April 30, 2015
By Dan Johnson
The Midwest is blessed with an abundance of blue-ribbon fisheries, which is why it is arguably the epicenter of the Walleye Belt. From Ohio west to the High Plains, the region is home to an amazing variety of fishable waters, from the mighty Great Lakes, to big rivers, and massive impoundments, to small lakes, streams, and quiet backwaters.
Finding walleye paradise among such a vast and diverse backdrop begins by deciding how you define happiness. Is it reeling in oodles of eater-sized 'eyes, perfect for filleting up into the kind of fine dining that puts other gamefish to shame or are marble-eyed monsters topping 10 pounds more your style?
Whatever your pleasure, the Midwest can accommodate it. Thanks to booming fisheries flush with healthy year-classes, many of the region's lakes and rivers are ready to serve up incredible fishing for 'eyes of all sizes. To help you find walleye bliss this season, we offer the following rundown of 10 of the Midwest's top walleye fisheries (in no particular order), with something for everyone in a variety of settings.
1. Detroit River, Michigan
In the shadows of the Motor City, the Detroit yields a spring bite that's rivaled by few fisheries on the planet. "In a typical spring, the first two weeks of April are phenomenal," says veteran walleye guide and tournament director Dan Palmer.
Waves of spawn-run walleyes rush in from Lake Erie, offering anglers one of the world's best shots at breaking the 10-pound barrier. Behemoths topping 15 pounds are possible in this monster fest, and it's not uncommon for spring tournaments, like the Cabela's Masters Walleye Circuit's annual Detroit River event, to see five-fish baskets tip the scale at more than 50 pounds.
"If you like jigging, it's paradise," says Palmer, who has seen half-ounce leadheads tipped with artificial softbaits, such as 3-inch Berkley Gulp! Alive! Ripple Shads, produce epic catches.
"It's incredible," adds well-traveled walleye tournament angler Dan Zwick. "These are the biggest walleyes I've ever caught jigging. There's nothing like getting bit by fish so huge they don't even budge when you set the hook."
Trolling stickbaits on hand-line rigs is another popular tactic among savvy locals. A variety of structure holds fish, from rocky points in 14 to 17 feet of water to countless other breaks, edges, eddies, and flats. It's worth noting that the Detroit offers solid walleye fishing even after the Lake Erie fish return to the big lake, although your odds of a wall-hanger diminish considerably.
2. Devils Lake, North Dakota
Famous for giant yellow perch topping a pound, this massive plains oasis also boasts a thriving walleye population that offers year-round opportunities. Fueled by banner reproduction, the number of 15- to 20-inch fish is above the long-term average, with plenty of larger fish in the mix to keep things interesting.
Local guide and tournament ace, Jason Feldner, kicks off the open-water season by casting jigs tipped with leeches to prespawn fish gathered wherever current is available. Necked-down bridge areas and culverts are among his favorite fishing grounds. "In years with little current, rocky shorelines can be a factor, too," he says, adding that a floating Lindy Rig and a leech is a great complement to jigging.
Later on, a variety of patterns emerge, from bobber fishing walleyes around cattails and flooded trees, to trolling riprap and midlake structure. In the winter, walleye fishing remains strong, with shorelines and humps producing equally well.
3. Lake Erie, Ohio
If you've never fished walleyes on Erie, you owe yourself a trip. From prespawn action jigging the reefs after ice-out in March and early April, to casting shallow main-lake structure and trolling openwater as the schools head east during summer, the big lake offers world-class walleye action for fish of all sizes, including giants.
Capt. Gary Zart of Blue Dolphin Charters in Brunswick, Ohio, says a typical three-person summertime charter sees 25 to 30 walleyes averaging 8 pounds swing over the rail each day. Zart keys on water temperature and the abundance of forage such as smelt to stay on the bite, shadowing the walleye's eastward migration from spring into summer, then back again later in the season.
Palmer notes tactics shift throughout the summer. "The bite for eastbound walleyes headed into deeper water switches from predominantly cranks to crawler harnesses," he explains, adding a cautionary note that fishing deep water doesn't necessarily mean fishing far from the surface. "The stronger the wind blows, the higher walleyes are apt to move. Don't be afraid to fish two feet down over 50 feet of water — but always keep at least one bouncer on bottom, just in case."
