July 06, 2016
By Cory Schmidt
A short drive from my home followed by an eight-minute boat ride puts me on a spectacular walleye spot, probably the most fruitful I've ever fished. For 10 months of the year, 3 of them during frozen water, any given outing can produce a dozen or more fish from 3 to 9 pounds. In five years, the spot's kicked out scores of 5- to 8-pounders, a bunch of 9s and 10s, plus a few 12s. I suspect I've caught many of the same big fish multiple times.
I've never seen another boat or ice shelter on this spot, despite the lake being well mapped and less than 1,000 acres. The spot's not easy to find, but shouldn't be too difficult to uncover given that it's a point, so structurally speaking, some anglers finding it would consider it potentially productive.
What makes it overlooked is that this point lies on a gradual, nearly imperceptible slope. The structure starts at the 12-foot weededge, and the sweet spot is no more than a half-dozen walleye boats wide. The depth change from the flat top of the point down to soft-bottom is about 3 feet, dropping from 22 to 25 feet and eventually to 27 off the sides. A contour map of this spot shows a point, but it's not as obvious as a classic hard-bottom protrusion into the main lake.
Bottom Composition Bombshells
But it is obvious if you're running side-imaging, which shows transitions in bottom substrate as clearly as a treeline alongside a cornfield. Noticeable transitions appear on side-imaging, and even on traditional 2D sonar, but most anglers don't give them a second thought. But a change from soft sand to rock or from silt to gravel doesn't mean walleyes are attracted to it. One key to the best transitions are hard-bottom extensions. The more it protrudes into and interrupts the lake basin — almost regardless of depth change — the more predators it attracts.
Walleye expert and veteran tournament pro Gary Parsons agrees. "If you're studying lake maps for large, obvious points, you miss out on some incredible walleye spots," he says. "Running Insight Genesis with bottom composition layers over contours, you realize that transitions aren't always associated with big depth changes." With Navico's GoFree Insight Genesis, you gather depth and waypoint data and upload it into an Insight Genesis account where the information is processed and compiled into a custom map.
"Before running these new maps alongside Lowrance StructureScan, which combines DownScan and SideScan to deliver higher resolution panoramic images over a wider swath of bottom, we didn't realize how far some of these hard-bottom extensions protruded into soft basin areas," he says. "They can be so subtle depth-wise that they're easy to miss. But the composition maps make them obvious and reveal untouched fishing spots."
Parson's been amazed by how many of these subtle yet elongated hard-bottom extensions he's found in many bodies of water, and how many predators he's found living on them. "Lots of times, we've followed these extensions way out near the tips into the main lake and frequently found big numbers of walleyes and large pike that likely rarely get fished," he says.
A similar connection occurs with crappies, Parsons says. "Everyone knows crappies move around deep soft basins in winter, but we've found they seem to be most attracted to subtle transitions. They swim around soft-bottom flats, but some of the largest pods often collect near hard-bottom extensions. On the small lake where I have my cabin in northern Wisconsin, guys have fished there for a generation but have never found these crappies or fished these spots," he says.
Devils in the Details
Farther west, walleyes are being found and fished on untouched spots for a slightly different reason. Water levels in Devils Lake, North Dakota, rise and fall fast. Following years of rising water, which inundated abandoned farms, old roadbeds, and rockpiles, lake levels began to drop about a year ago.
Many of the lake's rockpiles were created by farmers clearing their fields of boulders, or by duck hunters who once piled rocks along shorelines for crude blinds. Following an historical low level in about 1940, the lake has been rising on a relatively erratic schedule. In 1993 and 1994, the lake level rose 5 feet in 6 months due to large amounts of precipitation. Until recently, Devils had been rising steadily — over 30 feet in total and flooding over 160,000 acres of land, according to the U.S.G.S. Beneath the surface remain hard-to-find rockpiles, which are potential walleye goldmines.
Parsons, who weighed close to 50 pounds of walleyes and finished third at the recent NWT event at Devils Lake, relied upon an amazing mapping app to help unearth key rockpiles. "Before the tournament, I bought a series of digital Devils Lake maps from Doc Samson (aka Doctor Sonar, doctorsonar.com)," he says. "It's a set of three map cards, which show satellite imagery of the lake from 1949, 1980, and 1990 — at vastly different stages of the lake's progression. They're compatible with a Lowrance HDS mapping interface and show incredibly intricate details, including rockpiles. I also used a map from Legend Cartography, which showed other details.
"Before the NWT tournament, I'd studied several rock projections that progressed into deeper water. When I got to the lake and started scanning with sonar, I found that the maps were dead-on. Using a pair of Lowrance HDS12 units — one for mapping and one for sonar — I started analyzing these rock areas and found small boulder patches. In certain patches, using a three-way combination of 2-D sonar and down- and side-scan, I was able to spot fish lying between boulders. Most of these rock areas were less than 50 yards wide, and the best boulder patches were smaller, about the size of two cars. By the end of pre-fishing, I had probably a half dozen of these strategic spots logged into my GPS," Parsons says.
