I’ve fished for walleyes in a lot of places over the years. Put in long fishless hours more often than I like to recall; been in on some pretty amazing catches of huge fish; worked long and hard to extract a few cigars in heavily trafficked waters; and lucked into hawgs when I didn’t deserve to get bit. Trips have run the gamut from ultimately memorable to eminently forgettable, with a host of traveling and trolling miles in between.
Looking back on a long, winding road criss-crossing a continent, most of my big-fishwalleye catches had one thing in common: big water. Big walleyes and big water go hand in hand, hand in fin, or exhibit some such relationship. In order to grow numbers of big walleyes, environments generally need lots of cool water. Lots of food. Lots of room for fish to move, way out in the middle of no man’s land. The more big fish present, the more likely you’ll catch ‘em.
Some destinations had little to no fishing pressure, and fishing was easy. Others lay right in the teeth of the angling onslaught, often requiring a fair bit of finesse. Most often, however, it became fishing the right waters, in the right places, at the right time of year, using effective tactics to trigger big fish. On big water—lake, river or reservoir—the potential always was there for a legendary catch. That’s what gets you excited about going and keeps you coming back for more.
Big Rivers—Early spring and late fall trips to the Mississippi River along the Minnesota-Wisconsin border were among my earliest forays for walleyes. We went there partly because other local waters were either frozen or had closed gamefish seasons at the time, and partly because the fishing was different from the norm, providing a refreshing challenge.
Spring and fall meant heavy clusters of migratory walleyes beneath power dams and within the several-mile stretch lying immediately downstream. Anytime fish travel long distances to gather in small spots, fishing has the potential to be excellent. Sometimes it was easy, sometimes not. Catching river walleyes requires a basic understanding of current dynamics, understanding where fish likely will be under various current conditions, and incorporating the best methods and tactics for handling anything from slack water to high flow. These tactics are learned over many trips and many seasons.
Fishing early or late in the year typically entailed periods of low flow and easier fishing conditions. We’d vertically jig with jigs and minnows, or slowly drift or troll with three-way rigs tipped with live minnows—fundamental vertical tactics geared to obvious midriver areas. The edges of the deep scour hole below the dam were the most obvious spots. Once I learned to read current breaks on the surface, and realized that fish generally lie just inside the quiet water, facing upstream, I became proficient at fishing current breaks, eddies, and other fish-holding spots in low to moderate current.
As winter ebbed and snowmelt made the water rise, however, increased current pushed fish tighter to shore, often requiring casting tactics in flooded cover. In the event of heavy flooding in late spring, fishing generally became tough because fish penetrate the cover where getting at them becomes impossible. These are conditions to avoid if at all possible—the voice of experience.
Spring generally brought crowds of anglers piled into the immediate deep hole area below dams, seeking to shake off a bad case of spring fever. The key was either being there early in the year to beat the crowd to the first punch; or later, to avoid the crowd by moving slightly downstream, fishing more subtle current breaks like shoreline points, wing dams, riprap, side channels, or holes formed at river bends.
In fall, however, few anglers fish the river, despite the excellent fishing. In autumn, time and interests are split between hunting, football, and battening down the hatches for the approaching winter. Things are winding down, rather than gearing up—a fine time to spend a quiet, uncrowded day on a river, vertically jigging for groups of lightly pressured walleyes. A good option during freeze-up on nearby lakes—a transition period where neither boats nor ice fishing are safe options.
Large Natural Lakes—Small and midsized natural lakes across the northern states were the learning grounds for livebait rigging, structure fishing, and locating walleyes in deep water. Anglers usually didn’t consider fishing shallow water for walleyes thirty years ago; everyone was becoming brainwashed on the deep structure concept. Only later would the shallows be considered (or reconsidered) viable walleye territory. Meanwhile, offshore structure fishing was en vogue. In most of the lakes I fished, however, limited acreage meant we didn’t have to venture far offshore.
I vividly remember my first trip to gigantic Mille Lacs Lake in Minnesota, the birthplace and testing grounds of many popular walleye systems. Accustomed to fishing smaller inland waters in Wisconsin, I couldn’t even see the opposite shore on Mille Lacs.
“Don’t you have splashguards?” someone at the boat launch asked. “Don’t need ‘em,” I answered. After all, my 15-foot trihull had a splashwell to catch spray. Immediately upon launching, the first wave rolled over the transom, overfilling the splashwell and soaking my feet. Big water was to be a learning experience, indeed.
Over the years, a succession of progressively larger boats somewhat soothed my apprehension for fishing big lakes. But I still have a healthy respect for big water, and when weather conditions dictate that it’s time to leave, I’m among the first to go.
