I had my first encounter with walleye on the front end of an electrofishing boat. Ohio's Maumee River is renowned for the massive numbers of walleye that make their way upstream to spawn. They swim in from Lake Erie drawing hoards of fishermen and a few fish biologists. We were there to collect spawn. At dusk, after legal fishing hours, we fired up the shocker boat and not 10 minutes into the job we broke a shear pin on a massive tangle of monofilament. It happened twice more before the night was over. We got our spawn.
The unfortunate circumstance of masses of broken-off fishing line is sort of a back-handed compliment to the following that walleye enjoy. Few would argue that you can find a better tasting fish. Few would argue that other fish fight harder. Still, they are a fine fish that have seen their range expand through stocking in man-made reservoirs.
Longer days and warmer temperatures of early spring in northern Ohio draws walleye into feeder streams to spawn. They are wanders, moving upwards of 100 miles to find spawning habitat. But, they do not wander aimlessly. Like the storied salmon and steelhead, walleye, too, have a tendency to return to their native streams to spawn. Males usually make it to the spawning grounds, ahead of the females. Same is true for the return trip, the males are first to leave. The fact that some walleye populations essentially run in packs makes it even more critical that biologists pay particular attention to these stocks of walleye. What may be good for walleye in eastern Lake Erie may not work so well elsewhere.
Gravelly clear-flowing water is preferred for spawning in streams. Walleye favor rocky, wind and wave swept shoals in lakes. The urge to spawn comes on shortly after ice-out in about 38 to 45-degree water. From February to April, spawning takes place in the dark of the night in shallow water, until about 4:00 am. On a still night you can hear the splashing in the shallows as a ripe female is attended by several smaller males.
There's courting between pairs of fish, but they move into the shallows and spawn in groups, sometime five males to a single female. This promiscuous spawning, in part assures the offspring have a greater genetic diversity -- more young could survive.
The eggs are broadcast and stick to the river bottom and left to fend for themselves. Spent spawners return to deeper water. The spawning period goes on for about three weeks.
The eggs incubate for two to three weeks. After hatching, the yolk sac is quickly absorbed and the fry go on the feed in short order, eating microscopic animals. As they grow, they soon start eating insects. At two inches long, they start eating small fish and fish will be the mainstay throughout life. Scientific research shows that even at a small size the favored fare for young walleye are minnows, suckers, bluegill, and yellow perch. In their first year of life they may reach six inches long. Growth rates vary, but as a general rule, walleye put on about four to six inches a year. A 10-year-old fish will reach about 28 inches. Full grown walleye eat fish almost exclusively. Its large toothy mouth is well suited to catch fish. Yellow perch makes up a large portion of their diet. Mayflies, frogs, crayfish and snails are also important foods.
The walleye's name is really an allusion to the habitat it requires. The walleyed look comes from the fish's pupil and retina, so designed to see in darker deeper waters. Walleye usually inhabit the depths of clean, cool, clear streams and lakes. Walleye seem to flourish in large lakes where they can retire to deeper water in the hot summer, but never do they sound to the depths of ciscoes or whitefish. This fish is very much sensitive to light and hence only move into the shallows to feed, or reproduce, after dark.
Seldom will you find a walleye over a muck or mud bottom. Rock, sand and gravel are as important to walleye as weeds are to pike. They hold to pockets in deeper water during the day. Water temperature around 65 to 70 degrees will put walleye on the feed. And if the water gets warmer, that's not so bad. Savvy walleye fishermen know that warmer temperatures may make the fishing good and the catching even better. Warmer water at times concentrates walleye in structured pockets, and since they are a social animal, where there is one, there's usually more. Summer time sure isn't the only time to catch walleye. A respectable number of walleye are pulled through the ice in the north country year after year.
Most walleye brought to hand go a pound or two. An occasional five-pounder is hauled up from the murky depths, but walleye do get much larger. The largest fish on record went 22 pounds 11 ounces, wrangled up at Greers Ferry Lake, Arkansas.
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