Minnesota’s Aerated Walleyes
By Tim Lesmeister

How come you never hear someone yell, "C’mon kids, load up the fishin’ gear. We’re going down south for some walleye fishing." It seems that everyone has this pre-conceived notion that all the walleyes in Minnesota are up north. Everyone heads to Mille Lacs, Brainerd, Lake of the Woods, or Alexandria. You never hear of anyone heading for Windom, Worthington, or Jackson for a weekend of walleye fishing.

"Everybody thinks all the lakes down here are full of bullheads," said Ila Christensen, a bait dealer at Lake Benton. "They used to be, but that was a long time ago, before we got the aeration." The aeration? It’s a system that’s installed in a lake to provide oxygen to the water during the winter periods when the heavy snow creates a condition that depletes the life-giving gas and causes most of the fish in a lake to die. The term for this situation is winterkill. Prior to the installation of the aeration systems winterkill was prevalent on many bodies of water in southern Minnesota due to the shallow nature of the lakes. The gamefish populations would be devastated during the hard winters and the bullhead and carp would prosper. None of the lakes developed a reputation for anything more than the trophy bullheads. Things have changed. Some lakes occasionally get stressed due to low oxygen in the winter months, but this seldom causes any major fish kills. With an active walleye stocking program by the MN Department of Natural Resources (DNR), many of the lakes are actually capable of producing some very good walleye action.

As a matter of fact the walleyes do extremely well in the turbid water of the pothole lakes in the southern region. In many of the lakes there is ample natural reproduction and because of the high fertility of the water the growth rates for walleyes is phenomenal. The walleye populations in most lakes, though, are directly related to how much stocking is performed. According to Marv Ingbritson, DNR Assistant Area Fisheries Supervisor in the Windom office, "A lot of these lakes actually have shorelines that are rock and rubble substrate and the walleyes seem to be able to do a good job of spawning on this. Conditions aren’t always conducive to a good hatch, but many of the lakes are showing real good natural reproduction. A lot depends on water temperatures, water levels, spring weather, and wind is a factor. In the northern lakes conditions for reproduction are crucial. It’s even more so in the southern waters down here."

One big difference between the northern and southern lakes is the water clarity. Ingbritson said that a test to measure water visibility, the secchi disk reading, was low on most of the lakes in his region. On a secchi disk the higher the reading the clearer the water. Many of the lakes in the ten-county area that Ingbritson is responsible for might only average a one-foot secchi disk reading. This lack of water clarity can make a real difference in the amount of vegetation that grows in these lakes. Jim Zanke, a bait and tackle dealer in Fairmont had this to say about the weed growth. "There is none. We don’t have much vegetation in these lakes unless you count the algae blooms that occur when it gets hot. Mostly we just fish structure." One lake that does get some heavy weed growth is Lake Benton. "Eight years ago we had to look hard to find a piece of vegetation on this lake," said Christensen, "and now it’s just spread all over." The "weed" that Christensen describes is the curly-leafed pondweed. "The stuff comes up fast and when it blooms it’s real hard to fish in, but then it breaks off by the middle of July and you can fish a lot of areas you couldn’t fish in earlier," she said.

As far as fishing pressure on the southern, aerated lakes, Ingbritson said it is nowhere like what a northern lake’s routine is. "Up north you have the resorts," he said. "On those lakes you have steady pressure from people going out every day from the resorts. Here the lakes get attention when the word goes out that the walleyes are biting on that lake. Then it gets pounded for awhile and then everybody moves to the next hot spot." Techniques on these southern lakes are not much different from their northern counterparts, although there is a lot of shorefishing on the southern lakes and crankbaits should be purchased in colors that are more productive in murky waters. "In the spring we use a plain jig and minnow," said Zanke. "The spinner rigs and live-bait rigs also work good. As the summer goes on the guys will go to the hard baits, crankbaits like the Shad Raps and Wally Divers and those types of baits."

One of Christensen’s favorite techniques requires a float. "I like leeches and slipbobbers," she said, "and at night you can use those lighted bobbers. "Last fall," she continued, "we had some fabulous fishing just casting twister-tails. I caught one fish that was seven-pounds four-ounces that I kept and the next night I ended up releasing three that were bigger than that." For anglers that have been heading north every year around opening day and having a tough time catching walleyes, these southern lakes are usually at a peak on opener. "The spawn is well over by the time the opener hits," said Zanke. "The walleyes we’re fishing have already moved to the transition areas and if the weather doesn’t screw things up the walleyes can be biting real good."

Zanke says a lot of anglers take advantage of the shallower fish on opening day by using waders and casting crankbaits. "There are about three to four areas where guys can wade out and cast," he said. "The water is still cool enough that they can take advantage of those shallow walleyes." Currently there are 41 lakes in the southern region that have aeration systems to keep oxygen levels high enough. Ingbritson says that any of these lakes can now provide quality fishing. Some of his picks consist of the bigger lakes like Benton, Shetek, the Fairmont Chain, Okabena, and the Jackson chain of lakes. If there was one good reason why anglers might not choose to take advantage of the excellent walleye fishing in the southern region it would have to be the lack of resorts. While the lakes in the northern part of Minnesota are rimmed with cabins and resorts, these types of vacation options barely exist on the southern lakes.

There are some state campgrounds on a few lakes and Lake Benton still has one resort operating, but most of the lakes have either residential or agricultural development or nothing at all. Fishing on the southern lakes means a camper or a motel room. Does this mean the lakes get all their attention from the local populace? Not really. According to Ingbritson, as part of a creel survey that was recently taken people from 14 other states were found taking advantage of the fishing in the region, although he attributes much of this outside pressure to fishing excursions by people staying with relatives in the area. If you do choose to take advantage of the great walleye fishery that’s been established in the southern region of Minnesota here are a few lakes to tap.