On day one of the tournament, due to high winds, Parsons mostly stayed in bridge areas, where he caught a respectable 18 pounds. But on the second day, he spent the last three hours fishing isolated boulder areas in deeper water and caught a 28- and 31-incher on a Johnson Thinfisher and a Moonshine Lures Shiver Minnow.
"More and more, I discover that walleyes don't necessarily key on specific depths, but rather on certain types of structure," he says. "Certainly, they can linger at relatively specific depths during different times of the day, but structure matters more. It's more important to use your electronics to identify walleyes lying on these deeper spots — whether they're subtle bottom transitions or individual boulders on a larger rock point or shoreline."
Mining Micro Targets
Even though it's illegal in some states to plant brushpiles or other cover in lakes, it's been remarkable in recent years to discover obscure cover scattered on many lake and river bottoms. Side-imaging along deep shorelines often reveals large brushpiles and small piles of discarded riprap within casting distance of a nearby dock.
I frequently fish a half dozen lakes where I've unearthed unnaturally occurring rock, Christmas trees, and brushpiles that can attract big walleyes. Two of the lakes are large, densely populated with summer homes, and known for their classic structure bites. Every time I fish these lakes, I check a few of these cover spots with side-imaging and often with an Aqua-Vu camera to identify species. These spots hold walleyes about two out of five times I check them. And I've found that if walleyes are present, they almost always bite a jig and minnow, Rapala Jigging Rap, or bladebait, fished around the cover.
On a lake in Iowa, someone once showed me a small rockpile in 11 feet of water that he and his family had built with almost two generations worth of discarded fieldstone. He recounted that he and his father had scored numerous 8- to 10-pounders off this pile over a 25-year period.
On a particular stretch of the Upper Mississippi River, one of the most interesting developments has been walleyes using woodcover — both downed trees along the shoreline and immense white pines and oaks lying on 5- to 8-foot mid-river flats. On up-current sides of islands, big clusters of wood collect in high water, and eventually sink. Walleyes frequently lie right among the branches, or on the shallow, slack water behind the wood.
In summer, a productive pattern has been to run from mid-river tree to tree, pitching a jig and paddletail softbait or crankbait into slack-water pockets behind the cover. Some of these logs and trees can be found by looking for a telltale deadhead barely breaking the surface. Some of the best ones are completely submerged, requiring side-imaging sonar to find and mark with GPS. Most of the better trees produce 1 to 5 walleyes. But in summer, fishing tree to tree provides wonderful sport — deploy the bowmount motor, make several pitches and tag a few 'eyes in each spot, staying no more than 10 minutes on each tree.
Two top walleye doctors also tout sweet spots that lack obvious cover. Dr. Bruce "Doc" Samson has had big walleye catches from subtle rockpiles on vegetated flats on lakes like Vermilion in Minnesota. Dr. Jason Halfen, university professor and owner of The Technological Angler (thetechnologicalangler.com), looks for bare spots within large weedbeds. "My Humminbird ONIX units are priceless for this," he says. "With side-imaging set to inspect 100 feet to either side of my boat, I can run 5 mph over a half-mile-long weedflat and two to four of these bald spots in under 15 minutes.
"These little clearings are more common than people think," Halfen says. Sometimes, it's just a sandy opening three boat lengths wide that lacks vegetation. Others may be formed by rocks that prevent plant growth. Walleyes prefer the spots with rock or gravel because they're more likely to attract crayfish or perch. Walleyes also use these spots because they provide well-defined ambush areas, and that makes them easier to fish. Otherwise, on a broad weedflat, the only other ambush points are the edge between the weedtops and the surface.
"I can fish these openings quickly," he says. "Often, I can cover the zone with a half dozen casts with a jig, or fish slipbobbers at night and quickly find if biting fish are present. Conversely, on a larger flat, you have to fancast or troll — sometimes for more than an hour, to locate walleyes."
He uses a new mapping tool for scouting spots prior to fishing. "In addition to one-foot contours for HD-mapped lakes, LakeMaster PLUS now offers satellite imagery overlays," he says. "It's been exceptional for identifying some of these sweet spots, such as clear spots in weeds, even before you hit the water."
During a trip to Minnesota's St. Louis River last season, Halfen used LakeMaster PLUS satellite overlays to identify key spots, including a well-defined inside weedline that held big walleyes. Taking mapping another step, he uses Humminbird's side-imaging mosaic. "Besides satellite image overlays, I can use AutoChart Live mapping software on any lake and superimpose side-imaging data onto the same contour maps," he says. "It not only shows what the bottom looks like in each spot, but the imagery serves as a visual, historical reminder of any waypoints I drop." Given that most anglers today drop dozens to hundreds of icons on their favorite lakes, remembering the "what" and "why" of each one can be a challenge.
"If I drop an icon on a rockpile with walleyes on the screen, for example, the side-imaging mosaic reminds me why I put a waypoint there," he says. "Although it sounds counterintuitive, such advanced mapping imagery simplifies things. If you could see what the screen looks like on my favorite walleye spot — a mess of squiggly lines punctuated by clusters of little blue icons — you'd be excited, too." –
In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt, Brainerd, Minnesota, stays on the cutting edge of electronics technology to root out walleyes and other species.