Do you know walleyes, I mean really KNOW walleyes? This game fish has seemingly been surrounded by an air of mystery for many years. This native of Canadian and northern U.S. waters can be a fickle player when it comes to angling, but the table fare it provides makes it well worth the effort of targeting them.
The key to understanding them lies in their very name. The name "walleye" comes from its pearlescent eyes caused by the reflective tapetum lucidum which, in addition to allowing the fish to see well in low-light conditions, gives its eyes an opaque appearance. It’s basically a layer of reflective pigment that intensifies the light.
In short, their vision affects their behavior. They avoid bright light and feed in low light on fish that cannot see as well as they do. For this reason, they can generally be found in deeper or stained water as turbidity doesn’t affect them as much.
They also prefer the agitation brought on by wind that can distort and obscure the visibility in the water, thus the term ‘walleye chop’, which most anglers will tell you is required for a decent walleye bite. Night is also an excellent time to target them as they spend much of their feeding time during darkness. This makes them a prime target for anglers who prefer the night bite.
Walleye are classified as a coolwater fish, which puts them in a range between warm water bass and cold water trout and salmon. They prefer water in the 55 to 75° F range, with 69 being their optimal water temperature. Below 50° their metabolism is quite low so they require little food and short feeding movements. Food is also digested slower in the cold water, which often makes for a tougher early season bite.
Conversely, warmer temps can also slow their behavior during the hottest summer months. In these cases they simply go deeper to find the coolest water they can. Come fall the cooling water brings on heavy feeding as they bulk up a layer of fat for the coming winter.
Fishing gets tough again once the fall turnover begins, and the water becomes a uniform temperature which means they can be found at almost any depth. At that point your efforts are probably better placed chasing other more active species.
Given a choice, walleyes will invariably choose a hard bottom over a soft one. Silt and soft muck hold few of the invertebrates that attract the baitfish that draw in the ‘eyes. Look for rubble or gravel mixed with sand and you’ve found a probable walleye hunting ground.
Once again, bear in mind that turbidity, stained water or even algae blooms will work to their advantage as they use their superior eyesight to ambush prey that lack the same visual acuity.
Ok that may be a bit dramatic, but that’s exactly what happens once the perch reach an optimal size. Walleye prefer long, slim baitfish to stodgier ones, so perch, shiners and shad are staples, especially once they’ve reached a size appealing to adult fish around midsummer. Your luck may fall off during this baitfish buffet.
By fall the shad are getting hard to find, and the walleyes broaden their search for food and the time pursuing it. Bear in mind that all baitfish have cycles of abundance that may keep fishing slow if the ‘eyes have more to eat given a boom cycle for shad, for instance.
Their diet may also change abruptly with food availability, such as a mayfly hatch. In these cases they will gorge on larvae to the point that they stop chasing baitfish - much less your green pumpkin Powertube. Once again, you’ll want to focus your efforts elsewhere.
As you might guess, your chances are not the best in perfect weather. Bluebird skies and light wind may be perfect for boating, but not for reeling in tons of mature ‘eyes. Overcast skies with a moderate chop will offer the best conditions for finding active fish. They may also begin feeding earlier in the afternoon when light intensity is lower and broken up by agitation.
After a cold front is also a good time to put away your walleye rig. It’s not fully understood why, but the bright sun that usually follows cold fronts is one reason. It’s also the possible result of loud thunder, which can cause them to shut down completely for a period near bottom.
As we’re beginning to see, the weather affects them acutely as it often contributes to changing water conditions.
If it’s starting to seem like there are more times NOT to fish them, you’re starting to get the patterns of these elusive prized game fish.
It’s also part of the allure of catching them - to experience the occasional magic that happens when the big girls come out to feed.
To Eat or Not to Eat
Speaking of feeding, you’ll generally want to release those big girls anyway. Prime eating size for walleye is typically between 15 and 20 inches, but that may vary widely depending on the health of the fishery and other factors. The bigger ones do not offer as good a table fare as they may contain more toxins, may be a bit tougher and tend to spawn more and have better genes.
Walleye fillets rank among the most sought after of freshwater fish. Their excellent taste and texture make them an easy crowd pleaser, and they can be prepared in numerous ways. For more ideas on preparing them yourself, check out our Art of Cooking Fish blog posting.
Males start early when it comes to prespawn feeding behavior. They’ll go up shallow and gather around inlet streams and flats once the water hits 34°, and hang out there feeding sporadically until the females join them once it warms up to about 40°.
