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The Complete Guide How to Catch Walleye
The elusive nature of the walleye has captivated fishermen for generations so we’ve compiled the Complete Guide How to Catch Walleye. Walleyes are fickle. One week they may attack anything that moves, vicious predators bent on slaughter. The next week they have disappeared, nowhere to be found. When they decide to stop biting, almost nothing can change their mind.
Despite their unpredictable behavior, walleye are still one of the most popular game fish. How could they not be? They put up a heck of a fight, they’re a challenge to catch, and they make great table fare.
Walleyes used to only be found in a tight beam from Canada to Alabama. But, as with many other fish, modern stocking techniques and fishery work has allowed these fish to flourish in almost every region. Walleye aren’t found much outside North America, though they are a cousin to the Zander, a fish emanating from Europe and Asia. .
Many fisherman often mistake the Walleye for the Sauger. Yellow Walleyes have an green back, golden sides, and a white stomach. Distinctive markings include a milky-white tip on the lower lobe of the tail and a black blotch at the rear base of the spiny dorsal fin. Saugers have a distinctly different coloration and do no grow as large.
To compicate matters, walleyes and saugers sometimes hybridize producing a fish called the saugeye, possessing characteristics in between each parent. Walleye are different kinds of fighters than bass. They don’t jump or make flying runs but they will shake their head and make screaming runs, refusing to be pulled from the deep water
Walleye Myth: Walleye are sometimes called “Walleyed Pike,” but walleye aren’t related to pike. They are actually a member of the Perch family.
Walleye are just like other predators, they eat whatever food surrounds them. They never pass up an opportunity. You can expect walleye to target specific prey depending on where they’re found:
In Mesotrophic lakes : yellow perch
In River resevoirs in the Midwest: Smelt
In southern reservoirs: Gizzard or Threadfin Shad
Walleyes diets, like any other fish, depend on the time of year. Walleyes eat mostly small fish. They certainly eat their frogs, crawfish, and snails. Sometimes their diets consist entirely on insects. But their diet is mostly made up of other fish, though what kind of fish can vary.
Because baitfish spawn in the spring, you might expect walleye to eat loads of small baitfish, however this isn’t an efficient way for the fish to expend energy and grow. Adult walleye won’t eat many newly spawned young fish during the spawn, so it is better to throw yearling or adult baitfish sized baits during this time frame. Later into the summer, adult walleye will turn their attention to the, now larger, baitfish. During this time, walleye are less likely to bite your baits because food is less scarce and they aren’t near as desperate than at other times. During the fall, with baitfish populating decimated and returning to normal post-spawn, walleye aggression will increase.
Growth Rates of Walleyes in different regions: (ADD CHART FROM PAGE 31)
Walleyes have great eyesight. They see moderately well in daytime, but their eyes are remarkable in dim light or in night. This nightvision, that allows them to see much better than their prey, explains why Walleyes do most of their hunting in dim light.
TR Tip: On bright and sunny days, walleyes will dive deep in order to escape the sunlight. Their light sensitive eyes means they will go as far as 40 feet deep to escape direct sunlight. Don’t be afraid to jig deep to catch them.
Walleyes can see color but they can’t see color as well as other fish, like bass or walleye. Our best guess is that walleye see all colors as some shade of red or green.
As mentioned in our article on fish senses, the lateral line is the set of ultra-sensitive nerve endings along each side of the body that can detect small vibrations in water. Lateral-lines allow walleye to narrow down the location of baits or lures in murky water where they would normally miss.
Seasoned fishermen know that wall eyes in the shallows will not tolerate any commotion, even the slightest noise will drive them into deep water. As a rule of thumb, when walleyes are in water 10 feet or less, its better to cast to them.
Laboratory tests show that fish can smell extremely dilute odors. Yet, their sense of smell does not seem to have much influence on walleye feeding behavior. If smell were important, the evidence should be most obvious in low-clarity water, where walleyes cannot see well enough to feed. But in this type of water, live bait does not work well as artificial lures, especially lures that produce vibrations. The evidence indicates that the lateral line sense is more significant.
IMPORTANT: When Fishing for Walleye in Murky water, use lures which activate senses other than smell.
