March 10, 2015
Walleye warriors are continually in search of the next hot bite. Each of us defines the parameters of our own personal paradise. Some seek untapped legions of sag-bellied giants topping 10 pounds. Others envision oodles of eaters eager to inhale whatever we cast their way. The good news is many North American fisheries are flush with booming year-classes, offering something for everyone in settings ranging from the Great Lakes to high desert impoundments. To help you ride this rising tide in 2015, we offer seasonal perspectives on some of the planet's hottest bites.
North of the Border
Canada has long offered standout walleye options. In-Fisherman Contributor and Guide Jeff "Gussy" Gustafson, of Kenora, Ontario, says the north end of Lake of the Woods is as good as it gets right now for trophy fish. "There's probably no better water for taking big walleyes on artificials — think swimbaits and jerkbaits," he says. "Walleyes roam shallow vegetation all summer and are plentiful on main-lake humps as well."
For fly-in fans, he recommends Northwest Ontario's Maynard Lake. "It's a super-productive water on the English River system," he says. "If you want to catch hundreds of walleyes a day, of all sizes, this is the place to go."
Decorated tournament competitor Keith Kavajecz reminds us that the Bay of Quinte, just off Lake Ontario in eastern Ontario, is no slouch, either, particularly for giants. "September through ice-up is the time to troll big crankbaits for fish suspended over deeper water," he says. "You might only get a dozen bites a day, but they could all be over 10 pounds."
In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange says Saskatchewan standouts such as Last Mountain Lake also merit mention when planning Canadian getaways. Others point to mighty Tobin Lake, Lac La Ronge, Diefenbaker, Jan, and countless other hot spots.
For winter-weary walleye fans across the Ice Belt, a number of southern and Midsouth fisheries hold promise for road trips. From select lakes in northern Georgia into North Carolina west to Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri, opportunities for both numbers and sizes of walleyes exist in waters that receive a fraction of the pressure endured by their northern counterparts.
Case in point: In Georgia, state-run walleye stocking to control blueback herring has yielded thriving populations in Savannah River drainage lakes such as Burton, Seed, and Rabun, along with Lake Lanier and Carters Lake. Self-sustaining fisheries also exist in north-Georgia fisheries including Blue Ridge and Hartwell.
In general, action focuses on major spawning areas from February into April. On the Savannah River lakes and Lanier, for example, prime lies are in shallow, rocky, headwater areas. Males weighing 2 to 4 pounds are common throughout this period, whether staging deep, cruising the shallows, or lingering nearby in the early postspawn. Females topping 12 pounds are possible, though they spend less time dallying around the spawning grounds than their suitors.
As is the case elsewhere in the walleye world, top tactics include jigs tipped with livebait or softbait trailers, along with shallow-running crankbaits, swimbaits, and similar 'eye candy. Postspawn fish drift into deeper water, moving into depths of 15 to more than 50 feet, seeking water temperatures of 62°F to 65°F. In some lakes, such as Lanier, the fish scatter widely, making fishing challenging. Other lakes, like Tugalo and Yonah, yield good fishing year-round.
Farther west in Missouri, March is a top time to target spawn-minded walleyes in reservoirs like 24,900-acre Stockton Lake. This impoundment offers distinct lake- and tributary-spawning populations, spreading opportunities from the rock-lined face of the dam to rivers such as the Big Sac and Turnback Creek, which traditionally receive major pulses of spawning fish. Wet springs are a wild card, spreading walleyes across numerous inflows.
As a testament to the fishery, the Cabela's Masters Walleye Circuit has broken from longstanding tradition dating nearly 30 years to kick off its 2015 tournament season on Stockton. "We'll be there the first week in March and we're expecting teams to bring in plenty of limits, including fish into the teens," says tournament director Dan Palmer.
Traditionally, the circuit opener is held on the Illinois River at Spring Valley, Illinois. "The Illinois is still a world-class sauger fishery," Palmer says. "And we're going back there, too. I've long maintained we'll see the next Illinois state record sauger from this stretch. I've seen fish weighing up to 5 pounds 9 ounces in tournaments, very close to the record of 5-12½." He says the second two weeks of March are stellar on the Illinois, although, "Anytime the weather breaks in March is a great time to be on the river."