During 10 years of covering In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail events, however, I’ve also stayed out in more than my share of nasty conditions. A recreational angler has the option to drive to a launch site where winds and waves moderate, or to come in early if the weather gets ugly. Tournament competitors, however, all depart from the same site, often traveling many miles to the best fishing, sometimes fighting their way back in rough seas. Equipment, endurance, experience, and enthusiasm must be up to the task of competing at the professional level.
Over the years, I plied structure tactics on Mille Lacs, Lake of the Woods, and other largewaters. But I also began to learn that livebait rigging in deep water wasn’t the only option. Early on, I recall chuckling at a boatload of grannies and grandpas anchored on a shallow Mille Lacs reef, fishing with bobbers and leeches. Smugly backtrolling around them with my fancy livebait rigging tactics, the grin soon disappeared as I watched them catch walleye after walleye in 4 feet of water. Several years later, Ron Lindner’s pioneering forays with shad crankbaits on Mille Lacs reinforced the shallow-water walleye potential of large, windswept waters.
Southern Reservoirs—In 1978, my first field exercise for In-Fisherman took Bill Lindner and me on a pioneering effort to Greers Ferry Reservoir, Arkansas, in search of rumored gigantic walleyes. In February, prespawn walleyes allegedly ran up river arms to spawn on shallow shoals, and local folks cast or trolled big diving crankbaits at night. South, crankbaits, night—everything went against the grain.
Turned out the rumors were true. We didn’t catch many fish, but they ran from 8 to nearly 16 pounds and opened our eyes to southern trophy walleye potential and to the fact that big walleyes would indeed hit hard baits, not just livebait. I forever will equate this experience with muskie fishing—you don’t catch much, but the ones you do catch are worth the effort. And fishing a deep, steep, clear, rocky highland reservoir certainly was a challenge and a change from familiar small natural lakes back home. We popularized these fisheries the following year, and initiated the first flurry of Yankee anglers heading south for late-winter monster ‘eyes.
Western Impoundments—My earliest introduction to fishing huge reservoirs, casting to shore, or trolling spinner-crawler harnesses in wind-generated mudlines came on Lake Oahe, South Dakota—another classic proving ground for walleye techniques. Being still somewhat entrenched in the deep-water rigging-jigging mentality, casting a jig tipped with half a nightcrawler or a diving crankbait up into 4 feet of muddy water took some convincing. And drifting or trolling with an abominable tangle of hardware—locals called it a bottom bouncer with spinner-crawler harness—was even tougher to swallow.
But not for the walleyes. When the wind blew, tearing up shale shorelines and generating mudlines that made baitfish vulnerable to attack, walleyes indeed moved shallow, and we mowed ‘em down, drift after drift. When the wind didn’t blow and the water remained clear, we livebait rigged or jigged the tips of deep points, also with success.
I’d never caught so many walleyes of such nice size. Not monsters, because fish over 8 pounds were rare back then, but lots of 4s and 5s. Great! But man oh man, was it ever big water. Miles across, disappearing into the distance up and downstream, dozens of major points were within view, and that only a tiny fraction of the reservoir. And when the wind blew, you hoped to be within escape distance of the boat launch, or you planned on spending the afternoon in the relative safety of a huge cove until the waves moderated.
The shallow wind pattern finally sank in. Walleyes could indeed be shallow, not just on deep structure. It’s one of the most dependable walleye patterns on western prairie reservoirs, from New Mexico to Saskatchewan. I would never have felt confidence in this pattern without traveling and witnessing it firsthand. Traveling breeds versatility in thinking and technique.
The seeds of understanding also began to set in regarding long-distance seasonal migrations on big water. Coming from a region of small to midsized natural lakes, I’d never experienced walleyes migrating 100 or more miles to spawn, moving miles per day while following forage fish, or becoming so wind-activated on the windy side of the impoundment. Here, it was a way of life.
Growing up in an area of forests and farmlands, sudden exposure to the rolling plains is culture shock, indeed. You can see for miles—grass, antelope, approaching thunderstorms—to infinity and beyond. The openness is foreign, yet exhilarating. I’ve had plains anglers tell me how claustrophobic they feel when coming to northern Minnesota, with all those trees closing in around them, shutting out the sky. I experienced similar feelings, just in reverse.
Lake Erie—Of all my walleye memories, the Western Basin of Lake Erie holds a special place in my heart. Tackle promoter Gary Roach encouraged us that the rumors of abundant suspended walleyes were indeed true, so off we went in 1980 to see for ourselves.
The first few trips with Jim Fofrich Sr., Jerry Meyers Sr., and other veteran charter captains produced loads of 2- to 7-pound walleyes by casting and retrieving weight-forward spinners tipped with nightcrawlers. The fish were suspended, anywhere from the surface down toward the 40-foot basin. Captains fished with six anglers at a time, drifting in 27-foot boats across huge walleye schools, often over a mile in diameter. Another bashing for the structure-fishing-only mindset.
Continued – click on page link below.
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