September 26, 2016
By Jim Edlund
Drop an underwater camera into submerged wood and the scene often is vibrant with life, from wood-clinging brine shrimp to minnows to young-of-the-year perch, or alewives flitting about the branches of deep cottonwoods. Wood-laden areas often teem with walleye activity, especially when A-list spots are seemingly vacant of fish. From river backwaters in Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wisconsin, to the fertile Glacial Lakes of South Dakota and North Dakota's prairie waters, to western reservoirs, opportunities abound to catch walleyes in wood.
Few destinations are better known for wood walleyes than Devils Lake, North Dakota. But it's changed over the past few years. The lake level has stabilized and ice has pushed over much of the standing wood, sending anglers to their electronics to find submerged wood that was once visible.
"I use the Doctor Sonar map chips for Devils Lake to overlay historical aerial imagery onto depth contours to locate pockets of wood," says Dakotas fishing icon Jason Mitchell. Scrutinizing aerial imagery of once-dry areas, he drops waypoints on submerged shelterbelts, old farmsteads, and hills lined with brush. "Then I look for wood that creates the most shadowing on my Lowrance SideScan screen. The more shadows, typically the more walleyes. Mix in a little rock, maybe weeds, and you have a good spot," he says.
Wood is important from mid-summer through late fall. "I can always find walleyes in wood somewhere," he says. "While it's hard to beat anchoring and slipbobbering or pitching swimbaits, I often catch more big walleyes on deep-diving crankbaits crashing through timber."
Typically targeting wood in depths of 8 to 10 feet, he uses stout gear — 7-foot medium-heavy to heavy Scheels Outfitter flipping stick, Quantum Smoke baitcaster, 14-pound Northland Bionic Braid or Berkley FireLine, and a 12- to 14-inch section of 35-pound Knot2Kinky nickel-titanium leader to prevent pike bite-offs. "I attach my mainline directly to a loop tied on the Knot2Kinky wire so I can reel right up to a crankbait snagged in wood and pop it out, if I can't pop it out from a distance," he says.
To reduce snags, he doctors #6 H6F Salmo Hornets and #6 Salmo Super Deep Runner Bullheads, his go-to lures for crashing timber. He removes the front hook, and replaces the rear treble with a Gamakatsu treble two sizes larger, which resists bending and breaking in heavy cover and allows him hoist walleyes into the boat. His favorite Hornet colors are Hot Perch, Blue Silver, and Dalmatian, the latter resembling juvenile white bass, a plentiful walleye forage on Devils Lake.
Mitchell: "I use a bigger crank and snap my rod tip into the water to get the bait down as fast as possible, but once I feel bottom or cover, I crawl the crank to avoid snagging. Then, if I lose bottom contact, I snap the rod tip down again and keep feeling my way through the wood. The hardest part is sticking to a slow roll. If you bump into something, let the bait float up a bit, and if it snags, pop it. Kind of like bass guys fishing square bill cranks — this is when you're going to get bit."
Flash & Bang
Nebraskans Robby Rowland and tournament partner Scott Sundstrom were among the first anglers to go public with their walleye spinnerbait program. Rowland's method combined precise depth control to tickle treetops with spinnerbaits tethered to leadcore, a technique that earned him first place at the 2010 Cabela's Regional Walleye Championship on Nebraska's Lake McConaughy.
Soon anglers like Chad Schilling, Kevin Audrain, Keith Kavajecz, and Chase Parsons also began placing high in walleye tournaments by switching from cranks to blades for dragging through deep, submerged trees. Since then, thanks in part to In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw's coverage of the technique in the 2012 In-Fisherman Walleye Guide, "tickling treetops" has gained momentum as a solid walleye tactic.
"It's still catching fish," Rowland says. "As long as there's bait and walleyes in treetops, pulling spinnerbaits is my go-to tactic for big fish when everything pulls out and goes deep by mid-July to August. I can't tell you how many 5- to 13-pound fish I've caught doing it."
