Minnesota's Summer Classic Walleyes
September 30, 2010
If you can't catch walleyes during the summer, then you're just fishing the wrong lake. These experts plan on hitting home runs on these waters! (July 2006)
"You're not going to find a lot of different-sized walleyes getting caught in Prior," Matt Pretzel said. "It seems like they are all big."
Photo by Tim Lesmeister
When asked to define a classic walleye lake, professional angler Matt Pretzel stated it's where you find large numbers of walleyes on textbook-perfect walleye structure.
"Some of the southern potholes are great walleye lakes, but they don't fit the criteria for classic status because they have limited structure," Pretzel said. "Most of the lakes in central Minnesota actually fall more into the realm of bass/panfish lakes than classic walleye lakes."
Gary Roach, a well-known touring walleye pro, added that the classic walleye lakes in Minnesota have a reputation for providing productive walleye fishing while utilizing many of the techniques that have proved their effectiveness.
"On a classic walleye lake, you can live-bait rig the dropoffs, cast jigs to the points, troll crankbaits over the rocks and drag spinner rigs around the reefs and sunken islands -- all on the same lake, of course," Roach said.
Fisheries biologist and a top touring pro Scott Fairbairn defined a classic walleye lake as one where walleyes can use five categories of structure.
"The root of all classic walleye structure that walleyes relate to are points, breaklines, flats, open water and current," Fairbairn said, although he does admit that his definition of structure is unique in that he includes open water and current. "Current and open water take a little stretch, I admit that, but each can create an area that fish migrate to. Open water is appealing to baitfish, and this adds to the structure of open water to attract walleyes. Current creates seams that act as breaklines, and walleyes will relate to this just like they will a dropoff or point.
"All walleye structure is a combination of one of those things," Fairbairn continued. "For example, if you ask my Grandpa Fairbairn what is classic walleye structure, he'll say an offshore rock hump. When I think about that, an offshore rock hump is nothing more than a midlake flat with a breakline around it. If it's a good offshore hump, it has a point somewhere on it that creates that spot on the spot. It may sit in the river and then there will be current seams that get created around it. Fish using that rockpile at some point may venture out to the open water, but they are still relating to the physical structure. Drop it all into one lake and you have a classic walleye lake."
Surprisingly, there are not as many classic walleye lakes in Minnesota as one would expect. The southern potholes are teeming with walleyes, but they are shallow, and the bottoms of many of these lakes are relatively featureless. The central band of lakes tends to provide better habitat for bass and panfish. Lakes up north are typically considered the prime candidates for classic status, but many are too small to support all the necessary deep water and diverse structure to fall into the classic category.
But still, there are many lakes in Minnesota, which means there are enough classic walleye lakes for anglers who desire this experience to have it close at hand. Try hitting a homer this summer on one of these nine lakes.
"There is so much structure on this lake that it's tough to pick a starting point," Roach said. Pelican in Crow Wing County is one of Roach's favorite walleye lakes just because of the challenge of all that structure. "Fortunately, there are a lot of walleyes in Pelican, so there are probably some fish on most of the humps and points, but you still have to strain a spot well before moving on. Anglers go wrong on Pelican by trying to do too much in too short a time."
Roach's July technique on Pelican has him checking out the deeper water around the points, saddles and sunken islands with his sonar.
"I'll be looking in 22 to 28 feet of water and I'm not even dropping a bait until I spot some fish," Roach said. "When I do mark some fish on the sonar, I'll send down a leech on a Roach Rig and follow the contour where those walleyes are."
Roach encourages anglers to decipher the pattern since walleyes throughout the lake are going to be following the same recipe in their summer mode.
"If you're finding walleyes on the tips of points in 25 feet on a sand/rubble bottom, there will be another 10 spots like that on Pelican," Roach said, "and there will likely be walleyes on those other spots, too.
Lake Waconia is the metro area's classic walleye lake. It has been described as a mini Mille Lacs because there are mudflats, reefs and rubble/sand transition areas, and the lake has a good population of walleyes in many size ranges. This is the lake Matt Pretzel grew up on chasing walleyes, pike and bass.