Walleyes live in varying types of waters. They are one of only a few fish that can thrive in such varied condition. Given the choice, walleye prefer water temperatures of 65 to 75 degrees. You don’t find many walleye in any water temperature over 80 degrees. You can also find walleye in almost any kind of lake. They are in the fertile lakes with pea soup clarity or they are found in non-fertile lakes with extremely clear water. Clear, cold, non-fertile lakes are the best kind of lakes to find walleye, but don’t be discouraged if you don’t have access to those fisheries, because walleye live everywhere. However, they’re also especially found in large, shallow bodies of water with moderate to low clarity.
Natural Lakes are far more likely to provide habitat for walleye than manmade lakes, or reservoirs, at about a 10-1 ratio. Streams and rivers come in at a lower likelihood than both. Populations are usually highest in large, shallow bodies of water with moderate to low clarity. A large expanse of water is likely to have the windswept shorelines and reefs that make ideal spawning habitat. And shallow water provides more food than deep water. If the shoreline drops sharply into the depths and has few shallow feeding shelves, chances are walleyes will not be abundant. Waters of relatively low clarity limit sunlight penetration and shield the Walleyes light-sensitive eyes.
Walleyes are in the middle their spawning period so expect them to travel serious distances. They have a strong homing instinct. Walleyes, like salmon, usually return to the same area to spawn each year. Try to find a heavily traveled or bedded spawning area and you’ll find a great fishing spot to revisit each year. After spawning, but still in the spring, they scatter and return to normal walleye hiding and hunting spots. The drive to find food engrosses the walleyes life at this point. Walleyes spend a great deal of time in shallow water chasing yearling baitfish and other food. Most newly spawned baitfish aren’t of a size worth chasing yet. Though, the walleyes who do chase newly hatched baitfish will often spend all day in the shallows chasing them.
In the summer, most baitfish have grown enough to make an enticing meal for a walleye. Because food is less scarce, it has less control over their lives of predators. Fish can spend more time in deeper cooler water than they prefer and in dimmer or murkier water that doesn’t hurt their eyes. Given the variation in summer temperatures, walleyes in different regions can sit in different water strata. In cooler northern regions, these fish will often stay in the upper strata of water, above the thermocline. In warmer regions, these fish will choose to swim just below the thermocline to seek those cooler 65 degree temperatures and get away from the heat of the sun, not to mention the lack of oxygen in shallow water.
Like the spring, in the fall, walleyes move into the shallows. The suns heat lessens and the surface of the water starts to cool. Food becomes scarcer, as much of the newly hatched baitfish is eaten. Walleyes must spend more time seeking out food due to this scarcity. Shallow water is much friendlier to walleye as the sun sets lower in the sky and the light is less intense. Water turnover occurs and oxygen is equally distributed throughout all water strata. This habitat means walleye can be found throughout the water columns and areas. However in the late fall, when the weather begins to cool, the surface temperature can get too cold for walleye. They have to move to lower water levels in order to survive. Early winter, walleye are sluggish and inactive. They typically hover where they were in the late fall. Look for sharp drop off points where they can move quickly from deep water to shallow water. In late winter, walleye tend to show a little more activity.
Live bait is the best for walleye. Fishing surveys show that live bait accounts for at least two-thirds of all walleyes caught on hook and line. Even the most dedicated and expert artificial lure advocates switch to live bait or add live bait to their lures when walleye fishing really gets tough.
The best live baits for walleye are:
Less successful but also still useful are
Each of these baits have varying rates of success depending on the time of year. Nightcrawlers are most successful in the summer. They are less successful when used during the early spring and in the late fall. This holds true for most water types. Minnows are the best choice in spring and fall but aren’t as successful in the mid-summer months. Part of the reason for this is due to walleye behavior response to its prey. As the hatch begins, walleyes will move to shallower waters to chase the new population of minnows.
In the fall, as walleyes minnow population is a fraction of what it was earlier, they begin to be more aggressive when seeking out food, attacking minnows they might otherwise have passed on due to an overabundance.
The time of year can matter with minnows as well. When trying to decide when to use what minnows, try these:
Fall: Red Tail chubs first – then shiners if those fail
Ribbon leaches are considered by many anglers to be better than nightcrawlers or minnows. They are quite active at water temperatures of 50F or higher, perfect for walleye temperatures. However, they move quite poorly in temperatures lower than that. They tend to curl around the hook into a useless ball.
