Looking for the walleye of a lifetime? Here are the best hot spots for landing a trophy, plus advice from the pros
Canada boasts fantastic walleye fisheries from B.C. to Quebec, but only a handful of lakes, rivers and reservoirs consistently kick out good numbers of big walleye weighing eight to 18 pounds. Even on these marquee waters, though, it’s important to put yourself in the right place at the right time with the right presentation. So, here’s the skinny from the experts on where and when to go, and what to throw.
Lake Erie, ON
Probably no one was more surprised than Ted Takasaki himself. During a tournament four years ago on Lake Erie, the ever-positive president of Lindy Legendary Fishing Tackle set a new Professional Walleye Trail record for a one-day, five-fish limit. Are you ready for this? His walleye weighed a staggering 53.2 pounds. Most anglers never catch a double-digit walleye in their lives, but Takasaki’s five fish averaged almost 11 pounds. Not only did he shatter the previous record of 48.48 pounds for a five-fish limit, he bettered the one-day, six-fish limit as well. Says Takasaki: “It was unbelievable.”
Which only goes to prove that anything’s possible on Lake Erie.
Part of the reason is that Erie, the shallowest of the Great Lakes, offers many prime places for walleye to spawn. Plus, walleye grow faster here than anywhere else in the country-almost twice as fast. And while the total walleye population has dipped recently from a high of 100 million fish due to gobies and zebra mussels, there are still more walleye in Erie than any other lake in the world.
Following the spawn, which occurs early in Erie, the walleye quickly filter back out to the main lake, forming Genghis Khan-like hordes that maraud schools of smelts, alewives and shad. Takasaki favours pursuing these hungry ‘eyes at the mouth of the Detroit River and the area around Pelee Island. He also says it pays to cover lots of water to locate pods of moving fish. And while Takasaki admits he’s never caught a suspended walleye in a river, he catches the vast majority of his Erie fish in the water column.
“The key on Erie is my four-stroke kicker motor,” says Takasaki. “It’s critical. When I troll I watch my GPS unit and maintain a trolling speed, usually between 1.6 and 1.7 miles per hour.”
Planer boards are also essential tools in Takasaki’s trolling game. Erie walleye spook easily in the gin-clear water when a boat passes overhead, but regroup quickly off to the sides. That’s where they’ll nail minnowbaits, such as Hot ‘N Tots, ThunderSticks, Rapala Original Floaters and Lindy Shadlings, that pass by at the same depth. “My typical strategy,” explains Takasaki, “and the one I used to set the record, is to keep my lures down 10 to 17 feet when I’m trolling over 28 to 32 feet of water. But if that doesn’t work, I’ll keep trying different depths and experimenting with speed control.”
Make no mistake about it, experimenting could pay off. From 1943 to 1960, the world-record walleye was a mammoth 22.7-pounder caught near Fort Erie, Ontario. And Takasaki’s betting that the Great Lake is holding another record-book ‘eye.
Pro tip: When trolling minnowbaits behind planer boards, Takasaki says it’s important to make wide S-turns. The turns cause the inside lure to stall, then surge forward when you move in the other direction, which triggers the walleye to strike.
No other walleye water may be hotter right now than eastern Ontario’s Bay of Quinte, especially after Labour Day. From that date until freeze-up around Christmas, the fishing just gets better and better. How good? In two days of filming television footage in Picton Bay during the first week of December two years ago, the smallest walleye my partner and I caught weighed six pounds. We landed 15 others between 10 and 14 pounds. That’s why I’m convinced that in autumn, the Bay of Quinte may be the only place in the world where it’s easier to catch a fish over 10 pounds than it is to hook one under that magic mark.
The reasons for the remarkable fishing are intriguing. In the past, Quinte was noted for its rich, eutrophic, algae-stained water. But then zebra mussels arrived and cleared up the once fertile bay. As a result, many of the mammoth walleye that used to reside year-round in the relatively shallow bay now move out into Lake Ontario in the summer, foraging on smelt and alewives in the deeper, darker waters.
Essentially, the gigantic lake offers both food and refuge. But the huge fish return to Quinte in the fall and hang around through the winter before spawning in the spring in the many rivers that enter the bay.
As with most Great Lakes walleye fisheries, one of the best presentations during the daytime is to troll a smelt-imitating crankbait behind a planer board or downrigger. My top lures the past two seasons have been Rapala Deep Down Husky Jerks and #11 Deep Tail Dancers, which I ran at least 100 feet behind a planer board. The walleye are almost always suspended in the transparent water column and they smack a lure trolled at a brisk 2.5 to 3 mph.
