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Where Are Our Walleye Experts Going Fishing?

Where Are Our Walleye Experts Going Fishing?

We rounded up a handful of Minnesota's top walleye anglers to get them to share with you a few of their hotspots and some tips for the upcoming season. (May 2007)

Gary Roach (left) and Steve Bissett with a nice walleye caught on an ugly day.
Photo by Tim Lesmeister.

When Steve Bissett began to back the boat toward the landing, Gary Roach stood up from behind the console and started barking orders.

"A little more to the left!" he hollered. "Slow down! This landing isn't that deep!"

Bissett fired back, "This ain't my first rodeo, Roach," as he rolled up the window.

There were a couple of boats full of anglers sitting by the dock waiting for the driver who parked the trailer. They immediately started in with questions when they realized it was "Mr. Walleye" sitting right there with them. Roach, who is always willing to share his expertise, explained his game plan and invited the other anglers to tag along. As we motored out around the breakwall near the landing, another boat joined the convoy and we headed out to a nearby rockpile where we anchored up, cast out some bobber rigs and started catching walleyes.

This is not an uncommon occurrence for the proverbial walleye experts here in Minnesota. Mark Courts, an avid tournament angler who is well known across our state, has often had boats slide up next to him on one of his favorite fishing holes with anglers in need of a little encouragement and some on-the-water advice, which he freely provides. Adam Johnson, a professional angler and aquatic biologist, has a popular radio show in the Twin Cities (Outdoor Talk, 100.3 FM, Sundays 5 to 7 p.m.) where the hottest topic is the weekly GPS coordinate for a hotspot on a particular lake for that period.

"Anglers want to know where we're fishing and how we're catching them," Johnson said. "When we can give them reliable information and they're successful, everyone's happy. Some anglers are pretty secretive about their spots. I figure there are plenty of fish, so everyone should get to enjoy the resource."


So where are our walleye experts going fishing this year? Why do they choose a particular lake at a particular time and use the techniques that they know will be productive?

According to Johnson, there is a formula. He calls it, "Setting Up The Profile" where you look at the stage at which the walleyes are in, be it the spawning period, summer pattern or fall transition, and how this will position the fish. There are other variables such as weather, forage base, water temperature and water clarity that will determine where the fish are holding on a particular body of water.

"For example," Johnson said, "there are a lot of reasons to fish the shallow pothole lakes in the spring and fall, but in the peak of the summer months, fishing can get tough on these lakes. Some lakes are known for their suspended walleyes because they have a forage base that consists of tullibees, which will school up and hold just above the thermocline, and walleyes will set up shop right next to this roaming food shelf and feast during this period."

Some walleye experts are limited to where they fish because their range is restricted to where they guide, but they still choose lakes at certain times because that's where the walleyes are biting. Consider Bill Slaughter, whose livelihood is dictated by his ability to catch fish in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). Slaughter has been directing groups in the BWCAW for over 25 years, and if it is consistent walleye action you're after, you'll follow his recommendations.

"Not all of the lakes are going to be producing fish all of the time," Slaughter said. "You would think that Basswood or Crooked Lake will be hot all summer long, but that's not always true. You keep your finger on the pulse of all of the lakes around you, and you figure out that there are times when one lake is going to be better than another. Sometimes it's the rivers that turn on, and it's always when you least expect it."

To get a feel for where our walleye experts fish, and why, let's look at some specific examples. For instance, Gary Roach always likes to spend the opener on Lake Winnibigoshish.

"I used to have a cabin on this lake," Roach said, "and over the years, it just keeps getting better and better for walleyes. Winni is consistent when it comes to the walleyes from opener through the summer."

Roach said big schools of walleyes will move up onto the sand and rubble points, and he targets them with a jig and minnow during that early-season bite.

"I use a 1/8-ounce Northland Fireball jig in a stand-up head and tip it with a shiner," Roach said. "You want to cast this setup as far as you can right up into the shallow water on top of the point and then let it sink to the bottom. Just drag the jig back, and usually when you hit a dip in the bottom or a little dropoff, the walleyes will pick it up."

