January 01, 2016
No water in North America receives more attention from winter walleye anglers than massive Lake of the Woods. This million-acre pond offers different basins with vastly disparate water clarities. Walleyes in these basins have different moods, tendencies, and average sizes.
If numbers are your bag, then the central section of the lake from Baudette, Minnesota, to Kenora, Ontario, is where the action is, with some big fish mixed in. Meanwhile, the clearer sections that have lake trout offer opportunities for numbers of bigger fish. But timing the bite is critical or anglers chance ringing up a goose egg.
These are the walleye water clarity rules I use for fishing in the various water-clarity conditions on Lake of the Woods. This information can be applied first-hand for the many anglers who travel to fish the big lake, as well as to other walleye fisheries across the ice belt.
Clear Water versus Stained Water
The general rule is that walleyes often bite all day in stained water, while in clearer water the bite usually is confined to prime times at dawn and dusk. Variables such as forage and competition from other predators factor into the mix. Structural layout also helps to determine how fish react at times.
Throughout much of the center section of Lake of the Woods, walleyes are the dominant predator and this is one reason they show more aggression throughout the day. In the clear sections of Whitefish and Ptarmigan bays and their adjacent waters, there's more competition from pike, lake trout, and whitefish for smelt, the predominant forage. Walleyes there usually take a backseat during the day, waiting until lower light gives them a sharp vision advantage not only over their prey, but also over other predators.
Walleyes seldom show up on structure during the day in clear-water areas. The bite is almost entirely confined to prime time — early morning and evening. At times the bite's focused to the last half hour of light after sunset. When these fish show up they're ready to eat and can be triggered with aggressive lures.
In the stained lake sections you can also expect a prime-time flurry, but it's usually not as pronounced as on clear water. Here, the sunset bite might start at least a half hour before sunset and last well over an hour — but again, often the intensity isn't there.
The Traverse Basin
Chip Leer, cohost for In-Fisherman's Ice Fishing Guide TV, has spent years fishing the massive Traverse Basin of Lake of the Woods — the southern section of the lake out of Warroad and Baudette, Minnesota. He offers advice for finding a goldmine of whitetails in this stained water. "Think big," he says. "When fish are on structure, the biggest structures hold the largest schools of fish. Walleyes roam more over these large structures, and when they're roaming, they're catchable."
Leer says that another common midwinter pattern has walleyes roaming vast basin mudflats. Once you dial-in the key depth walleyes are using, it's usually better to wait for fish than to run and gun. "I usually use the same wait-'em-out tactics when I'm fishing on large rockbars or along rock edges," he says, "although I might move several times if I don't contact fish."
Leer has also spent many days on the ice with me on the clearer sections in the north end of the lake. Leer: "By comparison, walleyes on the south end respond less aggressively to lures and lure movements. Aggressive jigging might call fish in, but too often they're already predisposed to not bite when you use those movements. I use spoons and limit my lift-fall maneuvers to a time or two a minute. Often I suspend the spoon just above bottom with a float so the spoon holds dead still on the pause.
"Some of my favorites lures are the Custom Jigs Frisbee Jig, the Lindy Frostee, and the Northland Forage Minnow Jig. With all these I tip with a lively minnow hooked just under the skin near the dorsal fin, so it swims when the lure is paused. Prime lure colors include a mix of gold and red. I also like orange glow."
The Central Section
The heart of the lake, running from the Aulneau Peninsula north to Kenora, is home to some of the finest walleye fishing anywhere. I grew up fishing this section of the lake with its slightly stained water around Whiskey, Oliver, and Crescent Islands.
Dave Bennett runs fish houses on this part of the lake, has a vast amount of experience here, and offers instruction in finding fish. He uses a map as a key part of his approach. "The structures in this part of the lake are smaller but there are a lot of them in various forms," he says. "Island points, shoreline shelves, and humps all hold fish. Start searching in 35 feet and move shallower, especially late in the day. The key is to find spots that have large areas in the depth zone from 25 to 35 feet. Water from 15 to 20 feet deep is too shallow, although you might catch fish in the 20-foot zone at twilight."
Then again, last year during an extreme cold snap during February I called Bennett to ask if I could use one of his shacks. I had friends coming for the day and it was just too cold to run-and-gun with portable Otter shacks. Bennett offered the use of one of his, but said he'd just moved it the day before and thought perhaps he'd set it a bit too shallow for great fishing.
Sure enough, on entering the shack and cutting holes, we found we were on the high part of the structural element in 20 feet of water. Yet on the first drop I caught a nice walleye — and so did one of my friends. We pretty much whacked one fish after another for several hours, right during the middle of the day. So, keep an open mind about depth. We note tendencies about where fish usually hold but are always willing to try deeper or shallower water.
Bennett rigs three rods for each client to use, to determine what fish want at any given time. On one rod is a plain 1/4-ounce leadhead jig to be tipped with a minnow. Setup number two has a 1/4-ounce Buckshot Rattle Spoon ready to be tipped with a whole minnow or a minnow head. The third outfit offers a horizontal swimming jig like a Puppet Minnow or Jigging Rap, also usually tipped with a minnow head (on the treble hook).
