Minnesota's Weedy Walleye Lakes
September 30, 2010
In most of our lakes, the walleyes are stocked. These fish tend to relate to weeds. You can hone your weedy walleye techniques on these lakes.
By Tim Lesmeister
When you picture walleye fishing, the view is a rock reef or a sandbar on a big northern Minnesota lake where the fish are deep and the technique consists of backtrolling a live-bait rig along a breakline.
That is a classic walleye-fishing situation and it is the one most written about. In Minnesota this covers about 10 percent of the lakes where walleyes are present. In the other 90 percent of the lakes where walleyes are sought, classic walleye structure is a rare commodity and most of the fish are stocked. In these "other" lakes, if there is vegetation present, then you can count on walleyes relating to those weeds.
"For every Lake Winnibigoshish, which is the perfect example of a lake with textbook walleye structure, there are a hundred Lotus Lakes where the weedline is king for walleyes," said Adam Johnson, a touring professional angler from Brainerd. Johnson obtained his bachelor's degree in aquatic biology from Bemidji State where he was surrounded by textbook walleye waters, and even though he resides in an area where classic walleye structure abounds, he still finds lakes nearby where the walleyes are weed-related.
"I look at Gull Lake as a perfect example of a lake where the walleyes relate to the vegetation," said Johnson. "There are sunken islands and rockpiles, for sure, but day in and day out you can catch plenty of walleyes just by working the weedline."
Johnson says that when you find those weedy walleyes you will have discovered fish that are very likely to be feeding aggressively. Walleyes that have been suspending in deeper water will often move up to the vegetation to forage on the schools of minnows and perch that are comfortable using the plants for cover.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
The walleyes that stay in the vegetation throughout much of the season might prove to be a bit more finicky but they will succumb to lively bait if it's positioned properly. According to Johnson, there's much to be said when it comes to the proper presentation.
"Walleyes in the weeds still tend to hold close to the bottom, so if you're going to use a slip-bobber in a cabbage bed, for instance, then you want to make sure you position the bobber stop so the jig-and-minnow are just a foot off the bottom.
"On Gull Lake if you're working the weedline," continued Johnson, "then you should be using a lively leech in 16 to 18 feet of water with about 12 feet between the hook and the sinker."
Johnson added, "Most lakes have two weedlines. The primary weedline is where the heavy vegetation that grows high, like cabbage and coontail and curly-leafed pondweed extends out to, and then there's the secondary weedline where the remnant vegetation and grasses are sparsely growing due to the lack of light penetration. Where this secondary stretch ends next to a sand, muck or clay transition line is where you find the walleyes that relate to that heavier vegetation."
Walleyes in the weeds are not targeted by most of the walleye anglers in Minnesota because this type of fishing requires a completely different game plan that is foreign to most who chase this species.
According to Stacy Barbour, a well-known multi-species angler who loves to chase weedy walleyes, it's an entirely different thought process.
"Most guys use their sonars to spot walleyes in deeper water," said Barbour. "When the walleyes are in the weeds you use the sonar to map the ins and outs of the vegetation. You're not fishing for walleyes you see on the screen. You're just fishing. It's much like chasing bass. You find a big bed of vegetation and you present the bait. If the fish are there you will catch them, and this will tell you where to stay put. If you're not getting bites, you move."
Barbour says that he likes to tie on a rattling lipless crankbait when he's in weedy walleye country. This lure can be retrieved over the tops of the vegetation, through the sparse branches of cabbage and grass, and near the bottom along the edge. "Walleyes love those Rat-L-Traps," said Barbour, "and you can catch pike and bass on them, too."
The type of vegetation makes a big difference in the choice of presentation. When the lake is choked with milfoil, then a 1/4-ounce weedless jig like the Weed-Weasel that's tipped with a fathead minnow can get through the thick mat of vegetation to the bottom. A weed-edge approach like a bottom-bouncer and spinner setup is also a good option in milfoil.
In cabbage, a slip-bobber is the perfect choice when the fish are in the weeds. Where the vegetation provides the opportunity, a lipless crankbait is also a great option.
The live-bait rig is always productive on the edge of the vegetation where snagging is not a factor. And don't forget, on many lakes there is a well-defined inside weedline as well that can be tremendous after dark.
Let's look at a few lakes where you can hone your weedy-walleye techniques.
