The Ultimate Walleye Milk Run
February 20, 2014
A month off every year, whenever we want, wherever we want to go, or a time machine to be at different places at an instant. That's not too much to ask for, is it? Surely not in the pursuit of big walleyes, and most certainly not in the quest for the most gargantuan walleyes swimming today.
Even if we were so fortunate, time is only one critical element in your pursuit of a walleye of a lifetime. You also need to be there at the right time, with the right lure or bait, and on the right side of manifold other factors, including a bit of good luck to string it all together. With some planning and homework, we try to make luck less of a key element in this pursuit.
It starts with being on the right water. Not just waters for big walleyes. There are many of those — too many to mention here — across North America that steadily produce 8-, 9-, and 10-pound fish. These are special places in their own right. But 13s, 14s, 15s, and larger — freaky big — that's what we're talking here.
We see these giants pass through our offices among the In-Fisherman Master Angler walleye entries, like a recent 34-incher from the Columbia River, a 15-pound 12-ouncer from the Detroit River, 16-plus pounders from the Menominee and Detroit rivers, and one just shy of 35 inches from Lake Erie. That was a catch-and-release entry so it wasn't weighed. If it were in better-than-average body condition, it could have gone 18-plus. Master Angler fish are just a sampling of the biggest walleyes caught each year.
We're also fortunate to fish various locations that are known for legendary walleyes as we gather footage for In-Fisherman Television and material for In-Fisherman Magazine and Annual Guides. Staying current with these terrific fisheries and top times and presentations also keeps staff editors and field editors in contact with local guides and other experts.
The ultimate milk run for giant walleyes today, looking west to east, would start on the lower Columbia River, where we'd pull spinner rigs and crankbaits for huge 'eyes from fall into winter. It's a phenomenal fishery for fish to 16-plus pounds. From there we'd make stops at Saskatchewan waters, Last Mountain and Tobin lakes. Both lakes regularly give up fish over 13 pounds, many through the ice, but fall also is prime. The 18.3-pound world ice-fishing record was caught on Tobin.
In Manitoba, giant, fertile Lake Winnipeg and connecting rivers grow big numbers of huge 'eyes, with fall runs in the Winnipeg and Red rivers producing memorable fish on trolled crankbaits. Fish over 15 pounds are caught through the ice out in the big lake from December through March. Lake of the Woods, shared by Minnesota and Ontario, consistently produces 10s and 12s.
Then we'd visit the phenomenal Great Lakes fisheries, starting at Green Bay, in top form now for big walleyes, with tributaries like the Fox and Menominee rivers best in spring. Several Master Angler fish up to 33 inches have been submitted from the Fox, with a 16-pound 4-ouncer from the Menominee in recent years, all in April. Upper Green Bay also is a notable summer fishery for big 'eyes. Moving along, fall trolling on the Bays De Noc of Lake Michigan produces walleyes to 12 pounds. Many more must-stops — western basin of Lake Erie, the Detroit River, Lake Huron's Georgian Bay, and the Bay of Quinte, which in late October until freeze-up might be the best fishery in the world for huge walleyes. At the east end of Lake Ontario in New York, the Henderson Harbor area offers giants, as does the St. Lawrence River, particularly the area near Kingston, Ontario. Also look into sections farther upstream, such as near Cornwall.
We could go on, with world-class waters like Bull Shoals in Arkansas, McConaughy in Nebraska, among others. As for being in the right place at the right time, though, this should get you started. As for the rest, we do our best, such as in this Walleye Guide, to help you along the way — to make luck a smaller player — in your quest for walleyes of a lifetime.
Columbia River, Washington
Given the Columbia River's reputation for producing trophy walleyes in the 15- to 18-pound range — and this certified 20-pounder, there\'s not doubt that even bigger walleyes roam the river's swirling depths. Excellent habitat, along with an abundance of juvenile shad and salmon, plus perch, peamouth, whitefish, and other forage, for fueling the production of over-sized walleyes.