Years ago, he was watching baitfish react to bass baits: "We were throwing spinnerbaits on rocks in shallow water for early-season walleyes, and alewives would chase the blades."
After record low-water levels in the early 2000s, McConaughy's water came back up in 2010, covering trees and creating new habitat. Rowland spied hordes of bait in the branches of submerged cottonwoods on his sonar. "Rather than lose dozens of crankbaits, I switched to spinnerbaits," he says. But he had to get the lures down to the branches, which, at the time, were 15 to 20 feet below the surface in 30 to 40 feet of water. His solution was leadcore.
"Trolling 2 mph with 200 to 240 feet of 27-pound leadcore out gets you down about 20 feet with a 1-ounce spinnerbait," he says. "We won the Cabela's Regional in 2010 doing this and in 2011 other guys also had tournament success trolling giant 2.5-ounce spinnerbaits on FireLine." Rowland's a fan of 27-pound Cabela's Leadcore and 20-pound Trilene XT monofilament leaders fished on 9- to 10-foot Cabela's planer board or Dipsy rods with Daiwa line-counter reels.
A 1-ounce Double Willow Booyah Blade was his bait of choice but it's no longer in production. "Now I use Fish Hawk and Venom Lures Deep Eye spinnerbaits, but Terminator and Strike King make good spinnerbaits, too," he says. "Three must-have colors include white, chartreuse, or white and blue with chartreuse." He often adds a 1/0 trailer hook and a 4-inch curlytail. Sometimes a stinger hook is important to increase hookup potential when walleyes swipe at the blades.
Rowland says anglers don't necessarily have to "tickle" treetops to catch fish: "When walleyes are feeding heavily, they chase high above the trees. But on tough days, you usually have to bang wood."
He starts by setting a pair of rods with spinnerbaits and a pair with Lindy River Rocker crankbaits or #5 Berkley Flicker Shads. "These cranks have smaller hooks for fewer snags," he says. "Using cranks is a great way to catch slot fish while spinnerbaits catch bigger fish."
Although Rowland identified McConaughy's good wood during low-water years, he dials in precise positioning with his Lowrance HDS10 StructureScan. "You can see walleyes in the trees," he says. "They look like bulbs on a Christmas tree. This gives me a good idea of how to adjust presentation depth based on how high the walleyes are in the branches."
Trolling spinnerbaits isn't limited to deep trees. Rowland urges anglers to troll over and through brush and laydowns with 1/2-ounce spinnerbaits, either on leadcore or FireLine, depending on depth: "Earlier in the summer we get walleyes in and around brush by trolling 1/2-ounce spinnerbaits about 100 feet behind the boat. The lures get 10 to 12 feet down at 1.8 to 2 mph. That should work on Arkansas' walleye waters as well as Devils Lake."
Game Trail 'Eyes
Brian Woodward runs the Wyoming Walleye Stampede circuit, a live-release tournament series that averages 105 teams per event, which keeps his finger on the pulse of western walleye fishing. He also donates guide trips for non-profit organizations around the state and over the past decade he's earned several top tournament finishes. When it comes to Wyoming walleyes, Woodward's the guy. In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange fishes with Woodward, most recently on Wyoming's Pathfinder Reservoir, filming for In-Fisherman TV.
Glendo Reservoir's early-summer "tree bite" is one of Woodward's favorites. "It varies from year to year, but the reservoir is typically at its highest water level in June," he says. "It's got that Devils Lake kind of wood — 100- to 150-yard stands of flooded timber, fallen trees, and floating timber in 2 to 10 feet of water, but I spend most of my time in 6 to 8 feet."
Walleyes from 16 to 19 inches are plentiful, but 23- to 30-inchers aren't uncommon when pitching to Glendo's flooded trees, willow bushes, and laydowns. Woodward identifies most fish-holding areas by sight, but also uses electronics to dial in alleys and channels through the lumber. With a Humminbird 1199 SI at the console and 989 at the bow, he uses LakeMaster mapping to set waypoints and mark tracks, which allows him to peck his way back through expansive stands of flooded wood.