But nighttime is a different game. Under the cover of darkness, hordes of giant walleye move closer to shore over shallow weed flats and along weed edges. That’s when a #12 Rapala Husky Jerk or a #9 Tail Dancer trolled slowly-I like to use a bow-mount electric trolling motor and maintain a 1.5-mph speed-results in shoulder-dislocating strikes. When hogs like that hit, it makes you think that the Bay of Pigs may be a far more appropriate name than the Bay of Quinte.
Pro tip: Quinte walleye come so shallow at night that even bank-bound anglers can feast on the action. I met one angler fishing from shore last fall who had just released a pair of 14-pounders he’d caught by casting the same lures I was trolling.
John Butts is one of only two Canadian walleye anglers to ever win a Professional Walleye Trail tournament. The Dryden, Ontario, native captured first-place honours-and the U.S.$65,000 purse that goes with it-at the PWT event on the Fox Chain of Lakes in Antioch, Illinois, last year.
He credits fishing Lac Seul, the second largest lake wholly within Ontario, with helping prepare him for the victory. And as a tournament gypsy, Butts gets to sample the entire gamut of North American walleye waters. That makes his assessment of Lac Seul as “one of the best walleye fisheries in the world” all the more meaningful. “It’s just so easy to catch so many quality 27-, 28- and 29-inch fish,” he says.
In contrast, Butts says the U.S. tournament trail is much tougher. “Down there you’re often looking for five bites a day,” he says. “A tournament spot might be where you caught two fish in practice. So it can be hard to refine your presentations and work on details.”
That’s hardly the case on Lac Seul. Butts says that catching 100 walleye a day on the 240-kilometre-long reservoir, situated between the northwestern Ontario towns of Ear Falls and Sioux Lookout, is rarely a problem. In fact, he typically carries 10 dozen minnows in his livewell and uses them all up by mid-afternoon.
“Something I learned fishing American reservoirs,” Butts says, “is that walleye love timber. And Lac Seul is full of it in the back bays.” He explains that the best bays have three things in common: they’re usually eight feet deep or less; they contain plenty of submerged, standing timber; and they’re adjacent to the deep, main-lake basin.
Butts usually starts fishing by making a long cast with a crankbait so he can figure out where the submerged timber is situated. “Most of the tops are broken off,” he says, “so they’re not visible from the surface. When I catch a walleye, I’ll drop anchor and throw a jig-and-slip-bobber combination.” Specifically, Butts’ choice of baits when jigging for wood walleye is a 1/16-ounce green glow Northland jig with a red hook tipped with a small minnow.
While weeding out early-season wood walleye is Butts’ passion, he says the midsummer period is perhaps his favourite on Lac Seul. The weather is ideal and the walleye fishing is explosive. Thanks in part to the reservoir’s stained waters, the walleye remain shallow and within easy reach, even in July and August. Visibility is generally five feet or less.
“In the spring, the walleye are more specific from a location perspective,” Butts explains, “but in the summer they spread out. The northwest side of the lake, around Scout Bay, is my favourite area.” He recommends using a sonar unit to locate underwater reefs and long-tapering points in water five to 20 feet deep.
You’d think that in the stained water a flashy crawler harness would be ideal. And though Butts says you can catch plenty of walleye pulling that combination behind a bottom bouncer, jigs tipped with minnows can’t be beat. “I’m not sure why minnows work so well on the lake,” he says. “It may be because there are so many smelt in the system. But day in and day out, minnows are usually a better option than leeches and crawlers. Just find a good piece of structure and vertically jig over the side of the boat.”
Pro tip: Butts says fishing timber-filled back bays, such as those on Lac Seul, is an early-season pattern that more Canadian anglers should discover.
Measuring 425 kilometres long, 110 kilometres wide and covering 15,000 square kilometres, Lake Winnipeg is the world’s seventh largest lake, and second only to Lake Erie in terms of walleye numbers. It’s also relatively shallow, wide open and prone to Perfect Storm-sized waves, so relatively little sportfishing actually occurs out on the main body of water.
But that’s not the case around and in the protected confines of the two major rivers-the Red and Winnipeg-that flow into this great Prairie sea. This is especially so in the fall, when the lake’s unique emerald-coloured walleye, known as greenbacks, visit for the winter. The runs begin in early September and continue building until the rivers freeze in December. Eight-pound walleye barely raise an eyebrow here, while 12- to 15-pound fish are common. And recently, two walleye topping 19 pounds were caught.
