When a good many fishermen think about fishing, their thoughts naturally turn toward largemouth bass. After all, no other species of game fish is more popular.
But in some parts of the country, Ol' Bucketmouth plays second fiddle to what is, in fact, an oversized perch. Some call it jack salmon, dore or pike-perch. Others use the nicknames yellow pickerel, blue pickerel, marble-eye or walleyed pike. But whatever handle you hang on it, the walleye's size, sporting qualities and savory flesh make it one of North America's most important sportfish.
Despite the walleye's popularity with some anglers, however, it often is ignored by others, even where the fish are common, often because the fishermen don't understand what kind of fish this is, what its habits are and how to catch it consistently.
Anglers need not shun the walleye, however. This fish is different, yes, but much easier to catch than many anglers suppose.
The eyes are important indicators of walleye behavior. These peculiar, opaque-appearing organs, from which the walleye derives its name, lend the impression walleyes are blind. In reality, walleyes see quite well. Their eyes are adaptations for a life spent in dark haunts. Walleyes shirk bright light and are most active at night.
This doesn't mean walleyes can't be caught during daytime. In deep water, where only moderate light penetrates, walleyes strike readily between dawn and dusk. They are more active on overcast days than bright ones, often feeding in shallower water under a cloudy sky. If wind disturbs the water's surface, diffusing light rays, that improves daytime fishing conditions as well. Most successful walleye anglers therefore usually fish on cloudy, windy days, during low-light periods or after dark.
The type of bottom over which an angler fishes is also exceedingly important. Walleyes seldom are found over mud or in areas of dense vegetation, preferring areas of open bottom covered with rocks, gravel or, outside the spawning season, firm sand. Spawning walleyes avoid sand because it might suffocate their eggs.
Walleyes also are attracted to current, which brings food to the fish. In streams, narrow stretches where the current quickens are walleye attractors. Incoming rivers and major feeder creeks provide reliable and easily located sources of current on lakes, especially in early spring when walleyes use them as both feeding areas and spawning sites. Dam tailwaters also attract walleyes, and tailwater fishing is so popular in some areas that it seems the fishermen must outnumber the fish.
Walleyes are bottom dwellers, too, usually caught with lures or bait worked on or near the substrate. They're schooling fish as well. When you catch one, others are usually nearby, especially during spring spawning when huge concentrations can be found. Where one is caught, keep fishing until you get no more strikes.
Spawning begins in spring when the water warms to 45 to 50 degrees. The spawning area may be a tributary stream, a shallow area of a river or a desirable shoal area on a lake. The location is usually in clear water less than 10 feet deep over a bottom covered with rubble or gravel. The area usually has current as well, the result of either flowing water or wave action. If no such conditions are present, walleyes may spawn in other areas, but survival of eggs and young is unlikely.
Males arrive on the spawning beds first, followed by the larger females. The eggs are usually deposited at night. Several males accompany a female across the spawning ground, thrashing about as eggs and milt are simultaneously emitted. The fertilized eggs fall to the bottom. No protection is provided by the parents because when walleyes complete spawning, they leave the area.
During the peak of the spawn, walleyes are fairly easily located and caught in schools. Look for them in areas with current such as incoming rivers and major feeder creeks. Drawdowns during power generations also create underwater currents attractive to walleyes. Anywhere these currents move over or around flat, rocky points, submerged humps or dropoffs, they create prime walleye habitat. One excellent area is where a long, flat point drops off into an old river channel.
Good springtime walleye catchers include both live baits and artificials. In waters where walleyes don't receive undue pressure, you can catch them on a host of lures. Jigs are a special favorite, as are small crankbaits and slender, floating/diving minnow plugs. Using the appropriate terminal tackle to achieve the required depth and then being able to work that depth consistently is often the difference between success and no success on walleyes.
A bait/lure combo often is more effective than either bait or lures used alone. A leadhead jig tipped with a lively nightcrawler usually is effective wherever walleyes are found. Whether the jig has a feather, plastic or hair body is relatively unimportant; some anglers prefer a bare jig. Hook the worm through the head so it can wiggle full-length behind the jig. This combo makes an excellent drifting or trolling rig in relatively slow currents.
Jig/minnow and fluorescent spinner/minnow combinations are also popular for catching spring walleyes. The natural food base of minnows and small baitfish is reduced this time of year, making those offerings especially attractive to walleyes.
Minnows should be hooked upward through the lower jaw and out through the top of the head, so the bait rides in an upright, natural-looking position. When stream fishing, work in slow currents and backwater eddies. Lake anglers should work over dropoffs, the edges of weedbeds and point tips. Drifting a bottom-bumping minnow combo usually puts more fish in the boat than casting.
The size of the jig used is determined by the amount of current. Savvy walleye anglers should carry plenty of 1/32- to 1/2-ounce jigs in a variety of colors.
Here's hoping, you've gleaned these important facts about catching spring walleye while reading this article.
- Walleyes shun bright light and are usually taken at night or during low-light conditions
- Walleyes congregate in schools, and when you catch one, it is likely others are nearby
- Walleyes are primarily bottom dwellers and usually found in areas with current on or near prominent structure that provides a good feeding or spawning area near deeper waters
- Baits and lures should be presented slowly and naturally.
While walleyes unexpectedly puzzle and confuse some anglers, there's no reason they should. When you've figured out what kind of fish this is, and how and where it spends its time, putting walleyes on the stringer is really fairly easy.
So why not start your walleye campaign this spring? Walleyes feed actively now, and in many areas, schools are spawning or gathering to spawn. Regardless of where you live, the best walleye fishing of the year probably is just around the corner.