Tannins. Organic matter from plants that causes water to have that light tea color. This stained water as they call it creates a lot of opportunities for walleye anglers. It is helpful to understand some significant nuances when fishing stained water and how to fully take advantage of what this beautiful color of water presents.

One body of water that is an absolute walleye factory with stained water is Lake of the Woods. It is interesting noticing the differences between fishing this lake vs a lake with clearer waters. 

When to fish. Most walleye nuts understand that walleyes, like most fish, are opportunists. As my biologist friends from the MN DNR Fisheries have imposed upon me, fish will naturally expend as little energy as possible to live and to feed. In the walleye world, this often means walleyes taking advantage of their natural ability to see better than their prey in low light or low visibility conditions and to better sense food opportunities from their lateral line which senses vibration.

In many clear water lakes, low light conditions or fishing at night are typically the more opportune times to catch walleyes as this is when they prefer to feed. In stained water lakes, during the day when there is some light penetration into the dark depths is more opportune.

Will walleyes feed at night in stained water? The answer on Lake of the Woods is yes, but not nearly as prevalently as during the day. In talking to literally hundreds of ice anglers who enjoy ice fishing out of a sleeper house and keep a line in the water at night, there are some walleyes caught at night, but not very many and not very consistently. It is also interesting many of these nighttime feeders are suspended.

Finesse is more important in clear water than stained. I am glad I grew up fishing walleye tournaments on some clear water lakes. I think it helped me to become a well-rounded angler. For example, when fishing clear water, I pay close attention to using a much lighter line less visible to the walleyes. Fluorocarbon is oftentimes my choice as it disappears in the water. When using braid with the no stretch benefits, I will tie a fluorocarbon leader for the last 4-6 feet.  

In stained water, I have no problem, especially on my jigging line, using braided line right to the lure. I still prefer using a fluorocarbon leader for my deadstick when ice fishing but can get away with about 8 lb. test vs 4 lb. test in clear water.

Stained water is more forgiving. Consider jigging. In clear water, it is more effective trying to use the lightest jig that conditions allow. In stained water, the walleyes have no problem with a heavier or larger jig. The size of the offering can be more easily detected and bulking up can actually be preferred. Some anglers might actually use two shiners on a jig vs one. 

With a heavier jig, pounding the bottom sends out a vibration that can be the dinner bell and actually be a triggering effect. The heavier jig can be easier to fish, having a better feel of the bottom, etc. 

Ice Fishing Lures

Colors. Anglers who have fished stained water for any length of time understand there are definitely some go-to colors walleyes respond to positively. Gold is an absolute staple color in stained water. As one old-timer up at Lake of the Woods put it, “I will use any color as long as it’s gold.” 

In addition, glow colors and bright colors either on their own or combined with gold are effective. A few of my favorites in addition to gold are glow red, pink and orange or combinations of these colors.

Vibration. One key to walleyes existing as an effective predator is their lateral line. The lateral line enables walleyes to sense vibrations in the water as well as water flow. This is key when thinking about presentation. 

When I think about how important the walleye’s lateral line is, I go back to a time I was ice fishing on Lake of the Woods. A couple of marks came in on my Vexilar. Often when there is more than one walleye, it almost seems like a competition for the bait and they are normally aggressive. The first fish inhaled my jigging spoon. Knowing there were multiple fish, I pulled that walleye up as quickly as I could and re-hooked what was left of the minnow head and sent the lure back down the hole. In 30’ of stained water, as soon as my lure was below the ice, two fish raced up with one hammering my spoon only 8’ down. I have a feeling the walleyes know what’s going on in their environment more than we give them credit for.

Nobody really knows if walleyes in stained water rely on their lateral line more than walleyes in clear water but one thing, I can tell you, adding or taking away vibration of my presentation has made a difference. 

Vibration can be a rattle in a lure. Some days they want the rattle. Other days they prefer no extra noise. It’s important to be strategic in nature when fishing with a partner. Use different lures and presentations until you understand what the walleyes want on that given day.

Sometimes getting very erratic can be the key. This can work on both active fish and inactive fish triggering a reaction strike. Using a lure like a Rapala Rippin’ Rap with rattle and flash can be a dinner bell that pulls walleyes in from long distances. This lure creates a strong vibration when ripped up and a fluttering action when allowed to fall back. It also has BB’s which add to the noise. Sometimes walleyes and saugers will come in and slam the lure. Other times it might pull them in, and they slide over and take the dead stick.

Other noisy options I like at times are a Reef Runner Cicada in gold of course. This is a lure that is a vibrating blade. When you rip it up aggressively, it vibrates like heck and also has strong flash. I like to add a small piece of minnow tail to the back hook of this lure and hook it right in the spine, so it stays on and doesn’t mess up the action. Sometimes walleyes will hit this lure when it is falling or when it sits still after ripping it.

Getting aggressive with a jigging rap, chubby darter or your favorite jigging minnow style bait can also trigger walleyes. These lures move water. Different lures have wider or skinnier profiles, rattles or no rattles, etc. 

Vibration can also be created from your presentation. Jigging very erratically with high lifts and drops, shaking the heck out of your lure, pounding the bottom or even erratically tapping your rod with your fingers sending vibration down the line can get more strikes. 

Having a few key lures with the right colors and vibration can make the difference between just an OK day and great day. There is actually a small tackle company that produces tackle focused with Lake of the Woods in mind. Tom’s Tackle just outside of Baudette, MN has taken aspects of catching walleyes in stained water to heart and come up with some lures, color patterns and sizes not found in the fishing marketplace. Much of their tackle is available at Lake of the Woods bait shops and resorts.

Stained water can be an absolute blessing when it comes to catching walleyes. The convenience of the daytime bite, not having to go super thin with fishing line, being able to use larger or heavier lures are all advantages. The next time you fish stained water, make sure you have a handful of key lures combined with an understanding of color, vibration and jigging techniques and hang on!

About The Author

Joe Henry

As a long time guide, licensed charter captain, and tournament angler, Joe Henry has made fishing a part of his everyday life. Joe “cut his teeth” on MN lakes and rivers and has guided and fished walleyes throughout the nation. Joe’s home water is now Lake of the Woods, which he has fished for over 25 years. Professionally, Joe is an outdoor communicator and a media member of the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers (AGLOW). His professional background combined with his many fishing credentials lead him to his current role, Executive Director of Tourism for Lake of the Woods.