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Fly-Fishing for Walleye  at Cabela's

Fly-Fishing for Walleye

Author: Larry Tullis

I want to say first that the fly rod is not usually the best walleye rod and fly-fishing is generally not the most effective way to catch walleye. However that added challenge is exactly what makes it such fun for those who pursue marble eyes on the long rod. Walleye are somewhat of a mystery fish to most fly-fishers.

Walleye anglers line the shore during the early spring spawn.
Walleye are a nomadic fish, and their habits are not as predictable as trout. Still, a little knowledge about the walleye lifecycle will increase one's chances of catching this challenging and potentially delicious fish. I say "potentially delicious" because there is a movement towards catch-and-release in the walleye world to help preserve the sport we treasure. We should limit our take rather than take our limit.

Walleye habits
The fly angler's season starts soon after ice-out. Walleye are sometimes taken as the ice melts away from the warmest, shallower bays first. Following this early season cycle, the fish then tend to go deeper as the turn-over occurs. Walleye are spring spawners. When the water temperature nears 47 degrees F., walleye begin to stage near their habitual spawning areas. They prefer to spawn in fist-sized rocks. You'll usually find them on the deep side of a rocky shoreline in the pre-spawn period. A boat, kickboat (small fin powered pontoon boat), or float-tube equipped with a fish finder is a big advantage for locating fish. Follow the lake bottom out to where the rocky bottom intersects with a mud or sand bottom. The walleye are likely to be staging in that "transition zone", waiting for the click of the biological switch that triggers the spawn.

As the spawn nears, the smaller males move into the shallows and become aggressive, making them prime targets for fly-rodders. The females soon follow and spawning commences. This is when most anglers fish for walleye because they are shallow and relatively easy to find. Just before dark they begin rolling on the surface, adding visual stimulation to the fisherman's creel of expectations. From twilight until around midnight walleye are the most active, feeding or just hitting from aggression and territoriality. Cloudy days are ideal, but when feeding habits are aggressive, I have even caught walleye on bright sunny days.

Spring is the best time to catch walleye while wading or fishing from shore. Most times of the year, walleye are too deep for easy fishing from shore, so in the spring you have to take advantage of their close proximity. Once you find fish in these shallow rocky areas, remember the time and place. Walleye will return to the same spots year after year to spawn. I recommend you release all fish in spawning areas so they can reproduce, even if the law allows some harvest. If you do keep fish, keep the smaller males, not the egg-laden females.

Before and during the spawn are great times for fly-fishers, but post-spawn might actually be the best time to catch big walleye on a fly. The fish go on a post-spawn feeding binge and they will be found anywhere from the shallow spawning spots to the deeper transition zones discussed earlier. Fishing from a kickboat is very productive until they go deep in late June or early July. Warm surface temperatures drive the fish deep and make them more accessible to traditional bottom bouncing rigs rather than flies. Few fly anglers pursue them in late summer unless they are still near the surface as in some Canadian waters.

Fall brings the fish shallower again for a short period, but the fish are more spread out and harder to find than in the spring. Winter walleye angling usually requires a hole in the ice, which is only a realistic target for a select group of precision casters.

River walleye have similar habits, and they will be found in shallow rocky waters in the spring and deeper slower water as the seasons progress. Spawning times and locations in rivers often have special regulations to protect the spawners, so read the regulations carefully and fish around the closures. Walleye usually stack up below dams or other barriers and action can be fast in these spots.

Walleye fly techniques
The sink rate of the fly line may be the most important consideration in fly-fishing for walleye. In the shallows, a floating or intermediate fly line is best since retrieves are done slowly so the weighted fly stays close to the bottom most of the time.
Walleye illustration by Larry Tullis.
In moderately deep waters (10 or 15-feet deep), use a type I or II density compensated line. Fast sinking, sink-tip fly lines are generally not as good because they sink too quickly and put a bow in the line that makes feeling light hits difficult. They can be good for fishing canyon lakes where you want the fly to sink quickly. Type III, IV or V sinking lines have their place, but the deeper you try to fish, the less effective fly outfits become -and the line belly hurts your strike detection capability. Flies are most effective in 1 to 15 feet of water. Beyond that depth, traditional walleye tackle is better.

Retrieves are generally slow and deep. I like to keep the fly within 1 foot of the bottom for much of the retrieve. Alternate between long, slow steady retrieves and short pulsing strips. Always keep the rod tip close to the water, pointed directly at the fly, so you can detect light hits and keep a tight line between your fingers. A common mistake with all lake fly anglers is keeping the rod tip too high or off to one side or the other, reducing the strike detection capability. Hits feel like the fly ticked a rock or they may just feel like a rubber band starting to stretch. Set the hook on anything unusual for best results. If nothing is there, continue the retrieve.

Fly tackle for walleye
Use an 8 ½- to 9 ½-foot fly rod rated for 5- to 7-weight lines. An 8-weight may be desired on large, windy lakes. Choose your fly line carefully for the water you're fishing. Ideally you should carry several sink rates of fly lines on extra spools or better yet have several rods rigged and ready with different lines and flies, just like tournament bass anglers do. That saves the time required to re-rig lines. The reel is of little importance as walleye seldom take much line. Any reel that is matched to your rod and line will work. A model with extra spools can come in handy for a quick change of tactics.

Use a 9- to 10-foot leader on floating lines and 6-foot leaders on sinking lines. Tippets can be 4- to 12-pound test, depending on water clarity and the sun's intensity. Use a loop knot like the non-slip mono loop knot to tie the fly on for maximum action.

Wear waders and layer insulation underneath for comfort when fishing the early weeks of the season. Kickboats are gaining popularity and are great for most lake and river fishing since you use fins to maneuver while your hands are free to fish. Always carry a life jacket or an inflatable vest, extra fin or a set of oars. Any small boat works well for fly-fishing lakes and can be anchored during the retrieve. Two anchors may be needed on windy days to prevent boat swing for better line control.

Walleye flies
Walleye fly illustration by Larry Tullis.
Walleye are real minnow, crayfish and leech eaters so small flies are seldom used. The Inverted (Byford) Zonker in size 4 is my first choice for walleye flies. It's tied upside down, with a weighted belly so the hook point rides up and is less likely to get snagged on rocks or debris on the bottom. Use yellow, white and chartreuse during the day and darker colors like black, olive or purple work well in low light situations.

In deep water, fast sinking flies like Clouser Minnows do very well in chartreuse and white, or black, natural minnow colors. Wooly Buggers in similar colors will take open water walleye. Some Wooly Buggers are tied with a twister tail instead of marabou. Wiggle Bugs, with their foam back and diving-lip, swim in a serpentine motion like a crankbait. They're naturally snag-resistant, and perfect for fishing deep in rocky or stick-filled waters.

If you're up for a challenge, try walleye on a fly and I think you'll find them to be an intriguing puzzle that's fun to put together. Walleye are found in a large variety of cooler waters from northern glacial shield lakes, to southwestern canyon lakes, to large Midwest and Northwestern rivers. Spring is just around the corner, and you have just about the right amount of time to get geared up. When the ice starts to surrender its grip on your local walleye waters, grab your fly rod try your hand at matching your wits and skills against a worthy, finicky, tasty opponent.

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