The Quest For Manitoba Walleye

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My anticipation was palpable, as I stood with spinning gear in hand, slowly raising, pausing and dropping the jig and minnow set up. I’d thump the bottom a couple of times, raise a foot, pause, jiggle, slowly lower. Repeat. Until suddenly it felt like something hit the jig with a hammer and the fight was on! I set the hook and watched the rod bend, the fish pulling in that typical walleye head-shake way until an emerald green shadow appeared and moments later the fish was netted.

As predictable as the leaves turning and the days growing shorter, signaling the arrival of fall, is an annual fish migration from the south basin of Lake Winnipeg into its two main tributaries, the Red and Winnipeg Rivers. The Red enters the lake through a maze of marshland, shallows and channels miles north of the locks at Lockport. The Winnipeg enters downstream from the dam at Pine Falls, emptying first into the wide and often windy expanse of Traverse Bay before finding the main body of the lake.

As veteran walleye anglers know, walleye take on colouration that compliments its environment. The tea-stained lakes of the Canadian Shield witness the development of deep gold and tan hues in resident walleye, while the murky, sand and gravel ecosystem that is the south basin of Lake Winnipeg generates a unique, emerald-green sheen to its walleye, hence the term “greenback.”

There are a number of reasons why these walleye are particularly popular with resident anglers and the many American neighbours who participate in their own northern fall migration. The presence of abundant forage makes these fish grow to immense proportions, so that even average-length fish possess formidable, football-shaped girths, and a length that can stretch out over 30 inches, resulting in some very weighty specimens. In addition, these fish are hungry, putting on weight in preparation for the winter and the spring spawn that follows. This means that the opportunity to tangle with these green monsters is open to everyone – young and old, experienced and not, shore angler and those in anything that floats. And finally, they are excellent table fare, having lived the majority of their lives in the lake that, although it is infamous for facing its own challenges from various pollutants, still manages to support a thriving commercial fishery that produces top quality freshwater fish sought around the world.

Location, location, location – every angler knows the importance of being in the right spot at the right time. There’s always lots to choose from, presenting an angling puzzle that can get downright frustrating at times, particularly when there are several boats that seem to have the puzzle figured out.

On the Red River, typically the spots that are fished most often stretch from what’s called The Miracle Mile (a stretch of river several miles north of the dam at Lockport that’s known for its productivity) north to The Cut, an opening on the river adjacent to the shallows of Netley Lake. And then there’s CIL Road, Sugar Island, Doc Reeds, The Bird House, The Church – well, you get the idea; there lots of choice and a river bottom that varies in depth down to about 20-something feet.

Below the dam at Pine Falls, and out to the opening of Traverse Bay to Lake Winnipeg, there are river locations and bay locations, with each one presenting its own features and challenges. The river locations tend to be tightly depth specific on reefs and shoals, although there are flats, such as off the sand cliffs, which can be drift fished successfully. The bay has its own depth and location profile, as what appears to be a broad shallow expanse presents depth changes that can be subtle, or steep along the channel that is the continuation of the river out to the lake. Locations to learn include Star Point, T-14, Bruyere Point, Two Hearts, the Trailer, Cyprus Point and Robinson Rock.

There are two different approaches to fishing for greenbacks here – a jig/minnow combination and trolling.

 

Jig and minnow

The tried-and-true jig/minnow combination probably catches more fish than any other approach. But there is more to this than simply dropping a jig/minnow combo to the bottom.

Size: Your first consideration is the size of the jig. You want to be able to reach the bottom and feel it, but generally use the smallest jig that will accomplish that goal. The biggest variable here is current strength and this can get tricky. One minute you’re nicely in touch with the bottom, confirming that you’re in the strike zone. The next minute you’ve lost it, thanks to current surges that can be particularly noticeable if you’re fishing close to the riverbank. As long as you can re-connect with the bottom quickly, you’re in business. Any prolonged period out of touch and you should be looking for an increase in jig size.

Colour: This can be a critical factor as well. The waters feeding Lake Winnipeg are murky at best, so choosing bright colors is generally a good starting approach. Pinks, oranges and chartreuse shades are good performers, but if they’re not working, don’t hesitate to get into some darker colors such as purple or black. And if you have more than one angler in the boat, make sure you’re starting out with different colours and styles to test the mood of the fish. It’s not unusual for one particular colour/style presentation to be successful, even over similar but not identical set ups fished within mere feet in the same boat.