That’s more than enough reason for Minnesota-based walleye pro Ted Takasaki to hitch up the boat and make the pilgrimage north each autumn. “We’re only seeing a smidgen of the potential,” he says, gazing out over the lake from the mouth of the Winnipeg River. “It’s the tip of the iceberg. There has to be some awfully big walleye out there.”
As much as Takasaki says he pines to explore the vast and possibly last great walleye frontier, he’s content for now to ply Lake Winnipeg’s rivers and their outlets. And in the process, he has refined some rather productive strategies. “Everyone has pretty much figured out how to finesse them with a jig,” he says of the greenbacks. “But not everyone is as skilled at locating the big concentrations of fish. The key features to look for are the edges of the river channels where they swing out into the bay, and the current breaks within the rivers themselves.”
Takasaki also points out that even slight changes in the river bottom are important. Delicate twists, turns and bends in the river channels, and subtle structure changes at the outlets—where at first glance the basin appears shallow, flat and featureless—shouldn’t be ignored.
He starts by slowly trolling a spinner rig, which helps him map out the contours and locate isolated rock piles and inside turns. “Most anglers troll crankbaits, but I prefer to run a Red Devil Spinner tipped with an emerald shiner behind a No-Snagg Cent’r Slip Sinker. The sliding sinker keeps the spinner much closer to the bottom than a three-way rig or a bottom bouncer, and when you drag it through the mud, silt and sand, it rolls and imparts additional action.”
Not surprisingly, Takasaki rarely takes his eyes off his sonar unit, hitting the waypoint button whenever he spots something out of the ordinary. Two or three isolated boulders or the twist of a contour line are more than enough to grab his attention.
When he catches a walleye-his biggest greenback so far is a 13-pound-plus behemoth-Takasaki pitches out a marker buoy and drops anchor so that his boat is positioned slightly upwind of the hot spot. He then works the area using a modified drop-shot rig. Basically, he ties a StandOut drop-shot hook a foot from the end of his eight-pound-test main line and, instead of a standard sinker, he attaches a 1/4- to 3/8-ounce (depending on the current) Lindy Max Gap Jig to the end. He then skewers a frozen Lake Winnipeg shiner-sold in every local bait shop-onto each hook.
“As many walleye will hit the StandOut hook as the jig,” boasts Takasaki. “You’ll catch more walleye fishing the two rigs together than you will just jigging or just drop-shotting.”
Pro tip: Takasaki offers a heads-up if you fish with his modified drop-shot rig: the walleye will hit one bait consistently for a period, then start biting the other for a stretch for no apparent reason.
Andrew Klopak owns western Manitoba’s Lake of the Prairies. Well, not literally, but having won the Prairie Classic walleye tournament on the 48-kilometre-long reservoir numerous times, it’s fair to say few anglers know the lake any better.
Created in 1968 when engineers dammed the Assiniboine River near the town of Shellmouth, Lake of the Prairies covers 15,000 acres. It’s not a lot of water as far as reservoirs go, but the rich prairie soils nourish an extraordinary walleye population. How extraordinary? A 1984 Manitoba Conservation creel survey determined that anglers were harvesting 120,000 pounds of walleye each year, a whopping eight pounds per acre, or about five times the provincial average. A slot limit was implemented the following year requiring that all walleye between 18 and 28 inches be released.
Since then, the fishery has not only maintained itself, it’s become even better. According to Klopak, who’s also the president of Lund Boats Canada, there are few places in North America where you can catch as many quality-sized walleye so easily. “The post-spawn, spring period is a good time to fish for walleye on Lake of the Prairies,” he says. “The June bite finds a lot of female fish up shallow, and when I say shallow, I mean really shallow. In water as skinny as three feet deep.”
Klopak says most anglers on Lake of the Prairies fish the edges in 25 to 30 feet of water during the spring. And while he admits there are fish at that depth, he says the shallow ‘eyes are much easier to catch. Simply pitch a 1/16- to 1/8-ounce jig tipped with a lively leech into flooded willow bushes to seal the deal. “You can’t go right in on top of the fish,” Klopak cautions, “or you’ll spook them. You have to stay back and pitch the jig.”
