We have about six or seven months of open-water walleye fishing ahead of us. Maybe it's time for you to expand your horizons this season.
By Tim Lesmeister
The walleye fishing in Minnesota has never been better.
Increased stocking levels and creative slot limits have built solid populations of walleyes in lakes that were considered marginal not that long ago. One walleye over 24 inches per angler in the daily bag limit is a statewide regulation and is a boon on lakes that don't have more-restrictive special regulations. In many lakes that could be adversely affected by angling pressure, slot limits restrict what an angler can keep and what he must release.
It's not at all uncommon anymore to be discussing a recent fishing trip with someone and the person asks two questions instead of one. The first question will be about how many walleyes were caught. The second question will be about how many were keepable. Not everyone loves the idea of catching 25 to 30 walleyes and having to release them all because they didn't fall into the slot, but nobody complains about the great fishing.
It's becoming a fact of life. Angling pressure creates low numbers of fish and generates complaints. It's impossible to maintain the fishery that is required by the anglers utilizing that body of water if they are keeping everything they catch. Restrictive limits are set up to create a higher population of fish, and now some anglers are complaining that the fishing is right where they want it, but they sure would like to keep a few more walleyes.
Dan Dejaghere uses creek chubs as his go-to bait on Leech Lake. Photo by Tim Lesmeister
Sorry, folks. You can't have your cake and eat it, too. Just enjoy the outstanding fishing potential that has been created by the special regulations and take a lot of film along on those walleye excursions. Sharpen up your panfish skills and keep a few big bluegills and crappies for the dinner table. They taste really good, and there aren't many lakes that have panfish restrictions. Yet.
For 2003, walleye anglers need to step up to the plate and expand their horizons.
"It's the walleye fisherman rut," says Dan Dejaeghere, an avid tournament angler who scours the walleye waters around Walker, as well as the rest of the northwoods region of Minnesota. "Walleye fishermen have settled into a pattern where they seem content to drag around a live-bait rig with a leech, and if they catch fish, great. If they don't, they figure the walleyes just weren't biting. This approach is too limiting."
Dejaeghere doesn't deny that he enjoys live-bait rigging and running a bottom bouncer rig with a spinner setup, but he states emphatically that there is more to walleye fishing than a leech and a rig.
"I really like to go after the bigger walleyes with a decent-sized chub minnow on a live-bait rig," he says. "You don't get as many bites as you might with a leech or a night crawler, but the fish you catch are always real nice."
Trolling for suspended walleyes is another technique that Dejaeghere likes to employ in his game plan when he is working deep, clear lakes where the walleyes suspend.
Let's take a look at some of the lakes that Dejaeghere tests his skills on, as well as a few of my favorites.
BIG SAND LAKE Big Sand is one of Dejaeghere's favorites for big walleyes all season long. This 1,600-acre lake just northeast of Park Rapids is deep and clear and, according to Dejaeghere, is the best lake in the state when it comes to a lot of big walleyes. Special regulations exist on Big Sand. An angler must release all fish between 18 and 26 inches long, and only one walleye over 26 inches can be included in what is kept. These restrictions create a load of big walleyes.
"It's what I call a multi-structured lake," explained Dejaeghere. "There are shallow rock flats that lead to sharp dropoffs. There are numerous sunken islands in the middle as well as sandbars, points and reefs."
Dejaeghere begins the season working the top lips of the breaks on the spawning areas on the east and north sides of the lake, as well as some rubble shoreline regions on the south end.
"What's interesting about Big Sand," said Dejaeghere, "is that after the walleyes move into their summer patterns, the big ones love to suspend. It's that evening-into-dark period and you troll crankbaits to catch them."
When the heat of summer sets in, Dejaeghere recommends searching for those suspended walleyes right in the center of the lake over the 80- to 120-foot holes.
"I try to get a few buddies in the boat with me so I can get a few deep-divers out on trolling boards," said Dejaeghere. "I keep a couple of lures in the 20-foot zone and a couple in the 12-foot zone. I've caught a lot of walleyes by trolling these suspended fish over the years on Big Sand, and there have been a lot of nice ones."
CHISAGO LAKE I visited Chisago Lake a few years back with a bass fishing buddy of mine. Danny Suggs is a phenomenal bass angler and he can catch largemouths or smallmouths whether they're shallow, deep or anywhere in between.
