The dusky-gold hue and slim form of a walleye are easy to recognize. This elusive hunter is perhaps the most sought-after game fish in the upper Mid-West. This wary fish doesn’t come in vast numbers like panfish. It’s a rare day indeed when an angler brings home a limit of gold-backs. So, it’s not numbers that drive the desire to catch walleyes.
Maybe it’s the fight, like that brought on by smallmouth bass or even large bluegills? Walleyes are not known for a drag-screaming battle once hooked, yet are arguably aggressive on their initial strike. That distinctive ‘tap-tap’ on your line, followed by a few stout headshakes is a telltale sign to what you have on the line.
Well then, if they are difficult to locate and don’t fight like a bass, why do they remain the prime focus for so many anglers? Perhaps the answer to their popularity lies in the frying pan, literally. As table fare, the walleye is second to none. A firm white fillet, with light golden breading, is perhaps the best meal you could ever have- at least on a Friday night.
Yet the key to coming home with enough walleye for the family lies in determining their location. And this feature will change depending on the body of water, the time of year, and the weather conditions. Whether you at casting crankbaits, trolling crawlers, or staring at slip-bobbers, you first have to find where the walleyes are before you catch them.
Which Body of Water?
Like people, each fishable body of water has its own unique characteristics and qualities. If trying a new lake or river, search for maps that highlight depth and features. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resource maintains a store of lake survey maps. They can provide valuable insight and save you hours of time. River fish tend to be more aggressive due to the scarcity of prey. When fishing lakes, always look for patches of weeds or weed lines. Many fish will hold up in the weeds for both covers and as a place to spring an ambush on tonight’s meal.
Begin targeting mid-lake humps and points. Walleyes tend to congregate on inside shoreline turns, near drop-offs. Here they sit just outside the main current, looking for an easy meal to float by. Sandbars, shoreline structures, and deep holes can also be productive. In clear-water lakes, walleyes will spend the days in deeper water, moving into the shallows to feed on baitfish at both dusk and dawn. Dark or stained waters can keep walleyes active throughout the day. However, their motivation to feed is also dependent on the weather.
Don’t Like the Weather, Just Wait…
Have you ever been told you need to be miserable to catch fish? There may be some science behind this proverb. If you subscribe to the theory of barometric pressure affecting animal activity, look for pressure between 1,005 and 1,030 millibars. This is when fish appear most active. Ideally, steadily declining pressure indicates a change in weather and a possible front moving through. The theory holds, a low-pressure system shuts down fish activity so they activity feed before hunkering down. As opposed to a high-pressure system, which causes the fish discomfort through their air bladder.
The term, ‘walleye chop’ refers to just the right amount of disturbance on the water surface, caused by wind. These small waves disrupt the daylight and are more effective on clear water lakes and rivers. Dark or stained water allows for very little light penetration and ‘walleye chop’ is as significant of a factor. Remember, ‘Wind from the west, fishing is best. Wind from the east, fishing is least.”
It’s That Time of Year
Just as the whitetail rut comes in early November, the walleye spawn hits in April. This is the time of year when males and egg-filled females travel up-river to procreate. Walleyes of all sizes congregate in tight areas of water and strike at nearly anything. Males will zealously guard the eggs and females will retreat to deeper water, famished from her motherly duties.
Once the spawn is through, walleyes being to move into their standard summer patterns. This typically occurs in May and into June. After the dog-days of summer and the weather begins to turn to Fall, walleyes will begin to overfeed for the coming winter months. Depending on water temperatures, walleyes are very active in the months of October and November, until ice-up. Think bigger lures for this time of year.
Over winter, walleyes remain active and can be caught jigging as well as on tip-ups. Think deep this time of year, at least during the day. Deeper water retains more oxygen. At dusk and dawn, walleyes will again move up into more shallow waters to feed. However, this does not mean they can’t be found during the daytime as well.
Catching numbers of walleyes takes both time and patience. Don’t be surprised if you come home skunked on more than one occasion. Maybe this is what the true allure of the walleye is. The difficulty in catching them. Unlike panfish, or bass, or northern pike, walleyes are overly cautious and discrete. They embody the age-old adage of quality over quality. But before you catch them, you have to answer the question, where are the walleye?