Three of Minnesota's best walleye fishermen share the secrets for success this spring -- at home, on the road and on the tournament trail. (May 2009)
Lake Hubert, near Nisswa, is one of pro angler Andy Johnson's "go-to" lakes when he's looking for a place to hide from the cameras. When he's not getting the walleyes to cooperate on the deeper structure, Johnson, who lives in Brainerd, heads into the bulrush and cabbage and gets out the jigs.
Photo by Tim Lesmeister.
Professional fishermen spend the bulk of their lives on the water trying to catch big fish. What amazes me is many of the pros -- including those who make their homes in Minnesota -- actually go fishing in their spare time just because they want to!
Born and raised on the shores of Mission Lake in northern Minnesota and now living in Brainerd, hall-of-fame pro-angler Gary Roach says, "It's what I love to do. When I'm competing in a tournament, well, that's work," he adds, "but when I'm on a lake close to home with no pressure to perform, well, that's just fun."
Mark Courts of Harris is a top competitor among pro walleye anglers, with a championship and many tournament wins to his credit. He echoes Roach's sentiments.
"I'm fortunate to be able to fish for a living, yet I look at fishing as something that gives me great pleasure when I'm just out casually fishing a lake or a river for the pure enjoyment of it," Courts says. "After all, fishing is a form of competition even when you don't have a big purse on the line. It's a competition between you and the walleyes. I always love the challenge of finding the fish and figuring out how to get them to bite."
Adam Johnson is a tournament angler, as well as a television and radio host with a syndicated column that reaches the entire United States. His home base is Brainerd for good reason.
"The area where I live has some of the best multi-species angling for freshwater fish in the world," says Johnson, who is also an aquatic biologist. "It's where walleye fishing techniques were fine-tuned by the Nisswa guides -- the Lindner brothers -- and most walleye anglers have benefited from what was learned in my back yard."
All three anglers admit they have their favorite lakes to compete on and where they tend to perform better. They also admit they have their favorite lakes to launch their boats when they just want to go out for some casual sport and recreation.
"I would have to say Lake Winnibigoshish (Winnie) is one of my favorite lakes for walleyes in Minnesota," Roach reveals. "I can call my old buddy, Capt. Ron (Hunter), and the two of us will spend a day on the humps and reefs catching walleyes and telling stories."
Roach describes Winnie as a classic walleye lake with ample midlake structural elements that support his favorite presentation: the live-bait rig. He even designed a live-bait rig for Northland Tackle with an adjustable snell, known as the Roach Rig. He says it's the perfect presentation for those Winnie walleyes.
"When the walleyes are holding tight to the bottom on those reefs and sunken islands, I will adjust the distance between the weight and the bait to 4 or 5 feet and sit right over the top of them," he says. "A tough bite requires some extra distance between the sinker and hook, and you have to dangle that leech or night crawler in front of their nose. But they will bite if you have some patience."
When Roach's fish finder shows walleyes slightly suspended off the bottom, he anticipates a better bite and covers ground a little faster. He also shortens the distance between the weight and the bait.
"You can get the sinker up off the bottom and pull the leech or 'crawler right through the fish, and they'll hit it because they're hungry," Roach explains. "You don't have to feed these fish any line because they'll have the bait when you set the hook. When those fish are tight to bottom and you have some space between the sinker and the bait, you need to feed them some line after they bite, about 30 seconds will do."
Walleyes In The Woods
When Mark Courts wants to take a break from the stress of competitive angling, he heads up to Minnesota's northern border to one of the biggest walleyes lakes anywhere: Lake of the Woods.
"This lake is one of the most diverse walleyes fisheries there is," Courts points out. "You can fish the big basin with downriggers, lead-core line, jigs, live-bait rigs, and it all works. If the wind is blowing and the big lake is choppy, head into the Rainy River and fish there. You have a lot of options on Lake of the Woods."