Although it doesn’t matter what colour jig you start fishing with, Klopak says it’s important to regularly change hues. “I might catch 10 walleye right away using a chartreuse jig,” he says, “but when the action slows down I’ll change to a green or a red or a multicoloured one, and it’ll pick up again. Eventually, I’ll go back to chartreuse.”
Having lively bait is also vital. Klopak calls himself “crazy” in his frenetic search for the freshest, liveliest bait. And to prove the point, he rhymes off one top finish and big-fish prize after the other that has resulted from his passion for vivacious bait.
Something else that Klopak is certain about: If you want to catch a double-digit walleye in Lake of the Prairies, forget about looking for secret spots harbouring one or two monsters. Instead, search through the scores of slightly smaller fish. “If you get on a school of 24- to 26-inch walleye, you may catch as many as 50 fish before you hit a 28- or 30-incher,” he says. “I’ve weeded through far more walleye than that a number of times.”
According to Klopak, the best place to launch a boat is at the dam at the south end of the reservoir. But remember, Lake of the Prairies is part of a river system and it can muddy up after a heavy rain, so it pays to search for clear water. Klopak recalls winning the Prairie Classic two years ago because he and his partner, his son Stephen, fished a transition where the muddy water cleared. “The walleye were relating to the clear-water edge and that’s where we pitched our jigs,” he says. “There wasn’t another person fishing within sight of us.”
Bet that won’t be the case this year.
Pro tip: Klopak says the early-season, knee-deep walleye bite is totally overlooked not just on Lake of the Prairies, but also on scores of other lakes across the country.
Prairie Classic champ Andrew Klopak may have a lock on Lake of the Prairies, but Kevin Hollerbaum reigns supreme on Saskatchewan’s Tobin Lake. And what a waterbody to call your kingdom. Gigantic walleye from this Prairie fish bowl set new provincial records every year between 1994 and 1997. The 1997 record weighed a staggering 18.06 pounds, which would seem unbeatable in any other lake. But Tobin’s not any other lake.
Father Mariusz Zajak proved that in January 2005 when he squeezed an 18.3-pound behemoth through a hole in the ice, establishing not only a new Saskatchewan record, but an ice-fishing world record to boot. His secret, he later revealed, was a combination of praying and jigging. Other mere mortals might want to keep that in mind.
“You can catch a trophy-sized walleye in Tobin Lake just about any time of the year,” says Hollerbaum, who won the Nipawin Vanity Cup-the most prestigious walleye tournament in the country-in 1999 and again in 2003. “But from September until freeze-up is my favourite time,” he says. “That’s when the big fish come in from the main lake and stage in the river.”
While Hollerbaum loves pulling a Lindy Rig set-up with a 3/8-ounce sinker, 36-inch leader and #6 or 8 Gamakatsu hook tipped with a leech, he does it in an unorthodox manner-by backtrolling into the current. “We discovered the pattern while pre-fishing one year for the Vanity Cup,” he explains. “In a few hours we caught a dozen walleye between 12 and 13 pounds.” Yes, you heard him right.
All the other teams were using a typical river-walleye technique, drifting with the current and using their electric motors to keep pace with the flow. “So here we were backtrolling,” explains Hollerbaum. “It was kind of comical because we had to keep pulling in and out of everybody’s way. But we were presenting our lures much more slowly and we wound up winning the tournament. Now, it seems like everybody’s backtrolling.”
What makes Tobin Lake particularly suited to the unconventional technique is that it’s a man-made reservoir in the midst of the Saskatchewan River, sandwiched between the Francois Finlay and E.B. Campbell Dams. Unlike most natural rivers on the Canadian Shield, which feature hard, granite bottoms littered with innumerable rock shoals, boulder shelves and stony outcroppings, the bottom of Tobin is essentially mud and sand.
“There’s not a lot of structure,” says Hollerbaum. “The current keeps it clean. It looks like the Sahara Desert. You can monitor it on your sonar and feel your rig sliding up a sandy dune, then feel a walleye hit as it passes over a dip.” According to Hollerbaum, the water is roughly 12 to 15 feet deep about halfway down the river, where much of the fall fishing has traditionally taken place. But in the last few years, he says, the better fishing is occurring a little farther downriver, where the water is around 25 feet deep.
Pro tip: Hollerbaum says the fall conditions on Tobin are perfect when the water is clear and the current is brisk.
They may promise the biggest fish in the land, but our featured six waters are far from the only places in Canada where you can catch giant walleye. Here are 14 more bonus hot spots that also promise larger-than-average ‘eyes.