Walleyes In Weeds
March 19, 2014
Walleye fans focus ample attention on classic structural sweet spots such as rocky reefs, gravel bars, and intersections between hard and soft bottom. All too often, however, we overlook another form of prime real estate that holds equal and often greater promise from the early season well into summer and beyond — weededges.
Rich in baitfish and other forage, weedbeds attract hungry 'eyes in fisheries from small natural waters to the Great Lakes. Weededges are often focal points of feeding activity, and finely tuned, aggressive tactics for targeting these transitions between open water and the jungle can yield banner catches trumping traditional areas.
Little Big Bait
On Minnesota's storied Mille Lacs Lake, veteran guide Mike Christensen plies the greenery early on, and again in fall from the time water temperatures hits 55°F until freeze-up. Any time forage concentrates walleyes in and around weedbeds, the green card is in play.
One of his favorite new tactics combines livebait-rigging, spinners, and crankbaits into one presentation. It hinges on a new hybrid rig from Lindy called the Lil' Guy, which blends a two-hook 'crawler harness with a small, floating, hard-plastic body. "It offers elements of all three methods — vibration, side-to-side movement, taste, and scent — in a package that can be fished at speeds from .3 to 2.5 mph," he explains.
Christensen notes that the Lil' Guy's hard wobble spins 'crawler tails a bit differently than standard spinners, which is notable for two reasons. First, it does a great baitfish imitation. Second, it's a different look. "This is a big deal where fish are used to seeing spinner rigs," he says. He fishes the rigs on 7- to 7½-foot casting or spinning gear, with 8- to 10-pound mono. The hybrid head doesn't dive, so an L-arm bottom bouncer separates his mainline from the 36-inch, 14-pound fluorocarbon snell. "The rig rises about a foot off bottom, perfect for skipping over weed stubble along the base of the edge," he says. "And, because the head floats, it doesn't sink and foul when you pause it."
That's a key point, since he spices presentations with sweeps and pauses to trigger strikes from following walleyes. Speeds vary, too, until a pattern unfolds. He says a 1½-ounce bouncer is best at 1.5 mph or less, and 2- to 3-ouncers are better for faster speeds or in deep water. "I keep the line at a 45-degree angle to the surface, so the sinker doesn't drag," he says. "This also limits slack."
Christensen cautions that setting the hook on hybrid rigs is different than when livebait-rigging. "Most fish hit hard, from the side," he says. "Don't drop the rod tip or feed the fish line, just set the hook immediately."
In-Fisherman friend Jason Mitchell has guided on Devils Lake, North Dakota, for more than 15 years. He's shared insight on tactics that shine along weededges, such as pitching crankbaits and swimbaits shallow, but recently discussed strategies for spurring inactive weed walleyes into action by working the edge from the inside out.
"Fish sulking in weeds are tough to trigger," he says. "Get them moving and they become biters."
He accomplishes this by motoring into the bed with his bowmount electric trolling motor and paralleling the edge less than a cast-length away from it. Fish flaring from the boat are intercepted with casts fired both ahead of the boat and toward the edge. "We're not talking slop or matted vegetation," he says. "This works well in pencil weeds or cabbage, particularly on calm days when the fish are lethargic. It's great early in the day, during spring, when the water's cool and the fish are inactive in less than five feet of water."
A variety of presentations catch fish. Shallow-diving crankbaits such as Shallow Shad Raps or 8F Salmo Perch fuel aggressive search tactics. Other top picks — especially for fish that follow but don't bust a burning crank — include minnow-imitators like Smithwick's Rattlin' Rogue, and jigs tipped with paddletail swimbaits or livebaits such as shiner minnows and leeches.
Mitchell not only varies retrieves until patterns take shape, he tinkers with casting angles as well. "Walleyes need to see the bait coming," he says. "Variables such as wind and reverse currents affect the direction they're facing, so I experiment with the angle of my casts." Even the steepness of the break can play a role in appropriate casting angles. "On slow tapers, a 60-degree angle to the edge might work, while 20 degrees is better on a steep break," he says. Finding the perfect angle often is easier to achieve when casting toward deeper water, raising another benefit of working edges inside out.
Before you head out to try it, consider this: The tactic isn't suited to repeat passes. "You get one pass through the weedbed, then it takes 30 to 45 minutes for the area to recharge," he says. "I put together a milk run of spots and rotate through them."
Although the Great Lakes are known for open-water action, their weedbeds hold a wealth of opportunities. Wisconsin walleye anglers Tony Kobriger and Dan Zwick know the drill, and last season parlayed big-water weed bites into a world championship victory — their second — and a qualifier win against the veteran sticks on the Cabela's Masters Walleye Circuit.
Let's start with the MWC qualifier, held on Green Bay out of Oconto in late May. The pair zeroed in on forage-rich greenery in just 8 feet of water. "A cold spring had delayed weedgrowth, so the cabbage beds were only 6 to 8 inches tall — but they still held baitfish," says Kobriger, who verified the presence of minnows and small yellow perch by dropping his Vexilar underwater camera over the rail.
The team tried slow-trolling crankbaits and spinner rigs, to no avail. Their epiphany came when Zwick made a tight turn while towing cranks. The outside board skipped across the surface, then fell back as a hungry walleye hit the bait. "That clued us in to speeds of 2.2 mph," Kobriger says.
They quickly established tackle protocol, which included 10-pound-test Trilene XT monofilament mainline, a small swivel, 5-foot leader of 12-pound Sufix Invisiline fluorocarbon tipped with a snap (no swivel) and a size 7 Berkley Flicker Shad or Rapala Shad Rap. Shad-like shades of gray with a touch of yellow yielded the most fish.