Courts says anglers can get intimidated by the sheer size of the Woods fishery and what they believe is their lack of the right gear -- downriggers, for instance. But even those with limited resources still can catch walleyes on Lake of the Woods.
"The average angler can attack those fish without downriggers," Court points out. "I use the Cannons (downriggers) when I go there, but there are other options for anglers that don't have the downriggers. You can use snap weights or lead-core line on those walleyes on the main lake. You can go out to the reefs and rig with leeches or night crawlers or minnows."
Courts says walleye anglers at Lake of the Woods should always consider fishing "The Gap" -- a hotspot, especially in spring and fall, where the Rainy River intersects the lake's main basin.
"It's a great spot," he says, "because walleyes will be funneling in and out, and you intercept them when they're on the move."
Chasing up walleyes in the Rainy River itself is a part of the Lake of the Woods fishing experience, too.
"The river is a great backup -- especially, when it's windy," Courts says, "and you can tuck into the river anytime of year and catch walleyes. In the river, I'm using a jig, anchoring up and jigging the little rockpiles where I see walleyes. An emerald shiner on a Fireball jig is the perfect presentation in the Rainy River. I just anchor up and wait for them to come to me."
Hang On At Lake Hubert
Lake Hubert is one of Johnson's "go-to" lakes, he says, when he's looking for a place to hide from the cameras. Located just southeast of Nisswa, this 1,300-acre body of water has enough structure and walleyes to keep the rod bent and a smile glued to Johnson's face.
"I start out on that saddle on the west side of the lake. It could be considered a point,
" Johnson suggests, "but it drops off quickly on both sides to form the perfect saddle. When I spot some walleyes on the sonar, I'll send down a leech on a Roach Rig and work through them. I might adjust the length between the sinker and hook a few times until I see what distance works the best that day."
Lake Hubert holds plenty of other structure, too.
"On the southeast side of Hubert, there is a nice long point that leads to a great sunken island where you can always find some walleyes," Johnson says. "If I'm not getting them to cooperate on the deeper structure, I'll head into the bulrush and cabbage and get out the jigs. The walleyes in Hubert are known to favor the weeds during low-light periods. A 1/8-ounce jig with a twistertail can put some fish in the livewell."
GETTING GONE WHEN THE BITE IS ON
Roach On The Road
Living in Brainerd, Roach has plenty of lakes surrounding his home, but he's ready at any time to put a few miles on his trailer when he hears of a hot bite -- say Red Lake in Beltrami County, for example.
"When the walleyes start biting on Red Lake, I know it will be fast and furious," Roach says. "Leech Lake is the same. Both of these lakes went through some tough times and some tough fishing due to a lack of fish. Both now have made tremendous comebacks and are five-star fisheries."
Red Lake is little more than a big, shallow bowl of sand and water with no defining characteristics to hold walleyes. At least, that's what it looks like.
"Walleyes on Red go where the food is," Roach says. "In the early- and late-season periods, the boats will stack up at a river mouth, and everyone is setting the hook. During summer, you just toss out the crankbaits and troll until you link up with a school of walleyes."
On the other hand, Leech Lake, near Walker, is loaded with structure, and most, if not all, is pretty productive, according to Roach.
"The points on Leech are always good starting points and those big flats of coontail and cabbage get ignored, but there are always walleyes on the edge of that veg."
Roach uses a Fireball jig tipped with a minnow or leech for both the points and the weedbeds. He recommends long casts and dragging that bait across the bottom to generate bites.
Johnson Jams Out Of Town
When Johnson gets news of a hot bite in the Alexandria region, he's off for the area lakes where, while fishing bass tournaments there some years back, he discovered the lakes were also loaded with walleyes. He now makes it a point to keep tabs on the fishing in the region and takes advantage of it when it heats up.
"Lake Mary is one of the great early- and late-season walleye lakes," Johnson says. "I can drift over the deep vegetation and cast a deep-diving crankbait into the open water and catch walleyes that are suspended right off that coontail and cabbage."
