Catching walleye in a reservoir is often like looking for a needle in a haystack. They are difficult to locate and sometimes finicky about what baits they prefer and how they want them presented. Anglers wanting to catch a couple of these tasty but elusive predators must first remember a few major clues in order to solve this often-mysterious species.
Walleyes are usually difficult to catch, even for the experienced angler. Yet their popularity has grown so much over the last 10 years that more secrets on how to catch them are being uncovered all the time. Once considered a seasonally hot bite, anglers across the country have developed patterns to consistently catch walleye at any time of the year.
Trolling a crankbait is a tried-and-true pattern for catching summer walleyes.
Walleye move daily according to boat traffic, weather, wave action and food availability. Tournament angler and walleye guru Craig Athon and his regular partner have fished the Kansas Walleye Association tournaments for many years and done well, placing fourth, third and second in each of the past three season standings. He admits that consistency is the key to successful fishing and knowing where to look is a good place to start.
"I like to try a varied approach," Athon said. "Anyone can catch fish on a given day, but to catch them consistently you have to be flexible. One day the fish might be in 2 feet of water, and the next they might be in 10 feet. You just never know."
Seasons And Patterns
If you had to narrow your search based on the calendar, you’d be hard pressed to beat late spring and early summer for reliable action.
“That’s when the majority of fish have recovered from spawning and are ready to feed,” Athon said. “It’s also early in the season and the fish haven’t experienced a lot of pressure yet.”
Early in the season Athon starts out looking deep for reservoir walleye. He studies topographical maps to find structure and drop-offs, and then uses his electronics to find likely walleye hideouts. He knows from practice how to interpret what he sees.
“Too many people spend the money on good electronics but never take the time to use them,” Athon claims. “They would rather drift a nightcrawler clear across the lake than take a couple hours searching out specific spots.”
The jig-and-nightcrawler combination has probably taken more walleyes than any other presentation.
Athon looks for sharp bends in river channels, areas near drop-offs with brush, or where two channels meet. “After you fish areas for several years, you find some pretty good spots like stumps, brush piles, or bridge pilings,” he said. “You can then line up several landmarks to keep your location or use your GPS if you have one.”
Other areas like old homesteads or towns covered when the lake was impounded are also ideal drive-through buffets for hungry walleye. Athon looks to find some of these areas in 10 to 30 feet of water.
Submerged roadbeds and hedge or tree rows provide plenty of walleye habitat. These can be located on the topo maps, or by observing the shoreline. Many of the old roads or tree rows come to an abrupt halt at the water’s edge. Once Athon finds a good looking spot he’ll use a marker to keep his reference.
His fishing bait of choice, along with many other walleye anglers in the Midwest, is the jig-and-nightcrawler combination. “You can drift it, fish it vertically or cast it if you want to,” he said of the combo’s versatility.
Athon likes to use his trolling motor to move him around while keeping his bait on the bottom if the wind isn’t blowing too hard. He’ll move up and down the break, or into and out of structure to find where the fish might be holding.
If the wind is blowing, which it usually does in the Midwest, Athon likes to anchor and precisely position his boat over the area most likely to hold fish. “A good anchor is worth its weight in gold. Nothing is more frustrating than finding fish only to have your anchor slip when the wind picks up or your boat swings.”
Athon likes to use two rods (where legal) when fishing vertically, or at any other time for that matter, but he uses each one differently. One will be placed in a rod holder and used to fish vertically, while the other is used for casting. “You cover much more area this way and increase your odds of finding fish,” he said. “If you’re on a drop-off you can cast up or down and see where the fish are holding.”
Athon won’t spend too much time on any one spot if it’s not producing. Thirty minutes to an hour at the most is about it. If nothing is caught, he’ll crank up the big motor and start looking.
As the season progresses, Athon shifts his focus to more shallow areas. Walleye often move up to feed on aquatic insects in water 2 to 12 feet deep. Drifting is a good bet to find these fish, which can be scattered in huge numbers over a large area.
Everyone likes fresh walleye fillets, but adhering to length and slot limits is required to keep reservoir walleye populations strong.
Jigs should be heavy enough to stay in touch with the bottom, usually 1/8 to 1/4 ounce, depending on the wind, depth and speed of the drift (a drift bag can be used to slow the drift). Once a fish is caught, a marker can be thrown out for reference on the next drift and the depth should be mentally noted.
Other shallow water hotspots include submerged weed beds and rocky points, especially if the wind is blowing into them. A good way to fish these is with a slip bobber rig that holds the jig and worm just up off the bottom to avoid snagging. Wave action bounces it along in a natural-looking manner. With this and any other live-bait walleye technique, the hardest thing to remember is to reel in the slack and FEEL the fish before setting the hook.
Walleye fishermen who find success on reservoirs, like Athon and others, always think positively. This thinking allows them to be flexible without getting discouraged when a pattern doesn’t quickly develop. The reward will come when you can’t keep a bait in the water and you feel the hefty pull of a hungry walleye.
Thejig-and-nightcrawler (or –minnow or –leech) is the all-around choice of many anglers. Crawlers, minnows and leeches are all typically hooked just below the head. Popular jig colors include varieties of stand-up or round heads in hot pink, red, chartreuse and orange from 1/16 to 3/8-ounce.
Don’t wait until your buddy knocks off a 7-pounder with a net that is too small. Many commercially made nets are now specifically designed for long fish like the walleye.
Setting the Hook
Walleye are often finicky and may peck or gum their food. It’s good practice on slow biting fish to let them have it for a second or two, reel up the slack and make sure they’re there and then set the hook. Aggressive fish will grab it and go and don’t require additional patience.
Windcan actually help you catch more fish. Many walleye anglers like moderate wind (10 to 20 mph), and a lot of wind doesn’t necessarily hurt, especially in extremely shallow water fishing from a boat.