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Micro structure on a massive scale

Random guy

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Ah the warm weather blahs, frustrated anglers, boats trolling in aimless circles and every excuse from the wrong moon phase to the wrong wave action is used to explain how a once incredible bite has slowed to endless hours of trolling and arm numbing jigging. Surely a day that will end up as questions to why the trip was made to the big open waters of Northern Minnesota’s Upper Red Lake was ever a good idea. Before we start pointing fingers at the guy that planned the trip lets take a look and just what happened to almost 108,000 acres of water and how those thousands of acres of water can still produce world class fishing, once you stop looking at 108,000 intimidating acres.

As I stop by the cleaning shacks and bait stores I hear the grumbling of frustrated anglers all murmuring about the walleyes developing lock jaw, swimming to the other lake and even some animated tales about walleyes losing their teeth when it gets hot. What happened? Is the question I am often presented with this time of the year and the answer is very simple. Somebody moved dinner table, that’s all. Upper Red Lake is very unique in its spawning habits with such a huge and widely diverse forage base in a lake that heats up and cools down just as its smaller twin the frying pan does. Basically Red Lake does it all at once. Shiners, trout perch, yellow perch, chubs and even the tiniest of critters all head for the shoreline to spawn within a very small window of time, naturally the walleye follow them in and they follow them out.

Many early season anglers take advantage of the close quarters walleye feeding on the multitude of spawning forage making for what has to be some of the best catching in fresh water fishing. As all good things in this world it must come to an end sooner or later, the water heats up, spring spawns are over with and the walleye along with its forage go into survival mode. Now don’t get me wrong walleye can sustain a huge difference in temperatures, often much more severe then their forage base, they could remain on the shallow sandbars if they wish. Of course why would a walleye live uncomfortably when its food is located in some of the most comfortable temperatures in the lake? So we need to find the forage and the forage is scattered somewhere across those 108,000 acres. How do we find these little swimming snack bars? We find the micro structure on a massive scale, where the little fish live.

Micro structure can be so many things on what is referred to as a featureless lake. It may be stationary such as a small six inch gravel hump in the middle of a mud flat. It can be a five rock reef, a small deep hole not even big enough to make it on the maps. It can even be moving with nature such as a roaming school of baitfish, mud lines or water clarity contrasts from clear water entering the wind churned lake water and even floating masses of bug hatch or strong bottom content changes. All of these seemingly minor changes on our electronics or observations must be explored, even if it is fifteen minutes at a time. Now to find this micro structure.

For those of you that have cruised across Upper Red Lake with your sonar on auto sensitivity you would swear it has stopped working as the screen displays a flat twelve feet for miles. During those few miles you have just passed by schools of active feeding walleye and an endless supply of structure. Pick a deep water area close to known structure for a confidence booster and pick it apart boat length by boat length at three mph. Turn up your sonar sensitivity and troll! Set yourself up with some crank baits or good bait rigs on heavy sinkers then turn up the sensitivity. You paid a thousand bucks for that box of buttons make it work off some of that debt. Use your GPS and start making exploratory runs back and forth one right next to the other while never taking your eyes off of that screen or finger off the icon button. Every time you pass a small hump, a pod of bait fish, a single weed stem a hard contrasting bottom or catch a fish put an icon on the screen. Before you know it you have spent half of an hour thoroughly exploring and mapping your own chunk of Upper Red Lake’s 108,000 acres. Now forget the other 105,000 acres, you have three to concentrate on. Zoom in the map and look at the icons of micro structure, I bet they make a pattern. You now have plotted those tiny little reefs and miniscule structural elements that hold bait fish that hold bigger fish awaiting for another easy meal whether it come is in live or crank bait form. Now all you have to do is connect the dots! You have a world class pre-plotted drift or jig run at your finger tips, use it.

Now I can hear a lot of you saying “I didn’t mark any fish”. Of course you didn’t mark any fish but I bet you caught a few. Wonder how they escaped the sonar? Well if most of us are using the standard transducer we are only seeing roughly a four foot wide strip of bottom, directly under the boat. Now I am going need all of you to sit back and imagine the walleye’s world in twelve feet of water as a boat passes over. You are hanging out next to “your rock” when a low hum grows closer and closer and louder and louder as a shadow of what looks to be the worlds biggest pelican is about to hover over. You bet you are going to get away and get away fast. So too truly mark fish on Upper Red Lake is an odd occurrence and should be investigated fully. What you will mark is large disorganized schools of bait fish and smaller baitfish attempting to hide next to the micro elements you are marking, trust me if food is present so is the Red Lake Walleye.