Spawning generally heats up once things have heated up to 46° or so, but that assumes a rather gradual increase. If temperatures stay low and bounce up quickly, don’t expect them to spawn.
Why? Because the females innately understand the total heat requirement for the walleye eggs to ripen and stand a far better chance at survival. Gravely shorelines are their preferred dropping point.
Walleye are usually reluctant to bite during spawning in waters where the season is open. Many states like to protect them during the spawning period. Once it’s over, the females pretty much go into recuperation mode for two weeks or so and will be nearly impossible to catch.
That is generally when the season opens, and most reports come back of a slower bite and few big fish. That is because most of the bigger ones are females and still recuperating. Hey, they need a minute. Of course, they don’t all cycle at the same time so someone may still want your jig.
Walleye or Sauger?
Ok you’ve most likely heard of the walleye’s near cousin; the sauger. These hearty fighters run a bit smaller and are grayish to brown with dark blotches. Another telltale sign is their pectoral fin will have a dark spot at the base, which, like the walleye is spiny with another dorsal fin further back that is soft-rayed.
When it comes to the superior eyes of the walleye, the sauger’s are even better as more of their retina is covered by their tapetum lucidum. Consequently they see even better in darker and murkier water, which means they can generally be found deeper than the walleyes. This cagey cousin is happy in more turbidity as well.
As you might guess, hybridization has occurred between the sauger and the walleye, resulting in the saugeye, which typically exhibits characteristics of both, and can be hard to differentiate. They will tend to be mottled and share the sauger’s dark spot at the base of the dorsal fin. They tend to inhabit waters deeper than walleye but not as deep as saugers.
Where to Find Them
The answer to this question is dependent on the time of the year as you’ve probably guessed by now. Their movement will vary depending on spawning and feeding activity.
In fertile natural lakes, look for them around the mouths of inlet streams, breaklines and shallow flats during pre-spawn. Rocky or gravel shorelines will produce during the spawn, and they will tend to retreat to the breaklines and shallow points and bays in the post-spawn period. As summer rolls around they will find deeper water with rocky reefs, and as fall ensues they will drop into deeper reefs and steeper breaklines.
In reservoirs, pre-spawn will find them in any older river channels that may exist, and if not check any deep water adjacent to a riprap dam or rocky shoreline. Flooded roadbeds, riprap shorelines and dams will hold them during the spawning season. Post spawn look for timbered flats and shallow points, and watch for them to drop into rocky points and reefs during the summer. Deep pools and holes with steep breaklines are a favorite hangout come fall.
In rivers, deep eddies and holes that are out of the current will produce during pre-spawn until they move into rocky or riprap shorelines and any flooded timber during the spawn. As with reservoirs, some males will remain in the spawning areas through post spawn, though they will tend to prefer sandy points, deeper cuts and any backwater lakes. Summer and early fall bring them to rocky points, riprap banks and wingdams. They may then move up shallow in late fall.
While crankbaits, jigs and all manner of artificials will yield walleyes, live bait remains a staple, but be aware - it needs to be the right bait for that water at that given time.
Leeches are top of mind for live bait, and will more than likely be a ribbon leech. This standard variety is in most midwestern and northern bait shops, and are best above 50° as they become more active. They wiggle like crazy, which is exactly what it takes to lure a strike from a stubborn walleye.
Jumbo leeches run up to 6” stretched out, and can be deadly for big ‘eyes, but can also lead to more short strikes and misses. Large (3” to 4”) leeches are an ideal size to draw the most walleye overall, generally using a size 4 or 6 hook.
Nightcrawlers are another popular choice, and can be fished on a number of different rigs. Spinners and floating rigs can be deadly, but a simple slip bobber is usually enough to bring the action. Once again, make sure you have lively worms as the more lifeless ones are more likely to be spit.
Baitfish are far and above the main part of a walleye diet, so minnows are also a safe bet. Fatheads are perfect fare for a hungry walleye, and hardy enough to handle colder water. Shiners and willow cats (also known as madtoms), are also very effective, as long as you use the shiners in the spring and willow cats in the summer. The cats are more known for river fishing but have been known to work in lakes as well. The redtail chub is another favorite walleye meal.
The techniques for catching walleyes are as wide and varied as the lures one can use, but at this point you already knew that. We won't get into the specifics here as that is another blog topic in and of itself.
Hopefully this primer has left you understanding this mysterious gamefish better, and feel free to pull it up on your phone in the field if you’re out fishing and need a reminder of ways to boat those ever-elusive ‘eyes;) Tight lines everyone!