This is Stacy Barbour's favorite weed-walleye lake, and not necessarily because he can go out and target weedy walleyes at will. He likes Minnetonka because he can go out and target the weeds for whatever's biting and catch pike, bass and walleyes.
"There's a long, wide stretch of milfoil in Crystal Bay that runs along the shoreline to the east of the entrance into Maxwell's Bay," said Barbour. "About halfway down there's a 40-foot-wide patch of cabbage that extends out into 20 feet of water. You can spend a couple hours here throwing a Rat-L-Trap and pick up a half-dozen walleyes along with some 5-pound largemouth bass."
Another spot that Barbour finds productive is the big milfoil-topped reef on the southwest corner of Brown's Bay.
"On a windy day you can drag a 1-ounce bottom-bouncer with a spinner and a leech in 20 feet of water and catch a lot of walleyes," said Barbour. "This is the depth where the milfoil peters out and there's just a few stalks of coontail standing here and there that you brush occasionally with the bottom-bouncer."
Heading into the Upper Lake area of Minnetonka around the islands and into Cooks Bay will give anglers a lot of opportunities for weed walleyes.
"There are big weedy flats all over the place up there," said Barbour. "It's thick milfoil, so work the edges with the bottom-bouncer and spinner in 14 to 18 feet of water
. The weedline's not as deep up there because the water's darker in that part of the lake. A fathead or small sucker minnow might also be a better option because there are so many small panfish that a leech or night crawler will be gone in seconds."
For more information, call Shoreline Bait and Tackle at (952) 471-7876.
There's no midlake structure at all in Kandiyohi County's Norway Lake. The northwest basin barely reaches much over 10 feet deep. But there are a lot of walleyes in Norway, and many relate to the milfoil, cabbage and coontail in the lake.
The water visibility is not very good, but the secondary weedline gets down into the 15-foot range. The weeds can be sparse in some regions, and that's a benefit when the walleyes are inside the weeds and not on the edge.
"The dingy water," said Johnson, "allows the walleyes to feel comfortable in shallower water because there's less light penetration. The vegetation is great cover as well, so you're likely to find schools of fish in 8 to 10 feet of water in the middle of the day, and they're feeding."
Johnson likes to position himself right in the front of his boat, foot on the pedal of the bow-mounted electric motor and pitch weedless jigs tipped with minnows into the vegetation.
"This is a phenomenal technique for largemouth bass but no one uses it for walleyes," said Johnson. "Instead of using a big live-rubber jig, just switch to a weedless walleye jig. You pitch it out, let it sink to the bottom, twitch the jig a few times and then reel it in and pitch it to another spot. When you find a school of walleyes, stay on that spot. If one is biting, more will be feeding."
For more information, call Mel's Sport Shop at (320) 796-2421.
Barbour tells the story about the time he tied on live-bait rigs and bottom-bouncers to a half-dozen rods and picked up one of his angling buddies for a day of walleye fishing on Lake Waconia in Carver County. For half a day they worked from the weedline out to the deepest water dragging leeches and crawlers in their search for a school of walleyes on this productive lake. Not a bite.
After a lunch of Spam sandwiches and boiled peanuts the pair decided to throw some spinnerbaits over the shallow milfoil for bass. On his third cast Barbour set the hook on a 6-pound walleye. Twenty casts later there was another walleye that weighed 3 pounds, caught on a white spinnerbait retrieved over the tops of the shallowest milfoil!
"These walleyes thought they were bass," said Barbour. "I find that a lot in lakes where the walleyes are stocked. They hit spinnerbaits, plastic worms, even topwaters in the shallows. They don't fight like a bass, but they act like a bass in their location and their preference to certain kinds of lures."
Barbour says that walleyes on Waconia are not consistent in their predictability to hold on a particular location. They can be there today and gone tomorrow. That's one of the negative aspects of weed walleyes - they tend to roam.
Barbour also says that his choice of lures on Waconia when it comes to weed walleyes is the Rat-L-Trap.
For more information, call the In-Towne Marina at (952) 442-2096.
It was a practice day for a bass tournament a few years back and Johnson had never fished Scott County's Prior Lake before this day. He started out working the shallow milfoil with a noisy topwater lure but only caught a few dinky bass. At the mid-depth levels the milfoil was almost to the surface so he pitched some heavy jigs tipped with plastic crayfish bodies and landed a few nicer fish. Moving to the deep edge of the milfoil Johnson switched to a Carolina-rigged plastic worm. He started catching walleyes.
