How to Catch a Walleye
The walleye is an extremely popular game fish in North America. They are native to the waters of Canada and most of the northern US. The walleyes original range is all of Canada, the Great Lakes, the Missouri River Basin and the Upper portions of the Mississippi River Basin in the Northern US states.
Today you can find walleye outside of their ancestral habitat even in the deep clear lakes and impoundments of the southern, eastern and western US. In some parts of Canada, the locals refer to the walleye as a pickerel, but a walleye is not in the same family as a true pickerel.
The main reason for their popularity as a game fish is their reputation as excellent table fare. A walleye is regarded by many people as the best eating freshwater fish in North America. They have a sweet and flavorful flaky white flesh that lends itself well to pan frying and deep frying. Others go after walleye because of their predatory nature and the fact that they tend to be a bit more difficult to locate and catch.
A close relative of the walleye is the Sauger, many people confuse the two as they behave like each other and look almost identical. Some people in the southern states may be more familiar with a Sauger. The sauger is also an excellent eating fish but somewhat of a mystery for most fisherman.
A walleye is a relatively long, narrow fish with a large bony mouth lined with razor sharp teeth. They are a deep green that radiates into a golden hue on their sides. The belly of the fish is an off white. The olive/golden hue is broken up by five dark bands across the back running down both sides. The lower lobe of the caudal fin of a walleye is white, which is one way to distinguish them from their cousin the sauger. A sauger will also have rows of black dots on both dorsal fins and the caudal fins, these are absent on the walleye. The walleye gets its name from its opaque, almost cloudy looking eyes. This is an evolutionary trait called the tapetum lucidem, which helps the fish see in low light conditions. It helps the fish’s eye gather light and makes them reflective like many nocturnal land animals.
Behavior and Habitat
Walleye tend to prefer the deep, cool water of lakes, reservoirs and rivers. At certain times however they will be found in shallow water feeding or spawning.
Due to the structure of their eyes, walleye are most active during the low light or dark times of the day. Many people misinterpret this behavior as the walleye’s aversion to light. In reality, it is a predatory response to their evolution; their ability to see in low light conditions gives them a distinct advantage over their prey at times of lowlight. What they are eating can’t see well in low light or dark conditions, but this is when the walleye can see the best. This tends to make walleye much more active at night, dawn and dusk.
They will however feed and be active during the day, but their preferred locations will change. At lowlight, walleye will move shallow to hunt for prey. During bright conditions and daylight, they tend to move to the deeper portions of whatever body of water they are residing. A couple of exceptions to “the rule” exist and will help you find actively feeding walleye in the day. On cloudy days, light penetration is low, and walleye will be more likely to be shallower and feeding.
On moderately windy days, a good chop or waves on top of water can lead to low light penetration in the water column. This will tend to have walleye move toward the shallows to feed when they would normally be in deeper darker water. If you hear walleye fisherman talking about “walleye chop,” this is what they are talking about; a day with good wind that puts a healthy chop on the water.
On some nutrient-rich lakes or rivers and reservoirs with current, murky and/or turbid water will reduce light penetration in the water column and cause walleye to become active in shallower depths.
Dark Cool Waters
The thing to remember here is that any external condition that affects light penetration into the water column can have a direct impact on the activity level and location of walleye during normal daylight hours. When it is bright and sunny and light penetration is good, the walleye will go deep, to darker, cooler water. These fish in deeper water can still be active and feeding. When walleye move deeper, they usually school, with large numbers using the same general area. When fishing during the day in deeper water, when you catch one it is highly likely there are many more in the same area.
Walleye will move to shallow, rocky and/or sandy areas to spawn in late winter or early spring. Most spawning locations tend to be up rivers, streams and tributaries off the main lake, reservoir or river. This generally happens when water temperatures are between 40- and 50-degrees Fahrenheit.
Walleye will also use areas like these to feed in lowlight conditions. Shallow rocky and sandy areas of the main lakes, rivers and reservoirs will hold active feeding fish at different times. Walleye will also use structure and weed beds to hunt for food, sometimes acting like a bass. With most predatory game fish, the walleye will follow their food; unlike most game fish, walleye see differently so you must add that behavior to the equation when trying to find active fish.
Walleye are a predatory fish and will feed on what is available in whatever water system they are located. Walleye will readily eat most baitfish and some smaller specimens of other game fish. In many waters the most prevalent species of forage are shiners, shad, and perch. Walleye will eat large invertebrates including crawfish. They will also eat worms and leeches. Most artificial baits for walleye will mimic a baitfish, crawfish or worm.
Strategies for Catching Walleye
Choose the right season
Before you can catch a walleye, you have to find where the walleye are. The best way to do this is to take everything we have learned previously in the article and put it to practice. Determine the time of year, temperature, time of day and light conditions. This will give you good places to begin your search for actively feeding walleye. Using maps or mapping services on the internet will show you where likely places are.
Find the rivers, streams and tributaries that enter the main lake, river or reservoir. Use lake depth maps to find deep holes, ledges, shoals and shallow areas that will hold fish at different times of the day and conditions. Like with most fishing, effectively using sonar can make your search quicker and easier. Use side and down scan, as well as traditional sonar to find deep holes, schools of baitfish and schools of walleye.
Fish like They're Bass
When walleye are shallow, either spawning or feeding during the proper light conditions, you can essentially bass fish for them. Using shallow running crankbaits or jerkbaits is a good bet. Casting these lures to likely areas searching for active fish is the best strategy. Cover water until you find the active fish that are willing to bite. Once you find fish, there will be more, slow down and cover the area.
Walleye are social fish - look for other fish
This is the time to dissect the water and make sure you cover every inch. When you find active fish, whether shallow or deep, there will be more with the one you catch. Walleye are schooling, social fish and it pays to methodically fish the area that hold fish.
