January 30, 2008 by Will Brantley
There's one common thread to most of walleye country this time of year - it's really, really cold. But, is there a better time to be thinking of getting on the water than late winter and early spring while gathered around a warm fireplace? This time of year, particularly in northern walleye country, perhaps when it's too cold even for ice fishing, evokes feelings of cabin fever and thoughts of a not-too-distant warmwater fishing season. Lakes will be thawing before long, after all, and all across the country, places with reputations for awesome walleye fishing will likely live up to them yet again. Based on input from staff and pro walleye anglers across the country, we've picked the five hottest current fisheries for walleyes within the continental United States (Canada was omitted for space-saving purposes, although it admittedly rivals or surpasses the United States in terms of numbers of quality walleye fisheries). We couldn't go everywhere, so if your favorite hole didn't make the list, consider it your own best-kept secret. All of these fisheries just happen to be lakes or reservoirs (although many of them have productive river mouths), and all of them provide everything needed for a good trip - in short, numbers of quality fish. Without further adieu, this is the list, with a summary of the regulations and seasons. (*Editor's Note: These regulations are only a summary of the 2007 regulations and aren't official. At press time, most 2008-2009 regulations weren't available. Consult state DNRs for official, up-to-date regulations). Lake Erie's western basin Huge numbers of huge fish speak for themselves Not a season passes without repeated, seemingly year-round mentions of Lake Erie. The reasoning is simple - it's currently the best thing going for walleye anglers. Big numbers of huge fish abound, with one of the earliest and hottest bites for big fish occurring in the Western Basin near the mouth of the Detroit River in late March and early April. If the weather allows, expect limits of 40 pounds or more trolling crankbaits on flats when the water temperature creeps into the low 40s. Big fish begin moving into the river for the springtime spawning run shortly afterward as well. This is a jigging-aficionado's paradise, where any drop could mean hooking into a 14-pounder. When the water muddies, break out your heavy weights, big stick baits and wire-line reels to handline the breaklines. Later in the season, expect to find fish roaming the lake - many orienting around reefs and other available structure, and many simply traveling suspended in open water to chase baitfish. Last season was a phenomenal one for Lake Erie, as many anglers in the Western Basin reported catching limits in less than an hour. The Bass Islands area near Port Clinton, Ohio, is always a place to begin the search. Port Clinton is a fishy town anyway, with plenty of "fishermen welcome" signs and several motels set up specifically for accommodating anglers. While huge numbers of fish are harvested every season, the impact on Lake Erie's walleye population has been minimal, as evidenced by the continued phenomenal fishing and liberal limits. Even late-summer fishing, when catching walleyes gets tough in most locales, routinely requires 30-pound limits or more to win Lake Erie tournaments. Expect to find large schools of suspended fish feeding on schools of shad. Crawler harnesses, in-line weights and planer boards are the ticket. As a bonus, the yellow perch fishery is red-hot at times, and Erie's offshore rock piles and wrecks are home to the best trophy smallmouth bass fishing in the country. Season: (Ohio: March 1 - April 30; May 1 through last day in February. Seasons and regulations are similar for Michigan Lake Erie waters) Limit: (Ohio: four per person in March and April; six per person, May through February) Length limit: 15 inches minimum Recommended guides: Big Water Fishing, Captain Ross Robertson, Lake Erie Western and Central Basin Guide (419.283.7069, bigwaterfishing.com); Captain Keith Poland, Pirate Charters (419.345.3690, piratecharters.com) Devils Lake The bass angler's walleye lake Though this fishery doesn't typically produce the massive weights of Lake Erie, few will argue against the statement that walleye fishing is more fun at Devils Lake than anywhere else in the country. The sprawling prairie lake, encompassing miles of flooded timber and farms, is inundated with freshwater shrimp that provide a valuable food source for baitfish, yellow perch, white bass, northern pike and walleyes. For a fun family outing with multiple species, walleyes, white bass and northerns can be caught virtually everywhere on the lake during the summer by casting crankbaits, and the serious walleye angler can put together a hefty bag limit doing this as well, particularly if the wind is blowing. Typically, No. 5 and No. 7 Rapala Shad Raps and Berkley Frenzy Floating Flicker Shads, particularly those with metallic and blue hues, are best, though any shad-style crankbait will work. For an action-packed presentation that's a little out of the ordinary, try fishing Rapala Husky Jerks and other large minnow-imitators in shallow, exposed grass beds (we're talking 2 feet here) in the early morning hours of the summer season. Keep moving until you locate fish, whether they be white bass, pike or walleyes. All three species tend to congregate around the same bait sources. Twitch the lures back on no-stretch Berkley FireLine, popping snagged grass free with each snap of your wrist, and hang on - walleyes and pike alike have no qualms about blasting the lure just under the surface. During most tournaments on Devils, slip-bobber fishing in flooded trees consistently produces the heaviest bags. Lightweight jigheads or plain hooks, tipped with the liveliest leech in the bucket and fished at the magic depth below a sensitive slip bobber, work wonders. Expect periods of downtime interrupted by flurries of intense action as wandering schools of fish move through the trees to feed. The lake is an excellent wintertime ice fishery as well, with a renowned jumbo perch bite that, while not as good as it was a few years ago, still has the potential to load your basket with the tasty little fish. Season: Year-round Limit: Five walleyes per day Length limit: None Recommended guide: Jason Mitchell, Mitchell's Guide Service (701.662.6560, fishdevilslake.net) Mille Lacs Unbelievably ridiculous numbers