May means opportunity for Minnesota walleye fans, thanks to the abundance of great fisheries waiting to be explored. In fact, we're so blessed with fish-rich lakes and rivers that simply choosing a place to wet a line can be almost overwhelming.
To simplify the selection process, we've tapped the minds of some of the Gopher State's greatest walleye warriors to produce a short list of six top destinations to catch the May madness.
MILLE LACS LAKE
Ranking high among Minnesota's most storied fish factories, this 128,000-acre slice of walleye heaven offers great early-season action for 'eyes of all sizes, including sag-bellied trophies. Few know the drill like lifelong Mille Lacs angler and fulltime guide Kevin McQuoid (866-670-8709; www.macstwinbay.com).
"The way open-water season ended last fall, and winter began, we're looking for numbers of big fish topping 8 to 10 pounds, plus eaters perfect for shore lunch," he says. With a healthy forage base, including a resurgent tullibee population, the lake's walleyes wax fat, yet continue hitting anglers' baits.
Early options abound, but McQuoid favors a no-fail May one-two punch. "The north end sand is hard to beat during the day," he begins. "And near-shore rock humps light up in the evening."
On the sand, McQuoid drifts and slow-trolls a live-bait rig tipped with a large, lively leech on a size 4 or 6 hook. "I use an 8-foot leader of 8-pound-test Berkley XL, which stands up to teeth and gill rakers better than lighter lines," he says.
A half-ounce walking sinker and barrel swivel, to limit line twist, round out the rig. "Make sure the swivel eye is large enough not to stick in the sinker," he cautions.
McQuoid typically covers fish-holding contours and the perimeter of rock humps lying in depths from 12 to 20 feet, though the fish move shallower when it's windy, and slide deeper if fishing pressure is heavy. "You'll find walleyes all the way out to 28 feet, but the most aggressive fish are shallower," he says.
A speed of .7 mph is key. So is fishing about a foot off bottom, to keep zebra mussels and native clams at bay.
As darkness nears, McQuoid shifts gears, slinging slip-bobbers over rocky humps rising to within 4 to 12 feet of the surface. "Key on the tops of the structures," he says. "Tip a 1/16-ounce perch-colored Lindy Jig with a leech, hooked just ahead of the sucker for lively longevity, and fish it a foot off bottom."
At 15,957 acres, Cass offers a cornucopia of structural and weed-related options for early-season fishing. And plenty of walleyes, too, according to Minnesota Department of Natural Resources test nets and iconic Northwoods guide Brian "Bro" Brosdahl, who can be reached at (218) 340-6051; www.brosguideservice.com.
"Limits are not uncommon on Cass, which has so many bays and interconnected lakes you can spend a lifetime learning it all," he says. "Early after the opener, the walleyes bite all day long. Then it becomes more of a morning and evening bite."
Key areas range from textbook bars, points and related breaklines to emerging weedbeds. "Big bars like Cedar and Dead Man's hold fish from mid-May through the rest of the season," says Brosdahl. "I focus on 12- to 18-foot depths this time of year. When the wind lights up the bite, a jig and shiner are hard to beat, but a live-bait rig and redtail combo is good, too.
"Around the opener, walleyes congregate at the mouth of the Turtle River, and where the river goes from Allen's Bay to Lake Andrusia," he notes. And keep in mind that Cass is the largest member of the Cass Lake Chain, which also includes Big Wolf, Andrusia, Pike Bay, Buck, Kitchi, Little Rice and Big Rice lakes.
Bro jigs much of the time. "I like dragging a 1/8- to 1/4-ounce Northland Fire-Ball tipped with a leech," he says. "On calm days I work it with light hops, but give it a good pop when the wind is blowing."
Emerging weedbeds are also hotspots. "Early in the year, shiners move shallow looking for warmer water and the walleyes follow," he says. "You can fish weed edges with a standard leadhead, or cast into the bed with a weedless jig like Northland's Weed Weasel."
While it's tempting to probe the lake's farthest reaches in search of walleye gold, Bro says not to overlook fish-holding areas close to the city of Cass Lake. Stony Point is a prime example, along with the maze of bars fanning away from it. And speaking of Stony, the resort by the same name offers anglers a fisherman-friendly base for exploring the system. You can visit www.stonyptresortcasslake.com for details, or the Cass Lake Area Chamber at www.casslake.com for a full rundown of local accommodations.
Brosdahl also sings the praises of sprawling Leech Lake — and for good reason. With healthy numbers of walleyes scattered across its 102,000 acres, the big lake offers a wealth of near-shore options in May. "It's an absolute blast this time of year, with lots of 15- to 17-inch eaters, plus larger photo fish," he says.
"Shoreline-connected points and islands are hard to beat this month," he advises. Top spots include Diamond, Stony, Pine and Sugar points, but the list is almost endless. "In general you're looking for sand, clamshell beds and scattered boulders in depths of 10 feet. But don't be afraid to go deeper, down to 15 feet, in high-pressure areas.
"Leech fishes similar to Cass," he continues. "It's a clear lake, and the fish really start moving when the wind kicks up."
A 1/8- to 1/4-ounce leadhead (here, too, he likes Northland's Fire-Ball) tipped with a shiner or leech is a lethal weapon. "In windy conditions, give the jig a sharp hop to get their attention. When it's calm, make 2- to 3-foot rod sweeps, then let the jig fall to bottom." Live-bait rigs are also deadly (think leeches on 4- to 6-foot snells), as are leeches suspended under slip-floats. The latter tactic, Bro says, is largely overlooked on the lake.