Devils Lake, North Dakota
Spanning roughly 160,000 acres, Devils holds hordes of eaters under 3 pounds along with trophies topping 10. And it's rich in flooded cover, offering fishing options to fit virtually everyone's strong suit. Feeder creeks and current-washed bridge areas produce early, followed by weedy bays, deep timberlines, rocks, and flooded roadways as the season progresses. Classic patterns include slipbobbering cattail edges in back bays, as well as gnarly tangles of standing timber. But don't be afraid to think outside the box. In August 2012, Scott Busteed and Dave Harmon topped 228 anglers competing in the Cabela's MWC-Devils Lake Chamber of Commerce dual tournament by targeting hungry 'eyes gorging on freshwater shrimp in two feet of water. The hot zone was a mudline within eight feet of the bank, created by heavy equipment building up a shoreline roadbed. The killer tactic was trolling Berkley Flicker Shads 1.8 to 2 mph behind planer boards. Contacts: Guide Jon Dircks, 701/230-9469; Ed's Bait Shop, 701/662-8321, edsbaitshop.com; Mitchell's Guide Service, 701/662-6560, fishdevilslake.net.
Fort Peck Lake, Montana
If you're looking for a road trip, this 134-mile-long Missouri-River impoundment in the heart of remote Big Sky country offers an off-the-grid destination. For numbers of eaters plus cisco-fattened footballs over 10 pounds, fish the upper reaches and Big Dry Arm early, then troll deeper mid- and lower lake areas in June and July. Be forewarned, these fish are nomadic, and mudlines or stained water areas can be key to finding a hot school of wandering 'eyes. Pull crankbaits or spinner rigs with nightcrawlers to pin down wayward wolfpacks, which offer a watery game of here today, gone tomorrow hide-and-seek. Contacts: Guide Bernie Hildebrand, 406/234-6342, fortpeckguide.com; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 877/444-6777.
Green Bay, Wisconsin
No offense to Bears and Vikings fans, but Green Bay is always a title contender — at least when it comes to lighting up the scoreboard with big numbers of beefy walleyes. Biologists report this amazing fishery is as good as ever since its return to glory following the Clean Water Act and hardcore stocking. As a result, it offers walleye fans above-average odds of hooking up with 28- to 30-inch-plus giants, along with an abundance of smaller fish. Options abound, but a classic game plan includes targeting spawning reefs and tributaries like the Fox, Wolf, or Menominee rivers in April, then trolling the flats through May into June, and plying deeper water in August and September. Contact: Capt. Jason Muche, 920/210-0181; Capt. Bret Alexander, 920/851-4214, alexandersportfishing.com; Capt. Tom Zollar, greenbaywalleyes.com.
Lake Erie, Michigan/Ohio/
If you've never experienced Erie, it's time. The big lake offers world-class walleye action for fish of all sizes, including an incredible number of trophies. Right now the population is riding a strong year-class from 2003, with survivors of the 2001, 2005, and 1999 hatches adding monsters to the mix. The season starts with jigging prespawn giants on the reefs just after ice-out in March and early April. Shortly after, the program shifts to casting shallow main-lake structure and trolling open water. Keep in mind, while many fish migrate as the schools head eastward into deep water during summer, some fish remain within striking distance of the western ports all season. Come fall and winter, some of the year's wildest big-fish action occurs. If fishable ice develops, the hardwater period is another great time to hit Erie. Contacts: Capt. Ryan Buddie, 440/666-3265, ryanbuddie.com; Blue Dolphin Charters, 216/849-4954, bluedolphinwalleye.com.
Lake Oahe, South Dakota/North Dakota
Brimming with booming numbers of walleyes in the 17- to 18-inch ballpark plus plenty of 'œovers,' this High Plains paradise offers stellar fishing all season. To play the numbers game, start in the upper lake early, then follow the down-bound migration past the fisherman-friendly hamlet of Mobridge and on to the bright lights of Pierre. Early on, tributary arms can be a hot option, but don't overlook the main lake — which remains a solid choice well into summer. If water levels allow, break ranks from the offshore flotilla and pull deep-bodied cranks like Rapala Shad Raps and Berkley Flicker Shads along the inside treeline, where most trollers fear to tread. In general on Oahe, crawler harnesses, cranks, and jigs all account for fish, depending on conditions. Contacts: Guide Paul Steffen, 866/791-6222, huntpierre.com; Guide Chad Schilling, Oahe Wings and Walleyes, 605/649-7331, oahewings.com.
