With more than 250 million walleyes stocked in waters across our state each year, there is an overwhelming abundance of walleye angling opportunity throughout Minnesota. (April 2010)
Minnesota's northern tier of lakes tends to receive the most attention as "walleye factories," but plenty of opportunities exist in southern and central waters.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
Each year in Minnesota, there are approximately 30 million pounds of walleyes caught by anglers for consumption. That sounds like a lot, but it is only 10 pounds per acre of fishable water. On top of that, there are well over a million fishing licenses sold in the state each year. So, that's only about 30 pounds of walleyes per angler per year. It doesn't sound like so much when you break it down.
To keep this circle connected, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources stocks well over 250 million walleyes per year in thousands of lakes. When you consider that only about a third of the licensed anglers are specifically fishing for walleyes, it becomes clear that the anglers pursuing walleyes actually do have a wealth of outstanding fisheries in the state. Odds are good someone chasing walleyes on a decent walleye lake has the potential to do quite well.
So what defines a decent walleye lake? In Minnesota, that is a good question. In the southern portion of the state, dozens of lakes have featureless bottoms and a shallow water column. Sporting little vegetation because of the lack of decent water visibility, these lakes are often referred to as prairie pothole lakes and if it wasn't for the aeration systems that were installed into these lakes by local lake associations, all that would live there would be carp, bullheads and fathead minnows. Both stocking by the MDNR and natural reproduction -- yes, walleyes in those potholes reproduce -- ensures there are loads of walleyes for anglers in this prairie pothole region of the state.
In the central band that cuts east to west, the lakes are deeper, have better visibility and lots of vegetation. These lakes are more prone to producing big bass and pike, but stocking will maintain a decent walleye population. Since walleyes will hit just about anything a bass or pike will, anglers fishing the weedy cover will often discover a walleye or two on the end of their line. It can take a while for anglers to figure out where the walleyes are on the central lakes, but once those walleye sanctuaries are found, those hotspots stay hot for many years.
In the northern portion of the state, you have your walleye factories, like Leech Lake, Winnibigoshish, Cass, Lake of the Woods. These are textbook walleye lakes with big pieces of mid-lake structure and so much natural recruitment the MDNR gets many of their eggs for stocking from them.
As well as the big water, the northern section of the state has loads of deep, clear, rock- and sand-bottomed lakes that are considered the perfect places to find and catch walleyes. Lakes like Bemidji, Ten Mile, Detroit Lake, Bowstring and Vermilion are just a few of the premier northern lakes where walleyes are found in numbers that give anglers a good chance, in surroundings that make fishermen feel like they are in walleye heaven.
Did we mention the boundary waters? A bunch of lakes in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness get very little fishing pressure because of the permit process to get on a lake there. The walleyes are natural there, and the fishing is remarkable. Some of the lakes in the BWCAW are categorized as eutrophic, which means not very good for walleyes. These crystal-clear lakes don't have much for forage or cover, so lake trout do better. Do your homework if you plan on going to the BWCAW in search of walleyes, and you'll discover for every lake that doesn't produce walleyes there are 10 that are great walleye lakes.
So how will 2010 pan out for walleye anglers in the great walleye-fishing state of Minnesota? According to Brian Schultz, MDNR area fisheries supervisor in Windom, the southern lakes should provide great fishing this year. "Our lakes will do very well down here," he said. "It has a lot to do with the fertility of the water and the abundance of forage in these lakes."
One thing anglers should know about fishing the lakes in the prairie pothole region is that some periods of the year are better than others.
"The lakes in the southern region of the state tend to fish better in the spring and fall," said Schultz. "Down here, there is a huge forage base. When everything that has spawned out in the spring gets bigger, those walleyes have ample food. Plus, the water temperatures are a lot warmer down here and that slows fishing down, especially in our lakes that have algae blooms and poorer water clarity."
But when the bite is hot in the prairie pothole lakes, it is smoking, sometimes blazing hot.
"We get really good bites going down here," said Schultz. "When it happens, it can result in heavy fishing pressure on those hot lakes. As an example, Round Lake is one where we have high gill net catches of walleyes, and when those fish started biting last summer, there was a lot of pressure on that lake, but people were catching a lot of fish. When they're biting, it seems like just about anybody can catch fish."
Because the prairie pothole lakes are devoid of cover and structure, techniques must be utilized that cover water and provide some attraction the walleyes can key on. My No. 1 presentation is a 3/4-ounce bell sinker as a dropper on a three-way swivel. The leader from the swivel is an 8-foot-long piece of fluorocarbon line. To the end of the leader is a night crawler spinner harness with a No. 5 Colorado spinner blade. I troll this rig behind the boat using the electric trolling motor at about 2 to 3 miles per hour.
Some anglers like to troll crankbaits and others will soak bait below a bobber on the potholes. When the fish are biting, another great technique is to cast a 1/8-ounce jig tipped with a chartreuse twistertail.
One of the big advantages to growing lots of walleyes in the southern lakes is there aren't many pike in those lakes. Such is not the case in the central band of the state, where the lakes are much more conducive to bass and northern pike than walleyes. The key to having a decent walleye fishery in the central lane is to try to maintain a balance through stocking and some special regulations. It is working.
