Right Time + Right Place = Worlds Best Walleye Spots
Getting in on great fishing is first a matter of being in the right place at the right time. This is the finest of seasons for catching a giant walleye and sometimes lots of them, given the quality of some of the walleye fisheries we have available today.
While the fisheries we highlight here have been dynamite in most recent years, our point isn't only to focus on world-class fisheries, but also on the general process of how to get in on great fishing wherever your fishing takes you. You may not be able to travel to these fisheries, but you can plan excursions to waters with the best potential near you.
Each body of water has hot buttons that you can get a feeling for by calling the right people and asking the right questions. When does the fishing usually peak? What are the conditions this year? And, more importantly, what's happening right now?
You also need a feeling for the presentation process on the target water. Can the fish be caught during the day in deeper water? Or does the best fishing transpire after dark, trolling minnow-plugs on a long line in shallower water?
Finally, it's a matter of going and making the most of the experience and what you've learned by reading In-Fisherman, our Critical Concepts series of walleye books, and In-Fisherman's Walleye In-Sider magazine. Find the best spot and when it's best to be there. Then find out how best to catch the fish. Here, meanwhile, are notes on a few of the finest walleye fisheries the world has ever seen.
BAY OF QUINTE, ONTARIO
The Bay of Quinte, just off Lake Ontario in eastern Ontario, is arguably the best walleye fishery in the world for consistently large fish -- in any season, but especially after Labor Day. From early September until freeze-up in late December, the fishing just gets better and better. In a couple days of filming In-Fisherman television footage last December, the smallest walleye In-Fisherman Contributing Editor Jeff Simpson and I caught was 6 pounds. Fifteen others weighed more than 10 pounds. The Bay actually may be the only place where it's easier to catch a fish over 10 pounds than one under that mark.
The reasons for the remarkable fishing are interwoven. Gigantic Lake Ontario offers both food and refuge, even more so now that zebra mussels have cleared the once-fertile bay's waters. As a result, the mammoth walleyes gravitate to the main lake faster in the spring and spend more time there in summer, foraging on smelt and alewives in the deeper, darker waters. The giants return in autumn, staging over winter before spawning in inflowing rivers and filtering back into Lake Ontario.
Like most Great Lakes walleye fisheries, one top presentation is to longline troll smelt-imitating crankbaits behind planer boards and downriggers. The fish usually suspend. During the day, we used Rapala Deep Down Husky Jerks and #11 Tail Dancer Deeps run on long lines (100 feet or so back) attached to trolling boards.
At night, giant fish move inshore over weedflats and especially along weededges. We used #12 Rapala Husky Jerks run about 100 feet behind the boat, or ran #10 Tail Dancers along weededges and over nearby open water. We trolled with a big gas motor at 2.5 to 3 mph during the day, but switched to an electric trolling motor and speeds of about 1.5 mph at night.
Shore anglers also take big fish at night, anywhere they can wade or use a pier to reach feeding areas. One bank-bound angler we met had released a brace of 14-pounders.
When ice eventually locks up the big shallow bay, usually around Christmas, the light-sensitive walleyes feel more secure. The winter bite still peaks during the two twilight periods each day. Jigging Raps, Nils Masters Jigging Shads, and William's Ice Spoons tipped with a minnow head are top producers during January and February.
Contact: Kevin Lavers, 613-476-6894 (lodging and information); Guide Big Jim McLaughlin, 613/498-2517.
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WINNIPEG RIVER, MANITOBA
The portion of Winnipeg River below the Pine Falls Dam at Pine Falls, Manitoba, remains one of the most remarkably consistent places in North America for spectacular walleye fishing during late September and October. In most years the fishing extends into November, as long as the weather holds.
It's not just a traditional river fishery. The river runs only about five miles before entering a large bay attached to Lake Winnipeg. In the bay, walleyes are caught by anglers anchored along the river channel as it twists through the bay, as well as by anglers anchored on rocky humps. Trolling -- over open water, but more generally along and over rockbars -- also produces here. Traditional lures include the #7 or #9 Rapala Shad Rap, trolled on a long line.
