Thu. Dec 7th, 2023
Muddying the water for Quetico's Walleye Spring

Today’s post comes from James Burns, conservation officer and former Quetico Park interior ranger from 2000 to 2013.

If the water is too cold to expect a deep lake dive after a long haul, that means the water is also too cold for most fish species in the Quetico Provincial Park lakes.

Some hardy fish thrive in icy waters year-round, such as lake trout. Most Quetico fish, including walleye, pike, and bass, prefer water at the same temperature as you or I: a comfortable temperature, even 20 degrees Celsius (or 68 Fahrenheit).

But what do most sensitive fish do when the ice has broken off and the temperature in most of the lake is between 4 and 17 degrees Celsius?

Where, oh where, did our fish go?

Fisherman in canoe holding a pikeperch. These fish seek warmer water; the warmer the better.

Early in the season (I’m talking mid-May to late June), the warmer water of a lake attracts a disproportionate number of fish, because they are the first places that have food available.

So if you’re looking for a safe fish dinner in the early part of the paddling season, what should you look for?

Mud. What you are looking for is brown mud and shallow water.

Nature’s solar panel

The brown mud absorbs the sun’s energy and dissipates it into the surrounding shallow waters, creating an environment conducive to the growth of plants, insects and small fish.

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In May and June, Walleye and Northern Pike have already finished spawning and are in desperate need of food.

Man sitting in a canoe holding fish.

They are willing to tolerate water that offers them little or no cover in search of the insects and smaller fish that inhabit these shallower, warmer areas of the lake.

The bass haven’t spawned yet, but they’re also hungry after a long winter. They can often be found in the same areas, either preparing to spawn or in a pre-spawn foraging frenzy.

Pro tip: look for the warmest water

Regardless of whether you are in a deep, clear-water lake or a shallow, darker lake, you should look at your map and find the pockets of water that will be the first to warm up.

Look for smaller bays away from the main lake. These places will be mosquito-infested swamps in July, but early in the season they are fish magnets.

Closeup of a walleye on the bottom of the canoe.

I can’t tell you how many big walleye I’ve caught in two feet of water on a calm, sunny June day in muddy bays that don’t hold a single fish in a month.

Cast soft plastic swim baits and retrieve them fast enough to keep them off the bottom and out of old weed growth, or try fishing shallow diving crank baits within casting distance from shore around the bay.

Man frying fish over a campfire. These techniques will be effective on walleye, but will also catch good numbers of bass and pike, depending on the lake, water temperature, etc.

Fish along old, dead weed lines and keep an eye out for boulders or rock piles close to shore. These will provide shelter for walleyes and are breeding grounds for invertebrates.

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Preferably fish on the south-facing shore of the bay, as even within these small bays the water temperature can fluctuate by several degrees due to prolonged sun exposure. For slow spring walleyes that can make a difference.

It can also determine where insects and other invertebrates will hatch first. Find the fish food and you will find the fish.

It’s time to fry fish!

If you’re planning a fish dinner in Quetico in May or June, then you’ll want to prepare for a mud fight with a hungry walleye.

Fried fish on a plate in front of the lake.

Some reminders for responsible fishing in Quetico:

  • Fishing with barbed hooks is prohibited. Please pinch them
  • Use only artificial lures
  • Do not throw plastic baits or fishing line into the water or shorelines.
  • Consider using lead-free tackle
  • For catch limits and seasons remember that Quetico is in Fisheries Management Zone 5

Good luck and have a great trip!