BAUDETTE -- Scott Fairbairn wasn't out to solve the mystery of the suspended walleyes when he pulled out of port on May 31 for the first day of the Professional Walleye Trail Central Pro-Am.
But mysteries are sometimes solved unintentionally by people looking for something else. Fairbairn was looking for a way to win $50,000, the top money prize. In the process he landed a new theory as to why Lake of the Woods' suspended walleyes don't bite.
But more on that later.
Fairbairn won the tournament -- his second PWT title -- with methods that were hardly mysterious. In fact, his presentations were commonplace and he had plenty of company where he fished. The difference was that Fairbairn employed two of fishing's oldest virtues: patience and perseverance -- virtues that can backfire in a tournament situation. But this time they paid off.
The mystery of the suspended walleyes
Walleyes in Lake of the Woods have a curious behavior pattern that's mystified fishermen for years.
When suspended in the water column the fish do not bite.
When hugging the bottom they can be caught.
Everywhere else suspended fish are typically the active and willing feeders while bottom-huggers are at best neutral and must be all but winched into the boat. Why this unusual pattern on Lake of the Woods?
Theories abound, but the case has never been solved to everyone's satisfaction.
Yet significant progress was recently made by two fishermen at the In-Fisherman's Professional Walleye Trail Midwest Pro-Am.
The investigation left one with $50,000 and a new theory.
Every pro knew Lake of the Woods' biggest walleyes would probably be found near the mid-lake islands at the Minnesota-Ontario border. These include Big, Garden and Knight islands. Yet throughout the pre-fishing period these waters were stingy. Big, suspended walleyes were found but true to form they were tough to catch. When the tournament began many anglers opted to play it safe and fish the south shore, where the bite was more consistent but the fish smaller. It wasn't a bad strategy, for tournaments are won by total weight.
But he who can add a 10-pound fish to several smaller ones has improved his prospects tremendously. The $50,000 question is how much time do you spend trying to catch that big fish?
Fairbairn had pre-fished all over the lake and on the final day he landed walleyes measuring 27, 24 and 23 inches on the reefs near Knight Island.
"I decided that would be my hole," he said.
Day One found Fairbairn diligently working the area. By mid-afternoon he had three fish but none was huge. So he headed for The Fields, an area along the south shore near Zippel Bay. There he completed his limit with three more fish for a total weight of 16 pounds, good for ninth place.
Some would say Fairbairn should have reversed his strategy and fished The Fields first and Knight Island later. Take the limit first and then worry about size, as the saying goes. But Fairbairn felt the gamble was worth it.
"You gotta swing for the fences from the word go," he said. "Catching a big fish is like hitting a home run. It's better than four singles."
Yet Fairbairn second-guessed his own philosophy on Day Two, and it almost cost him the title. He went back to Knight Island but by noon had only one 4-pound walleye. Frustrated, he took off for The Fields and in doing so left his best chance for more fish in the wake. Pete Harsh, the leader after Day Two, watched Fairbairn and Steve Poll, another PWT pro, leave the islands and later told Fairbairn that when Poll hit the throttle the fish started biting.
"I knew it was a mistake but it was too late," said Fairbairn, who dropped to 23rd place with a two-day total of 20.9 pounds. Harsh, meanwhile, pulled 20 pounds on Day Two to climb from seventh place into the lead with 33.3 pounds.
On the third and final day Fairbairn resolved to stay at Knight Island. On his 8-pound Trilene Tournament Strength line he tied a quick-change clevis, Northland Rock Runner bottom bouncer and a neon red No. 6 Mustad Ultra Point hook with a leech.
"There are other brands of bottom bouncers out there," Fairbairn said, explaining the effectiveness of this setup. "but the problem with them is the flimsy wire. Northland's bouncers have really stiff wire and that helps you feel what's going on. If you get down in the rocks with other bouncers and pull forward you're snagged up. If you have to retie you're violating my first rule of fishing: If your line's not in the water you're not catching fish and wasting time.
"The Mustad hooks are another key," Fairbairn said. "There are a lot of incredibly sharp hooks on the market but the problem with some is that if you snag and pull it loose the tip of the hook is bent. Mustad's Ultra Point uses a different honing process. It's more durable when you're bouncing over rocks. And they're light so leeches swim better. Swimming leeches trigger bites."
With his bow-mounted trolling motor -- a 36-volt Motorguide with 107 pounds thrust -- Fairbairn cruised the edges of the reefs near Knight Island. On his graph he saw fish at the base of the reefs but couldn't get them to bite.
"Those reefs have little access points where the fish come up from the basin to feed," he said. "When I couldn't find fish on top I cruised from one driveway to another and searched for fish that were moving up to feed. I wanted to be at the end of the driveway when they came home."
Fairbairn was parked in the right spot at 10 a.m. when a 9-pound, 3-ounce walleye took his leech. It was his first fish of the day and he said it looked like a whale when he got it in the boat. It turned out to be the biggest fish caught by any pro.
Fairbairn pulled four more fish measuring 18, 19, 22 and 26 inches over the next three-and-a-half hours. All were taken in 24-28 feet of water. Attempts to catch deeper fish were unsuccessful.
"I might have caught one had I hovered over them long enough," he said. "But I think your time is better spent trying to find the fish moving up. Those are the biters."
At 2 p.m. Fairbairn stopped marking fish and took off for The Fields, where he pulled a 19-incher that gave him a six-fish limit of 24.4 pounds, the heaviest single-day catch of the tournament.
Meanwhile, Harsh made the same mistake Fairbairn had made the day before. He left Knight Island at 9:30 a.m. in an attempt to find faster-biting fish. When Fairbairn approached the docks for weigh-in he saw Harsh coming down the Rainy River and knew the two-time PWT winner had been scrambling to find fish.
Sure enough, Harsh had just one walleye -- a 1.5-pounder -- and dropped to seventh place. Fairbairn won with 13 fish weighing 45.2 pounds. Eric Naig, Cylinder, Iowa, was second with 18 fish weighing 41.8 pounds. Fairbairn's 9-pounder was the difference.
It was Fairbairn's second PWT victory; the first was at Fort Peck, Mont., in 1998, the year in which he also won Angler of the Year. He currently is ninth in that race. This victory marked the 10th time he has placed in the top 20 at a PWT tournament and it gives him an automatic berth in the PWT championship on the Missouri River in September.
Fairbairn won at Lake of the Woods because he found big walleyes and then positioned himself to intercept them when they moved to feed. There's an inevitable wait that goes with that strategy and most PWT pros aren't willing to wait. Certainly the bite was faster in other locations but the fish were smaller. Fairbairn took a chance on the big fish and it paid off.
As for the mystery of Lake of the Woods' suspended walleyes, Fairbairn's theory is this: "Once the fish have fed on the reef tops they move off horizontally over the deeper water. For a walleye to go up and down in the water column is a fairly dramatic physiological change. They just don't do that in two minutes. Their air bladders have to adjust and it's hard on their bodies. So they come out of the deep and move up on the reefs to feed, then rather than use a lot of energy to return immediately to deep water they just slide out and slowly sink back down."
The theory deserves consideration, but for now Fairbairn will take the $50,000 and leave the investigation to others.
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