Walleyes can’t rely on eyesight alone to grow big in stained or dirty water. They must roam vast areas in search of baitfish and depend on their sense of “hearing,” or the ability to feel vibrations in the water.
As a result, your lure often must be in a space the size of a bathtub even though the lake could be Lake of the Woods, which is on the border between Minnesota and Canada and covers thousands of square miles. Other places with clear water may offer a margin for error. You might be off on your running depth while trolling or your might be jigging a distance from where walleyes actually are, but they can still find you because they can see. No such luck in stained or dirty water.
Never mind the challenge. Walleye professionals such as Jon Thelen have found ways to get the job done. They have a system for locating big walleyes despite the size of the body of water or the lack of water clarity.
Thelen has studied the behavior of Lake of the Woods walleyes since he was a teenager. Once you have them zeroed in, Lake of the Woods becomes a spectacular place to fish, he said. Walleyes are often more than 10 pounds, and the lake seems to hold endless numbers of all age classes, from 15-inch eaters to trophies, year after year!
Fish spawn early in the year in the Rainy River as well as in the main lake. After the spawn, fish move from the river and relate to structure in their search for lake shiners and tullibees. By summer, massive schools of walleyes roam open water relating to small breaks not far from a series of reefs that run north along the Canadian border. Some of the reefs are popular fishing spots. Others are overlooked.
First, Locate The Baitfish
Thelen said one key to success is to locate the baitfish before you start fishing. Locating the walleyes with good electronics, such as a Humminbird 1198C SI, is much quicker than trying to find them by fishing. Check the areas near the reefs. If they are in open water, trolling is the ticket. But jigs or spinners are best if they’re on the reefs as they often are in low-light or windy conditions.
Thelen loves trolling leadcore line for getting smaller baits down to the fish. Wally Divers and Shadlings can travel down to the productive zone just off the bottom. He says 29 through 34 feet are the productive depths. He uses 18-pound leadcore tied directly on the spool of a line-counter reel which holds 300 feet, or 10 colors of lead. His leader is 10 feet of 10-pound braided line, which helps signal when the crankbait is running right.
Stained water requires precise presentations. Running baits 2 feet above the fish is too far away. The baits must be within a foot of the bottom where the fish are. Since letting out 30 feet (one color) gets a lure down 5 feet at 2 mph, try letting out six colors of leadcore at 2 mph to reach 30 feet. If you are hitting bottom, reel up 5 feet of line to get the crank just off the bottom. Vary the speed from about 1.7 to 2.3 mph. Remember, lures dive deeper on leadcore line at slower speeds and higher at faster speeds. If you don’t get a fish in a reasonable period of time, reset the depth.
Trolling is often productive, but Thelen, like most anglers, prefers to feel the strike and the throb of a big walleye through a line as he holds the rod in his hand. The good thing about stained and dirty water is that tactics such as jigging and using spinner rigs work best on structures where walleyes tend to be. Even though they can’t see them, instinct tells them a meal must be close by.
On clear-water lakes, walleyes can find ambush points and spot baitfish from a distance and simply wait for fish to come by. In stained water, however, walleyes are unable to rely on sight alone, so they must be constantly on the move over structure to intercept their targets. Walleyes will usually be on top of the reef or on the slope of the sides.
Anchor On The Reefs
Here’s where his fishing tactics depart from the norm. Thelen said that Lake of the Woods anglers have discovered if they drift over the top of the reefs, the walleyes may go one way and their boat the other. The two might never intercept. Thus, fishermen might reach the faulty conclusion that no fish are around and will move to another spot. If they just stayed put for a few minutes, the roaming walleyes might come to them.
“Those fish are moving. If you are moving away, you might think they aren’t there,” Thelen said. “Instead, pick a reef, drop anchor and start to fish. Catch one and others will follow. They feel the vibrations of feeding and they follow the activity.”
Thelen uses 10-pound super braided line tied to a Lindy NO SNAGG swivel to avoid line twist, and a 1-1/2-foot leader of 6-pound fluorocarbon. After taking so much effort to get a walleye close, he wants nothing to spook it at the last moment.
He uses bigger-than-average jigs for the presentation, 3/8-ounce to 1/2-ounce. The idea is to bang it on the bottom in order to draw some attention. He likes Lindy jigs because the protruded eyes look more lifelike. Brighter than average colors such as bubble gum and chartreuse, pink and chartreuse, yellow and chartreuse, or glow pink and white are easier for walleyes to see.
“Yellow and chartreuse, glow white and pink — I’m confident if I have those two colors in the tackle box I am going to catch fish on Lake of the Woods,” Thelen said.
If the tops or the slopes of the reef don’t produce, Thelen will try the bottom of the reef where the bottom turns from hard to soft. He puts away the jigs and the anchors and uses Lindy spinner rigs on bottom-bouncers. This is slow work, so 1-1/2- to 2-ounces of weight is the most he uses to keep a 45-degree angle with the water’s surface. The spinners are in colors that imitate shiners or in metallic colors such as gold and silver. He likes to use night crawler harnesses so he has two hooks per rod, though he knows other anglers who use minnows on a single hook. Allow the wind to push the boat or use your electric trolling motor to creep along the transition from hard to soft bottom at 1 mph.
The work to locate fish on Lake of the Woods is worth the effort, he said. “There are 30-inch plus fish and tons of 15-inch fish for dinner. It is the most diverse and healthy walleye fishery that I can think of,” he said.
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Ted Takasaki has many fishing achievements, including in March, 2010, when he was named a “Legendary Angler” in the “Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame” at Hayward, Wis. He had a victory at the 1993 Mercury Nationals and the 1995 Professional Walleye Trail Top Gun award. He reached the pinnacle of both angling and business when he was named PWT Champion in 1998 and president of Lindy Little Joe, Inc., of Brainerd, Minn., a year later.