4. Green Bay, Lake Michigan, Wisconsin
Massive Lake Michigan offers excellent walleye fishing from Bays de Noc south, but Wisconsin's Green Bay is a standout for 'eyes of outlandish proportions.
The fishery is as good as ever since its return to glory following the Clean Water Act and tactical stocking, offering above- average odds of 28- to 30-inch-plus giants, plus plenty of smaller fish. In general, target spawning reefs and tributaries, like the Fox or Menominee rivers in April, then troll the flats through May into June, and deeper water August and September.
Top touring pro, Keith Kavajecz, fishes Green Bay all season, with late May into June his favorite time frame. "Trolling takes fish, but I like casting into 15 to 30 feet of water along the edges of reefs, shoreline points, and other drop-offs with 3/8-ounce jigs tipped with 4-inch Berkley Gulp! Minnows in shades of chartreuse and pink," he says. "You can also cast glide baits, like a Shiver Minnow, into the same areas."
Capt. Jason Muche notes that in June, many Green Bay walleyes also gravitate toward deeper water and softer substrate. He tracks the transition into 14 to 20 feet of water, especially off Geano's Reef, and follows the deep breakline from rock, gravel, and clay down into the mud, where he focuses on 20- to 30-foot depths. "The mud bite lasts through September," he says. "With fish moving progressively north."
5. Mississippi River, Minnesota/Wisconsin/Iowa
From its headwater reaches around Grand Rapids, Minnesota, down through the Twin Cities and along the borders with Wisconsin and Iowa, the upper Mississippi is an A-list walleye fishery.
Options abound. In spring, classic prespawn patterns include fishing jigs tipped with plastic trailers and real minnows below dams and around tributaries, channel breaks, wing dams, and flooded shoreline timber. Later on, trolling three-way rigs and crankbaits along channels and flats is a top option. Fall also offers fine fishing when walleyes again stack up in predictable places.
In the river's upper, more free-flowing sections, veteran walleye stalkers Scott and Marty Glorvigen look for corner holes typically maxing out at 5 to 8 feet deep, and classic mixes of riffles, runs, rapids, and chutes. "Will you catch a 10?" asks Scott. "Probably not. But scores of feisty fish up to 4 pounds? Definitely — if you play your cards right."
One of the Glorvigens' top patterns tactics is casting minnow-imitating stickbaits around prime lies, and retrieving them with a well-orchestrated series of cranks, pulls, and pauses performed in concert with the lure's angle of attack to the current and its relation to eddies, seams, cover, or structure.
6. Saginaw Bay, Lake Huron, Michigan
Thanks to massive rebuilding efforts by the state Department of Natural Resources and anglers' groups, the bay's walleye fishery has risen from the ashes of virtual extinction during the 1970s to a world-class destination offering year-round action.
Successful tournament competitor Steve Vande Mark of Linwood, Michigan, says the system sees an influx of main-lake fish in winter and early spring. As a result, anglers enjoy banner ice fishing, as well as fine early open-water action anywhere from near-shore flats to the Saginaw River and various structure where walleyes stage on their way in and out of the spawning grounds.
On ice, swimming jigs, like the Northland Puppet Minnow and Jigging Rapala, are popular lures, as are a variety of classic walleye spoons. When the icepack retreats, spinner harnesses, live-bait rigs, cranks, and jigs all have their moments.
Once the water warms during the post-spawn period, many walleyes head back for Lake Huron. "We see two major schools," he reports. "One moves east toward the tip of the thumb, while the other hugs the west side out to Thunder Bay and Alpena."
These migratory summertime fish are a troller's delight. While some fishermen target deep water, Vande Mark thinks thin along the bay's east shore. "I've found plenty of walleyes in the 16- to 25-foot depth range," he says. "These are better than average fish, too, running 4 to 6 pounds, with some up to 9." To catch them, he looks for food sources, such as exotic gobies, which filled in gaps in walleye diets when other baitfish populations faltered, then pulls diving stickbaits on 10-pound-test line at speeds up to 1.5 mph.
7. Lake McConaughy, Nebraska
Spanning more than 35,000 acres, this Cornhusker hotspot produced the state record (a 16-pound, 2-ounce giant), and holds ample numbers of walleyes from eaters to trophies. "Big Mac," as it's fondly known, offers action all season, and is particularly known for yielding fish over 25 inches in length.
