Most of the most storied walleye fisheries in my part of the world–the Great Lakes region –are huge bodies of water. Consider, say, Saginaw Bay–it’s only one small area of Lake Huron, but it’s a million acres, much bigger than any inland walleye lake in America. Those fisheries make the headlines and draw the most angling pressure.
But there are hundreds of inland lakes in Michigan that offer good to outstanding walleye fishing that are ignored by many anglers. That’s a mistake. Small lakes have a lot going for them.
Fact is, I own a summer place on the shore of Lake Superior. But I bought it because there are plenty of inland lakes in the proximity that don’t see near the traffic of the big water but offer excellent fishing. I love them.
But small lakes take a somewhat different approach than big lakes. Need a for instance? Well, the first big difference is that, on big bodies of water, you’re often looking for suspended fish. On small inland lakes, suspended fish are the last thing you’re looking for.
So instead of trolling miles of open water, you have to concentrate on structure. You’re looking for reefs, drop-offs close to deep water– not a slow tapering drop but a steep drop–weed edges, points or maybe a spot where a stream comes into the lake.
So start with a map–not necessarily a physical map–but an electronic mapping app. Personally, I use the Navionics mapping system. You can have it on your phone, sit at the kitchen table, and find places where you have the structural elements that appeal to you (and to fish). Lay out a game plan where you want to start. There are many benefits to doing your homework before you ever get on the lake. You can go directly to where you want to fish, and you can see things you won’t see on the water–a point can look great above the water, but what’s below the water is what really matters. The map will show you whether it extends out into deep water, and that’s where you want to fish.
The structures you want to fish are the ones closest to deep water because those are the areas that replenish themselves with fish more quickly. If you just fish anywhere and you catch a couple of fish, often they’re gone after you get them. But if it’s close to deep water, those fish are coming and going like Grand Central Station. There will be more fish there when you go back the next day.
So start with structure elements adjacent to deep water and see what comes out of those areas. For instance, if you follow a point into shallower water, you’ll often find weed beds. Those are the weeds you want to fish.
If you find a reef in 25 feet of water and catch fish there, then you want to return to 25 feet of water. Once you find out where they are, that’s the depth you want to look at at the next structure you find. There’s something at that depth, like maybe that’s where the bait fish are, that’s holding those fish.
But not all 25-foot depths are the same. The best ones are the elements that come up from even deeper water, maybe even 100 feet. Fish want to get back to deep water quickly when they want to, like if a cold front moves through. On smaller lakes, you can narrow down your options more quickly. You’re looking for instant gratification–a place where you can catch fish fast. How long do you want to take to find fish?
Live bait is always a good place to start when fishing on a small lake. But it can slow you down if you’re on a lake with a lot of bluegills, perch or bass. They’ll get your bait. Generally, the walleyes will be deeper than the bass or panfish, but sometimes you’ll find them at the same depths. If you run into that problem, go to soft plastics, especially a scent-infused plastic. I like Gulp minnows or worms or leeches, but make sure that if you’re on a lake that only allows artificial bait, it’s okay. In some places, the DNR types do not recognize Gulp as artificial bait because it has natural ingredients; in some places, they say that’s the same as live bait.
Another tip for small lakes is to try baits you haven’t considered, like Beetle Spins. You’ve had them since you were five years old and have probably forgotten about them since you were seven. But they’re great. They’ve got flash and vibration, and you can run them through the weeds, something that’s a lot harder with live bait because it gets pulled off. I fish with Fireline around weeds because you can snap it, and it’ll break those weeds off. With mono, you may ruin your spot by pulling those weeds out.
I like small lakes. They’re fun, and you don’t have to contend with seven-foot waves like on Lake Erie. This year, on the second day of walleye season, the winds were 35 miles an hour, and I fished right into the teeth of it because I didn’t have to contend with giant waves like you would have to if you were on Saginaw Bay.
It takes much less time to find the fish on a small lake than on a big body of water. It’s a tight-knit community, and you won’t have to cover miles of water before you find fish. The same stuff will hold fish on a small lake as a big lake, but it’s a lot more accessible. Say you’ve found fish on the first drop. You can fish the entire edge of it in a small lake in one day. It would take you the rest of your life to do that on Saginaw Bay.