"The Carolina rig is just a live-bait rig with a plastic worm on the hook instead of live bait," said Johnson. "When I returned to the lake a few weeks after the tournament I brought some small sucker minnows and found that weedline holding some nice walleyes."
While the north end of Prior Lake looks like it would be the best location for walleyes, it was the three small holes out in front of the boat landing on the south end that proved most productive for Johnson.
"Sixteen feet of water using a 3/4-ounce bullet-sinker in front of the minnow," said Johnson. "I caught about two walleyes to each bass and an occasional northern pike. There's no lack of shallow milfoil in that southern section of Prior and the walleyes hang right on the edge of it."
For more information, call MK Fishing at (952) 447-6096.
Clearwater Lake in Wright County used to be one of Barbour's favorite largemouth bass lakes. Now it's one of his favorite walleye lakes as well.
"They must have started stocking this lake a few years ago because in the past couple of years I've been digging 16- to 18-inch walleyes out of the weeds consistently," he said.
"I use a weedless walleye jig and tip it with a fathead," Barbour continued. "You need a jig at least 1/4-ounce to get through the milfoil. Take a lot of minnows because you go through a bunch. They not only get eaten by the fish but they get knocked off by the milfoil. I haven't found any scented plastic lures that work as good as the real meat yet, but I experiment every time I find some fish."
The bottom is very diverse in structure in Clearwater and the vegetation follows suit. There is a lot of milfoil, but anglers can still find some bulrushes, pads, cabbage and deep coontail. Barbour recommends sticking with the vegetation that can be seen under the surface with a pair of polarized glasses.
"You're flipping jigs into pockets in the weeds and into clumps of milfoil," he says. "If you're not catching walleyes and want to fish deeper, then switch to a live-bait rig and work the edge."
For more information, call the Clearwater Marathon at (320) 558-6666.
Chisago Lake in Chisago County has a decent population of walleyes, but they don't get a lot of attention because they like to hang with their friends, the bass. Bass anglers catch them a lot. It's usually on a shallow-running crankbait or a jig in the vegetation. According to Johnson, you can tell the difference between a walleye and a bass the second you set the hook. The walleye just sits there and shakes its head. The bass runs and jumps.
"Chisago is a great weed-walleye lake," said Johnson, "because there are just so many walleyes relating to the milfoil and pondweed that you can find them quickly."
Johnson prefers the central basin of th
e lake and will spend a substantial amount of time pitching a weedless jig into the vegetation near the narrows that come and go between the other basins.
"You can expect the walleyes to sit in the deeper vegetation in front of the saddles between the other basins, and when they get hungry they move into the shallows and feed on the forage there. If you put a minnow on a jig in front of them they probably won't refuse something that easy to get. Walleyes are opportunistic feeders just like the other species in the lake. Some anglers just don't realize that."
For more information, call Frankies Live Bait at (651) 257-6334.
"You find some nice weedlines on Forest Lake," said Barbour, "and there are going to be walleyes lying on the bottom right next to it."
Washington County's Forest Lake doesn't qualify as a lonely lake. On the contrary, Forest Lake gets a lot of attention, but not all fishing. There are a lot of skiers, personal watercraft jockeys and just plain boaters out on the lake every day. That's why Barbour likes to be on the water when the sun comes up and be long gone by 10 a.m.
"That's when the best walleye bite is on Forest Lake anyway," said Barbour. "The walleyes will be on the edge of the sunken islands in that western basin and hanging on the edge of the vegetation on the inside turns in the eastern basin."
Milfoil has sprouted heavily on the edges of those sunken islands, so Barbour recommends a weedless walleye jig to target those fish. On the inside turns, a live-bait rig or a bottom-bouncer and spinner can provide the best presentation. In both cases Barbour incorporates fathead minnows for bait.
For more information, call Bald Eagle Sports at (651) 429-9954.
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Both Barbour and Johnson said that bass anglers might be more adept at targeting weed walleyes than the classic-style walleye angler just because bass anglers have perfected presentations that work in the vegetation. They also believe that if walleye anglers want to take advantage of a tremendous resource that gets very little pressure, they will make the effort to get good at presenting lures and bait to the fish in these weedy walleye lakes.
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