Clear Lake - Jackson County
Clear Lake in Jackson County is one of those southern prairie lakes that requires an aeration system to maintain high enough oxygen levels for the fish to survive. As a matter of fact there has been no problems with any fish loss since the aeration system was installed, and through the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) stocking efforts the walleye population is very high and the lake gets a lot of use by area anglers. The bulk of the walleyes in Clear Lake range from 18 to 24 inches, a respectable size that’s about two to six pounds.

One might think that there can’t be much structure on a lake that is only 453 acres with a maximum depth of nine feet, but there is. On the east side of the lake there’s a big rock pile along the shoreline that’s a good spot for walleyes. There’s also little dips and holes on the bottom that the walleye like to lay. You need a good sonar to find those dips.

A lot of people fishing for walleyes on Clear Lake just cast a jighead with a twister-tail. Surprisingly, white is a good color. If they aren’t biting on twister-tails then try leeches or nightcrawlers on a jighead and keep it right on the bottom. There’s a lot of people that just fish from shore and you shouldn’t doubt the rumors of the ten pound walleye being caught from the shoreline. There are two public access points on Clear Lake, one is on the north end, the other is on the southwest side.

The Fairmont Chain - Martin County
The Fairmont Chain of Lakes consists of three separate basins that are attached by navigable channels. The southern basin is called Hall Lake, the central basin is Budd Lake and the northern basin is known as Sisseton.

All three of these basins were very shallow until dredging measures were started some years ago to create some additional depth as well as habitat. It was a successful project. "Hall Lake is about 26 feet deep now," said Zanke, "and Budd Lake is at least 24 feet. The structure that was created by the dredging has provided some good places to fish for walleye." Early stocking by the DNR resulted in an overabundance of walleyes, but that condition has changed since the management of the lake has allowed natural reproduction to be the prime method of maintaining the walleye population.

"The walleyes are holding their own real well," said Zanke, "and we’re getting some very big fish. For awhile I think we had too many walleyes and all you could catch were 13-inchers. Now we have a good balance and the walleyes are moving up in size. Now you see some eight and nine pounders come out of there."

Zanke says anglers will have good luck if they stick to the dropoffs created by the dredging. There’s some real sharp breaks in Hall Lake. A jig or a live-bait rig is the presentation of choice when chasing those deeper fish.

If you like to hit the water after the sun goes down you can expect some success. According to Zanke, "There’s not a lot of guys that night fish, but the ones that are do well. It’s a limited number of spots, but I know one guy who goes out and casts a jointed number-seven Rapala and catches a lot of walleyes. You can catch some real big fish at night, that’s for sure."

Lake Benton - Lincoln County
"We have great walleye fishing here," said Christensen. "On the lakes around Minneapolis people fish for bass and accidentally catch a walleye. Here you fish for the walleyes and accidentally catch the bass." The aeration systems were really tested well this last winter according to Christensen. Heavy snows on the lakes would have had the local anglers in a panic before the installation of the equipment. They may still have been somewhat uneasy, but the added oxygen seemed to do the job and once again disaster was averted. "You can tell if the lake goes into low oxygen," said Christensen, "because you see dead carp. No one saw any dead carp when the ice went out and we were still catching walleyes when the season closed in February.

Christensen recommends that anglers work the edges of the curly-leafed pondweed with crankbaits or slipbobbers. "You have to find a place where you can troll over the pondweed." she said. When the walleyes are biting on Rapalas you’ll find a lot of people casting them from the shore too." There are three public access points on Benton. One access is right in town, one access is on the east side, and there is good boat access in the Norwegian Creek Park which also has a campground. Christensen says the best time to be on Benton is early season before the pondweed has spread over the surface, and later when the thick vegetation lays down and makes it easier for anglers to present a bait. "The last two openers have been great," she said. "My kids got out and had some great fishing.

Lake Shetek/Lake Sarah - Murray County
Shetek is one of the more popular lakes in the southern range because of the state park that’s located on the east side. It’s also a fun lake to boat around on, with some islands and bays that give the lake a character much different from its neighbors. If the walleyes fail to bite on Shetek, anglers can go hit Lake Sarah which is just a "stones throw" to the northwest of Shetek. Both lakes have good populations of walleyes and are big enough to allow some boat trolling and/or casting. There is also plenty of shoreline areas for anglers to take advantage of.

Lake Okabena - Nobles County
Okabena is one of my favorite. Right on the edge of the town of Worthington this lake has some structure, some vegetation, and plenty of walleyes. Typically I backtroll spinner rigs with nightcrawlers on one-ounce bottom bouncers. The bottom bouncer lets me stir up the bottom and get those walleye’s attention. Don’t be afraid to use a spinnered snell with a big blade (number 5 or 6) because the walleyes will key in on that flash and vibration. There’s some real nice catfish in Okabena so don’t be surprised if that trophy walleye has some whiskers.

I remember a conversation I had a number of years ago with world-renowned South Dakota angler Tony Dean. We were discussing the great walleye fishing in the upper midwest and swapping stories about the big ones that got away. He started telling me stories about the trips he made to lakes in the southern region of Minnesota as he passed through on his way home to Pierre, South Dakota. He told me if I ever took advantage of this fishery to keep it a secret and made me promise not to tell. Well I did check out the area, and I still do fish the lakes there, and by now I figure the statute of limitations has run out on that promise. For more information regarding Lake Benton call Ila Christensen at (507) 368-4831. For more information regarding the Fairmont Chain of Lakes call Zankes Sporting Goods at (507) 235-6931. The Department of Natural Resources Windom office is (507) 831-2919.