Look in the Weeds
When fishing with crankbaits it is a good idea to vary your retrieve with pauses. When fishing shallow, do not overlook the weed beds and holes in weed growth. These are excellent places to catch walleye and are often overlooked. If you don’t catch a walleye, you’ll probably catch a bass and that’s not so bad.
Another excellent choice for shallow water, active walleye is a swimbait. We have discussed swimbaits in other articles about bass and trout fishing, they are an excellent all-around lure to use for many game fish; walleye are no different. You fish a swimbait the same way you fish a jerkbait or crankbait. In the products section of the article I will clue you in on the best swimbait I have ever used. You can also use jigs in shallow water, they are most readily used for deeper water but with the right technique are deadly in the shallows. In the next paragraph you will learn some ways to sweeten up your jig offering.
Another option for shallow water fishing for walleye is using a number of live bait options. We discussed the walleye’s diet earlier in the article, all these are viable live bait options. You can use live bait to sweeten your artificial bait offering. Minnows, leeches and nightcrawlers are all excellent as a tipper on jigs and even crankbaits.
Live bait can also be fished alone with several different techniques. One of the best for shallow water is to use live bait under a slip bobber, casting to likely spots. Another option on windy days is to use live bait and a slip bobber, letting the wind push your bait around to cover water in a natural pattern. The best advice for live bait fishing is to use what the fish are used to feeding on in whatever water system you are fishing.
Match the Hatch with Live Bait
The best strategy for live bait is match the hatch. Most bait shops you go in will have commercially available baitfish for sale; these options may not match what is native in a particular body of water. The best option for live baitfish is to use a minnow trap or seine tributaries for native baitfish. It is more work, but you will get the best bait and the walleye will appreciate it.
Most shallow water techniques will work for deeper water fish. In deep water you can recycle the jigs and use them again just like you did in shallow water. For deep water however, you will be vertical jigging, mostly directly under the boat. When vertical jigging, use your electronics, down scan and traditional sonar to find likely spots and stay on fish.
This kind of fishing can be a blast, it is almost like playing a video game. With your sonar set properly you can watch the fish and your bait on the screen, watching the fish rise and bite in almost real time. Don’t forget to tip your jigs with live bait if the bite is tough.
Trolling for Wallleye
One of the most popular methods of catching walleye is trolling. This method is most utilized in open water that is on the deep side. Trolling allows anglers to cover lots of water to find active fish, but it is also a natural and effective way to present baits to less than active walleye.
Troll with worms
One of the most popular trolling options is using a worm rig. A worm rig is essentially a hook, weight and some sort of spinner blade. This is an effective way to fish live or artificial worms near the bottom while covering vast amounts of water.
Troll with crankbaits or jerkbaits
Another option in trolling is to use weights and swivels to fish crankbaits and jerkbaits near the bottom. Using a trolling rig for crankbaits allows the angler to get the bait down to the fish and keep it there while covering water. This is a go-to-tactic for most walleye fisherman, especially during less than favorable light conditions. Trolling baits also presents the option of using multiple bait offerings while presenting them at different depths. This is a killer method for covering new water and finding active fish that are willing to bite.
Recommended Fishing Gear for Walleye
Jerkbait and Swim baits
There are specific walleye crankbaits and jerkbaits for sale, but nearly any of them will do. If you have a selection for bass or other types of fishing use them before purchasing walleye specific lures. I am personally partial to everything Rapala and Rebel.
Rapala offers many crankbaits in minnow patterns and the Rebel Rattling Rouge may be the best jerkbait ever made. I promised a tip when it came to using swim baits; the storm 360 GT search bait, made by Rapala is, in my opinion, the most versatile swim bait on the market. It mimics a variety of baitfish and it is easy to fish. Do yourself a favor and pick up several of the color options on the market.
The rod you choose for walleye fishing is extremely important. The technique you use fishing for walleye will dictate the rod choice. Walleye can get quite large and they are aggressive, but they are notorious for having a delicate bite.
While jig fishing, choosing to use a sensitive rod to feel the bite is a must. A walleye rod must also have enough backbone to set the hook quickly. Short rods in the 5’6” to 6’6” range in medium light power are best for jigging. The Fenwick Elite Tech Walleye is one of the best new walleye jigging rods available. It features a medium light action, fast tip and a hidden real seat.
Another option is the G Loomis E6X walleye jigging rod, it has a load of features and sensitivity at a lower price point than most Loomis rods.
For casting lures, you need a slightly different rod and you are in luck because this rod can be dual purpose. My all-time favorite rods have always been from St. Croix, they make excellent stuff. The St. Croix Eyecon is a dual-purpose rod for jigging and casting lures. Get a 6’6” medium light/fast action for the best of both worlds, jigging and casting.
Trolling for walleye takes a completely different rod; trolling places continuous stress on the rod and it must be much better at taking abuse and absorbing shock. Generally, in a trolling rod we are less concerned with sensitivity and more concerned with shock absorption, this is where glass rods shine.
When purchasing a trolling rod, you can get away with using heavier spinning rods, but it will pay, in the long run, to use rods designed specifically for trolling. When purchasing trolling rods, you should use rods of varying lengths from 7 to 10 feet. Staggering rod length will allow you to cover more water and keep your baits from tangling, a technique used by crappie fisherman trolling crankbaits in open water. My first recommendation for a trolling rod is the Shimano Talora trolling rod; another alternate option is the Daiwa Telescopic Accudepth.
Employ these tactics the next time you chase walleye. Don’t forget that many techniques we discuss for other game fish can be used on multiple species. As always, you can’t catch them on the couch, get out there and catch a fish.