Long a "spring break" destination for sauger junkies, the Illinois kicks out fish on a variety of patterns. Jigging channel edges and other structural sweet spots with leadheads and minnows is popular, but other tactics work. "In 2014, we held an artificial-only Berkley Challenge event," Palmer says. "Tournament winners Scott Rhodes and Jeff Koester racked up a 10-fish limit weighing 26 pounds 4 ounces — trumping the total from the 2013 event, in which livebait was allowed, by nearly 8 pounds. Their tactics hinged on hand-lining crankbaits laced with walleye-formula Berkley PowerBait Attractant."
Palmer, who travels A-list fisheries each season working Cabela's MWC and National Walleye Tour events, ranks the Detroit River in April among his all-time hot spots. "The first two weeks of April are phenomenal," he says. "Waves of spawning walleyes flood the river from Lake Erie, creating one of the world's best chances at breaking the 10-pound barrier, with fish topping 15 pounds possible."
For perspective, at the MWC's annual Detroit River April tournament, it took two-day 10-fish totals of 87 pounds 3 ounces to win in 2014, and 86 pounds 2 ounces in 2013. In 2014, the big fish topped 13 pounds and big basket weighed over 50 — not bad for five walleyes in roughly eight hours of fishing.
"It's a jig fisherman's paradise," says Palmer. Dan Zwick, who won the 2014 MWC event with partner Tony Kobriger, concurs. "The Detroit River is incredible," he says. "These are the biggest walleyes I've ever caught jigging. There's nothing like getting bit by fish so huge they don't even budge when you set the hook." He and Kobriger concentrated on a rocky point in 14 to 17 feet of water, fishing 1/2-ounce jigs tipped with 3-inch Berkley Gulp! Alive! Ripple Shads.
Another mecca for trophy hunters is the mighty Columbia River. "It's always on my radar," says Stange. "The bite can already be happening by early February and into March, but primetime is late March until about April 15 or so, with the last week of March and the first week of April typically being prime."
The Columbia's reputation for producing giants in the 15- to 18-pound class is longstanding, and Washington's District 4 fishery biologist Paul Hoffarth says the river is currently on a roll. "Our walleye population has been growing for the past 15 years," he says. He credits top-shelf habitat, along with an abundance of juvenile shad and salmon, plus perch, peamouth, whitefish, and other forage, for fueling the production of super-size 'eyes.
On February 28, 2014, veteran river rat John Grubenhoff landed an enormous Columbia walleye that topped the 20-pound mark and demolished the Washington state record. He was fishing a 5¼-inch, silver-and-black J13 Jointed Rapala in the McNary Pool section of Lake Wallula, which is located between the McNary and Priest Rapids dams at the confluence of the Snake River. "It's a transition area where the free-flowing Columbia meets Wallula," he says.
Knowing the fish stage adjacent to spawning areas, he targeted a breakline and current edge a short cast from a rocky, windswept shoreline. His lure trailed 6 feet behind a 2-ounce bottom-walking sinker in 22 feet of water, as he trolled upstream along the break at .8 mph. Grubenhoff's monster weighed 20.32 pounds on a certified scale. The previous record was 19.3 pounds. Also a Columbia River fish, it was caught February 5, 2007 by Mike Hepper. Grubenhoff believes the Columbia holds even bigger walleyes.
Fall is another top time to tap the Columbia, Hoffarth says. "The night bite below McNary Dam is as good as it gets." Trolling deep-runners like the Luhr-Jensen Hot Lips Troller over humps in 18 to 24 feet is a prime program. For his part, Grubenhoff also recommends vertically jigging a 1/2-ounce bladebait such as a Heddon Sonar.
High Plains Hot spots
April ushers in world-class action on the Missouri River system. "The Missouri at Bismarck, North Dakota, is great for eater fish and chances at trophies, too," says veteran guide Jon Thelen, who crisscrosses the Midwest each season filming online and televised versions of Lindy Fishing Tackle's Fish Ed programming. "I don't think there's another bite that good in April."
Kavajecz agrees with Thelen's assessment of the Missouri, though from mid-April into May he sets his sights closer to Chamberlain, South Dakota. "Lake Francis Case can be fast and furious for fish from 16 to 20 inches, with 24s and 25s in the mix," he says. His pet presentation is a 3-inch Gulp! Minnow on a leadhead, fished on 5- to 10-foot feeding shelves.