If a cold front drives the walleyes into deeper water where they get finicky, Roach will switch tactics and sit over the fish while dangling a leech in front of them on a Roach Rig.

Mark Courts is a versatile angler who is comfortable fishing any presentation, but when the walleyes are preferring a crankbait, he'll make it a point to be there.

"There are two times when anglers should focus on crankbaits," Courts said. "One is when the walleyes are spread out over the structure. The other is when they're suspended. Either situation works for me."

But what about Upper Red Lake? There isn't much in the way of structure there, and the walleyes don't necessarily suspend.

"OK, you got me there," Courts said. "There are always exceptions, and Red is one of them. I've been up on Red a lot since they opened the walleye season back up and these fish do like crankbaits."

Courts recommended covering ground and as much of the water column as possible when searching for Upper Red Lake walleyes, which means using trolling boards to spread out the baits and using lures that dive to different depths.

"Because you can only use one rod per person here in Minnesota, it pays to have a couple of buddies in the boat so you can get out a few rods," Courts said. "Run one out each side with a trolling board and long-line one."

Through the summer, according to Courts, the walleyes on Red will spread out over the slowly tapering sand bottom, and you just have to search them out. "But there are a lot of walleyes in Red,

" he said, "so you will find fish."

Adam Johnson has been burning up plenty of hours on Lake of the Woods and the Rainy River because, "it's about as diverse a fishery as you can get," he said.

"In the spring, the river is a superhighway for walleyes that are prone to use this resource for spawning," Johnson explained. "Throughout the early season, there will be a lot of walleyes concentrated in the river, and you can sit right over them with a jig and catch some very nice fish."

During the summer months, the fishery favors the open-water trollers when it comes to the main basin of the lake.

"I don't even haul my boat up," said Johnson, who prefers to use the local guides who are geared toward this type of fishing. "The guides out of Sportsman's Lodge, where I set up my base of operations, have it all. Big boats rigged with downriggers and all the right trolling rods with lures that have a proven track record on this lake. These guys also know where the fish are because they're on the water every day following those huge schools of suspended walleyes. It saves a lot of time when you hire a guide."

"The Mississippi is a busy place from the middle of March until opener," Courts said, "but after opening day, those fishermen head to the lakes, and the river pressure drops 80 to 90 percent. The funny thing is, that river is still providing some of the best walleye fishing in the state."

To illustrate how an expert's determination pays off in success, we need to look at a trip Bill Slaughter and I took into the BWCAW that was cut short. Slaughter and I took an autumn trip into Basswood Lake where the fall walleye fishing is always tremendous. Well, almost always. We fished all morning and into the afternoon without a bite, and in all the best spots. About 2 p.m., Slaughter said, "Let's go, we can still salvage this trip."

We steamed over the portages and got back to the landing on Fall Lake with enough time to hightail it over to Shagawa Lake and get in an hour-and-a-half of fishing time. We caught walleyes there using the same techniques, on the same type of structure, as we were using on Basswood. You can bet we were on Shagawa the next day.

"It's funny how that works," Slaughter said. "I've been on Fall Lake one day catching walleyes at the falls that go into Newton, and the next day they're not there. Then head over to the Kawishiwi River and you find fish biting there. You never want to get locked into one lake, because when conditions cause the fish to move or quit biting in one spot, there are others that will be going strong."

While it seems the experts tend to favor the big bodies of water for their ability to consistently produce quality walleye fishing, these pros will admit that a day on a small lake chasing walleyes where the structure may be limited or the fish are stocked is always part of their open-water game plan.

"There's a little stretch of the Kawishiwi River that's just north of Highway 1 that gets bypassed by most of the campers because it's right where the portage is," Slaughter said. "People load their canoes and take off for a campsite and don't even try to wet a line right there where all those walleyes are lying in the current."

Slaughter will portage a canoe to this spot and paddle a few hundred yards upstream and drift back down while vertical jigging a minnow over the rocky bottom, and he'll catch three or four walleyes on every pass.

