By Daniel Quade
Giant walleyes? Minnesota’s got them. Around every corner there’s an opportunity to catch walleyes, from rich and fertile prairie potholes to the deep, clear waters of the Canadian Shield.
If your goal is taking a trophy, however, fine-tuning your locations and tactics can boost your odds of boating a behemoth in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. To speed your search for supersized ’eyes, we polled a few of the state’s top guides for their advice on where, when and how to connect with the fish of your dreams.
“The Rainy River is a big-fish hotspot, especially right after ice-out,” said Jonny Petrowske. Hailing from Upper Red Lake, which is legendary for producing mind-numbing numbers of eater-size walleyes, the veteran guide often taps the Rainy when searching for giant fish.
“There’s a two- to three-week window after the ice goes out, typically in late March, that’s almost a rite of spring for Minnesota anglers,” he says. “You have to try it at least once in your life.”
Flush with spawn-run fish from Lake of the Woods, the river gives up epic catches of walleyes of all sizes, including trophies topping 10 pounds. In April of 2012, for example, an angler caught and released a 35.1-inch giant that likely would have toppled the current state record of 17 pounds, 8 ounces.
“I like to wait a week after ice-out,” says Petrowske. “The first wave of anglers is gone, and the big fish are moving upriver.”
While flotillas of fishermen flock to classic locations such as deep holes and corners, he prefers subtler structure on straightaways. Long bars and ridges running parallel to the river are prime lies, particularly the bases of their sides where walleyes often find shelter from the current.
A 1/4 – to 3/8-ounce Lindy Jig is his weapon of choice in normal-current conditions, though he may beef up to ½-ounce heads in heavier flows. He tips the jig with a big creek chub or jumbo soft-plastic trailer.
“Anchor or hold your boat in place with your trolling motor, make a long cast into deeper water and let the current swing your jig downstream until it crashes into the structure and comes to rest in the slack water at the base of the break.”
Once the jig settles into a sweet spot, Petrowske pops it slightly to raise it just off bottom, and pulls it ahead about 3 feet. Most strikes come as the jig settles back down, and the only indication often is a heavy feeling when you raise the jig again.
While many anglers abandon the river after the spring run, Petrowske says it’s a solid trophy destination all season. During the summer, he trolls Lindy River Rockers on lead-core line in his continuous search for giant walleyes.
Longtime Northwoods guide Jeff Sundin goes deep for trophy walleyes.
“Deep-water rigging is a standout big-fish pattern,” he says. “Top Minnesota fisheries near Deer River include Pokegama, Trout, Ten Mile and Turtle Lakes. Leech Lake is solid, too, especially Agency and Walker Bays.”
Depths run 25 to 45 feet, depending on where prime structure falls in the water column. Sundin says main shoreline points that taper toward deep-water sanctuaries are ideal.
“The best areas on these points have patches of some type of hard bottom such as gravel or rock,” he adds. “Big walleyes spend the day suspended over deeper water, move onto the point to feed, and pause when they hit harder bottom.”
Sundin relies on a 42-inch Lindy Extreme RC012 Minnow Snell that sports a #2 red hook, but if using a jumbo red tail shiner or other big baitfish he switches out the #2 hook for a 1/0, 2/0 or 3/0 light wire hook. A ¾-ounce Lindy No-Snagg Slip Sinker serves as ballast. He keeps the line nearly vertical and moves the boat at .5 to .7 mph. When a trophy takes the bait, Sundin feeds it line and gives it from 10 seconds to a minute or more before setting the hook.
“This pattern produces early and late in the day all season, and all day long at peak periods in June and late summer,” he says.
“August is a great time of the year for trophy walleyes on Minnesota’s side of Lake of the Woods,” adds fellow guide Jon Thelen. “The fish slide off into the basin and are vulnerable to trolling tactics.”
His pet program hinges on pulling size 3 Lindy River Rockers in shades that mimic shiners and tullibees. He keeps the baits running within a foot of the bottom in 30-plus feet of water.
“You can use lead-core, downriggers or a 4- to 5-ounce bottom bouncer,” he says. “Don’t be afraid to crank your speed up to 2.6 mph, either. The charters can’t idle down slower than that, and they catch fish like they’re going out of style.”
Thanks to protective slots and a fertile fishery, catching multiple trophies topping 10 pounds in a single day is not unheard of, says Thelen.
“If big walleyes are on your wish list, Lake of the Woods should be on your short list of places to fish this season.”
Other top picks include the lower St. Louis River at Duluth, which welcomes incoming giants weighing up to 12 pounds from Lake Superior. Early in the season, ace guide Charlie Nelson vertically works a Lindy Jig tipped with a fathead or shiner along rock and gravel shoals between Boy Scout Landing and the Highway 23 Bridge. Later, a variety of tactics hold water.
The lower Mississippi River is another big-fish Mecca, with the catch-and-release waters of Pool 2 producing monstrous walleyes in the shadows of the Twin Cities. Farther downstream, Pools 3 and 4 are likewise rich in over-sized ’eyes. And let’s not forget iconic Mille Lacs Lake, where guide Mike Christensen connects clients with wall-hangers from late May well into the ice-fishing season.