What You Should Know About Catching Walleyes

Here’s a Primer on Finding and Catching Walleyes

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Photo © Ken Schultz

When it comes to discussing general fishing techniques for walleyes, here are some key things to remember about this species:

  • walleyes are a schooling species often found in concentrations.
  • they are often not aggressive feeders and therefore can sometimes be challenging to catch.
  • they are susceptible to a wide range of techniques.
  • they have light-sensitive eyes that theoretically make them most active in low-light and dark situations in many environments, but they do feed during daylight hours, and can be caught in the day.
  • they relate to baitfish presence.
  • in certain environments they relate heavily to structure. 

Bait and Vegetation

The primary food for walleyes varies, often being whatever small fish are most prevalent in a given body of water. The activities of the predominant forage have a bearing on where walleyes are: suspended in open water, hugging the bottom along sandbars or reefs or points, waiting along weedlines, etc. The types of structure or objects that they favor include rock reefs, sandbars, gravel bars, points, weeds, rocky or riprap causeways or shorelines, and creek channels.

Walleyes are particularly known for congregating in or along the edges of vegetation. Walleye weeds, for the most part, are submerged, sometimes slightly visible on or near the surface, especially in shallow water, and often deeper and out of sight. Thick clumps of weeds are preferable to scattered weeds, because the former offer more cover.

Clumped weeds is the easiest situation to fish. It may not be available, however, so scattered weeds become the second choice. Shorter weeds in moderately deep water are often preferred by walleyes than taller weeds in the same depth. Knowledgeable walleye anglers always look for the weedline and its depth, using their sonar.

An excellent situation to find, though not one as readily fished, is where the weeds are thick and the edge is close to a sharp bottom dropoff. Working the edges of the weeds is particularly effective.

Open Water

In some places, particularly large lakes, walleyes are also found in deep water, suspended or on the bottom where there are open, basin-like flats. Some walleyes, especially big ones and those that are likely to be feeding, do not hold to the traditional bottom and cover-providing structure, but are in open water to take advantage of migratory schools of baitfish prevalent in those waters, mainly smelt and alewives. So the walleyes relate to the presence of those fish. They may be in a few feet of water or in 20 to 30 feet, over a bottom that is much deeper.

Presentations

Fishing presentations for walleyes run a gamut, but largely center on jigging, still-fishing or drifting with live bait, trolling with bait rigs, casting crankbaits, and trolling with plugs. Jigs are mostly used with bait (leeches, minnows, and worms), although hair- and grub-bodied jigs are effective as well. Fixed and slip floats are used for live bait fishing, although sometimes a jig and worm is fished below a float.

Trolling rigs include weight-forward or June-bug-style spinners, as well as spinner-and-worm/leech harnesses, and walking or bottom-bouncing sinkers. 

Many walleye anglers have employed a controlled wind drifting and boat movement technique called backtrolling, which essentially is moving transom first, using a tiller-steered outboard motor or a transom-mounted electric motor to keep the boat in proper position. Jigs and rigs are used and almost always fished very slowly.

Walleye anglers on big waters predominantly employ forward trolling, primarily using shallow to deep-diving plugs (and sometimes spoons), trolling them on flatlines, in-line planers, large sideplaner boards, and even downriggers. Fishing is done at precise depths for suspended and mobile walleyes. Locating the fish, getting to the precise depth, and having good lure action are of paramount importance.

Seasonal Info

When walleyes are spawning in rivers, other tributaries, and in shallow bays, fishing, where legal, is relatively easy, but becomes more difficult after spawning when the fish migrate out of rivers and bays into main lake structure and disperse. Through summer, various forms of structure, as well as deep water, are worked. In the fall, walleyes become more concentrated again and are especially found on main lake points that are close to deep water. In large lakes they will migrate toward the upper end where a river comes in, or to a dam end. This is a good time to get bigger fish.

Walleye fishing is a bit different in rivers. The fish spawn through the same temperature range, and they migrate after spawning, although they may not go very far in smaller systems. In both spring and fall they may be located off the mouths of tributaries; in spring, they are drawn by spawning needs, in fall, by baitfish. They do not suspend, however, and are almost always caught by making bottom-oriented presentations.

In large river systems, many walleyes are caught close to dams in winter and spring. At other times, work the deep water off wing dams, island channel cuts, deep-water bridge abutments, and center channel edges. Look for walleyes along a river channel that has considerable depth as well, especially in midsummer.

River Specifics

Riprap is an especially favored walleye haunt in rivers, especially in the evening and if there is deep water nearby. Other prominent locales include cuts, where currents meet each other; eddies and slicks; along and behind islands; large rocks; and the head and tail of pools. River walleyes feed on assorted forage, including crayfish, hellgrammites, and minnows. They are caught by jigging; casting; trolling with spoons, spinners, and plugs; and fishing with live bait.

Jigs are the most effective river walleye lure, probably because they are worked close to the bottom and represent minnows or crayfish. Small and shallow rivers generally require ⅛- to ⅝-ounce jigs; in fast water you should increase weight.

Fish jigs with the current; there is no need to actually jig them, and a slow rolling action is best. In spring and fall, use white, yellow, chartreuse, and silver colors; in summer use brown, black, green, or orange-and-brown.

Live bait is also very effective. A live bait rig having a ¼- to 1-ounce weight, rigged with 20 inches of dropback leader and a No. 2 short-shanked hook, is used. Minnows, nightcrawlers, leeches, salamanders, waterdogs, and crayfish are used for bait, plus assorted minnows. Sinker style can be split shot, egg, or other bottom-bouncing type.

Medium Tackle Covers Most Fishing Needs

Tackle needs for walleyes in lakes and rivers are not very complicated. Spinning rods from 5½ to 7 feet long in medium action, and reels filled with 8- to 12-pound line, are standard. Baitcasting tackle can be used as well, generally with slightly heavier strength line. In clear waters, fluorocarbon lines and leaders are desirable, and microfilament lines are a good main line choice. For trolling, especially when planer boards are used, longer rods and stouter gear may be necessary. Flycasting tackle is seldom appropriate, although it is possible to use when the fish are shallow and concentrated. Hardly any fly fishing is done by walleye devotees.