Minnesota Outdoorsman - Minnesota Fishing and Hunting Reports
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Walleye Underwater - Bill Lindner

Photo by Bill Lindner
Winter is finally coming to an end and everyone is chomping at the bit to get out on open water. Luckily, there are some amazing river walleye opportunities for those of you who aren’t patient enough to wait for the ice to melt on the lakes. This happens to be one of the best walleye bites of the year. We reached out to some of the best anglers in the Upper Midwest and asked them one simple question:
How Do You Approach Early Season River Walleyes?


Al Lindner - Early Season Walleye

Al Lindner – Angling Edge TV


It’s really pretty simple. As far as presentation goes, it’s a jig with a minnow on it, preferably a shiner and in some cases a soft plastic. Everybody knows that, right? You could be slip drifting in deeper water controlling your speed with your trolling motor. In a lot of cases, some of the biggest fish will be taken casting up in shallow water — many river fishermen don’t do this.
One of the most overlooked presentations is a 3-way rig with a buoyant minnow-shaped bait such as a Flat Rap or an Original Rapala. It’s amazing how many BIG fish you will catch on this vs the jig and it is overlooked by most early season river fishermen.


Mark Courts - Early Season Walleye

Mark Courts – Professional Angler


The number one thing you need to look for in early season river situations is clear water. Sometimes that can be difficult to find this time of year with runoffs going into the lake. I like to see around 6-inches of visibility. It just allows the walleye to see your bait better, which will lead to more bites.
I generally like to start out in the deep holes, specifically deeper pockets close to points, rocks, or gravel that the fish will spawn on in the weeks ahead. Finding good staging areas like that is key. I prefer the deep holes because that’s where you’re most likely to find a heavy concentration of fish. Paying close attention to your electronics can make a huge difference as well. Scan over potential areas with side-imaging to see how the fish are relating to the structure and cover of the hole. That will help you dial in your overall approach.
As far as bait selection goes this time of year, I’m a huge fan of Gulp! plastics for their scent. The Gulp! 4-inch crawler in watermelon pearl is probably my #1 bait in these situations. I like to contrast my baits, so I would probably use a jig head that is bright orange/chartreuse or dark purple. I love darker baits when there isn’t a ton of water clarity.


Chip Leer - Early Season Walleye

Chip Leer – Fishing the Wildside


My favorite ice-out walleye rivers feed into larger bodies of water, like the Rainy River at Lake of the Woods. Start your search at the river mouth, where walleyes gather in late winter, and work your way upstream. Virtually any current break can hold fish, but I concentrate on main-channel holes, which attract waves of fish moving upriver. Current seams and shorelines eddies also hold fish, particularly smaller males as the spawn draws near.
Vertical jig from an anchored position or while slipping with the current. I favor long-shank leadheads like Northland Fishing Tackle’s Slurp! Jig and round-head RZ Jig, although the new Swivel-Head Jig really gives trailers a life of their own. Whichever jig you choose, tip it with a 3- to 5-inch scented softbait like an Impulse plastic, which adds bulk, movement and taste. Experiment with different shapes including ringworms, boot tails and minnow designs. And don’t overlook old-school creature baits. Add a skull-hooked fathead or shiner minnow for extra scent and flavor. Minimal jigging is best, ranging from a simple hold to slow and methodical lift-drop maneuvers of a few inches or so. When walleyes move shallow, pitch the same jigs toward the bank and swim, drag and pendulum them back to the boat.


Ted Takasaki - Early Season Walleye

Ted Takasaki – Professional Angler


When I’m fishing for river walleyes super early in the season, the first thing I’m looking for is slack water areas where there’s a lot of hard bottom. Typically, they are going to be up shallow, especially if you want the bigger females. Let’s say we are down on Pool 4 of the Mississippi River: I would be looking for rocks and slack water areas adjacent to the dam. A lot of the biggest fish will usually come within about 5 miles of the dam.
As far as presentation goes, I think jigs and rivers always go well together. Your best bet is pitching a light jig tipped with a plastic right up onto the rocks and hard bottom areas. I’m usually running with a 1/8-oz jig, 3/16-oz is the highest I will go, and I’ll tip it with a ringworm-style plastic, sometimes you can get away with a paddle tail profile.


