rivers aimlessly, occasionally stumbling onto a school of fish?
Johnson laughed when I put this scenario to him and said, "Much has been written for the average angler so they can understand the seasonal transitions and how a species reacts to conditions such as water temperatures and weather patterns. Unlike the technical information I had to digest during my schooling, the information parsed to the average angler is understandable and can be used to help them gain knowledge that will benefit them in their search for fish."
But it's a complicated environment.
Consider the walleye.
They're never where you think they should be.
They never bite the bait you think they should.
In fact, it seems like they're doing something different every day.
"Welcome to Walleye World," Johnson said. "While it seems that this species is always in a transition, there are periods during the year when walleyes can be easily profiled and lots of fish can be caught. It's about timing, but then that's always the situation when it comes to fishing, especially when fishing for walleyes."
To try to understand the profiling program he uses to find and catch walleyes, I asked Johnson to profile some of his favorite walleye lakes at different times of the open-water season.
Cass/Crow Wing Counties
Gull Lake has always been a respected opening-day lake, so Johnson said he would take into consideration that the opener is almost always preceded by a cold front and there will be plenty of boat traffic.
"The walleyes in Gull will be in the post-spawn stage on opening day," he said, "and that usually means they're spread out on shallow sand and rubble shoreline flats like those surrounding Gull Point on the southeast side of the main basin."
Under perfect weather conditions Johnson prefers a live-bait rig with a half-ounce sinker above a No. 2 hook to drag a shiner minnow about 70 feet away from the boat. But weather is never perfect on the opener.
"When that cold front comes barreling in," he said, "those walleyes that were on the flats head for the first steep dropoff and lie at the base of it. You can use the live-bait rig, but make sure you only have about 18 inches between the weight and the bait. You have to move a lot slower, too. You need to keep the bait in front of the walleyes for a while to get them to commit."
Late May is often a difficult time for walleye anglers because the fish are transitioning from the post-spawn phase to their summer profile.
"There are three open-water transitions for walleyes," Johnson said. "Pre-spawn, post-spawn and the fall transition. This post-spawn transition is when the fishing gets tough because they are spread out and moving, so feeding is not a high priority."
Johnson suggested focusing on Lake Mary's deep weedline during the low-light periods.
"It's still newly-emerging vegetation out in the deeper water," he said. "When those walleyes are moving in the morning and evening, if you get a leech or a night crawler in front of them, they will eat it."
Johnson said bait selection is very important during the transition period and recommends switching from minnows to leeches or night crawlers.
"A lively leech or a plump, juicy night crawler will outfish anything else during this tough-bite period," he said.L
LAKE WINNIBIGOSHISH Cass/Itasca Counties
The entire month of June and the first couple of weeks in July is what I refer to as easy pickings for walleyes. If you're a walleye angler, this is the time to schedule your vacation and go fishing every day.
"Walleyes begin relating to structure, so they aren't tough to find," Johnson said. "A reef, sandbar or sunken island -- any of this structure will hold fish."
The forage base is still developing, so walleyes appreciate that leech you dangle in front of them.
"Suspended forage hasn't developed in open-water locations yet," Johnson said. "So, walleyes search rockpiles and reefs for minnows, crayfish and small panfish.
"On Winnibigoshish," he continued, "I would set up a live-bait rig with an adjustable snell and allow about 8 feet between the 3/4-ounce sinker and the night crawler harness."
Some of the best structure during the period of easy pickings are reefs and humps near shore, according to Johnson. Some of the bigger walleyes may already be near deeper mid-lake structure, but most fish are still concentrated around shallow bottom contours closer to shore.
As humans search for summertime comfort, especially by using recreational boats and playing water sports, they unwittingly affect fish locations.
I fish the edge of a beach on Lake Minnetonka in early spring, but when kids start swimming there, forget about getting a bite. Not only is it tough to cast around a bunch of swimmers, there's probably no big walleyes there.
"Now's a good time to be fishing the mornings and evenings," Johnson said. "Because from 10 a.m. until suppertime, you'll be dodging skiers and pleasure boaters on most lakes. Or you can pick a small lake that has motor restrictions or few big boats use it."
Lake Ann, south of Howard Lake has a great walleye population in its 375 acres. Because there is no mid-lake structure and a marginal weedline, Johnson trolls crankbaits or drifts and casts.
"I troll," he said, "when I
want to cover lots of water and find aggressive fish. When I find a school of biting walleyes, I mark the spot and cast to it."
Are there any lakes where summer boat traffic is just an unpleasant fact but remains productive for walleyes?
Johnson said Lake Minnetonka is an example of a lake where recreational traffic is not considered when looking for a fishing spot.
"There are other lakes, too -- White Bear, the Whitefish Chain and the Alexandria Chain of lakes -- where there's lots of traffic and angling pressure, but it doesn't influence the walleyes," he said.
Last July, Johnson was shooting video at Lake Minnetonka for his television show.
"We were on a big sunken island between the Arcola Bridge and Big Island," he said. "Boats were blowing by us every few seconds. It felt like I was on a non-stop rodeo ride, yet the fish were hitting night crawlers in 18 feet of water."
