Spring in Sunset Country

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There are not very many nice words I can use to describe the winter of 2014. It’s been a battle to say the least and as I write this in mid-April we still have plenty of good ice out on Lake of the Woods. This long winter is going to influence our open water season because we’re looking at a very late ice out. There is also a lot of snow that needs to melt so we can assume that we will have high water this spring and likely through the entire season. The following tips will help you put more fish in the boat this spring whenever the day comes that we can finally get out on the water.

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Walleye
On most of the big waters across the Sunset Country region like Rainy, Lac Seul and Lake of the Woods, walleyes are still likely to be spawning on the opening weekend of the season, which is always the third Saturday in May, a week after the opener in Manitoba.

Smaller inland lakes will probably be a little bit farther along and anglers will be looking at a post spawn situation. Both scenarios can be good for the angler because fish will be in predictable locations. If you are unfamiliar with where walleye spawn on the waters that you fish, have a look at a map or the layout of the water that you’re fishing and it’s relatively easy to narrow down high percentage areas.

Are there any creeks or rivers flowing into the lake? If there are, there is a very good chance walleye will be using it to spawn. If there is no water flowing in, look for shallow back bays, off the main lake area. If you can find a stretch of sandy shoreline (think beaches) in these bays you will find fish!

The high water levels that are expected on Sunset Country lakes will influence things as well. On the big lakes, anglers can expect to find more “flow” or current than usual. This is great for fishing because is sets fish up in predictable locations throughout the season.

Tranquil Channel, located in the central section of Lake of the Woods is a famous spawning area for walleyes and a popular “opening weekend” location for anglers. It has plenty of sandy shoreline that walleyes love and it’s going to have a bunch of current ripping through it, which is going to make for some awesome walleye fishing for the first few weeks of the season.

Where trolling crankbaits and spinner rigs remains dominant for finding walleyes throughout the warmer summer months, early season walleyes are usually lazy, so jigs tipped with soft plastics or real minnows are the best presentations to feed the fish.

Match your jigs to the depth your fishing and you’re all set. I generally never fish deeper than 20 feet for the first month of the season and seldom use anything but an 1/8 ounce jig. If you’re around heavy current or drift into deeper water you might have to bump up the weight on your jigs.

Typically I only use soft plastic minnow imitators anymore, but live minnows can save the day when cold fronts set in. My top two soft plastics that I guarantee will work for you are a Northland Impulse Smelt Minnow and a Jackall Clone Fry. Both come in three inch versions that slide nicely on to an 1/8 ounce jig. Just pitch them out, let them sink to the bottom then swim and jig them back to the boat, making occasional contact with the bottom.

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Bass
Early season is prime time to catch big numbers of bass as well as some of the biggest fish of the year, especially during the prespawn period. I have mentioned this great bite in past spring issues of Hooked.

One of the main reasons that bass fishing is so good in the spring is because bass are almost dormant during the winter so when the ice melts and the sunlight starts hitting the fish again, the switch goes off and heavy feeding begins. From the time the ice goes out until fish start to make beds for spawning when the water temperatures hit 60 degrees, suspending jerkbaits, like a Jackall Squad Minnow 115 will outfish anything else you can tie on your line.

There is a triggering quality with jerkbaits that just drives smallmouth bass nuts. They catch largemouths pretty good during this timeframe as well. Part of the reason why they are so good early in the year is because there is not a lot of weed growth yet so the water column is clear making it possible for fish to see these baits from a long range. When it comes to finding fish, you want to be close to those big spawning areas. The big, shallow bays are where most of the fish in a body of water will go to spawn, so any points or structural pieces heading into these bays are the places where fish will congregate on their way in. On days when the wind is blowing, wind blown stretches of shoreline with a few boulders mixed in will be good.

One thing to keep in mind is that before fish disperse to actually spawn, they will be usually found in large groups so it’s kind of a feast or famine thing. Find the fish and it’s common to catch 100+ fish in a day but if you are not in the right areas, you can totally miss and not catch anything. So if you aren’t catching any fish, keep moving around and hit as many high percentage spots as you can.

Pike
Northern Pike are another spring spawning fish and the anticipated high water levels are going to be great for early season pike anglers.

Almost immediately after the ice goes out, big pike swarm the back ends of the shallowest bays on the lake and for the most part they are going to be aggressive. The reason the high water is so good is that it floods a lot of old vegetation that pike love to get into to do their thing. When they are in this stuff not only are they easier to spot and sight fish, they are also more predictable in their location. Edges of old reeds or bulrushes and isolated clumps of emergent vegetation are high percentage places that big pike will patrol waiting for an easy meal.

When it comes to baits, soft plastic swimbaits or jerkbaits are great because they have a large enough profile to get the attention of big fish yet they are subtle in nature and totally weedless. I’m talking five, six and seven inch soft baits. Anything white in colour is good because they are easy to see and pike like white, everywhere!

Plenty of water in both Manitoba and Northwest Ontario offer chances at 20 pound plus pike so it’s a good idea to be prepared with the proper gear to handle big fish. I like to use a medium heavy flipping stick designed for bass fishing. The Shimano Crucial line has a great model that I have been using for this situation over the past few years. Match it was a good casting reel and some 30 pound Power Pro braided line and you’re all set.

A sleeper body of water to keep in mind for big pike (as well as bass and walleye) is Rainy Lake, located a couple of hours south of Kenora. You can launch in Fort Frances and head into the north arm of the lake to find some of the best pike fishing on the planet. Rainy is right up there with Lake of the Woods for me as one of my favourite bodies of water so if you get the desire to take a trip, check this place out!

When you get out on the water this spring, keep in mind, many of the fish that are spring spawners will be in those warmer, shallower bays for the first part of the season so that is where you want to be spending your time fishing. Beyond that, let the conditions tell you what to do and you will catch plenty of fish.

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About Author

Jeff Gustafson, known in the fishing World as Gussy, grew up on the shores of Lake of the Woods in Kenora, Ontario. He took out his first guide trip at age 14 on Lake of the Woods and has made his living in the fishing/outdoor industry ever since. A graduate of the University of Manitoba, Gussy has always been self-employed as a fishing guide, outdoor writer and photographer as well as fishing promoter. Today his fishes the Walmart FLW Tour pro bass circuit and as many local bass tournaments as he can find the time to enter and he is the host of his own TV program called Fishing with Gussy, which airs across Canada. You can find him online through his website at www.gussyoutdoors.com

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