Bill Shimota - Early Season Walleye

Bill Shimota – Professional Angler


When I’m tackling a river early in the year, the first thing I’m noting is the water level. There’s always an ideal level of flow that fish want to sit in to feed, and that might be shallow or deep depending on how high (or low) the water is. If the water high and rising, I will start my search shallow. Often times, walleye will push up into shallow water areas to get away from the fast current out in the river. If it’s low and falling conditions, you will often times find those spring walleye right in the middle of the channel in some of the deeper corners.
When you’re out targeting walleye in deep water, there are a few different things you can do. Vertical jigging livebait or plastics is an obvious choice, but running a 3-way rig can also be very effective. If the ‘eyes are up shallow, I like to cast either a jig and plastic, a hair jig, or a blade bait. A couple of my go-to baits are the Johnson Thinfisher blade bait and a Berkley Powerbait Rib Worm.
Keep your eyes peeled for current seams near feeder streams in shallow or deep water. That is where you’re going to find a lot of those big females hanging out. Current seams provide excellent staging and resting areas for walleyes as they transition through the spawning process.

Wade Right in: A Guide to Choosing the Right Fishing Waders

A good pair of waders can be the difference between spending the day with boots full of mud or with dry toes. This article will offer answers to your questions about selecting the right waders to get the most out of your experience on the water.

Wader Styles - A Guide to Choosing the Right Fishing Waders

Choosing The Right Type of Waders For You

There are several different wader designs available to anglers today, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. Depending on the kind of fishing activity you are involved in or the type of water you fish most often in, you might prefer one over another. The most common types you will see in fly shops and tackle stores are hip waders, waist high waders or wading pants, and chest high waders.

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Study: Steelhead, Kamloops rainbows

interbreeding on North Shore

First-year results from a steelhead genetics study on Minnesota's North Shore streams confirm that hybridization between steelhead and stocked Kamloops rainbow trout is occurring, said fisheries officials with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

"We found that Kamloops ancestry was pretty much widespread in both juvenile and adult populations (of steelhead)," said Nick Peterson, DNR anadromous fish specialist at French River. "That being said, still the majority of fish we caught were pure steelhead. That's important to anglers."

Steelhead anglers have long held concerns that the two strains of Lake Superior rainbows are interbreeding in North Shore streams and negatively influencing steelhead numbers. The Kamloops fishery, almost entirely dependent upon stocking, is considered by some anglers a less hardy rainbow trout strain. That stocking began in 1976. Four previous studies by fisheries biologists at French River have shown that hybridization between the two species reduces the potential survival of young, Peterson said.

The genetics research project is a cooperative effort between the DNR, the Minnesota Steelheader group, Minnesota Trout Unlimited and the Lake Superior Steelhead Association. The project will continue for two more years.

The genetics study, conducted at the University of Minnesota, analyzes scale samples that anglers have contributed as well as scale samples taken by DNR biologists. In all, more than 2,000 samples from steelhead in 27 North Shore streams have been analyzed.

About 80 percent of those fish turned out to be "pure" steelhead, Peterson said. The others had Kamloops genetics present. And some fish that appeared to be steelhead — that is, lacking the fin-clip of hatchery-reared Kamloops rainbows — were in fact pure Kamloops rainbows from natural reproduction, Peterson said.

A Kamloops rainbow trout lies on the rocky shoreline of Lake Superior. News Tribune file photo

A Kamloops rainbow trout lies on the rocky shoreline of Lake Superior. News Tribune file photo

Concern over results

Groups such as Minnesota Trout Unlimited have long been opposed to Kamloops rainbow stocking because they fear it will dilute the wild steelhead strain, first introduced to Minnesota waters of Lake Superior in 1895.

"I've been telling the DNR for 20 years they're playing roulette here," said John Lenczewski, executive director of Minnesota Trout Unlimited. "I wasn't surprised. We're not happy about it, of course. Now that the handwriting is on the wall, the only responsible thing the DNR can do is stop stocking Kamloops."

Otherwise, he said, the consequences to the steelhead fishery could be extreme.

"It will essentially destroy the steelhead population over time," Lenczewski said.

About 92,500 Kamloops rainbows are stocked each year by the Minnesota DNR, some in the Lester River and some at the mouth of the French River.

The Lake Superior Steelhead Association based in Duluth also found the study's results troubling.