Spinner trolling is another useful technique for Minnetonka, but you must find some milfoil-free runs.
"Boat traffic cuts milfoil, then it suspends and you snag it when you're trolling," Johnson said. "But there's always a run on the edge of deep vegetation where you can slow-troll a spinner and a night crawler harness and catch a lot of walleyes. Look for mid-lake structure in Brown's Bay or West Arm for a milfoil-free trolling pass."
LAKE MILLE LACS
Mille Lacs/Aitkin Counties
The suspended bite is a phenomenon that occurs every summer on lakes with decent populations of tullibees.
The forage base -- in this case tullibees -- move to open water and many walleyes follow to be close to their supper.
"This is when open-water trolling heats up on lakes like Mille Lacs and Leech and Cass lakes," he said. "You'll find me setting up trolling runs on Mille Lacs."
Johnson said this is a good time to invite your buddies so there will be more lines. Four is perfect as far as he's concerned.
"Use trolling boards to spread the lines behind the boat and try different lures until you see the fish showing a preference for a particular color or shape," he said.
On a lake like Mille Lacs, Johnson said it's more important to use a lure that can dive down to the school than worry about color, although he admits that shad-shaped bodies seems to out-produce others.
"Lure depth is the No. 1 priority," he said. "Then consider speed, color and shape. One of the biggest mistakes I see anglers make when trolling for open-water suspended walleyes is using crankbaits that need tuning. The lure has to run straight and true or it won't get down to the depth needed. Keep the lure tuned and it will generate some action."
LAKE OF THE WOODS
Roseau/Lake Of The Woods Counties
Dog days begin at the end of July and don't release their grip until September. During this period, the fishing for walleyes is tough. Tough in most places anyway. Anglers, however, still have a chance on Lake of the Woods.
While it seems this species is always in a transition, there are periods during the year when walleyes can be easily profiled and plenty of fish can be caught. It's about timing, but then that's always the situation when it comes to fishing, especially when you're fishing for walleyes.
For more information about Lake of the Woods charters, go online to www.lakeofthewoodsmn.com.
Crow Wing County
Autumn's cooler nights and lower sun have water temperatures dropping and the suspended walleyes return to the shallows to fatten up for the long winter ahead. On lakes that have tullibees, you can count on the walleyes moving shallower because the forage base spawns in the fall on shallow rubble near vegetation and that's where the walleyes will be. It's a good time to be on a lake that doesn't get much fishing pressure and has plenty of tullibees, like Basswood Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
"October is the perfect month for this trip," Johnson said. "Not only are there lots of nice walleyes in 6 to 12 feet of water, but grouse season is open, so you can get in some hunting as well as fishing."
"Dog days are tough because the walleyes are well fed," Johnson explained. "There's forage everywhere and it's the perfect size. Walleyes don't have to work hard for a meal -- they just swim into a school of minnows and pick off enough to keep them full until the dinner bell rings again."
To catch walleyes during dog days, pick a lake far enough north that water temperature will keep the fish's metabolism running but not so warm that the fish becomes lethargic.
"You're trolling during dog days," he said, "and it's all open water in the middle of nowhere. I don't even bring my boat up to Lake of the Woods during that period. I just go out on a charter boat."
Johnson prefers a jig-and-minnow to target Basswood Lake's autumn walleyes.
"You can cast this combination onto shallow rubble bars and drag it back," he said. "Or if the walleyes are on deeper rockpiles, you can vertical jig. When I go up to Basswood to fish for fall walleyes, I don't bring anything but 1/8-ounce jigs and a bucketful of minnows."
Profiling a body of water comes naturally to an aquatic biologist, so Johnson easily devises a program while driving to the lake.
Here's some simple questions.
What stage are the fish in?
Have they finished spawning?
Have they set up summer haunts?
Have they suspended yet?
There are even more transitions and stages. Get to know the species you like to chase and you'll know where to find them at any given time.
Consider that weather is a huge factor in how aggressive a fish is.
Stable weather means a good bite.
A post-cold front is always tough.
Never remain on the water in the presence of thunder and lightning, although some of the best fishing may occur before high pressure pushes out a low pressure front.
Use sonar to find walleyes after they migrate to deeper water.
Many anglers fish structure, but Johnson fishes walleyes. He uses sonar to hold position over structure, but doesn't drop a lure until he sees fish.
For suspended fish: Motor quickly through open water until you spot suspended forage surrounded by walleyes. Work a crankbait or spinner rig around the edges and through the middle until you catch all the biters.
One of Johnson's hard-and-fast rules is always use lively fresh bait when fishing for walleyes. He stores his leeches in a leech locker in his livewell to keep them healthy and active. His night crawlers are always kept in fresh bedding in a cooler, so when he threads one onto a No. 4 hook, the worm is wiggling. When the "crawler" goes limp, it's time to put on a new one. Minnows also must be strong, and active, lively bait catches more fish.
More tips and tactics may be found online at .