We started out shallow with no luck and worked our way into the deeper water, transitioning from spinnerbaits to jigs to crankbaits. In 21 feet of water over the tip of a point we hit the mother lode - walleyes, and a lot of them.
I did a little research on Chisago Lake at Long's Sporting Goods in Lindstrom and discovered that Chisago is in fact a quality walleye fishery. The only special regulations on the lake are related to the largemouth bass. The deeper basin is where the walleyes hang out. There's not a lot of structure in the lake, so count on the walleyes keying on little bottom impressions and bunching up near schools of minnows in deeper water.
It would seem that trolling crankbaits would be a good approach on Chisago, but that is an early morning and evening tactic only. Chasing walleyes in the day requires a bottom bouncer and spinner rig with a night crawler harness or leech dangling off the hook. This is the best way to cover water and generate bites.
TEN MILE LAKE Here's another favorite of Dejaeghere. Ten Mile Lake in Cass County is one of those deep, clear lakes that are loaded with walleyes that can come to the boat if the angler just understands the tricks to use to take them.
"The key is the smaller ciscoes that create the forage
base for the suspended walleyes," said Dejaeghere. "There are not a lot of lakes in Minnesota that have this condition. Those that do are prime candidates for trolling for big, suspended walleyes."
Dejaeghere says that the hotter and calmer the weather, the better the suspended bite gets.
"It's those sunbather days that hit 80 to 90 degrees that I like," he said. "It's the worst day you would pick to do 'regular' walleye fishing. This pattern sets up from evening into dark."
Dejaeghere has had his best luck on Ten Mile on the full-moon nights. It not only allows him to stay out a bit longer after the sun goes down, but he firmly believes that the bigger fish are roaming shallower for those ciscoes and feeding longer. In our conversation, he recalled one night on Ten Mile during which trolling deep-diving crankbaits resulted in a dozen walleyes, and none were under 5 pounds.
"There's not a lot of finesse in this approach," he said. "Put the crankbaits out over deep water and reel in the walleyes when the rod starts bucking."
FLORIDA LAKE I always love the look on friends' faces when I tell them I'm going to Florida to catch some walleyes. Seems like a long way, and are there really any walleyes down there?
Florida Lake is just west of Spicer and is only 674 acres. If you do the research you will discover there are not a lot of lakes this small in Minnesota that are capable of cranking out the walleyes like Florida. The DNR does a great job of stocking the lake, and with all the great lakes in Kandiyohi County, Florida Lake doesn't get pounded by anglers like it would if it were sitting out by itself.
Florida Lake is not a classic walleye lake like the better-known walleye factories. The lake is not only small, but there is little in the way of structure. It's a bowl, and the walleyes could be anywhere from chasing perch over the muck in 20 feet of water to being right up in the vegetation with the pike and bass.
The plethora of panfish makes it nearly impossible to work a night crawler or leech on a live-bait rig, which means a small sucker minnow is the ticket. On a long, small-spinnered snell worked into a school of fish found on the sonar, walleyes come real easy. Sometimes to find them a faster approach can be necessary, but once you catch a walleye, mark that spot and work it to death.
LEECH LAKE Dejaeghere's favorite lake is Leech. As he drives past it every day from his home in Walker, he dreams about the millions of walleyes swimming there as he gazes over Minnesota's third-largest lake. In his mind he plans his next outing, which could be in a couple of hours or a couple of days. Whenever he goes, it's never soon enough.
"A good technique on Leech to target the bigger walleyes is to set a big creek chub in front of them and they'll eat it every time," said Dejaeghere. "Most people think that using bigger minnows is a fall pattern, but I disagree. I start fishing this technique in June and work it all summer long and into fall."
Dejaeghere admits you get fewer bites because the smaller fish are more likely to take a leech or a night crawler, but the chubs will trigger bigger fish under any condition and the walleyes aren't conditioned to this bait presentation.
"The hook is the most important part of the rig when fishing chubs," said Dejaeghere. "I've settled on a 1/0 light wire hook that is made by Eagle Claw that is Teflon-coated. Just hook the chub through the lips and when the walleye takes it, feed them line for about 30 to 40 seconds and when you set the hook they will be stuck."