"At this point the LSSA is concerned with the genetic hybridization between steelhead and Kamloops and the discovery that Kamloops rainbows appear to be reproducing and surviving in the wild," said Craig Wilson, president of the group.

Neil Fredericks of Centerville, Minn., vice president of Minnesota Steelheader, said the first-year results of the genetics study were "certainly an eye-opener."

"Clearly, the DNR recognized that hybridization was possible," Fredericks said. "The results are what they are. We feel our next best option is to continue the (genetics study) to gather more results. One year of sampling is not enough."

Duluth's Ross Pearson of Kamloops Advocates called the results "irrelevant." He said he believes that with the eventual closure of the DNR's French River Coldwater Hatchery, the Kamloops stocking program eventually will fail. With a shift in Kamloops rainbow rearing to another hatchery, he said, the fish will be stocked at a smaller size and far fewer will return as adults to be caught by anglers — or breed with steelhead.

"There will be much less potential for hybridization in the future because of the closing of the French River Hatchery," Pearson said. "It's a planned failure. They (DNR officials) won't acknowledge that."

Long comeback

Minnesota's steelhead population flourished through the 1960s and 1970s, then began to decline. In an effort to bring the population back, the DNR imposed a no-kill regulation in 1997 that remains in place today.

"The DNR's goal is to rehabilitate the steelhead population to a point where we can allow a limited angler harvest," said Cory Goldsworthy, DNR Lake Superior area fisheries supervisor at French River. "We've gone 20-plus years with the same goal."

In recent years, steelhead catch rates have begun to increase, but not to the point that the DNR would consider lifting the no-kill requirement. A majority of steelhead anglers support that regulation.

Goldsworthy said he was surprised the genetics project showed that interbreeding among steelhead and Kamloops strains was geographically widespread up and down the North Shore. Since Kamloops rainbow stocking began, it has been limited to streams from Duluth to the French River, mainly to decrease their chances of interbreeding with steelhead. But steelhead anglers say they've seen Kamloops rainbows in rivers all along the shore and into Ontario.

The study revealed that naturally-produced pure Kamloops adults were found in four rivers and that naturally-produced pure Kamloops juveniles were sampled in five rivers. Those Kamloops rainbows were indistinguishable from steelhead.

"To see wild Kamloops being caught that we can't distinguish from wild steelhead — that's concerning," Goldsworthy said.

That's an issue for DNR biologists because each year they take eggs from fish that are presumably steelhead and use the eggs to raise young fish to supplement natural steelhead reproduction.

Goldsworthy said the DNR will discuss the study's first-year results with interested parties at some point.

"We do plan on sitting down and figuring out what this all means," he said. "We'll definitely be having those conversations."

The Go-To Methods For Catching Trophy Bluegill This Year

Though most people think it's damn near impossible to plan a fishing trip that will allow you to catch a bluegill weighing 1 ½ pounds or more by design rather than by accident, know that you can do it.

It's quite possible to land yourself the biggest bluegill of your lifetime in your next fishing trip.

This article will share tips on how to do just that with tactics and tricks gotten from five decades worth of experience and knowledge.

1. Aim For The Bottom.

Huge bluegills are made to swim at the very bottom. Use a tight line bait rig to catch them. Be sure to set it up perfectly so that when a fish falls for the bait, the line will move freely through the sinker without any resistance to warn fish about a potential threat.

2. Catch Your Light Biters.

Use a European style "antenna" slip bobber on a 2-to-4 pound test line. Make sure that at least ¼ inch of the bobber shows above the water so that if a trophy swims upwards after getting the bait, it removes some weight from the line. This way, the bobber will rise enough to tell you there's a taker.

3. Use Spinners.

When you happen to be fishing in new waters and are trying to find the perfect locales, consider using small spinnerbaits cast and retrieved extremely slowly. An obvious favorite is the Road Runner's Natural Science Trout & Panfish spinner. The spinner blade twists fast enough even when the lure is taken in slowly. It works very effectively.

Image result for small spinnerbaits

4. Tempt Them With Topwater plugs.

Make use of topwater plugs that look like natural bluegill forage in order to tempt the curious trophy bluegills. Cast the plugs and let them sit but give them an occasional tug to ripple the water's surface. With some luck, a curious bluegill will soon hurry by and that's when you should go for it.

