Even the best walleye anglers in the world can learn something new on nearly every fishing trip. Maybe that’s what makes those guys so good. They know that tactics, bodies of water and the fish themselves can change from moment-to-moment, day-to-day, and even over the years. Successful fishermen believe they know how to catch fish, but they never close the door on the lessons fish teach every day.

This fact was driven home Sunday, June 1, when the team of Jon Thelen and Mike Christensen won the Minnesota Tournament Trail (MTT) tournament on Mille Lacs. This pair of top anglers learned a few things from the fish that morning, and turned those lessons into the win.

Keeping an open mind can be more difficult for someone who fishes the same body of water day in and day out like Christensen does. He is owner and head guide at Mille Lacs’ Hunter Winfield’s Resort, and spends nearly every day putting clients on fish. Thelen is a former Mille Lacs guide who now hosts Fish Ed, an educational fishing program on the Internet and television.

Both men likely walleye fish more in a year than many of us get to all our lives, but proved Sunday morning that even smart old dogs can learn new tricks.

“Mille Lacs has changed the past few years, and realizing this change was one key to our success Sunday,” Thelen said. “Walleye fishermen are the worst about learning a tactic and then using it over and over and over, even if it’s not working. We had a plan for Sunday morning and it didn’t work out, so we stopped and let the fish guide us. ”

This time of year on Mille Lacs, pulling a Lindy Rig is the traditional tactic that works day-in and day-out. Anglers check promising areas with their boat’s electronics, see fish, spin around and troll the rigs through the area. This process is well established as the “go-to” for springtime walleye fishing in the area.

In fact, that’s what Thelen and Christensen started with on Sunday, however, after spotting fish on their electronics, spinning the boat and trolling through the area, the fish were gone. Thelen says that the late spring has put the fish a week or two behind a typical year, which means they’re still holding in those mid-depths of 15 to 25 feet, but that doesn’t explain the team’s lack of success early in the day.

“We’ve done it for years – spotted them, spun around, trolled through and caught them, but since zebra mussels invaded Mille Lacs a few years ago the water is much clearer than it used to be,” he said. “The boat was spooking them. That’s why trolling wasn’t working.” 

With the knowledge that at these mid-depths the water was too clear and the fish too spooky for the traditional approach to work, the team knew an adjustment was necessary.

“We took a mental inventory of areas like those we’d seen fish on earlier, then changed the way we approached those spots,” he said. “Instead of running over them, we approached quietly on the downwind side and anchored the boat. You just had to trust the fish were there.”

The team wasn’t done making adjustments yet. They went to float rigs with Lindy jigs tipped with medium-sized leeches, and the walleyes taught them two final lessons.

“We learned that we had to keep the rig moving,” Thelen said. “We’d cast and let it sit a few seconds, then twitch it, let it sit, twitch it, let it sit, then we’d reel it a few cranks and let it sit again.”

Thelen said that the fish wanted the bait moving, but since they’d already determined that trolling wouldn’t work, keeping the float rig moving was the only way to get bit. He said some of the fish would follow the bait as they cranked the rig a few times, then would strike when it was paused.

The team hit multiple rockpiles they believed would hold fish. If they saw no action after five or 10 minutes of fishing, they moved on to the next one. Their most productive spots were rockpiles in 17 to 23 feet of water, mostly just off the first breakline pretty close to shore.

The final piece of their tournament-winning puzzle was the float rig. The team used Thill Pro Series floats and small 1/32-ounce Lindy Jigs. A single split shot was the only weight other than the jig.

“Pro Series floats have a brass grommet at the top that allows the line to flow through easily,” Thelen said. “In a tournament you have to maximize every moment, so a float that fishes quickly is important. We selected the Lindy Jig because in addition to the color, it holds a leech more naturally than just a bare hook. We had to keep the rigs moving and the leech needed to look like it was swimming, and the jig gives you that ability.”

The final lesson the team learned was timing the hookset. After missing a few fish early, the pair started setting the hook as soon as the float indicated the fish had the bait.

“If you let them swim with it a while they spit it out,” Thelen said.

MTT tournaments are one-day contests with a four-fish limit and no culling. Thelen and Christensen’s limit weighed 9.83 pounds, nearly 5 pounds more than the second place team. More impressive was that the pair was back at the dock by 11 a.m., with plenty of time for two old dogs to digest some new tricks.