Fishing Walleyes on Rainy Lake Reefs During the Summer Pattern
By Jerry Carlson
Island View Lodge is in an ideal location on Rainy Lake and offers ample dock space for anglers.
I have been going to Island View Lodge on Rainy Lake for a number of years. During this time, our group has learned a great deal about fishing the summer reef pattern for walleyes. For some, this pattern that occurs in July and August is productive and easy to fish. For others, it is a time of few fish and enormous frustration. This article is designed to spell out the specifics of how to locate and catch fish during the midsummer months.

If you have never been to Rainy Lake, there are some facts you need to know. First of all, it is an incredible walleye fishery with LOTS of fish of all sizes. There is a protected slot of 17 to 28 inches and a limit of four walleyes. One walleye over 28 inches may be kept. We typically catch 50 plus fish per day per boat.

Rainy is a huge body of water coming in at 226,000 acres. The northern half of the lake is located in Canada. We always fish the Minnesota side.

Rainy Lake is an incredible walleye fishery with plenty of eater fish as well as lunkers.
Rainy Lake boasts close to 1600 miles of shoreline and 1500 islands. This fact is important because the complexity of the lake can be a little intimidating. For this reason, I highly recommend tackling this lake with the aid of a GPS and map chip. Both LakeMaster and Navionics have excellent chips available that will not only help you find fishing places, but also keep you out of trouble. Island View sells a set of laminated maps that are worth every penny.

Navigational buoys are placed on the lake in strategic locations. With Rainy being part of Voyageurs National Park, every effort is made to make navigation as easy and safe as possible. When heading east or up river, keep the red buoys on your right and green on your left. Keep away from visible rocks and make wide turns around islands and points.

You also need to be aware of the Canadian border.  A GPS and map chip will clearly show the boundary between U.S. and Canada.

As summer warms the water on Rainy, baitfish and walleyes move deeper. The shallow, shoreline structure always seems to hold an occasional fish, but the big concentrations are going to be deep.

Of course, anglers always want to know how deep is deep. On the mid lake structure, it is not uncommon to find fish over 30 feet. Most of the time, however, we focus our efforts in 22 to 30 feet of water. It is important to let the fish tell you the exact depth to work. This depth may change from day to day, morning to afternoon or even from one piece of structure to another.

In addition to walleyes, northern are plentiful on Rainy.
Typically, we start our day around 9:00 a.m. Although it is customary for walleye anglers to hit the water early and late, that isn’t really the case on Rainy. Due to the darker, stained water and the low light penetration at 25 feet, the best fishing for our group usually occurs between 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. Fish can certainly be caught before and after this period, but this is usually when we have the very best action.

Once the fish move off of shallow, shoreline structure in late June and set up housekeeping in deep water, I believe they are fairly easy to find. I concentrate nearly all of my efforts on reefs and the east and west ends of islands. I do not fish islands that have super sharp drop-offs but instead, look for islands that have some type of food flat that tapers gradually into deep water.

As for the reefs, we concentrate on the edges more than anything. Walleyes like to be close to deep water and will work the edges where they are near the security of the depths.

We spend a great deal of time looking for fish on our electronics. Once fish are found, mark them with a waypoint on your GPS. This is extremely important as the fish use the same haunts day after day and year after year. Even though some of the reefs are huge, the areas that hold fish are small. I cannot stress enough the importance of finding fish before you begin fishing.

Once fish are located and punched in on your GPS, throw a marker as a visual aid for working these fish. This is especially necessary for walleyes that are in a tight group. If the fish are scattered along a break, I will drop a marker on each end of the loosely scattered school.

When it comes to catching the fish after they have been located, there are several tactics to try. All of the systems will work, but some are more productive than others.

Jigs are always an option and are preferred by many guides. Dennis Christenson, a guide from Island View Lodge, likes jigs because they can be used to vertically work schooled fish which reduces snags.  They can also be tipped with leeches, crawlers or minnows.

When fishing big water like Rainy, minnows are often underutilized by anglers. Fish are feeding on minnows, especially shiners, all summer long on Rainy and frequently prefer minnows over other live bait options.

Even though shiner minnows are wonderful bait for walleye fishing, they can be hard to keep alive in the summer. They will not survive in a trolling bucket or a boat livewell because the surface water is too warm. We keep our minnows for days by using a battery operated aerated bucket. A little ice will cool the water in the bucket slightly and keep the minnows frisky and happy.

Jigs are a simple yet very effective way to target deep water walleyes.
Fluorocarbon line and sharp, lightweight hooks will increase your catch.
Northland Rock-Runner and Lindy No-Snagg sinkers really do reduce the number of snags.
There are several jigs styles that work well for reef fishing. I often use a short shanked Fire-Ball jig but have also had success on standard ball jigs. I sometimes use PowerBait grubs on my jigs and then tip it with a leech, minnow or a chunk of crawler. If the fish are striking short, try threading the minnow on through the mouth, out the gill and then hooking it through the back.

