The simple, No. 1 secret for great winter walleye action

The author's 7-year-old daughter, Vivian, with a chunky 17-inch Mille Lacs walleye, her first one ever through the ice.

Anglers who love pursuing walleyes in Minnesota are a curious lot. During the recent three-day, MLK holiday weekend, I took my kids out on two Minnesota lakes for some ice angling. We found an interesting contrast in fishing pressure on two lakes known for their walleye and perch populations.

The first lake we fished was Cass Lake, near the town bearing its name, just north of Leech Lake along Highway 2. Cass is a structure-angler’s dream, loaded with jumbo perch and hefty walleye.

We accessed the lake at the rest area along Highway 2 on the south shoreline and immediately found a small village of fish houses. The remainder of the lake, however, was virtually untouched.

What lay before us was 16,000-acres of a vast frozen landscape featuring patchy snowdrifts and ice. Dotted sporadically here and there was a fishhouse or two. Several miles north, along the north shore near two resorts, was another small village, but that was it.

“Cass Lake is one of the premiere walleye lakes in the state, and it’s virtually untouched throughout the winter,” Cass Lake fishing guide Bryan “Beef” Sathre said.

We found a decent perch bite in several places around the lake and settled in for a twilight walleye bite. Just as Sathre predicted, the walleye action was hot and heavy as the sun began setting and about a half hour afterwards before it slowed.

Driving off the lake on a Sunday night, we were the only two vehicles on the ice – something Sathre says might be part of the reason the lake doesn’t receive a lot of pressure.

“There are a few plowed roads out here but not many, and you can drive most anyplace but nobody wants to get stuck out there in the middle of the night with nobody around,” he said.

It’s the opposite effect of “nothing attracts a crowd, like a crowd.”

Contrast that to the lake we fished on Monday, Lake Mille Lacs, where dozens of fishhouse villages dot the landscape. All around the 92 miles of shoreline, on this 128,000-acre body of water, there are thousands of fishhouses.

Granted it was a federal holiday, but even on Monday we saw more people in 10 minutes as we fished with Tony Roach than all of Sunday on Cass.

The reasons for the fishing pressure on Mille Lacs is  a great bite, plus the proximity to the Twin Cities. Our drive from the northwest metro was a little over an hour to Mille Lacs and almost three hours to Cass Lake.

More traffic means more plowed roads, and Mille Lacs features plenty of roads, while Cass has barely used roads. Both lakes are relatively open to driving almost anywhere, but take caution to look for cracks and pressure ridges.

Plenty of people complain about the tight fishing regulations on Mille Lacs, but they aren’t complaining enough to stop fishing the big pond. The fishing was very good and my kids had a blast catching and releasing lots of walleyes.

My daughter caught her first Mille Lacs walleye through the ice, and she did it without any help from her proud Dad. I was fishing nearby when she shouted that she had one, and by the time I reached her she’d already gotten it out of the water. It was 17 inches, a nice-sized eater had it been on Cass Lake the day before. But since we were on Mille Lacs, I snapped a quick photo and we released it.

On the way to Cass, we saw a very crowded Leech Lake, and I heard plenty of reports from friends that Upper Red Lake and Lake of the Woods are busy.

There are lots of lakes like Cass across the northland – full of walleye and almost devoid of anglers.

This will ruffle the feathers of many local anglers who enjoy roaming around lakes of utter ice fishing obscurity. But fishing pressure is a big reason for the tight regulations on Mille Lacs, and anglers should spread their love (and their dollars) to other communities around the state.

Keep fishing Mille Lacs – those businesses around the lake need all the support they can get – but don’t forget many other bodies of water. There are a lot of relative hard-water beginners out there missing out on some fantastic fishing because they are simply following the crowds.

“Be safe and have fun” are the first two rules my kids and I have when we ice fish. I’d extend that to other ice anglers. Six weeks of walleye season remain, and most lakes have plenty of ice. Get out there and cautiously explore.

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