No state has more walleye lakes and rivers than Minnesota. Some 1,700 of the state’s storied 10,000-plus lakes, covering about 2 million acres, harbor walleyes, along with 3,000-miles of walleye-infested rivers.
The state’s big-boy walleye lakes include Mille Lacs, Leech, Lake of the Woods, Upper Red, Winnibigoshish, Rainy, Vermilion, Pepin, Kabetogama and Cass. Some open-water fishing likely will be available on these lakes when walleye angling begins at 12:01 a.m. Saturday. But odds are ice will be a factor just about everywhere Up North on opening weekend. So check before you go.
The good news is the season’s late start is expected to extend highly productive late spring/early summer walleye angling further into June than is typically the case. The long Memorial Day Weekend should be gangbusters for walleyes.
Information on all Minnesota walleye lakes is easily accessed at the Department of Natural Resources LakeFinder site. Simply punch in the name of the lake you want to know more about — including stocking information — and in an instant everything needed to plan an outing is displayed, including locations of public accesses.
How big are they?
Though most walleyes range from 1 to 2 pounds, LeRoy Chiovitte of Hermantown landed a much larger specimen: a 17-pound, 8-ounce lunker that is the Minnesota state record. Chiovitte’s fish was caught on the Seagull River where it enters Saganaga Lake on May 13, 1979. For many years, the record was considered untouchable, in part because he caught his pre-spawn wall-hanger in a place that nowadays is off-limits to fishing until the spawn is complete.
But is the record a forever high-water mark? Don’t count on it.
Former University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks landed a 17-pound, 6-ounce heavyweight on July 4, 1989, on Loon Lake along the Gunflint Trail in northeastern Minnesota. A mere 2 ounces shy of Chiovitte’s fish, Bruininks’ walleye might have claimed the record had he been able to weigh his catch sooner.
Then in 2012, Don Mickel, a Bemidji area fishing guide, said he caught a 35.1-inch walleye on the Rainy River (in Minnesota waters). With a 24.25-inch girth, the fish tipped 17.9 pounds on Mickel’s hand scale. By comparison, Chiovitte’s record was 35.8 inches long with a 21.3-inch girth. So, a record, right?
“[The DNR] told me the walleye was a catch-and-release fish [in that area] and that, because of [that] regulation, it had to be released and couldn’t be recognized as a state record,” Mickel said at the time.
Boats are nice. But walleyes can be successfully fished from canoes or even from shore, particularly in early season. But boat or not, a rod, reel and line will be needed, along with some jigs. Look, generally, for a rod between 6 and 7 feet long, medium action, paired with a spinning reel that, when attached to the rod, feels “balanced,” meaning neither too heavy nor too light. Eight-pound-test monofilament line is a good choice. Also, jigs are cheap: Buy a couple dozen or so, mostly in the quarter-ounce range (some smaller, some larger), and in any color, so long as they are white and black. Also, buy a couple of slip bobbers and a few crankbaits, such as a #4 Shad Rap in silver fluorescent chartreuse, a #9 original floating Rapala (or similar) in gold, and a 5⁄16-ounce Berkley Flicker Shad in black gold, and you’ll be on your way.
How to fish ’em
Walleyes’ locations depend on conditions such as water clarity and time of day. Their big eyes are overly sensitive to bright light, making them difficult to fool on sunny days, in clear water. But at dusk and dawn, and at night, walleyes often feed in shallower water — and commonly in late May and early June they can be successfully caught from docks, whether by a baited jig or, more fun still, casting crankbaits. During daytime, they will lurk in deeper water, oftentimes hanging along edges of drop-offs, weed lines or other structure. Also, windblown shores are better than lee shores.
Best baits in early season are minnows, usually, with a preference if available of spottail shiners (not too big) over fatheads. For good measure, buy leeches and night crawlers, too. Fishing likely walleye-holding spots is key. Jigs (⅛-⅜ ounce, depending on water depth fished and current speed), lip-baited with minnows can provide great sport, as can slip-bobber fishing, in which anglers cast their bobber/small jig/bait rigs to a perceived walleye-holding area.
Specific methods used to catch walleyes will trigger specific types of bites, or strikes. In some cases, walleyes “inhale” live baits, such as those rigged with bobbers and sliding-sinker rigs. At other times, walleyes attack baits and lures, such as when an angler jigs or casts a crankbait. Upshot: Angling method determines the strike type. Knowing this, the angler can “feed” line to a walleye inhaling a bait, or “set” a hook when a walleye hits a jig or crankbait.
Anglers who own canoes or small boats, or no boats whatsoever, can still have fun on opening day. Assuming cooperative weather between 12:01 a.m. and sunup Saturday, head onto the walleye lake of your choice, or plan to fish from shore. Either way, fish water 4-10 feet deep, using small jigs, say ¼ ounce at the largest. Slip bobbers might be even more effective, especially if winds are calm, because they will allow you to fish your bait away from you and/or your boat or canoe. Metro lakes holding walleyes can be fished this way, as can larger lakes. If you don’t have a boat, cast from a dock, if available, or from shore, using slip bobbers. Waders, if you have them, will allow you to fish farther from shore still. Some of the best opening-day walleye fishing I’ve had occurred using this method, while fishing from a canoe, starting at midnight.
How to cook ’em
Here is retired state Sen. Bob Lessard’s much requested beer-batter walleye recipe.
• 1 cup flour
• 2 tsp. salt; 1 tsp. garlic salt; 1 tsp. lemon pepper; 1 tsp. baking powder
• 1 cup beer
• 1 or 2 eggs, as desired
• Combine eggs and beer; mix in dry ingredients. Stir. Cut fillets in half and dry on paper towel. Dip fillets in batter.
• Fry in deep fryer or skillet with oil at 350 degrees until golden brown.
• Lessard suggests serving walleye with a garden salad, hash browns and/or baked beans, supplementing these with a martini made dry, shaken not stirred.