Stange and Thelen sing the praises of North Dakota's Devils Lake. "You can't miss on a trip to pitch plugs for walleyes in late May on Devils Lake," says Stange. "Early to mid-May offers the best big-fish opportunities of the year on Devils," Thelen adds. "I focus on dead cattails, pitching jigs tipped with plastics or minnows, and snapping crankbaits."
From mid-summer into late October, Kavajecz hits northeast South Dakota's walleye wonderland, fishing lakes like Bitter and Waubay. "Glacial lakes in this area are phenomenal for numbers of 20- to 25-inch fish," he says. "Slow Death rigging is a killer there. Not so much on deeper breaks, but in 10 to 12 feet of water on the first drop off the weedline."
Another perennial producer virtually year-round, Lake Michigan gives up its big-water bounty as soon as the ice clears from hot spots like Sturgeon Bay. "I've been fishing with Guide Bret Alexander at the open mouths of port areas on Lake Michigan in Door County, particularly Sturgeon Bay, just after ice out in early May," says Stange. Palmer also notes the early bite on Sturgeon Bay: "Bass anglers targeting early smallmouths in tournaments haul in giant walleyes."
Kavajecz taps Green Bay all season, with late May into June his favorite time. "You can troll, but I like casting to 15 to 30 feet of water along the edges of reefs, shoreline points, and other breaklines with 3/8-ounce jigs tipped with 4-inch Gulp! Minnows in shades of chartreuse and pink," he says. "You can also cast glidebaits like Moonshine Tackle's Shiver Minnow in the same areas."
Thelen hits the Bay in July. "There's a great midsummer bite for fish of all sizes, including a pile in the 9- to 12-pound range," he says. "I pull Lindy crawler harnesses and crankbaits for suspended fish, from down in the bay up to the main lake."
Once August arrives, Thelen pulls up stakes for Minnesota's share of Lake of the Woods. "There's no better place for huge numbers of walleyes, with big-fish potential as well," he says. "You can anchor and jig or pull spinners, but for both eaters and trophies, plus bonus saugers, you can't beat trolling crankbaits like #3 Lindy River Rockers in the main basin in depths of 30 to 35 feet."
Palmer, also a veteran guide out of Wisconsin's iconic Hayward area, adds the Chippewa Flowage to his short list of must-fish waters, particularly in May. "The first two weeks after the early May opener are a riot," he says. Casting Berkley Flicker Shads in shallow areas around the mouths of rivers and spawning bays produces scads of 16- to 17-inch fish, with chances at bigger ones.
Palmer also likes the slice of legendary Lake Erie out of Huron, Ohio, in May. "Trolling Reef Runners to tap the postspawn run east for big, hungry females following smelt and shad is probably your best bet at a 10-plus anywhere in May," he explains. "At the MWC's May tournament there in 2013, big basket went 52-11 for five fish, which gives you an idea of what's out there."
Tournament pro and well traveled walleye angler Scott Glorvigen offers north-central Minnesota's Bowstring Lake as his pick for fast action from mid-May into June. "Fish Northland Fire-Ball jigs tipped with shiners in 4 to 6 feet along windswept weedlines," he says. "This isn't a trophy bite, but a wear-your-arm-out numbers game. Expect mostly eaters, with some fish up to 23 inches."
Thelen throws out his home waters of Minnesota's Mille Lacs Lake as a wild card for June. "The lake has had its troubles, but people who think we're down to the last spawning pair are way out of touch," he says. "The fish we're catching are healthier and fatter than ever, and June is the time to catch 14- to 29-inchers." With everything from shallow rocks and weedbeds to deep gravel and mud in play, anglers can play to their strong suits.
Imagine, these are but a taste of the opportunities that await walleye fans virtually coast to coast. With a little research and planning, you can make 2015 your best season yet.
*Dan Johnson of Harris, Minnesota, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and director of All Creation Outdoor Media. Guide contacts: Jeff Gustafson, gussyoutdoors.com; Dan Palmer, Grand Pines Guide Team, 715/462-4006; Jon Thelen, 612/720-3837.