"Pike are both competitors and predators," said Dean Beck, MDNR area fisheries supervisor in the Glenwood region. "I can show you numbers that show an inverse relationship between walleyes and pike."
Fortunately, the pike numbers are retreating after see
ing big gains in the '90s because of high water conditions. According to Beck, "In the last eight years, things have stabilized, and we're seeing northern pike numbers dropping and we're seeing more survival for walleyes and yellow perch numbers improving. So all told, there is a better balanced fishery, the walleyes are more abundant and the growth rates are better."
While stocking does play a part in keeping some lakes' walleye populations robust, Beck credits the natural recruitment for the difference between decent or great fishing. "We did go through a dry spell some years back," said Beck. "Whether it be the weather patterns or what, the lakes that rely heavily on natural reproduction just couldn't produce a decent year-class. We would stock, but on the larger lakes it doesn't replace what happens naturally. It helps, but to have great fishing you need to be producing some walleyes in that system."
In the past five years, the walleye fishing in the central band has been outstanding. Lakes from Chisago to Alexandria have been kicking out walleyes in high numbers. On the lake in my back yard, Minnetonka, the walleye fishing has never been better.
Techniques for walleyes in these bass/panfish-style lakes consist of a hybrid approach. Walleyes will use vegetation for cover, but they also will relate to deeper structure in the warmer summer months.
Walleye anglers know that a jig and minnow is a great technique for walleyes. On lakes in the central portion of the state, this means incorporating jigs with weed guards. Kolt Ringer, a metro-area fishing guide, refers to his jigging technique as "bassin' for walleyes."
According to Ringer, "In lakes where there is a lot of vegetation, walleyes will relate to this cover all summer long. A weedless jig tipped with a minnow or a plastic grub body pitched into the cover like you would if you were bass fishing will catch you plenty of walleyes. Just use a jig that is designed for walleyes. Don't use a heavy bass jig."
Ringer's secret to finding walleyes in the central band of lakes is to remember there is current, even in lakes. "If the lake has an inlet and an outlet, there will be some current, and walleyes like current," said Ringer. "Anywhere there is a channel that narrows there will be current. Even the wind can create some current on a piece of mid-lake structure, which will position walleyes on it. Not enough anglers consider current in a lake. It's there, the walleyes know it and they use it."
When it comes to the lakes in the northern part of the state, it's tough to define a recent period when the walleye fishing wasn't great. What is interesting is that it seems to actually be getting better.
Leech Lake had some downtime not that long ago, but a huge stocking effort with some predator (cormorant) removal has brought that fishery to its peak once again.
Lake Winnibigoshish has been consistently finding itself in the top 10 lists for great walleye fishing the past 10 years, and Lake of the Woods has long held the top spot on that list. So how do you make a great situation better? In the case of the walleye lakes up north, protect the breeders with special regulations.
"I think these regulations have had a lot to do with the good fishing around here," said Chris Kavanaugh, MDNR area fisheries supervisor out of Grand Rapids. "We're recycling a lot of fish, and that means better recruitment. There are still some years where we get a poor year-class because of environmental factors. Overall though, our fisheries are holding up very well, and the regulations have had a lot to do with that."
Typically, the special regulations for walleyes protect fish from harvest that are in the 17- to 26-inch range. One fish over 26 inches is usually granted. What this does is keep those prime breeding females in the system. While other factors could be included in the equation that produces high-quality walleye fishing, the special regulations are high up there when it comes to success. With the right weather conditions, when you have a good population of older walleyes you get some phenomenal year-classes.
"While there are some lakes that respond very well to an increase in stocking," said Kavanaugh, "we have a number of the lakes where the fishing has improved because of how great the year-classes of walleyes developed. We have had some great year-classes of natural reproduction, especially in 2004, 2005 and 2006. Pike abundance also seems to be on the low side area-wise. In part because of the generally lower-than-average water levels, spawning habitat has been somewhat limited for pike."
The beauty of these up-north walleye lakes is the ability to use the textbook walleye techniques. There's nothing more enjoyable than backtrolling along the edge of Raven's Point on Lake Winnibigoshish dragging a live-bait rig tipped with a jumbo leech.
If there is one anomaly to these lakes up north, it's the trolling factor on Lake of the Woods. During the hot summer months, the charter captains put away the typical walleye gear and get out the downriggers and crankbaits. Walleyes in the main basin of Lake of the Woods school up in tight packs and roam the open water, suspended in pods as they chase the forage hovering in the water column. It looks like one of the Great Lakes salmon fleets, but it's Lake of the Woods and they're chasing walleyes.
Anglers who chase walleyes in the BWCAW can get become single focused when it comes to technique. Just ask Bill Slaughter from Northwoods Guiding Service his favorite presentation. "It's the jig and minnow," he states emphatically. "I cast crankbaits too, but 90 percent of the time I'm vertical jigging a minnow."
From the discussions with the MDNR biologists and anglers in general, we seem to be in a peak period for walleye fishing in Minnesota. No one factor can be attributed to this situation, but a combination of good weather, special regulations and high walleye recruitment has created an environment that is good for the angler. Kind of like a statewide, long-lasting, hot bite.