A walleye won't smash a topwater bait and tail-walk like a bass. He won't give you an all-out fight like a big pike or muskie. And he doesn't look anywhere near as pretty as a trout. Despite his shortcomings, the walleye remains one of the most popular game fish in North America. Why? For one, there’s a certain beauty and mystery that’s unique to the walleye. And, well, nothing tastes quite as good as a fresh walleye fillet dipped in beer batter and fried to a crisp, golden brown.
Know Thy Walleye
The staple of the famed shore lunch whipped up by North woods guides, walleyes are widely distributed in cool-water lakes, rivers and reservoirs from coast to coast. Their coloring is unmistakable: dark brown back, golden flanks and creamy or gray belly, with a distinctive white tip on the lower lobe of the tail. Their large, protruding eyes give them excellent night vision. Their sharp dorsal fins and gill covers can draw blood if you grab them the wrong way. Walleyes have needle-like teeth, so don't try to lip-land one as you would a bass.
Once found, walleyes can be fooled by a number of presentations, yet many anglers rely on jigs the most.
Walleyes eat minnows, other small fish, crayfish, insects and other invertebrates and can be caught on both live bait and artificial lures. Most anglers use spinning tackle, but bait-casting tackle also works. Jigging, trolling and casting are popular methods for taking walleyes. Each has its advantages, depending on where you are fishing and what the walleyes are up to.
Walleyes are not hard to catch, once you find them. Finding them is often the hard part because walleyes move from day to day and from one season to the next. Walleye behavior and movement patterns depend on the time of year, water temperatures, weather, the spawning urge and the availability of food. Most walleye anglers rely on a boat equipped with an outboard, a trolling motor and an electronic locator to fish for walleyes, but in smaller lakes and rivers, walleyes can often be taken from shore, especially in spring.
Location Through The Year
In late winter, walleyes begin to move into staging areas prior to spawning. These are usually in deeper water close to shallow gravel bars where spawning will take place in spring when the water temperature reaches 42 degrees or so. In natural lakes, walleyes simply move from deep water to shallow water. In rivers and reservoirs, they may migrate many miles to reach spawning areas, then gradually go back where they came from after spawning.
Reservoirs can yield impressive walleyes when the fish move to the dam to spawn.
In early spring, use a locator to find concentrations of fish in deeper water near suitable spawning gravel, or work your bait just off bottom along drop-offs. The traditional spring walleye bait is a leadhead jig or plain hook baited with a minnow. In clear water, emerald shiners often work best. In darker water, use fatheads, golden shiners or small suckers. Prespawn walleyes bite very lightly, so work your bait slowly and watch your line for a telltale twitch that indicates a hit. Sometimes you'll just feel the weight of a fish that has taken your bait. If all you catch are small males, try the same bait in deeper water, where larger females often hang out until their eggs ripen.
Night fishing can be very effective when walleyes are spawning. Troll or cast shallow-running crankbaits over gravel bars and along rocky shorelines. In rivers, use a three-way swivel rig to keep a live minnow or crankbait moving in the current where migrating walleyes can find it.
Post-spawn walleyes are notoriously hard to catch because they are recovering from the rigors of spawning and moving back to deeper water in lakes and downstream in rivers. Try jigging vertically over deep water with lightweight jigs tipped with small minnows.
By late spring, most walleyes are feeding actively once again. Minnows and other food items are scarce this time of year, so live-bait anglers often do well. A live minnow fished on a floating jig head or plain hook can be deadly now. Walleyes often move into shallow weeds and onto gravel bars to feed in the evening and on cloudy days. In lakes with little natural structure, fish cribs often attract walleyes. Feeding walleyes move about in loose schools from one area to another, so action may be fast for a while, then end suddenly.
By the time summer arrives, minnows and young panfish and game fish are abundant, so walleyes can easily find plenty to eat. In some waters, walleyes feed mainly at night in the summer. In weedy or dark-water lakes, they may feed actively all day long. Night crawlers and leeches are effective summer baits. Fish these over structure on a slip-bobber or drift or troll with a crawler harness.
In some deeper lakes, walleyes remain well off bottom in deep water. Trolling with diving crankbaits is about the only way to take them in this case. Use a locator to find schools of baitfish and troll through them. In weedy lakes, walleyes often spend the summer in the shade of a weedbed, where they feed on minnows, crayfish and insect larvae. Use a slip-bobber to suspend a leech in weedbed openings or work a weedless jig and a plastic tail right through the salad.
Getting a toothy walleye in the boat is always easier with a good net.
In rivers, walleyes often spend summer days in deep holes and move onto shallow bars at night to feed. I have taken numerous walleyes at night on Wisconsin's Namekagon River by casting Mepps spinners and floating Rapalas in shallow riffles. You can do this kind of fishing from shore on small rivers wherever walleyes are found. On big rivers like the Mississippi or Missouri, walleyes often hold just below wing dams and other man-made structure, where turbulent water increases the oxygen level and brings food to waiting predators.
Come fall, daytime walleye activity picks up as they begin to move about and feed heavily in advance of winter. In rivers, walleyes begin to move upstream toward spawning areas. In lakes, they prowl the shallows by day in search of food. Casting and trolling with crankbaits works well now. By late fall, start looking for walleyes in deep water not far from the gravel bars where they will spawn next spring.
Regardless of the season, weather patterns also affect walleye behavior. Bright, sunny days drive light-sensitive walleyes into deeper water or in search of shade found in weedbeds, log cover, fish cribs or rocks. On cloudy, overcast days, walleyes move about freely, often in very shallow water. Of all weather patterns, cold fronts have the greatest impact on walleyes. Walleyes often bite aggressively just as a front moves through, but they shut down abruptly once a front passes. The high pressure and clear skies that follow a cold front send walleyes to bottom in deep water. Try a leech or night crawler on a slip-bobber, or work a small jig very slowly near bottom.
North to south and coast to coast, a walleye is a walleye, but it's always a good idea to seek advice from local bait shops or guides. They know where the walleyes are likely to be at any give time of year, and they can suggest the best baits and methods for the water you plan to fish. The rest is up to you.