"Waypoints are critical," he says. "With water levels changing all the time, you need to plot your way in and out of these areas. Plus, I mark productive areas like flooded campsites where gravel and wood intersect. We almost bounce our boat off trees, pitching to the tree bases and hard-bottom transitions."
Besides flooded campsites, Woodward targets underwater game trails. "I focus on areas that walleyes use to move back and forth, the same trails deer and elk use when the trails aren't flooded. Much of it is consistent in depth," he says.
What attracts walleyes to these areas are hard bottom as well as fathead minnows, silver shiners, gizzard shad, crawdads, insects, and even worms washed offshore during periods of rising water and early-summer rains. When the water's rising, the fish go shallow after the abundance of new life — bugs bring baitfish and walleyes follow.
He relies on three primary lures for wood walleyes, but his go-to is a slipfloat with livebait. "If I have the option, I pitch slipbobbers to the bases of trees, letting a leech fall slowly," he says. "I spend 15 to 30 minutes fancasting trees in a given area. I might tie the boat to a tree when I find a pod of fish. In some areas where the wind blows in, I use the SpotLock electronic anchoring feature on my Minn Kota Terrova bowmount to help me stay put. When water temperature is up, I swim the slipbobber rig slowly back to the boat to cover more water. Especially when fishing with clients, nothing beats watching a bobber go down."
Woodward's a fan of Thill weighted Pro Series slipbobbers which have a copper insert on the float top that keeps the line flowing smoothly and weight for longer casts. He sets his bobber stop to keep the bait a foot off bottom, whether he's in 2 or 10 feet of water. He prefers 7-foot medium-power moderate- to fast-action spinning rods and Pflueger Purist reels spooled with 10- or 15-pound Sufix 832 in solar green with an 18-inch section of 6- or 8-pound fluorocarbon leader attached to the mainline via a barrel swivel. To the leader he ties a 1/16- or 1/8-ounce Northland Fishing Tackle Neon RZ jighead, typically white or firetiger.
If a tournament is pending, everything changes. "When prefishing I don't mess with livebait," he says. "I use a curlytail or paddletail softbaits to cover water faster. I fish 1/4-ouncers aggressively and target feeding fish. I cover more water with a heavier jig." He uses Berkley PowerBaitPower Grubs in variations of white or chartreuse."
His other mainstay is a paddletail like a 3.5-inch Berkley Havoc Grass Pig or Zoom Swimmin' Super Fluke on 1/4-ounce Northland Neon RZ jigheads. I pitch these with a 6.5-foot medium-power fast-action rod paired with a size 30 Pflueger Purist spinning reel. White or firetiger are his favorite jighead colors, and for softbaits he likes Zoom's white ice or pearl blue and white for Grass Pigs.
He pitches into openings of about 3 feet by 12 feet, casting underhand from the bow. "Most of these spots look like alleys in the wood, flooded game trails, or campsite areas," he says. "There also are a lot of fallen trees, weeds, and patches of willow bushes in front of these spots. I let the grub drop, then swim it with occasional lifts. I fish paddletails with more of a vertical pop and short hops back to the boat that mimics how baitfish feed, dropping to the bottom and swimming back up."
When pitching softbaits, Woodward uses light mono, a head-scratcher given the thick cover: "I like 6-pound Stren mono in high-vis gold. I get better feel — sometimes the fish are sucking the bait in and swimming off with it. The advantage of the high-vis gold is you can see the line bounce before you feel a bite. Walleyes swim toward the boat, so you have to reel and set the hook at the same time. This line increases hookup and landing percentages. I don't mind losing jigs; they're cheap. But with the hi-vis line I catch more fish by seeing line movement and having a good bit of stretch."