"These are massive structures up to a quarter-mile long," he cautions. "So good electronics are key as you're searching for fish." Bro favors a Humminbird setup, though Lowrance's HDS Structure and SideScanning units paint an amazingly accurate picture of the underwater world as well.
A short cast from the eclectic wilderness town of Ely, 2,344-acre Shagawa Lake offers excellent odds of scoring shore lunch, plus a classic Northwoods experience.
Veteran guide Jim Orcutt (www.jimthefishguy.com; 218-349-3658) looks for post-spawn walleyes lingering in bays near the mouths of incoming creeks and rivers. One of his favorite areas is in front of the Burntside River. "Burntside is one of the primary spawning areas for the lake's walleyes, and early in the season the fish are still concentrated around the river mouth," he explains.
Most of the fish are males, meaning that anglers can expect good numbers of 'eyes up to 18 inches, but enough late-spawning females hang around to offer a decent shot at a trophy as well.
Orcutt targets a large mud flat and pair of rocky points, focusing on 3- to 11-foot depths. "Long-lining a 1/16- or 1/8-ounce Lindy Jig, tipped with a 3-inch fathead or rainbow, 20 to 30 yards behind the boat is a great way to catch these early fish," he says.
Pops and pauses spice up the presentation, though Orcutt keeps the moves rather subtle, especially following a cold front. "The water's still cold and the fish can be a little sluggish," he says. "I pop the rod tip 6 to 8 inches, keeping my bail open so I can feed the fish line if need be before setting the hook."
Chartreuse, pink and orange are his top jig colors, and he notes that a minnow hooked by threading the barb in the mouth and out just behind the head stays on, and lively, longer than a lip-hooked bait.
Live-bait rigging is also deadly. "I run a 4- to 5-foot fluorocarbon leader behind a small split shot or walking sinker," he says. A small float a foot ahead of a size 4 hook and minnow round out the rig. "Slow trolling is ideal, with speeds in the .5 to .8 mph range."
LOWER MISSISSIPPI RIVER
After a sizzling run of fast action in March, the lower Mississippi near Red Wing simmers down during the spawn about mid-April, but the fishing heats up late in the month and throughout May, as post-spawn walleyes and saugers filter downriver.
Veteran river rat Tom Brunz tracks the largest members of both species during that period in Pool 4. A retired guide and decorated touring pro with a long list of top finishes in river tournaments — including an impressive win against more than 240 other anglers at the Cabela's Masters Walleye Circuit's Illinois River tournament last March — Brunz knows each species follows a bit different exit strategy from the spawning grounds.
"Big female walleyes drop into the first deep holes below the spawning area and hold there for a few weeks," he says. "Cuts between islands or where water flows from the main river into a backwater are my favorite spots. I fish a willow cat or chub on a 3-way rig, slowly working my way upriver through the hole."
On the flip side, sag-bellied saugers ranging from 4 to 5 1/2 pounds beeline downriver. "Outside of pre-spawn this is the best time of year to target trophy saugers, as they move downriver on Lake Pepin in large groups," says Brunz. "I look for them at the foot of steep breaklines, on the muddy side of sand or gravel transitions."
A classic case is where the bottom gradually tapers down from the bank to a flat shelf in 12 to 13 feet of water, then drops sharply into 30 feet. Fishing the base of the break, not the flat, is key to finding the largest saugers, he notes.
"It can be a little tricky due to all the dead leaves from the previous fall, but once you get the program dialed in it's a lot of fun." Brunz's favorite presentation is pulling large-lipped crankbaits such as Rapala's DT-10 and DT-15 on lead-core line, at speeds of about 2 mph. The hard-wobbling baits shake off some of the debris, and because they dive so quickly, you don't need as much lead-core out, and thus have better feel of, and control over, the bait.
Brunz warns that this can be a here-today, gone-tomorrow proposition, as migratory saugers may move a mile from one day to the next. "You just have to keep looking for them," he says. "That's where trolling helps you cover more water than slower-moving presentations."
ST. CROIX RIVER
When legendary Minnesota guide Dick "The Griz" Grzywinski (www.fishwiththegriz.com; 651-771-6231) wants May walleyes and saugers, he sets his sights on this scenic waterway in the shadows of the Twin Cities metropolis. "When the bite shuts down on the Mississippi near Red Wing in mid-April, I move up to the Mississippi at Prescott, Wisconsin, and then up the St. Croix in May," he says. "The entire lower St. Croix to Taylors Falls is good in early May when the season opens (ahead of regular Minnesota inland opener), later in the month in the lower reaches, near the confluence with the Mississippi, are better."
In the shallow waters of the Franconia area below Taylors Falls, a Rapala Shad Rap or other shad-bodied baits, along with narrower stickbaits, take walleyes and saugers mid-river in depths of 5 to 6 feet.
Vertical jigging is universally effective on the system, especially in classic spots such as current seams, in current breaks and along channel breaklines and flats. Necked-down areas that funnel the flow, and fish, into narrow areas are among Griz's favorite spots. The Kinnickinnic Narrows are a classic case, though there are others as well.
When jigging, Griz keeps it simple, skull-hooking a beefy fathead on a 3/8- to 1/4-ounce Northland Fire-Ball. "Don't worry about using dead minnows," he offers. "Dead fatheads brighten up and look just like expensive shiners."
His jig stroke, however, is an art form. Sharp upward snaps of the rod tip are critical to the lift-fall cadence. "Snap it up anywhere from 3 to 4 inches all the way to 3 feet, depending on the mood of the fish," he says. The fall is key, too. Let the jig fall to bottom on a semi-slack line, knowing that most hits come off the drop.
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So there you have it, Minnesota's hot half-dozen for catching May walleyes. Maybe we'll see you on the water!