In spring, anglers and walleyes converge near the dam, making for fast and furious fishing that borders on a mob scene. After the spawn, crowds disperse as walleyes wander the Platte River impoundment's structure and flooded wood in search of alewives and other sustenance.
To catch these vagabonds — which often stretch more than 30 inches in length — veteran guide Rob Rowland trolls flooded trees with small, banana-shaped crankbaits like Lindy River Rockers, which strafe the perimeters of gnarly tangles with relative impunity compared to bulkier baits sporting larger trebles. His rigging includes a 27-pound leadcore mainline linked by a barrel swivel to a 20-pound superline leader.
Come fall, Rowland plays the deep game, jigging slab spoons weighing up to an ounce on superbraid mainline over sand ledges in 35 to 55 feet of water. His sleight of hand hinges on aggressive two-foot rips, followed by slack-line drops. The combination routinely tricks walleyes up to 14 pounds into taking the bait.
8. Lake Oahe, South Dakota/North Dakota
Thanks to big numbers of walleyes in the 15- to 17-inch ballpark plus plenty of "overs," this Missouri River reservoir offers fine fishing all season. To tip the odds of enjoying banner days in your favor, start in the upper lake early, then follow the down-bound migration past Mobridge to Pierre. Crawler harnesses, cranks, and jigs all account for fish, depending on conditions.
When walleyes hover around flooded timber during summer, expert guide and tournament champ Paul Steffen tickles the treetops with hand-tied spinner rigs sporting a #1 or 1/0 light-wire Aberdeen hook on a 6-foot fluorocarbon leader. He also fishes 1- to 2½-ounce, double-willow spinnerbaits when the fish descend deep into the woody cover. Tipping the bait with an artificial, paddle-tailed softbait adds attraction and elicits extra strikes.
Crankbaits are also top options. While long, banana-style stickbaits have enjoyed success, don't overlook smaller, shad-style baits trolled at a variety of depths depending on where walleyes and baitfish show up on sonar. Sometimes the fish can be surprisingly shallow even in the summertime, when wind whips waves against shorelines, muddying the water and triggering a feeding frenzy.
9. Lake Winnebago Chain, Wisconsin
This amazing Badger State system actually includes four legendary lakes — Winnebago, Butte des Morts, Poygan and Winneconne — plus the Fox and Wolf rivers, offering limitless options virtually year-round.
Spring is a top time to tap the bite, when scores of walleyes flood the rivers on their annual spawning run. When the run begins, longtime guide Jason Muche dances a ¼- to 3/8-ounce jig tipped with a minnow in holes, eddies, and along channel breaks where walleyes pause for a bite on their way upstream.
When the water warms to the lower 40s and big female walleyes move onto shallow shoreline flats, he casts small crankbaits to open pockets in woody cover such as stumps, logs, and laydowns. Once procreation ceases and the fish begin moving back downstream, he trolls the same lures on three-way rigs along channel breaks.
Summer sees a variety of patterns, from offshore trolling to river jigging and extracting salad-loving walleyes from shoreline weedbeds. In fall, a massive run of 15- to 18-inch male walleyes pours into deep holes from the mouth of the Wolf in Lake Poygan up to New London. The action is largely overlooked, leading Muche to quip, "It's the fastest fishing nobody knows about."
10. Lake of the Woods, Minnesota
Walleye hotspots abound in the Gopher State, from big waters like Leech Lake and Winnibigoshish to countless smaller honeyholes, but the state's slice of Lake of the Woods is a perennial powerhouse, year-round.
Early in the year, post-spawn fish drop out of the incoming Rainy River, offering great fishing in the lower river and near-shore structure. From May into June, veteran guide Jon Thelen says the fish begin to move deeper, but aren't quite out in the main lake basin. "On Lake of the Woods, you're usually not seeing the main lake bite this early," he says. "But you do see fish slide onto the first deeper break offshore, often into 17 to 19 feet of water."
Presentation-wise, Thelen advises tactical transitions from anchor-and-jig approaches to pulling spinner rigs parallel to fish-holding breaks. "Once you find them, they're easy to fish with a 1½-ounce bouncer, spinner, and crawler setup," he reports.
Later in summer, as walleyes move into deeper water offshore, trolling crankbaits behind downriggers or heavy bottom bouncers is a top tactic. In fall, many fish begin heading back toward shallower water, a trend that continues into the winter months, which typically produce great fishing from freeze-up to late March.