When searching out a location on a lake as big as Leech, Dejaeghere recommends doing the detective work before launching the boat. Find out from the local sporting goods and bait shops where the fish are. All the other anglers have been chasing the smaller walleyes with leeches and night crawlers, so there's a bunch of bigger fish waiting for a chub.
LAKE SAKATAH Lake Sakatah is a shallow pothole southwest of Faribault, which is why the walleyes in the lake owe their existence to the DNR's stocking program.
There's a nice boat access at the state park, as well as a popular fishing pier for landlocked anglers. Before I make the road trip to Sakatah I always call the DNR Area Fisheries office (507-362-4223) to make sure there haven't been any low-oxygen levels in the lake for a while, which can stress out - or kill - a walleye, and that makes them tough to catch.
The only breakline on the lake the fish can relate to is the weedline that sets up at about 6 feet and is not really very well defined due to the lack of water clarity. This means that the walleyes tend to meander around the lake searching for perch, suckers and shiners.
A bottom-bouncer rig works well on Sakatah. You can keep the bait near the bottom, and if you use a 1- to 2-ounce bouncer you can cover some water and find the fish.
Use a 3- to 4-foot snell on the bottom bouncer, with a No. 4 spinnerblade in bright orange or chartreuse. The beads I use between the hook and the blades are the glow-in-the-dark Rattle Beads. You can see that you pull out all the stops when it comes to attracting the walleyes to the bait, which consists of a lively leech or a fat, juicy night crawler.
LAKE PULASKI Lake Pulaski just north of Buffalo in Wright County has a well-developed shoreline and gets a fair share of fishing pressure, but due to the deep clearwater nature of the lake it can be tough to coax a bite from one of the many walleyes there.
Pulaski is only 700 acres, so it is not intimidating to a first-time angler, and there are some sunken islands and well-defined points that will draw walleye anglers in, and rightly so, because they're good spots.
Clear water requires not only finesse, but also a perfect approach. This means using fluorocarbon line from the swivel to the hook on your live-bait rig. Smaller hooks are required. If you're using a leech, use a No. 8 hook. For a night crawler, use a No. 6 hook, and a fathead minnow works best with a No. 4 hook.
Pulaski is a great lake on which to get good with your sonar, and an underwater viewing camera is a great tool here.
Finding walleyes is as simple as straining a depth on the structure until you connect with a pod of fish. Start at 15 feet and work along this depth line until you've covered both sides of the point or circled the midlake structure. Move out to 18 feet if you didn't connect and make the run again. At some point you will either hook a fish or spot something on the sonar worth hanging over. Or you won't get a bite and you'll be moving to another spot.
The last time I was on Pulaski was in late July and the thermocline was at 27 feet. There were a lot of fish at that
level. There were none deeper.
LAKE INDEPENDENCE Just west of the Twin Cities is one of the jewels of the Hennepin Parks system. Baker Park has camping, hiking, biking, playgrounds, beaches and one of the finest walleye lakes near the metro area in Lake Independence.
I fished this lake for many years for bass and muskies but never considered the walleyes until a few years ago. I was working the top of the only hump on the lake with big lures for muskies and watched a lone angler in a small boat in deeper water yank a half-dozen 2-pound walleyes. So I thought, Hey, I should try that sometime. That sometime was the next day, when I ventured back out with my walleye rigs and headed to that exact spot. The walleyes were nowhere to be found. Then I explored a point north of the boat landing and struck gold. Using a live-bait rig and leeches, I caught and released two-dozen walleyes in just a few hours while fishing in 22 feet of water over what was a featurless bottom.
The following week I had to go back and see if my previous success was just a fluke. I was fishing some latent cold-front conditions that day, so I wasn't overly confident. The point held no fish and the sunken island was void of walleyes. When I need to cover some ground and see what the bottom has to offer, I troll. Tying on a deep diver, I began working the 15- to 22-foot contours. On the east side of the island that is on the north end I connected with walleyes in 20 feet of water. They were concentrated, so I switched to a slip-bobber and leech. They weren't jumping in the boat, but I caught and released eight fish in two hours.
What I've discovered about Independence is that the walleyes are there in great numbers, but you may have to do some work initially to find out where they've roamed. Once you find them, you'll be glad you put in the effort.
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So enjoy the open-water walleye fishing this season. Just be sure to expand your horizons.
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