Fishing for walleye in the northern tier of states is a long-standing tradition. Historically, millions of tourism dollars have flowed into core communities supporting walleye based industries. The curiosity for many is that, like an aging angler with an excessive mid-section, the traditional belt line of walleye boundaries is slipping further south.
Originally, walleye inhabited the northern part of the U.S. and Canada. With their growing popularity, walleye have been introduced into waters throughout the U.S. Stockings have been extremely successful in large reservoirs that contain good walleye habitat. For many anglers, in newly introduced fisheries, accidentally catching their first walleye, prompted the question "what kind of fish is this?"
Once they've gotten past that first stage of befuddlement, and tasted the excellent table fare that walleye provide, catching more -on purpose- presents the first of many challenges.
Understanding walleye biology and habitat requirements is key to being a successful walleye angler. Walleye feed primarily during low light periods, at dawn and dusk. Favorite hangouts include rocks, timber and the edge of weedbeds, where they feed on crayfish and leeches. Schools of baitfish are their primary forage base, often found in deeper water.
Walleye require highly oxygenated water and prefer moderately clear water with a moderate pH level. Temperatures from 68° to 73°F are perfect, but walleye can tolerate levels from 32° to 86°F, which has contributed markedly to successful range expansion efforts.
Walleye are the largest member of the North American perch family. Often called "Old Marble-Eyes", because of its large luminescent eyes, that provide excellent vision in low light conditions.
Most walleye anglers harvest fish ranging from one to four pounds. However, the fish are capable of reaching weights in excess of 20 pounds and a length of 40 inches!
Southern fishermen have welcomed walleye to their home territory. Since they grow much faster than in northern regions, the next world record fish is expected to come from waters south of the Mason Dixon. While this may sound like heresy to the neophyte northern angler, veteran walleye anglers know that the current world record was caught in Tennessee's Old Hickory Lake, in 1960. It weighed in at just over 25 pounds!
As a matter of fact, the four largest walleye on record came from Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas and Missouri. Fish in the 16 to 19 pound class have been caught in Oregon, Washington, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and West Virginia. Fishermen intent on targeting monster walleye should research waters in these states. For local anglers, looking to expand their bass horizons, learning the basics is a prerequisite to consistent success. Northerners, on hiatus from their homebound haunts will find that a walleye is a walleye no matter where they swim.
Walleye fishing tactics are highly varied according to season and location. Large reservoirs receive the most of the fishing pressure. When approaching a new lake, it is wise to talk with individuals at local tackle stores to quickly eliminate unproductive waters.
Once you pinpoint the sections of the lake with the most walleye, target the ends of main lake points and the tops of large flats. Reservoir walleye are highly mobile. Step one is to locate the schools, which will most often be around structure of some sort. However, if walleye are not found in numbers on the traditional cover, check nearby locations.
For example, if you catch a few fish on a flat in 18 feet of water, or at 20 feet on a point, move a short distance off the structure and check for fish at the same depth. Walleye relate to weeds throughout their range. Check for fish suspended over massive weedbeds, or just off the weedbeds at the same depth. The depth of the outside edge of the weedbed is the key factor to finding fish nearby.
Finding productive structure is the critical starting point to begin catching walleye. They typically move on and off structure in response to baitfish movements, weather changes and fishing pressure.
If the bite is there, fish the structure you find on your electronics. However, if the fish are not on the traditional structure, use a locator to find suspended fish either above or off to the sides of the structure.
Zigzagging your boat slowly back and forth across the structure is the preferred method to find suspending fish. In deep water, walleye seek out submerged islands, humps and underwater points. Zebra mussels have invaded more waterways and their beds have in turn become a favorite hangout for walleye.
Trolling is the standard method for taking suspended walleye. Your bait stays in the strike zone longer, and unproductive areas can be quickly eliminated. Crankbaits and spinner rigs are two of the most popular applications. Throwing a crankbait is a great way to prospect for walleye. They are best too, when the fish are in an aggressive feeding mode. Spinner rigs require a much slower presentation and work well for methodically fishing a school of walleye once they are located.
Walleye eat a lot of baitfish. Matching the size of available forage pays off. Deep diving Shad Raps and Storm Deep Thunder Sticks are favored crankbaits. Wiggle Warts, and Rapala's Risto Raps see a lot of action, as well as the new breed of lifelike baits like Cabela's Rattlin' Rad Shad and Rip-N-Shad that are becoming mainstays in walleye tackle boxes too. Adding a length of night crawler to the trebles on these baits sometimes gives the fish exactly what they want.
Dark, crawdad patterns work well in deep water. Chartreuse should be used in the deepest, dark water, and the lighter colors and metallics work best in clear water situations. Trolling a variety of crankbaits at once allows you to prospect various depths until fish are located. Then it is simply a matter of modifying your rigs to reach the depth at which you find the most fish.
Walleye feed on practically every species of minnow in North America. Finding out what the primary minnow species is in your part of the world will help you catch walleye. Walleye take advantage of seasonal peaks of their forage, and you should too. In the Great Lakes, prey will include gizzard shad, alewives, shiners, perch and smelt. In Midwestern lakes, walleye often feed on bluegill, crappie and bullheads.
What walleye are feeding on will determine where they go. Studying the lifecycles of forage base fish and insects of the waters you fish may provide the secret to finding fish. However, two facts to keep in mind always are: 1) walleye cruise weed edges and sometimes suspend near structure to feed on schools of baitfish in deeper water; 2) during low light periods, walleye move into shallow water where they feed heavily. Dawn, dusk, and after dark are the peak walleye feeding periods. They utilize their "name-sake" eyes to take advantage of forage fish that cannot see so well in low light.
Regardless of what method you prefer, when fishing for walleye, the ever present challenge is to outsmart the "'eyes". If you are intent on bagging a record book fish, start looking in the most likely spot - down South. You'll soon develop a taste for mint juleps and possibly even grits.
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