Bait: When I head out for greenbacks, I make sure I have the best bait available – both live and frozen. Bait’s expensive, but compared to the time and money investment of the whole trip, it’s well worth the cost. It’s a good idea to search out quality, frozen shiners prior to the fishing season and buy in bulk when you find them. Any leftovers can be used during the ice fishing season. Whether I’m fishing live bait or frozen, I like to start with a frozen shiner hooked through the eyes and loose on the hook shank. This is followed by either a frozen shiner hooked through the gills and into the back, or a live minnow hooked through the lips or tail. And since Manitoba is a barbless angling environment, I always finish up with a bit of plastic on the tip of the hook to better secure the bait set up.

And just a note on jigging rods and reels: open face or closed, doesn’t make much difference in my view. What does make a difference is the sensitivity of the rod combo and the line being used. I like a medium-action, six-and-a-half to seven-foot graphite rod with six to eight-pound braided line. Usually the water is murky enough to make any sort of floro leader unnecessary, although I’ve been out there on days when it made a difference so I wouldn’t totally rule it out.

 

Trolling

The other popular approach to fishing the waters of the Red and Traverse Bay is trolling, also called cranking thanks to the use of hard-bodied baits called crankbaits. You’re more likely to see trollers on Traverse than on the Red, likely because it is such a broad expanse to explore, with expansive flats that vary little in depth. As with jigging, there are a number of tricks to the troll approach that are worth considering.

Hard-bodied baits: The variety of crankbaits available on the market these days can be a bit overwhelming for novice anglers. There are a number of considerations to be kept in mind.

Depth comes first. You’ll want to purchase baits that dive to different depths so that you can match your bait to the speed of the boat and depth of water. You’ll know when you’ve got it right when your bait is periodically touching the bottom, an action that can elicit a strike if there’s a greenback following – which they’ll sometimes do for quite a distance. Varying depth and speed by trolling in a swerving pattern is an effective approach, as the cranks on the inside slow down and those on the outside speed up.

As with jigs, colour can make a difference. Having a variety to try is the key, with the available range from natural to clown colours. Also set up different lures to start, paying attention to any indications that there’s a pattern emerging.

Then there’s style – body shape, rattles, wobble style – each has its place and it’s more the flavour of the day than anything scientific. Starting with some of the Rattle Rap patterns is reasonable, but don’t be afraid to switch if things aren’t working.

When trolling, I prefer a longer, more robust rod than I would use for jigging – something in the eight-foot length, medium heavy with a lively tip. The tip will telegraph the action of the crankbait, allowing the angler to determine if things are working appropriately (touching bottom, no foreign objects picked up, etc.)

And this is definitely a place where electronics are useful for more than determining depth. A decent GPS set up will allow you to plot your course, set waypoints and repeat successful trolls. And locating the odd dip in the bottom or sunken rock pile can prove to be the “spot within the spot” that produces when nearby locations are coming up empty.

The greenbacks of south Lake Winnipeg and its tributaries create a definite destination location for anglers of all stripes, in an abundance and quality that is rarely surpassed. And the beauty of this whole fall walleye migration is not only does it match the waterfowl migration across Manitoba, leading to some interesting possibilities for dual purpose trips, but also the greenbacks stick around for the hard water season, resulting in the appearance of augers, sleds, ice shacks and ice fishing gear in the south basin from December through until late March.

On the Red River, cranking against the current is usually more effective than going with it, just because of the degree of response by the crankbait to the current flow. Same thing applies out on Traverse Bay, because although it looks like a broad, flat expanse, there are varying depths and currents, particularly when you’re following the river channel as it winds its way toward the lake.

And a note to be wary: weather conditions can change quickly, particularly out on Traverse Bay. Lake Winnipeg is notorious for blowing up wind storms that make most angling approaches all but impossible. There have been numerous times we’ve been driven off the Bay and onto the river by the wind, even to the point of packing up and making the hour drive to the Red where there’s a chance for more shelter. Wind direction is also key: try to avoid the days with south winds, as they tend to empty the river and bay, a factor that just seems to turn the fish off. North winds are great, as long as they’re reasonable, because they push water into the systems and the fish seem to love it.

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