On massive Upper Red Lake you want to sweat the small stuff, the small rocks, small fish, small weeds and even small dips or bumps on the bottom. They all hold fish, trick is to thoroughly cover as many as you can as fast as you can. It is a numbers games and lets be honest the lake has the odds on this one, unless you attack it acre by acre.

Now what about the micro structure that moves? Those roaming schools of baitfish, mud lines and even bug hatches? These can be a bit tricky to find but with a few approaches and some unorthodox methods they can be gold mines filled with walleye.

First and hardest to find is the bug hatch. Those of you that have camped in the Upper Red Lake area know we have a plethora of bugs, many of them hatched in lake waters providing food for smaller baitfish attracting larger game fish. This is truly something you have to stumble into. Next time you are cruising across the lake and all of a sudden you have bugs in your eyes, bugs smashing against the windshield be thankful as you have just been blessed. Stop and see if those bugs are emerging from the water, if so take a look at your electronics (turn up the sensitivity) and I bet you will see bait fish underneath gorging them selves on these critters, maybe even a few Crappies taking advantage of the situation.

Roaming baitfish can be a trollers dream come true on Upper Red Lake once you pin point these schools. Of course I will go back to watching those electronics closely to find them as you move across the lake but we actually have help finding these schools in feathered form. Pelicans and gulls have to be the best fish finders in the world. If I could figure out a way to plug a pelican into my sonar / gps it would have been done already. We are talking about an animal that every sense and function has been designed by the heavens to find fish, much like your Upper Red Lake guides. Watch the birds across the open water, if they are hanging out in a certain area you should be also. Best approach I have found to trigger fish under these schools of baitfish is trolling runs right through the heart of them while circling in attempts to stay in top of them. Walleye hang out under these schools of snickers bars looking for easy or weak ones to pick off. When you go crashing through the school two things happen. One is you scatter the school such as when a predator attacks and wounds a few. Second is you are pulling a bait that resembles a wide wobbling slow moving hunk of a snack that any walleye has a hard time resisting. The more you change direction and speeds the better, just as the disorganized school of bait fish that is under attack. This form of moving micro structure may be small but the results can be huge.

Mud lines, now this is a trick I picked up from my fishing buddies that work the dark and murky waters of the Mississippi River system. Basically on Upper Red what is going on is the predatory fish are using a now you see me now you don’t attack method in and out of the muddy to clear water. The clear water is often formed by inflowing current carrying tons of forage, the conditions are perfect for picking off unsuspecting baitfish and the walleye know it. Best way to find this on Upper Red Lake is a good pair of polarized sunglasses, you will see the chalky brown turn to the well known red stained water. Take a few minutes to run a few jigs across this line; it is a great producer even on a small scale.

So next time you are heading across the massive expanse that is Upper Red Lake for that well marked structure take the time to separate a small piece of Upper Red Lake’s sheer size and work the micro structure on a massive scale, you and your fishing buddies will be glad you did.

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I dont fish URL, but that was a good read and good ideas that can translate to different waters.

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Very informative and educational! I am amazed what a difference 5-6" change in depth can make. This is very evident during the hard water season when changing locations only 100 yds. away on what appears to be a bottom of the same depth on the sonar causes you to move the bobber stop knot. Sometimes this is related to a transition area (sand to mud) but othertimes there is no apparent relationship. I am always amazed that people when trolling catch fish at a certain depth and then waste valuable time aimlessly drifting over unproductive depths. One thing that a lot of us are guilty of (me included) is fishing "memories". All the things you point out regarding time of year, forage availability, water temp. etc., play a part.

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Thanks for the post Jonny, tons of great info and most of it is relavant and effective elseware as well!

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Great write-up Johnny!

I had little success 7/1 and 7/2. Fish I did catch were all caught trolling F11 Original Floaters (blue and firetiger seemed to work best).

I came up the same time last year and found the lake in a similar situation. However last year I was able to throw more fish in the boat.

Question - it was explained to me from a cabin owner on the lake that the recent winds you had was the cause of the slow bite.

What is your take on the recent winds and their possible affect on the bite?

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Oh definetly anytime we have heavy winds it slows the lake down for a few days if not more. This year with the high water it is even worse as the lake gets dirty quicker. It is another reason to get out deeper where the water is cleaner...to some extent.

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Yes the lake was really turned up and cloudy, but what about those early mornings out on the lake when it was like glass. Dont see that big of water that calm very often. It was awesome.

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  • 3 weeks later...

Great read Jonnie!!! It's guys like you that pick apart a lake and come home with fish and other are dreaming of catching fish. Thanks for the excellent info.

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