You'll find Johnson hanging around the Alexandria area come midsummer, too, but during hot weather, he usually turns his attention toward the region's chain of lakes. More often than not, he finds himself on Lake Carlos much of the time.
"There are three humps in the middle of that lake that are golden," Johnson says. "Start out early fishing the top regions of the humps and, as the sun gets higher in the sky, keep working deeper."
Johnson recommends a jig-and- leech rig for taking walleyes at Carlos.
"I cast (the rig) during the early and late hours because I'm in shallower water," he says. "But when I get into (water) 15 feet and deeper, I start vertical jigging. I like the vertical presentation because I know that bait is always right in front of the fish I'm marking on the sonar."
WINSOME WINDFALLS OF THE TOURNAMENT TRAIL
Courts Connects The Dots
Windfalls come the way of Minnesota's pro walleye anglers on the tournament trail. Thanks to many of the tournament events they fish, they learn what it takes to catch walleyes on Minnesota's finest fisheries. Not long ago, Courts competed on Otter Tail Lake.
"Now there was a lake with lots of structure, and did we ever catch a lot of walleyes! I find myself going back there quite a bit," Courts admits. "There is so much structure on Otter Tail, I try to just key on the corners and inside turns on those reefs and sunken islands. A jig and a shiner minnow is my favorite tactic on this type of structure, but I'll use a (live-bait) rig there, too. I can catch walleyes on Otter Tail with leeches and night crawlers, but I have found they bite much better on shiners. It's just the nature of that lake."
Courts admits trolling for walleyes on Otter Tail is a tactic that proves sometimes tough to get a bite, but when the walleyes move up onto the flats, the best way to target them, he says, is trolling crankbaits.
"The trick when trolling the Otter Tail flats," he points out, "is you keep the lure close to the bottom. If you're fishing the walleyes in the vegetation in the summer, keep the lure right above the weeds. Weeds are the key on this lake when the weather is hot. You might think the opposite, but I'm telling you to key on the weeds in the heat of summer and use a perch, fire-tiger or shiner pattern on a Flicker Shad crankbait by Berkley."
KEEPING SHARP WHILE IN THE TWIN CITIES
Both Courts and Johnson have found themselves in the Twin Cities for extended periods of time. That doesn't mean, however, that they're not fishing. When in the metro area, Courts and Johnson have both enjoyed walleye fishing on Lake Minnetonka, southwest of Minneapolis-St. Paul.
"They've obviously been stocking Minnetonka, and it's paid off. There seems to be plenty of walleyes in this lake," says Johnson, pointing out the stocking efforts accomplished by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
"We went out and pulled some spinner rigs with bottom bouncers in 18 feet of water on those humps and reefs in the main basin out in front of the Arcola Bridge," Johnson says of his day on the water with Gregg Melstrom of Pike Dreams Guide Service (phone: 612/269-2400). "We caught a load of walleyes there before moving to the big banana reef in Brown's Bay just outside of the mouth of Tanager Lake. . . . I was pretty impressed."
Courts says he also likes trolling along Minnetonka's weedlines with crankbaits.
"The edge of that milfoil and coontail is about 20 feet deep in that lower part of the lake around Big Island," he points out. "On the upper part of the lake the water is a little cloudier, and the weedline is about 14 feet deep."
Courts' secret for Minnetonka is to get out at night, especially in the latter part of the season.
"You can get up on top of those reefs in Brown's Bay and cast the shallower crankbaits and catch loads of big walleyes. I'll troll, too," he adds
, "if it's windy. But when there is just a slight breeze where I can get a nice drift going, I'll cast the tops of those humps."
You see these guys -- Roach, Courts and Johnson -- on television and in your favorite publications. You hear them on the radio, too. Don't be surprised if you run into one of Minnesota's pro walleye anglers on your favorite walleye lake. Like you, after working (spelled f-i-s-h-i-n-g) hard, they need a break, too. Wouldn't you know it: Their respite from a hard day's work is fishing!