While a fly-in Canadian fishing adventure can be an awesome experience, noteworthy drive-to walleye destinations abound in the Lower 48 and across Canada, within easy reach of anglers eager to sample world-class action without taking wing.
Considering the amazing options both countries are blessed with, narrowing the list of must-fish waters to 10 was no easy task. Many five-star fisheries, from the Columbia and Snake rivers of the West to Dale Hollow on the southern front, and countless Canadian gems — including Last Mountain Lake, the Winnipeg River, and legendary Bay of Quinte — were literally in the mix until the final cut.
Mitigating factors included numbers of fish and trophy potential. But in the end, the survivors also reflect personal feelings on fisheries sampled, and those still on the bucket list. Too, I wanted to highlight a variety of waters, rather than rattling off 10 Great Lakes tributaries, 10 prespawn rivers, and so on. That being said, here is our rundown of 10 favorite drive-to walleye Meccas, in alphabetical order.
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 'overs, ' 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.
*Dan Johnson of Harris, Minnesota, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and director of All Creation Outdoor Media.