5. Try Minnows.

When hoping for a trophy bluegill, try fishing 2-to 3-inch minnows. And remember that patience will be the key to success here. Place the bait through both lips and not behind the dorsal fin. Then offer the minnow below a slip bobber. Don't forget to soak the bait before you put it in as bait.

6. Don't Underestimate Facebook.

Forget about using Facebook to waste some online time. If your use it for fishing purposes, you will be shocked at how helpful it can be. You could friend fellow fishermen and check out their fishing photos to find out great locales and if you are lucky enough they'll even share great tips with you.

7. Choose The Right Waters.

Another huge way of raising your chances of catching your trophy bluegill is to find the right waters. The right waters have an exceptional forage base and an almost-perfect predator-prey ratio. A great way of finding the right spot is phoning the freshwater fisheries agency in your state. Ask the right questions to get the best location.

8. Be Familiar With The Possibilities.

Have a look at state records. If you happen to live in one of the 12 states with 3 to 3 ½ pound state records, you are likely to have a better chance of finding a great catch. If you live elsewhere, you'll need to go off to the 'lucky' states to catch the bluegill of a lifetime.

Managing Bluegills

Managing Bluegills

Until a few years ago, the management strategy for good bluegill fishing—meaning good numbers of hand-size or larger 'gills—was simple: (1) keep the numbers of intermediate-size bluegills sufficiently low so the surviving bluegills have plenty to eat and grow quickly to quality size and beyond; and (2) don't over-harvest large bluegills. That still is an effective management strategy in ponds and small impoundments where the fish community is simple—just two or three species.

The best way to keep bluegill numbers in check? Maintain a high density of bluegill predators in the pond. Typically that predator is largemouth bass. I've repeatedly seen anglers unhooking palm-size bluegills and throwing them on the bank in efforts to reduce the abundance of small, slow-growing bluegills. Good intentions, bad strategy. First, how much fun is it to catch 4-inch bluegills? Second, even the most zealous and dedicated angler can't keep up with the sunfish removal capability of a largemouth bass.

A largemouth bass consumes its weight in bluegills each month when the water temperature is near 75°F. A 4-inch bluegill weighs less than an ounce, a 5-inch bluegill weighs about 1.4 ounces. From spring through fall, a single 1-pound largemouth bass eats at least two dozen 4-inch bluegills or about a dozen 5-inchers each month. Not only are largemouth bass superior bluegill removing machines, they crop 'gills at a much smaller size than do anglers. This is important because a 3- or 4-inch bluegill eats the same food as—and therefore competes with—a half-pound or larger 'gill.

Minnesota DNR fishery biologist Pete Jacobson suggests an opposite strategy may produce quality bluegills that panfish piscatores seek. He found average length of bluegills increased in three of four lakes where the sunfish daily creel limit was reduced from the statewide limit of 30 sunfish per day to 10 per day. During the same period, average length decreased in four similar lakes where the bag limit remained 30 sunfish per day.

Nothing mysterious here, or so it seems—harvest fewer fish, more survive to grow large, and the average length of bluegill increases. Good thinking, but to grow larger, bluegills need food. With lower harvest, more bluegills would survive to share limited food resources, and growth rate should slow. But Jacobson found growth rate increased in the reduced-harvest lakes, and the greatest increase in growth rate occurred in the reduced harvest lakes that had the greatest proportion of large bluegills.

The likely key to why reduced harvest resulted in larger bluegills was not that they survived to live longer and grow larger, but because they didn't begin reproducing until they reached a larger size. Sexually mature fish channel a lot of energy into developing gonads and building and guarding nests, which leaves less energy for body (somatic) growth. By delaying sexual maturity until reaching a larger size, the fish can grow faster because energy is not shunted to reproduction. Jacobson found that average length at maturity of male bluegill increased from 6 inches before the 10-fish regulation to 6½ to 7 inches four years after the regulation was implemented. During the same time period, average length at maturity stayed at 6 inches in the reference lakes with 30-fish limits.

Does that small difference in length at maturity matter? Yes. Faster growth in the regulation lakes translated into bluegills that were 7 to 8 inches long at age-7 compared to 6 to 6½ inches at age-7 in the 30-fish limit lakes. While the 1- to 1½-inch difference in growth may not sound like much, it equates to a bluegill that weighs twice as much at age-7 in the 10-fish-limit lakes as in the 30-fish-limit lakes.

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