In the river, anglers generally use jig-and-minnow combos as they slip with the current to probe river-channel edges, and structural elements like humps and rocky flats. Trolling deeper-diving crankbaits like the Rapala #11 Tail Dancer Deep also triggers fish holding in rivers. This is one prime tactic employed by Guide Larry Snow, who prefers fatter bass-style crankbaits on this fishery at this time.
"Run the baits up current, as well as down current and cross current, over and along hard-bottomed areas where the fish wait to feed on shiners that have entered the river," Snow says. "Crankbaits often account for consistently larger fish."
Walleyes often enter the rivers in waves, according to Snow. "Depends on river flow," he says. "If we get consistent releases from the dam, shiners continue to enter the river. That's why the walleyes are here. Occasionally, we don't have enough water in the fall to spur a consistent run of shiners and walleyes, so it's best to call to see what's happening before traveling a long distance.
"Most years this is one of the most fantastic fisheries anywhere for larger fish. Lots of fish push past 10 pounds and top out near 14 pounds or so."
About an hour to the southwest, the Red River flows through the city of Winnipeg and often hosts great fall fishing in the river section below the Lock Port Dam at Selkirk, just north of Winnipeg. Some years one river's hotter than the other, at certain times.
Contact: Papertown Motel, 204-367-2261 (lodging and information); Guide Larry Snow, 807-466-2188.
LOWER COLUMBIA RIVER, WASHINGTON/OREGON
Compared to the more popular fisheries on the Columbia River pools upstream from dams, the free-flowing Lower Columbia from Bonneville Dam downstream to Astoria remains a relatively untapped resource for consistent catches of huge walleyes. "The best bite period kicks off in mid-July and can last through October," says regional walleye tournament angler Jerry Spiess, also the West Coast distribution and sales manager with Lund Boats. "Ten- and 11-pound fish are common, and 14s, 15s, even 16s are do-able. It's an incredible fishery."
To put big fish catches into perspective, Spiess points to an August Lower Columbia Walleye Club tournament where it took 73 pounds for Mike Davis to win the 2-day event. And that was with a 6-fish-per-day limit and a 2-fish-over-24-inches restriction.
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When the water temperature rises to about 65F and flows decrease as summer wears on into fall, walleyes become more active and concentrate on large flats and rock reefs. Several of these areas can be found throughout the Lower Columbia, starting with a huge mud- and sandflat just upstream from Skamania Island. "Anglers typically target walleyes in 12 to 20 feet on flats by trolling chartreuse or red spinner rigs downstream, then turn around and troll crankbaits upstream," says Spiess. "Crawdad imitations produce well, with big walleyes caught on Rapala Down Deep Husky Jerks, Deep Tail Dancers, and Luhr-Jensen Baby Hot Lips. Another good lure pattern is anything that imitates a salmon smolt. "
The same spinner and crankbait presentations also excel in key spots downstream, including the expansive flats around Reed Island and Ough Reef near Camas, Washington. Farther downstream try areas around Government Island and the I-5 bridge. "By far, the number-one lures on the Ough rock reefs are bladebaits," says Spiess. "Actually, they're great baits anywhere on the Columbia, catching big fish throughout the year." Critter Gitter (503/257-0553) out of Portland produces custom-made bladebaits popular with Columbia River anglers.
The best bites often coincide with faster downstream currents, says Spiess. When downstream currents pick up with outgoing tides, and when water is released from Bonneville Dam, the bite gets hotter.
Contact: Guide Ed Iman, 541-298-3753; Hook Up Guide Service, 503-666-5370.
RAINY RIVER, MINNESOTA/ONTARIO
As September passes, the downrigger brigade finally gives up its lip-lock on the deep bite on Grand Traverse Bay, the vast portion of open water in Minnesota's corner of Lake of the Woods. After feeding in deep water mid-September, countless walleyes of all sizes form a conga line as they continue to pursue emerald shiners, wending their way to the mouth of the Rainy River near Baudette, Minnesota, then on up the river to spend the winter. According to Tom Briggs, owner of Wigwam Resort, the first of October typically signals the start of a hot river bite, as fish move into and through "the gap" at the river mouth.