"There are a lot of these spots on the lakes and rivers up here where they're just too close to the portages to generate any attention," Slaughter said. "That falls from Newton into Basswood is another good spot, and near the landing to Lake One has some great fishing near it, but it never gets fished."

Johnson said with a little research you can find those small, productive lakes that don't get much serious pressure.

"Just visit the DNR's Web site and use the Lakefinder option to check the lake reports," Johnson said. "There are some lakes I like to fish in the Alexandria region that meet my criteria, like Mary, Amelia, Andrew and Carlos. These are lakes with high numbers of walleyes, and they fish great during those peak summer months."

These lakes are typically well developed with residential houses, as well as resort facilities.

"This makes them prime candidates for night-fishing," Johnson said. "All that boat traffic from the pleasure craft will slow down the bite in the daytime, but at night, you have the lakes all to yourself."

Johnson used Lake Mary as an example.

"The coontail on the main basin grows out into 15 feet of water," he said. "I'll drift this edge and cast a deep-diving crankbait and run it parallel with the vegetation. Those walleyes move up to this edge after dark and they really crush those crankbaits. This tactic works well on most of the lakes in this region."

Courts has a bias toward the Mississippi River when he can't be on one of Minnesota's big lakes.

"The Mississippi is a busy place from the middle of March until opener," Courts said, "but after opening day, those fishermen head to the lakes, and the river pressure drops 80 to 90 percent. The funny thing is, that river is still providing some of the best walleye fishing in the state."

Courts said the river will tell you where the fish are, based on the rising and falling water levels.

"After a rain when that river is rising, you can bet those walleyes will be moving to the shoreline cover," Courts said. "Anywhere there is some downed timber, a wing dam, some riprap, an eddy going into a backwater area -- this is where those fish are when the river is rising.

"When the water levels are dropping," he continued, "those walleyes will move out to the channel areas. This is when I'm working the bottom cuts on a turn or the front side of a dropoff or wing dam. The back sides of mid-river islands are great when the water is dropping."

Courts said the angler who masters the typical river techniques, such as three-way swivel rigging and vertical jigging, will load up on walleyes through the season.

Roach has some favorite small lakes. He calls them, "my babies," and because he's been fishing these lakes around the Brainerd region for the past 50 years, he knows every little bump and hole that holds walleyes.

"Just look at Upper Hay Lake," Roach said. "This lake gets stocked with a lot of walleyes, and there is some great structure there for a lake that's only 500 acres. These lakes are all over the state and they're great places to go because there are walleyes all over those humps."

Roach has his own special bait presentation for these smaller bodies of water. It's called, of course, the Roach Rig.

"It's an adjustable live-bait rig," Roach explai

ned, "and it's the way 80 percent of the walleyes in Minnesota are caught, because it works so well."

Roach said to make sure you have a good supply of both leeches and night crawlers on hand when fishing one of his "babies."

"These smaller lakes are full of panfish and they'll eat the bait up, but you'll catch plenty of walleyes between those bluegill and perch bites," he said.

It's all about getting into the zone before you drop the bait, according to Roach.

"Those humps and saddles aren't that big, so I don't even drop a bait until I know I'm over fish," Roach said. "I motor around the edges of that structure with one eye glued to the sonar, and when I spot some fish below, I send down a leech. If a panfish pops the bait, I move a little farther looking for walleyes. When I hook into the one I want, I sit on that spot and catch some more. You can waste a lot of bait dragging through schools of panfish while trying to find the walleyes."

If there was one topic all of the experts agreed on, it was that if what you're doing is not working, try something else. And if every trick in your bag strikes out, move.

"I've been on Mille Lacs," Courts said, "when the wind was blowing, boat control was tough and we couldn't get the walleyes to go on anything, even bobber rigs. We pulled the boat out and headed to a nearby lake and caught lots of fish. I won't give up until I'm on my way home."

Roach doesn't give up easily either.

"There've been plenty of times for me where the third lake was the charm," Roach said. "I'm lucky that I live near so many good walleye lakes, but here in Minnesota, you can hardly throw a rock and not have it land in a good walleye lake."

See you all at the boat landing!

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