"The bass, northern pike and muskies take over the vegetation, which pushes the walleyes out into the deeper open water," explained Pretzel about the July bite. "You can see fish on your sonar in 18 to 25 feet of water when they're up off the bottom, but on Waconia the walleyes will often lie right in a subtle dip in the bottom and you can't spot them."
Pretzel discovered Waconia's walleyes while dragging around live-bait rigs in his younger years, but now he can bolster the evidence of this phenomenon with the use of an underwater viewing camera.
"You can actually note this subtle bottom contour change on your sonar, and I think it's always a good idea to send down a live-bait rig with a leech whether you see fish or not," Pretzel said. "If you have an underwater camera, you can send it down just to see how tight these fish are to the bottom."
When the walleyes are lying in these dips, you don't need a lot of distance between the weight and the bait. You also don't want a floater near the hook. Just let the weight of a small hook keep the bait near the bottom and use a 1/2- to 3/4-ounce walking sinker so you're not stirring up the bottom.
"July walleye fishing on Waconia means you'll find tightly packed schools of fish," Pretzel said, "so once you're on them, mark the spot and hang in there for a while."
Lake Vermilion may not get as much press as the oft-touted classics around Brainerd or Walker, but the diverse structure of this lake coupled with the hefty numbers of walleyes put Vermilion firmly in the "classic" designation.
"On this lake you will often find me fishing bars that are extending off islands," Fai
rbairn said. "There are also some great points on this lake. The deeper structure is where I look for walleyes in July, even though I know there are some fish holding up near the vegetation. By July, I know the classic walleye structure is going to be producing fish, so that's where you'll find me."
For classic structure, Fairbairn uses a classic technique.
"Vermilion is a live-bait rig lake," he said. "You pull up to an offshore hump, cruise over it with your sonar to see if there is anything there. If you spot some fish, catch them with a Roach Rig. You can also use a jig, too, in deeper water with a vertical presentation, but I prefer the rig."
As is typical with pro walleye anglers, they seldom drop a bait into the water until they spot some walleyes on the sonar. Fairbairn thinks this is important on Vermilion where the fish tend to stay a foot or two off the structure.
"The sonar is an effective tool from 15 feet and deeper," Fairbairn said. "You won't see much in water shallower than 15 feet."
Pretzel had the most difficult assignment. He was to keep all his nominations for classic walleye lakes limited to the metro area. In fact, he found it much easier than you would guess. His second pick was Prior Lake, which has shown tremendous promise for quality walleye fishing in the past five years.
"You're not going to find a lot of different-sized walleyes getting caught in Prior," Pretzel said. "It seems like they are all big."
Pretzel described the structure that is attractive to Prior Lake walleyes as points, inside turns in deeper water, and the saddle on the north end of the upper basin.
"The walleyes in Prior act like walleyes, unlike in some lakes where they're stocked and you can't find them anywhere but in the weeds," Pretzel said. "You want to use a live-bait rig in water from 19 to 26 feet deep and fish the deepest edges of the structure."
A good example of the necessity to stay on the deep edges on this lake is defined by Pretzel's description of his favorite hump.
"In the lower basin, there's a rock hump," he said, "with deep water on both sides. Bass fishermen will motor up to the hump and burn crankbaits over the top. I'll work the base of the same hump and catch walleyes."
When it comes right down to it, Mille Lacs is the model for all other classics.
"When I was guiding in the early days," Roach said, "I used to spend a lot of time on Mille Lacs because that's where everyone wanted to go. It was like a dream fulfilled to go to Mille Lacs and catch walleyes. The lake developed a reputation and all other lakes were judged by the standards that were set on Mille Lacs."
Roach's No. 1 tip for Mille Lacs anglers is to steer clear of the crowds.
"There is so much structure and so many fish in Mille Lacs," he said, "you can always find your own fish. The trick is to get them to bite."
Roach recommended extending the distance between the weight and the bait on your Roach Rig up to 8 feet if necessary.