It may be necessary to experiment with different jigging presentations. Generally, we find small, subtle hops work better than aggressive jigging.  Depending on the depth of the fish and the wind, you will need 1/4, 3/8 or maybe even a 1/2 ounce jig. Fish as vertically as possible to reduce snags.

One of the easiest and most successful methods we use for targeting walleyes is the standard live bait rig, also known as the Lindy rig. This rig consists of a small number six or number four red hook with a four foot six-pound-test Vanish fluorocarbon leader. Tie the leader directly to a swivel on the end of your standard line. Six or eight-pound-test works fine for the line on your reel.

The weight on this set-up is critical to its success. We utilize Lindy No-Snagg sinkers as well as Northland Rock-Runner sinkers. The bottom is very snaggy in places and these two sinker styles are easier to work free when you do get snagged. 

You DO NOT want to drag this rig along the bottom or you will be snagged frequently. Instead, use a half or 3/4 ounce sinker, drop down to bottom and then lift up slightly so the weight is off of the bottom a short distance. Keep checking periodically to make sure you are close to bottom but not dragging.

When it comes to bait on live bait rigs, minnows, crawlers and leeches will all work. How well they work varies with the year as well as the day. We always take all three along each time we go out and experiment until we find which one is working best on that day.

I like a quality, light to medium action seven foot rod for my live bait rigging. A soft tip is crucial for seeing bites and being able to detect when your rod is loading up with the weight of a fish. Generally, we feed a small amount of line to a fish once we detect a bite. The sliding sinker concept allows them to reposition the bait in their mouth without feeling the weight of the sinker.

Bottom bouncers and spinners are yet another system we utilize for Rainy Lake walleyes. This presentation is especially useful in places where the fish are a little more scattered and we want to cover water. I find this presentation tends to trigger fish that may be somewhat neutral and not actively feeding.

We use a little different set-up with our bottom bouncers. We prefer a seven foot baitcaster rod and reel combo with 20 pound-test FireLine on the spool. The heavier line allows you to retrieve snagged bouncers and it also adds sensitivity through the use of the specialized braid.

Bottom bouncers and spinners are productive summer presentations on Rainy Lake.
Two ounce bottom bouncers are ideal.  We attach one of three different spinner rigs to the bottom bouncers. One rig consists of a larger spinner blade with a long shanked hook. We thread a three inch PowerBait twister tail onto the hook and tip with some type of live bait.

A second option is to utilize a standard two-hook crawler rig. This is a proven method that Rainy Lake walleyes find hard to resist.

The third system is called a “slow death” presentation. It involves the use of a special bent “slow death” hook and a Smile Blade. Use 40 inches of 10 to 14 pound-test Vanish for a leader. If tying your own rigs, use a number 2 slow death hook with six beads above the hook and then a Smile Blade. This is a new concept and your favorite tackle shop may not have these blades available. (More slow death information available at jerrycarlsonoutdoors.com.) Because this contraption spins vigorously, it must have a ball bearing swivel attached to the end where it snaps to the bottom bouncer. This can be a real killer presentation.

Most of the time, I try to troll as close to one mph as I can when using bottom bouncers. The two ounce bouncer allows you to stay on the bottom without getting too much line out. You will get snagged. Turn around and pull from the reverse angle. With the heavier FireLine, you will rarely lose a bottom bouncer.

There are many good reefs for targeting walleyes on Rainy. We fish most of them and concentrate on the ones that hold the most fish. Erickson’s, Olson’s, Shorty’s and Stubs all have potential. Be sure you have fish on your screen before spending time working these pieces of structure.

There are many other reefs that are available that are not named. Find one on a map and go check it out.

Fishing partner, Charlie Simkins, holds a pretty typical Rainy Lake walleye.

The west and south side of Cranberry Island often holds fish. This is a great area for pulling bottom bouncers because the fish are often somewhat scattered. Steamboat Island can also be good.

The southeast side of Dryweed Island can be productive as can the east end of Bushyhead. There is a nice underwater point off of Bushyhead that usually holds a few fish. This is not a numbers location but worth checking out.   

We do fish in the wind whenever possible. If it is too strong for good boat control, we move to more protected locations. Wind is NOT essential for good fishing. Some of our very best outings have been on calm days.

Rainy Lake reef fishing is extremely productive once you have the system figured out. If you are struggling in finding fish, hire a guide for a day and learn from an expert. Ask lots of questions so you have an idea of what they are looking for and what you are going to do the next day when you are on your own.

Rainy is an incredible walleye fishery with the deep water reef fishing of midsummer my favorite time to fish. There is a learning curve associated with successful reef fishing but it is worth spending the time to figure it out.