Species Profile: Walleye

Facts About the Life and Behavior of Walleye

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Photo © Ken Schultz

The walleye, Stizostedion vitreum, is the largest North American member of the Percidae family and a close relative of sauger and yellow perch. A popular freshwater sportfish, particularly in Midwestern and Northwestern states and in southern Canada, the walleye is relatively abundant in many bodies of water, is capable of growing to large sizes, and is known for its delicious, sweet, and fine-textured meat.

As a food fish, the walleye has few peers in freshwater, which helps counterbalance its reputation as a sluggish battler when hooked.

ID. The walleye has a slender and cylindrical body with a tapered head. Its first dorsal fin has needle-sharp spiny rays and is separated from the soft-rayed second dorsal fin. The cheeks are sparsely scaled, the gill covers are sharp, and the teeth are sharp. It has a dark green back, golden yellow sides, and a white belly. The lower lobe of the caudal fin is white, and there’s a large black blotch at the rear base of the spinous first dorsal fin.

Arguably the most prominent feature of a walleye is its large, white, glossy eyes. The special reflective layer in the retina of the eye is a characteristic known as tapetum lucidum, which some other species of fish, including the walleye’s relatives, also have. It gathers light that enters the eye, making it extremely sensitive to bright daylight intensities but conducive to nocturnal vision.

Habitat. Walleye are tolerant of a range of environments but seem to do best in the open water of large lakes and reservoirs, as well as the pools of large rivers. They inhabit many smaller bodies of water but are not typically prolific in the most turbid environs. Gravel, rock, and firm sand bottoms are preferred, and they may associate with various weed cover.

They will also use sunken trees, standing timber, boulder shoals, and reefs as cover and foraging sites. In large lakes, walleye orient to open water in schools that coincide with the presence of baitfish, especially alewives but also shad and perch.

In the spring, these fish make a spawning run to shallow shoals, inshore areas, or tributary rivers; at other times they move up and down in response to light intensity. They also move daily or seasonally in response to water temperature or food availability.

Food. Walleye primarily consume other fish. Their wide diet includes alewives, smelt, shad, cisco, shiners, sculpin, suckers, minnows, darters, perch, and crayfish, as well as many other items. Some populations feed almost exclusively on emerging larval or adult mayflies for part of the year.

Angling. Walleye are popular because they’re often found in concentrations, can be challenging to locate and catch, and are susceptible to varied angling techniques. Although they are theoretically most active in low-light and dark conditions in many environments, they do feed during daylight hours and can be caught during the day. The latter is especially true in clear-water environments and where large schools of forage fish exist.

Walleye abundance relates to baitfish presence and to structure. The activities of their predominant forage in any particular environment have a bearing on where walleye are located. This may mean that they are suspended in open water, hugging the bottom along sandbars or reefs or points, waiting along weedlines, and so forth. Favored structures include rock reefs, sandbars, gravel bars, points, weeds, rocky or riprap causeways or shorelines, and creek channels. Walleye are particularly known for congregating in or along the edges of submerged vegetation.

Fishing presentations center on jigging; stillfishing or drifting with live baits; trolling with bait rigs and assorted diving plugs; and casting crankbaits. Leadhead jigs are typically used with leeches, minnows, or worms. Fixed and slip floats are used for live-bait fishing, although sometimes a jig and worm is fished below a float.