St. Louis River, Minnesota/Wisconsin
Flush with resident fish plus migratory spawners from Lake Superior, the revitalized lower river's 11,500-acre estuary offers amazing action for everything from eaters to trophies topping 10 from the May opener into June, from Fond du Lac Dam to the Wisconsin Entry on Minnesota Point. Early on, it's not uncommon to find fish prowling shallow weedbeds, or the dunes just inside Park Point, but main-channel hotspots are always worth checking. As the season progresses, trollers tap the channel edge, while autumn ushers in a great jig bite along dilapidated piers and pilings. During winter, the lower river offers another blast of action, with trophy 'eyes a possibility on any given jigstroke. Contact: Capt. Charlie Nelson, 218/628-1681, stlouisriverguy.com.
Lake of the Woods, Minnesota/Manitoba/
There's enough water and structure to last a lifetime on this sprawling border water. On the U.S. side, the mid-May opener finds postspawn fish pouring out of the Rainy River, spilling onto adjacent structure. Island and main-lake shorelines hold steady into June, with the deep trolling bite on mid-lake mud and rocks firing up in July, and the fall shiner run luring walleyes to the river again in fall. North of the border, epic days are possible with a variety of tactics in a classic Canadian Shield setting. Both sides of the lake also offer excellent ice fishing. Contacts: Zippel Bay Resort, 800/222-2537, zippelbay.com. Guide Dave Bennett, 807/466-2140, davebennettoutdoors.com.
St. Marys River, Michigan/Ontario
From the mid-May opener on, the scenic St. Marys offers world-class walleye action all season. Fast-warming bays are hot right out of the gate. For example, trolling crankbaits (tip: Salmo's size 4 Hornet is a hot ticket with savvy locals) or crawlers and spinner rigs in 2- to 8-foot depths off the weededge in Brimley Bay is a top option. Lake George is another standout, and remains in play long after other bays cool off as walleyes gravitate toward main-channel edges. Slow-death-style spinner rigs with half a crawler shine for tapping the shipping lane bite — which, be forewarned, requires dodging 1,000-footers now and again. The river rocks into late summer, when mimicking juvenile lampreys migrating out of tributaries like the Garden River is a great pattern. Guide John Giuliani and twin brother Joe master that program by drifting 3- to 4-inch crawlers on fluorocarbon leaders, behind 2-ounce pencil sinkers rigged on 6-inch droppers. Contacts: Dave Atkinson, Wild Bill's Bait and Tackle, 906/635-5430; Guide John Giuliani, 705/942-5473.
Detroit River, Michigan/Ontario
Early open-water season is the peak time to catch Motor City madness and haul big numbers of 'eyes from the swift currents of the short but sweet Detroit. Starting as soon as late March, but more often in April — depending on how quickly Old Man Winter loosens his icy grip on the region — hordes of spawn-run walleyes flood in from Lake Erie. Time it right, and spawn-laden females topping 10 are so commonplace, it takes an 11 or 12 to raise eyebrows at the dock, and behemoths pushing 14 and up are possible.
Handlining stickbaits shines in the fierce current, but vertical jigging accounts for plenty of fish as well. In April of 2013, for example, Iowans Carl Holten and Marty Stuefen jigged to victory over 122 boats competing in the Cabela's Masters Walleye Circuit's annual tournament, with 10 walleyes weighing 86 pounds, 2 ounces. Three-eighth-ounce leadheads tipped with a piggybacked Berkley PowerBait Twitchtail Minnow and shiner turned the tide in depths of 6 to 12 feet over hard bottom.
Contacts: Capt. Mike Knippenberg, 440/669-4441; Downriver Walleye Federation, dwfonline.com; Capt. Jon Bondy, lakestclairfishing.com.
Bull Shoals Lake, Arkansas/Missouri
Few fisheries can match mighty Bull Shoals for sheer numbers of 'eyes over 18 inches, plus the potential for prehistoric giants topping 15 pounds. During the prespawn in late February, as well as the Postspawn Period from the first of April through mid-May, savvy anglers target concentrations of fish in the upper White River toward Taneycomo, along with main-lake points near Bull Shoals Dam. Depending on water levels, summertime options include everything from flooded timber to offshore structure. When the water's up, trolling livebait rigs along treelines is a top tactic, though bait-snatching bluegills can test your patience — and your bait supply. Contacts: Bull Shoals Lake Boat Dock, 870/445-4424, bullshoalslakeboatdock.com; Guide Daryl Bink, binksguideservice.com.