Kobriger and Zwick used an outside-in approach. "We started on the deep weededge, with three lines on planer boards stacked on the edge side of the boat, because we didn't want to spook fish holding inside the bed until we picked off the ones on the outside," he says. After attacking the edge, they slid shallower and trolled just above the weedtops.
In October 2013, Zwick and Kobriger faced their toughest test of the season, competing in the MWC Championship on Lake Michigan's Big and Little Bays de Noc. The bays' legendary late-season big-fish bite had yet to get legs, and many of the 47 teams battling for top honors and a slice of the $100,000 payout struggled to pull patterns together.
Zwick and Kobriger struck paydirt on a small cabbage bed near Round Island on Big Bay. "It was a small patch, about a third of a football field in size," Kobriger says. "The key was finding the greenest, healthiest cabbage available." The greenery, which rose to heights of 6 to 10 feet in 14 to 17 feet of water, held scads of 4- to 6-inch yellow perch — plus a host of predators including pike, smallmouth bass, and walleyes. "You could tell when the fish were going to turn on, because 5- and 6-pound smallies started busting on top," he says. "Once that happened, the whole food chain erupted."
While the entire bed held fish, the outside edge was the sweet spot. Kobriger and Zwick pulled spinner rigs 1.0 to 1.2 mph, again relying on 10-pound XT mainline. Strung from 15-pound Sufix Invisiline, their rigs spanned 5½ feet, and were weighted with 1/4-ounce splitshot and in-line sinkers of up to 1 ounce. Rig details included #5 Colorado blades, mainly in gold and shades of purple, and a pair of #2 VMC hooks. The lead hook was sweetened with a 1/4-inch section of Berkley Gulp! Crawler — for extra bulk and scent — before the main course, a whole nightcrawler, completed the presentation.
Kobriger notes that a downsized planer — in this case Church Tackle's TX-12 mini board — was perfect for tracing the edges of the relatively small weedbed, and sensitive enough to run without flags. He also credits the side-scanning abilities of their Lowrance StructureScan HD sonar for revealing the heights of weeds off to the side of the boat in both tournaments.
"The walleyes were so aggressive, they came out of the weeds like they were on fire, hit the rig, and darted back into the cabbage," Kobriger says. "They didn't want to share their dinner with anyone." Such fat and sassy cabbage patch patsies pushed he and Zwick's three-day, 12-fish championship tally to 55 pounds 3 ounces — which was more than 10 pounds ahead of their closest rivals, and proved the power of weedlines on the walleye scene.
*Dan Johnson, Harris, Minnesota, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman Publications and director of All Creation Outdoor Media.
Steep Breaks, Short Leashes
Longtime guide and decorated touring pro Scott Glorvigen reveals another aggressive edge tactic. Designed for steep, hard-bottom breaks on riverine channel edges, it excels on still-water weededges as well.
"A shortened spinner setup shines when active walleyes hold along sharp, rocky edges or steep drops on an outside weedline," he says. The short lead reduces snags, and is key in keeping the line from dragging bottom and stalling the spinner when pulled over the top of an incline.
His go-to rig is a Northland Tackle Baitfish Float'n Spin, which features a cylindrical body float separating the rig's holographic blade from twin #4 single hooks. Though the stock rig runs 60 inches, he prefers an 18- to 24-inch tether. "In rocky areas, I may drop to just 12 inches," he notes. Nightcrawlers are common tippings, though leeches have their moments on single-hook riggings.
Glorvigen fishes parallel to the drop-off, gradually working his way up and down the break. A 2-ounce, L-armed bottom bouncer is ample ballast. "Walleyes on steep channel breaks are used to junk flying downriver at them, so the bouncer doesn't scare them," he says.
He relies on 10- to 12-pound monofilament mainline, largely for the forgiveness it offers when the bouncer catches rocks. Trolling speed hovers around 1.5 mph, but varies depending on depth and current, allowing him to keep the mainline and bouncer as near-vertical as possible.
In some cases, long rods or planer boards with short leads are key to catching walleyes that flare away from the boat. "I've seen 12-foot rods outproduce 8-footers when walleyes are tucked along a steep break," he says.
While such areas have long been the bane of fishfinders, due to the dead zone produced when sonar cone meets drop-off, Glorvigen says new technology like Lowrance's DownScan Imaging on its HDS and Elite DSI units slices and dices structure, yielding picture-like views that often reveal walleyes and baitfish other units miss. Such glimpses into the underwater world help him zero in on key depths along the break, further refining his short-leash, speed-rigging system.
Classic Edge Tactics - Spinner Harnesses
In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange has outlined countless ways for weededge walleyes over the years. One of his favorites is a spinner-crawler harness run along and through the edge, either moving forward with the presentation on a longer line, or backtrolling with a shorter line, which is often the most effective.
He favors short snells, no longer than about 12 inches, and runs a bullet sinker just ahead of the swivel on the spinner snell. To boost the weed-resistance of the harness, he runs the hook points just into the crawler, but not through it.
"It also works well to tie spinner snells with the hooks two or three inches apart and use a 5 -inch Jumbo Gulp! Leech instead of a Gulp! Crawler," he says. "In the old days, I did this with live leeches, which needed to be stepped on to kill them so they would run straight on the two hooks. This was the best bait of all in times past, and also the most weedless."
In weedgrowth, the Gulp! (berkley-fishing.com)6-inch Floating Crawler , which is stiffer than the Gulp! Alive! Spinner Crawler, is more efficient at times. Note that the hook points are inserted into the baits, but not through them. The spinner snells are Northland Tackle Walleye Nightcrawler Harnesses (northlandtackle.com).
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.