of walleyes The massive, bowl-shaped lake in central Minnesota, despite an intense amount of angling pressure, continues to put as many walleyes on anglers' lines as about anywhere else in the country. During the spring and summer of 2007, when people mentioned "Mille Lacs," it was usually followed by adjectives such as "unbelievable" and "ridiculous." Tournament weights on Mille Lacs can be a little deceiving, as an extremely restrictive slot limit prohibits anglers from keeping walleyes measuring less than 14 inches or more than 16 inches, except for one fish exceeding 28 inches (this changed mid-season in 2007). However, if you're simply wanting to get your string stretched, fish in the 20- to 25-inch range are in the lake by the hundreds of thousands, and there's usually no problem rounding out your limit of smaller fish as well. Mille Lacs isn't really known for huge walleyes, but they're there. Expect a reasonable shot at an 8-pound fish with every trip. Because anglers are limited to one rod apiece during the open-water season in Minnesota, seining Mille Lacs with sprawling trolling spreads is uncommon. Still, bottom-bouncers with spinner harnesses dominate most summer tournaments on the lake. Work them around points and gravel bars for keeper fish, or move out to the lake's famed mud basin in hopes of popping a trophy. Slip-bobber fishing the lake's reefs, especially at night with lighted bobbers, is another popular local pattern, and it's one used regularly by many guides on the lake, as it's very user-friendly. Come fall, trolling crankbaits along the shoreline can produce some serious action as well. Season: Mid-May through late February Limit: Four per person Length limit: 14- to 16-inch walleyes may be kept, as well as one longer than 28 inches Recommended guide: Scott Steil, Mille Lacs guide (320.293.3287; scottsteilfishing.com) Lake Michigan (Green Bay, Bays de Noc) Big water, big spinners and big fish Though fast-and-furious action is typically a little tougher to find on Lake Michigan's clear waters than in Lake Erie, it has its moments. Many Lake Michigan walleyes are absolutely huge, and when the summertime bite gets going, especially in Green Bay, expect numbers of them. Crawler harnesses pulled behind planer boards rule here, particularly when walleyes begin suspending and feeding on baitfish in the summer. Large, gold Colorado blades are always a good choice for spinners, and purple beads, designed to imitate the plentiful alewife population, are usually a good place to begin as well. Backup patterns can include jigging visible structure, as well as running into various river mouths. There is also excellent smallmouth fishing to be had, particularly in the spring when bass are roaming shallow, crystal-clear flats to spawn. Expect plenty of incidental catches while pulling walleye spinners from the lake's plentiful population of giant channel catfish. This goes for most fisheries on this list, but there is a lot of room for big waves to build in this system, so be sure your equipment is in working order before venturing out, and keep a marine radio handy at all times. Be realistic with your boat-handling skills on places like Green Bay and Lake Erie, and if you have doubts, postpone your fishing for another day. Keep in mind regulations vary from area to area and state to state in these Lake Michigan waters. In the Bays de Noc near Michigan's Upper Peninsula, only one fish longer than 23 inches may be kept, while in Wisconsin's Green Bay, five walleyes of 15 inches or longer may be kept during the season. Season: Upper Peninsula waters open in late April and stay open through mid-March of the following year. Wisconsin's Green Bay typically opens in early May through mid-March of the following year. Limit and length limit: In Bays de Noc, no more than one walleye longer than 23 inches may be possessed. In Michigan waters of Green Bay, regulations and seasons vary. Check michigan.gov/dnr for more information. Wisconsin's Green Bay has a daily limit of five walleyes of 15 inches or longer. Check dnr.wi.gov for more information. Recommended guide: Nate Provost, UP Pro Charters (906.235.0686; upprocharters.com) Lake Oahe A point-lover's paradise An impoundment of the Missouri River covering a lot of bottom in both South and North Dakota, sprawling Lake Oahe is a point-lover's dream lake. Site of the 2006 Wal-Mart FLW Walleye Tour Championship, the lake is remote and scenic, and hundreds of creeks, pockets and cuts, all lined with sloping points, provide more walleye habitat than can be fished in a lifetime. Two primary forages abound in Lake Oahe - shad and smelt. Typically, walleyes are following the shad come springtime and switch over to smelt during the summer months. Shad are the food of choice again as cool fall weather begins to lower the water temperatures. Because there are so many points on the lake, you have to look for the ones in areas that are attracting fish in the first place. Find fish using a certain side of a point jutting out of a creek arm, for example, and you may be onto a pattern that can easily be duplicated. Fishing the points can be relatively easy. Pitching jigs and live-bait rigging are usually productive. If yours is more of a trolling style, back off a little bit and drop crankbaits on lead core. During the summer, there can be a fantastic suspended-school bite as well. Much of Lake Oahe's shoreline is very remote, so be sure there's plenty of gas in the boat and your batteries are well-charged before embarking on a long journey. Season: Anglers fishing both sides of Lake Oahe must adhere to the respective state's seasons and limits. Seasons are typically open year-round. Limit and length limit: South Dakota has a limit of four walleyes daily on Lake Oahe, and no more than one may be longer than 20 inches; North Dakota has a daily limit of five walleyes with no length limit Recommended guide: West Prairie Resort guide Terry Nelson (605.264.5303; westprairieresort.com) Conclusion These lakes all get plenty of press and plenty of angling attention because they are, without a doubt, some of the best in the United States, although many other quality fisheries are out there. Pick a suitable time of year (spring and fall are always preferable, although all of these areas produce quality summertime fishing as well), and plan a road trip to one, a couple or all of these lakes. If you're disappointed in the fishing, we'll be surprised.