"Savvy anglers anchor on hotspots in the river, typically minor points, corners, and turns in the river channel that nonetheless stack up the fish," Briggs notes. "A jig and minnow is hard to beat, and the river level and flow dictate jig weight, just 1/4- to 3/8-ounce in a typical dry fall, up to 3/4-ounce if there's been a lot of rain."
But other options exist. Another productive way to find fish is to troll upstream, rigged with a 3-way swivel and sinker from 3/4 to 2 ounces, and a #5 or #7 Shad Rap or Cordell CC Shad. If you find a pod of fish, anchor and fish them. If they're scattered, troll on up to Birchdale and then make a controlled drift back downstream, jigging as you go. In the shallower upstream sections, flatline trolling with diving cranks works well, too.
The Rainy run includes some giants, fish from 10 to over 12 pounds, though most are considerably smaller, being males. (If you want to tangle with some real bruisers, bring a flat of nightcrawlers and set out for lake sturgeon. Many fish over 60 pounds have been caught the last couple of years.)
For walleyes, the possession limit is four fish from 19.5 to 28 inches, with one fish over 28, should you want to keep a trophy.
Contact: Wigwam Resort, 800-448-0260; Wheeler's Point Resort, 800-542-2435; Lake of the Woods Chamber of Commerce, 800-382-FISH; Lucky Baitshop, 218-634-2869.
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KEWEENAW WATERWAY, MICHIGAN
(INCLUDING OTTER, PORTAGE AND TORCH LAKES)
Stunning scenery abounds in this corner of the world in fall. Autumn colors radiate across an ancient mountain range on the Superior slope of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Most know it as home to the upper Midwest's best downhill skiing. We know it as one of the world's least utilized trophy walleye zones.
The Portage Canal that cuts through Keweenaw Peninsula and its connecting waters comprise walleye heaven. "August and September are the best times to be here for numbers," according to Jamie Markle of Superior Bait and Tackle. "But trophy time comes later -- in October -- and even November.
"It's hard to do things right and not make contact with a few fish in the 10-pound class, no matter what time of year you come. In September walleyes are in 7- to 10-foot depths. Since the water is heavily stained in this system, walleyes bite all day in relatively shallow water. Every year, lots of 10-plus walleyes come out of Otter, Portage, and Torch lakes. Fish the edges of cabbage beds and emergent rushes. Floating minnowbaits and crawler harnesses are the key presentations that time of year -- same as 30 years ago. A 40-walleye day for 2 anglers is common. Most run 3 to 6 pounds, but something in the 8- to 12-pound range comes into the boat every day," says Markle.
"A little later on, walleyes move deeper but remain shallow enough to pitch jigs and minnows to them -- especially in warm, stable weather. The bite slows down, but the average size goes up. Try Gratiot Lake in October."
Contact: Superior Bait & Tackle, 906-523-4944.
BAYS DE NOC, MICHIGAN
The north end of Lake Michigan is a harsh mistress in November. But that's when some of the finest walleye guides flock here from all over the Midwest, because the giant walleyes of the big lake converge on Big and Little Bays de Noc.
Walleyes ghost in from who-knows-where out in Lake Michigan, to winter in the comparatively stable environs of the bays. Many of these fish top 12 pounds. But it's also a numbers game, which attracts lots of anglers to this blustery confrontation with the cold. And it's a trolling game in relatively deep water -- 30 to 50 feet, most of the time. Long, thin, deep-diving crankbaits are key. Favorites here include the Rapala Down Deep Husky Jerk, the Reef Runner Rip Stick, Dave's KA-BOOM! Deep Shiner, and the Bomber B25A. The delivery system: Downriggers or leadcore line. Wire-line rigs with 6-ounce weights and 14-pound mono leaders are popular, too.
Jim Kalkofen, In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail Executive Director, said the fishing slowed down a few years ago, but it's picking up again. "Last year was a good one on Bays de Noc," he said. "This fishery has been a big-fish producer for a long, long time -- which means it can handle pressure and harvest. But today, people are much more likely to return those 12-pounders to the water alive. This might be the year we see some real giants come out of this classic fishery."