Walleye Structure: Feast or Famine
August 01, 2012
On Eric Naig's home waters in northern Iowa -- the diametrically opposed West and East Lake Okobojis -- the former pro walleye angler now with Berkley has "issues." Structure issues, that is, affecting whether he zigs to one lake or zags to the other. You see, West Okoboji has tons of structure, while East Okoboji has virtually none.
"It's sometimes hard to fish with so much good-looking stuff," Naig says. "I'm always looking for precise spots. If I'm fishing a point, I fish the cup or the turn along the edge. Seven, eight, nine times out of ten, that's the place to look. On the other hand, with a whole bunch of nothing, you have to either rely on your electronics to find fish or just go fishing to find them. Or both."
Faced with a glut of structure -- weedlines, drops, deep rocks, and more -- Naig know that it pays to search for the best of the best. But when the water's bereft of underwater features, you must search with electronics or lures to find fish in the void. Either way, your work's cut out for you.
Ross Grothe, a walleye pro from Northfield, Minnesota, has a clever twist on an old theme that captures the premise of his preliminary research. "Usually when I approach a new body of water," Grothe says, "I roam in Rome with the Romans." This means that Grothe explores local patterns and productive areas for starters. After that, he branches out to search for similar areas on his own. Grothe bases this strategy on the premise that certain waters have their own characters. For instance, when the wind blows on Leech Lake (Minnesota), it's a signal to fish in 10 feet or less. Say what you want about local information, but such guidelines undoubtedly help narrow the search on a lake more than ten times the size of Manhattan.
Fleshing out a preliminary search strategy even further, PWT Director Chip Leer complements local information with a lake map that helps him break down Leech Lake info sections. It's an approach Leer learned years earlier from more seasoned guides on Lake of the Woods. "They taught me to break the lake into sections and tear it apart," Leer says. "That way, if you develop a pattern in one section, no matter where you go on the lake, you should be able to duplicate it."
Next in the plan of attack on a "structure-fest" is to look for prime pieces of main-lake structure. "In a summer pattern, I look to the deepest part of the lake within a mile or two of spawning areas -- rock bars and reefs in the middle of the lake," says Dan Plautz, PWT pro from Muskego, Wisconsin. "If the body of water has a ton of weeds, that's my secondary spot."
After exhausting prime structure (though that may be virtually impossible) or deciding upon a change of pace, Naig offers a viable Plan B. "Even with all the good-looking structure, we catch a lot of fish on flats. Classic structure can get beat up so hard that you should start looking for less obvious spots."
On deeper flats, Naig searches both with electronics and bottom bouncer-spinner combos -- efficient ways to cover water and catch fish at the same time. In deeper water, of course, the importance of electronics can't be underestimated. "Deeper than 20 feet, fish can't hide from your electronics," Naig says. "In depths less than 15 feet, you have to fish for them."
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Most of the time when fishing structure-free zones, that's precisely what you have to do to locate walleyes -- fish for them. While doing so, pay attention with lures and electronics to the slightest change in depth. A six-inch change extending for a quarter mile can be a break -- and essentially the structure -- on an otherwise nondescript stretch of bottom. You might feel such a change with your sinker or spot it on electronics.
Simply catching fish helps decipher the lay of the underwater land. Say you're fishing jigs or rigs and you nail a walleye. Pitch out a floating marker or punch in an icon on your GPS. Return to the spot, fish it, and circle it, paying attention to the depth and bottom content. Did the depth dip a tad or did the bottom change from soft to hard? If so, you're on the right track.
Spinners tipped with livebait are efficient search tools as well. "I'm not a patient angler," Leer says. "I tend to move fast to hunt for fish. One reason I like spinners is that you don't necessarily even have to catch a fish to find out if they're down there; if the skin on your minnow is pulled back, that usually indicates a walleye. Turn around and go back through the spot again.
"To me, spinners demand a reaction. We're forcing fish to make a decision. All we're looking for is one fish to say, "Stop. Fish here."
For his part, Naig is partial to crankbaits on dishpan-shaped lakes. Here the fish could be high off bottom, out of the range of electronics, or scattered almost anywhere. Most of the time, though, Naig says the walleyes are in the upper half of the water column. With crankbaits positioned behind planer boards, Naig trolls across the open basin, kicking his speed up as high as 3 mph. To keep track of where you've been and to continue covering fresh water, watch the plotter screen on a GPS unit.
Which crankbaits you choose are a function of lake style, water temperature, and forage. During summer in warm prairie lakes that typically are devoid of structure and full of small panfish and bullheads as food sources, Naig likes short, fat cranks such as the Berkley Frenzy. Shad-shaped baits are excellent choices as well. Look to perch, chrome, and bluegill colors -- better yet if the bait has a splash of orange.
One way or another, you must go get 'em. Whether it's searching out precise spots on structure-fests, or fishing to find walleyes in a structure-free zone, deploy the respective plans to trigger a response. Fish are, after all, where you find 'em.
Lakes with an abundance of classic structure offer fish numerous holding places: points and turns in the contour, humps, changes in bottom composition, perhaps weedbeds, and other options. In the midst of plenty, seek out distinctive spots that concentrate fish. Such areas are often present in the form of depth changes that are clearly visible on electronics.
Lakes with an absence of classic structure offer subtler general holding areas where fish may spread loosely across slow-tapering depth changes, variations in bottom content visible on electronics, or other subtle fish attractors. In some cases, the presence of fish life detected on electronics betrays walleye location despite an apparent lack of anything to attract and hold fish.