On the color side of things, Bennett plays with various glow colors and regular combinations of gold and red. "I usually deadstick the jig-and-minnow combo and actively jig a spoon or Puppet Minnow on another rod. Experimentation suggests what the fish are looking for, but preferences often change throughout the day. Walleyes even at times show a preference for a frozen shiner versus a lively minnow or chub on a jig. And many times they prefer the vertical drop of the spoon to the horizontal planing of the Puppet Minnow, and vice versa — and this also changes from day to day, spot to spot, and even hour to hour."
Meanwhile, my dad and I have spent hundreds of hours over the years fishing this section of the lake. I'm a pretty good angler, but it's rare for me to outfish my dad here. The technique he uses bears mention — a 1/4-ounce Northland Whistler Jig tipped with a minnow, lifting it a foot and letting it fall back into position about a foot above the bottom. He usually pauses about 20 seconds to give fish a chance to bite, then repeats the procedure.
He runs the jig hook into the minnow's mouth and out just behind the head to hold the minnow in place. The propeller blade on the Whistler buzzes on the lift-fall then falls silent on the pause. I mention this presentation option because it seems to be overlooked everywhere walleyes swim in waters with medium clarity.
Ryan Haines, a topnotch guide from Kenora, offers more sturdy observation about fishing this section of Lake of the Woods. "The northern section of the lake close to Kenora," he says, "often shows a lull in walleye activity between midmorning and midafternoon, while structures farther south usually hold active fish all day long. This corresponds with the increase in water clarity near Kenora, as the suspended sediment contained in the inlets in the southern end of the lake gradually settle as the water flows north."
Clear Water Walleyes
The explosion of smelt in Lake of the Woods in the last decade has spurred walleye fishing in the clear-water sections not historically known for great walleye opportunities. I spend more time fishing clear water nowadays and enjoy the challenges of chasing these fish. They can be unpredictable but, when you get a good bite, it's some of the best fishing of all. They attack with aggression and run larger, with some real trophy fish mixed in.
I spend time jumping around on main-lake humps, the bigger the better, viewing with underwater cameras on some of these spots. The best of them have a lot of sand with boulders mixed in.
The toughest part of finding new spots is that the bite is limited to prime times. If sunset's at 5 o'clock you might not mark a fish until 5 minutes after 5, some days. Makes it hard to explore new areas, because you usually end up fishing known spots. Still, if a hump has a significant flat in the 30-foot range, it's usually going to get a movement of walleyes during prime time. It's just a matter of finding the sweet spot on that hump. So, before prime time you cut a bunch of holes along the drop-off edge and up on the flat, so you can move from hole to hole if necessary during the short window.
Occasionally when we're trout fishing we score walleyes in 40 to 60 feet of water suspended and mixed in with large schools of smelt that show on our electronics. We catch these walleyes on the jerk shads and white tubes we use for lakers. It makes sense that these fish that don't use structure during the day spend time suspended. But this isn't a dependable bite. Still, when you do happen on these fish, they're catchable.
Haines, another fishing partner, and I have spent a lot of time exploring walleyes in the clear-water sections of Lake of the Woods during the past years. Haines: "We get such a short window of activity that we don't have much time to experiment to see what style and color of lure the fish want," he says. "So we usually tie on two different lures and drill holes about 3 feet apart. Then I might fish a Jigging Shad Rap simultaneously against a Buckshot Spoon, for example. It's typical to find that one lure or the other triggers more fish on a given night. If we see a pattern, we usually just concentrate on fishing the rod with the hottest lure."
So, part of the experiment each night usually is with horizontal-swimming lures versus vertical-falling lures. The hottest one for me the last couple years has consistently been a 3/8-Buckshot Rattle Spoon in a revamped version of their Redfish color. It has a pink-and-white finish with a really bright red glow back. As far as I know, no other spoons like this one are on the market. I almost always have that tied on one rod to begin the evening, but it's still all about experimenting and letting the fish tell you what they want.
I tip all my spoons with a minnow head and do the same most of the time when fishing horizontal-swimming lures, especially when the bite is slower during midwinter. Haines, by comparison, tips spoons but not usually horizontal lures. We're also tipping with Gulp! Minnow Heads and Trigger-X Maggots, and they seem to work well.
I find that walleyes in clear water don't go quite so well for deadsticking. Besides, there are too many big critters — pike and lake trout — roaming this section of the lake. A dead rod can go down a hole pretty quickly when a 20-pound pike feels the hook. And besides, these walleyes often are so aggressive when they come in, that the lures we've mentioned are the best way to go.
Lake of the Woods truly is the "lake of many options" when it comes to catching walleyes under ice. These principles can help you catch fish on the big lake, but the ideas also transfer to fishing situations on other walleye waters.
*Jeff Gustafson, Kenora, Ontario, is a top guide, tournament angler, promotional fisherman, and freelance writer (gussyoutdoors.com).