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Scott Rall: Living in the land of big fish

Scott Rall

Daily Globe outdoors columnist 

One week into the 2014 Minnesota fishing season and before you know it the open water season will be winding down again. There is not a more anticipated date in Minnesota each year. The deer opener is a very close second and some would claim it is the top date in the minds of the outdoorsman in the state.

I am on record of having said many times that if you want the best chance of catching multiple walleyes over eight pounds in a single season that southwest Minnesota is the best place in the state to do it. I know of an angler that over the course of four days caught and released 10 fish over eight pounds. Of that total, four were over nine pounds and one was over 10 pounds. He did this within 60 miles of Worthington about 5-6 years ago.

He was on the right spot at the right time and there was nobody else on the lake during those four days. He was the only boat on the water and he had all the spots on that lake to himself.

So why does our part of the state offer the best chance to catch a big walleye? The most compelling reason for this is the fact that most of our area lakes are less than 10 feet deep. Many of them are not much over six feet deep. Combine this shallow water with the fact that water clarity is generally less than 12 inches and the end result is warm water and more days of it per calendar year.

Fish activity increases as water warms. In warm water, fish feed more actively and for longer periods of time. Shallow water warms up faster in the spring, and with dark or stained water due in large part to sediment in suspension, it absorbs more sunlight and warms up even faster. The warmer temperatures last longer into to the fall, as well. When you combine shallow water depths and dark water you get warmer water and faster growing fish.

Let me give you an example. I caught a 19-inch walleye in Big Spirit Lake 15 years ago that had been tagged. The Iowa DNR slips a very small tag under the skin on the bottom side of the lower jaw as part of its ongoing walleye population assessments. On the tag is a set of numbers that identify when the fish was tagged along with its weight, sex and length at the time. This 19-inch fish caught from a lake that is about 25-feet deep was nine years old and weighed just under three pounds when I caught it.

That same fish, if caught as a nine-year old from a prairie lake in southwest Minnesota, it would have most likely have weighed over eight pounds and been about 28 inches in length. This is just a typical difference between the growth rates of smaller shallow warm water lakes and those that are larger and deeper with a much lower average water temperature.

In the lakes that have deep, clear water, walleye fishing can many times be a morning- and evening-only proposition. Walleyes are very light sensitive. They do not have eyelids and are not called “old marble eyes” for nothing. In many clear water lakes walleyes will hang out in the weeds during the day and feed only at dawn and dusk. In the dark water lakes of southwest Minnesota the walleye bite can and often lasts all day long as the light cannot penetrate nearly as well.

Have you ever heard that saying that fish bite better when there is a little walleye chop? A walleye chop is just a little wave action. This wave action breaks up the surface of the water and limits to some extent the amount of light that penetrates. With less light in the water column walleyes have a great feeding advantage over the prey they pursue.

Because of their big eyes they can see much better in low light conditions than the perch or other prey fish that walleyes feed on. This means they have to expend less energy to catch and eat a meal.

Walleye chop is less important in shallow dirty water lakes than it is in the deeper clear waters of other locals, but it still helps make fish active and bite better than a smooth-as-glass water body. What all of this means is that because our fish grow fast we have many fish that grow to larger sizes and do so in much shorter periods of time. Fishing pressure will ultimately determine how many fish grow to over eight pounds, and lakes that get hammered with many angler hours will have fewer big fish.

The other reason that southwest Minnesota is a great place to catch a big fish is that none or our lakes are poorly managed. For the most part our lakes have very limited natural reproduction. Some fish do spawn successfully, but if you ask any fisheries biologist in the area the walleye fishing here is sustained by stocking.

I equate many area lakes to a feed lot full of steers. Each time you catch and kill a walleye there is one less fish in the lake just the same as if you removed a steer. When all the steers are gone there is no more to take. In a stocked lake fishery the same situation exists. The lake is stocked and as each fish is harvested and removed there is one less fish. When the lake is empty there are no more fish to take. So just like the empty feed lot the lake is empty, too.

Herein lies the difference between our lakes and many others. The area fisheries personnel access the walleye populations in all of our area lakes every few years. If the populations are very low the stocking rate is increased. If the populations are normal then the stocking rates are normal. Most area lakes get more fish stocked two out of every three years.

This results in many different year classes of fish and makes fish size structure and population more consistent across all year classes. In lakes that rely on natural reproduction there are often times where a year class might completely fail. This can happen several years in a row if the weather does not cooperate. Stocked lakes have more stable populations, a greater variety of size structures, and this makes catching a big fish more likely.

I believe that another reason we have many big fish is the fact that we have no other big predators in our lakes. We have a few lakes with limited numbers pike but they are few and far between. There are, for the most part, no lakes in southwest Minnesota with the exception of Fox Lake in Sherburn that have muskies. Not many other lakes have other species like small mouth bass that can compete with the available food sources so our walleye get the lion’s share of the food available. When the pie is only shared by walleye and few other big fish predators, there is more forage to go around, and this helps walleyes grow faster.

The one thing about fishing here that is different than lakes in other parts of our state is that the prairie lakes seem to either be very hot or very cold when it comes to the bite. There may be no bite at all for six weeks and then out of nowhere the bite gets suicidal and a hundred boats will converge on one little lake and then just hammer it. Then just as fast as the bite developed it will die. It will then be a different lake turn to give up a hot bite, and so on and so on. There is little consistency like you can find in other lakes where they might not be biting all that good but you could usually catch one or two.

When a lake bite is off it is usually really off. I know a guy who lives on Lake Okabena and one summer he trolled the lake for walleyes 45 hours over a two-week period and caught not even one fish. He was in it for the relaxation and the Twins were on the radio, so he did not really care if he caught any. For him it just was not worth trailering the boat to a different lake.

Some seasons are better than others and the jury is out as of yet, but we have many great lakes and lots of big fish if you can happen to be in the right place at the right time. I, for one, normally am not. Good luck this season and be a square to all your buddies and friends and wear your life jacket all the time.