"One thing about Mille Lacs walleyes is that they've seen it all," Roach said, "and I've discovered when fishing heavily pressured walleyes, you can increase the number of bites by putting some space between that sinker and hook."
Judging by the amount of angling hours on Mille Lacs, it may just be the most popular lake in our state. Even with the heavy fishing pressure, it's a body of water that continues to produce plenty of walleyes on a classic structural setting.
LAKE OF THE WOODS
There is little doubt that the biggest lake in Minnesota is Lake of the Woods. It is also a classic walleye lake in every sense.
"There are a couple of patterns that prove effective in this classic walleye lake in July," Fairbairn said. "There is the downrigger presentation, and the live-bait rig and leech. For the most part, all the charter boats up there are trolling with downriggers in July. There may be other systems that let you get that lure down into 30 feet, but downriggers are the most effective way to do this on Lake of the Woods.
"At the same time the charters are targeting those basin fish, there are walleyes on the reefs that rim the big basin in Minnesota," Fairbairn continued. "Following the basin around the rim of the lake, there are some classic walleye reefs with some big boulders that come out of 30 feet of water and top out at 20 feet. There are a lot of walleyes that hold on those reefs, and the two primary patterns to fish them are with a Roach Rig and a leech cruising around the edge, or if there is some wind, you anchor and pitch out a slip-bobber."
Roach joked about Gull Lake, saying there is a canyon worn into the bottom in 17 to 19 feet of water from the guides in the area dragging Roach Rigs at that depth. Those walking sinkers dug a deep groove on this popular depth region. But even with the heavy pressure, Gull still remains a productive "classic" walleye lake.
"The fish may not be as big as we used to see on a regular basis on Gull," Roach said, "but there are still plenty of them, and they still love leeches."
Roach said his trick now to get those Gull Lake walleyes interested in his bait is to add a small spinner to his bait rig just above the hook. That extra attraction will generate a look and that usually triggers the bite.
The first MWC walleye championship was held on Minnetonka, and the results left a lot to be desired, but that was 20 years ago and Minnetonka has worked hard to enter the realm of classic walleye lakes. Of course, much of this is due to the healthy stocking of walleyes that are transfused each year into the lake. On any given weekend in July, the reefs and points will be covered with walleye boats, and most of them are happy with the walleye fishing results.
"The weedline can be 19 to 20 feet deep on Minnetonka," Pretzel said, "so the walleye fishing on this lake is a combination of bottom transition from rocks to weeds or sand to weeds or muck to weeds. Walleyes love these transitions."
Pretzel said the best way to catch Minnetonka walleyes is to incorporate a bottom-bouncer with a 24-inch leader with a spinner.
"I can slow-troll this along that transition line with my bow-mounted motor," he said, "which gives me the precision I need to stay right on that edge."
As far as Fairbairn is concerned, Lake Pepin fits all the criteria of classic, and then some.
"This lake has current," he said, noting that it is formed by a wide spot in the Mississippi River. "It may not be a factor in July because most
of the current is moving slowly. I call this the low-pool time of year. Unless we get some heavy rains, the current is a minor factor in walleye placement on this lake."
According to Fairbairn, two patterns emerge here in July. One is a crankbait trolling pattern on the breakline that rims the entire edge of the lake. There are some sharp turns and points on the breaklines, which have walleyes cruising along them. These breaks are the key on the trolling bite. The second pattern that avails itself is casting the shoreline with jigs and soft plastics or crankbaits. You cast right up to the shoreline boulders, hit the rock, the lure falls into the water, you give it a few cranks and many times those walleyes are right there.
"That is a curious thing about Lake Pepin," Fairbairn said, "there is always a shallow bite. The walleyes just won't go that deep even though you have water in this lake at 45 feet. The large majority of the fish in this lake spend much of their summer in water less than 15 feet deep, and I've found them in mid-July in just a couple of feet of water."
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These lakes are good models when searching for a classic walleye water in Minnesota. Otter Tail County has some truly classic lakes, and there are some gems north of Grand Rapids and near Alexandria.
Roach described it best: "A classic is great year after year, often getting better with time."
Now that's a classic defining a classic!
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