Even though the majority of walleyes are caught with live bait, there are certainly times that artificial baits work better than live bait. When walleyes are scattered, trolling or casting an artificial enables you to cover a lot of water quickly. Once you find a school and catch the aggressive fish, the action slows. But you may be able to catch a few more by switching to live bait. Trolling an artificial lure is excellent way to explore unfamlilar water. Look for points and inside turns on the breakline, areas of hard bottom, schools of fish.
Artificial lures often work better than live bait in fast moving or low-clarity waters. Walleyes in current do not have much time to inspect their food. They learn to strike at any movement of flash. Walleyes in murky water may be able to see only a few inches, but they can detect the sound and vibration from an artificial lure. Artificial lures are also great for night fishing. Walleyes will have a tough time seeing a live bait that simply sits still. They can smell it, to be sure, but their sense of smell is not nearly as good as other fish. It is far easier for Walleye to spot the silhouette of a lure against the surface, feel the vibration in their lateral line, or hear the rattle. Artificials also eliminate the need to bait your hook at night. When walleyes are on a feeding binge you can catch them more quickly with lures than with live bait. In the time it would take to remove your old minnow and hook on a fresh one, you can cast a lure and possibly catch another fish.
The lead headed jig is probably the single best artificial lure available for walleyes. Jigs are natural choices because they’re easy to keep on the bottom where fish spend most of their time and they can be fished in a variety of ways. You can fish a jig by:
TR Tip: You can fish a jig plain when the walleye are biting or tip it with live bait when fishing is slow.
The most widely used jig fishing technique, casting works well in shallow water. When walleye are in the shallows, drifting or trolling over them, or even anchoring nearby, will probably spook them. But you will not disturb them if you cast from a distance. To catch fish suspended off the bottom, count your jig down to a different depth after each cast, then begin your retrieve. When you get a strike, repeat the count on the next cast.
Use a heavy jig, heavy enough, that you can keep your line nearly vertical. Bounce the jig along bottom while drifting with the wind or current, continually adjusting your line length as the depth changes. Keep your bail open and hold the line with your finger so you can easily let out a little more line when the water gets deeper. When it gets shallower, reel in the slack so the jig does not drag.
In deep water, vertical jigging works great, sometimes even better than casting. The greater line angle offers the ability to hop the jig higher and give it more action. The extra action can often trigger strikes from walleye in cloudy water. Vertical jigging also allows you to feel strikes more easily. Because you are using a minimum of line, stretch does not diminish the feel of a strike as much as it would with a longer line.
If you’re lucky enough to have a boat, vertical jigging is especially effective in lakes or rivers. In a lake, jig vertically while letting the wind push your boat over likely structure. In a river, let it drift with the current.
This technique also requires a boat. By combining vertical jigging with backtrolling. Lower your jig to the bottom, then troll slowly in reverse while following a breakline or exploring a reef. Twitch the jig to hop it off bottom, then lower it back with a taut line. Continually adjust your line length as your would when jigging vertically.
The key to success in jig trolling is to move very slowly. If you troll too fast, your jig will lose contact with the bottom. Because you have to let out more line, strikes will be harder to detect. For slower speed and better boat control, always troll against the win. With any of these techniques, the way you work your jig depends on the season and the mood of the walleyes. In spring and fall, when the water is cool, small hops generally work better than big ones. But in summer, larger hops often catch more walleyes. In late fall and winter, walleyes sometimes prefer a jig dragged slowly on bottom with no hopping action.
The secret to detect subtle strikes is to keep your line taut while the jig is sinking. If you twitch your rod tip, then drop it back rapidly as the jig sinks, slack will form and you will not feel the strike. Instead, lower the jig with tension on the line, as if you were setting it gently on the bottom. The best policy is to set the hook whenever you feel anything unusual. If you hop the jig off bottom, but it does not sink as you would expect, a walleye has probably grabbed it. What seems like excess drag from a weed may turn out to be a walleye. And a slight peck that feels like a perch bite could be the trophy of a lifetime. You will detect more strikes if you carefully watch your line and rod tip. Many times, you will see a strike that you cannot feel.
If you see the line twitch where it enters the water, or if the line moves slightly to the side, set the hook. One of the big problems in jig fishing is noticing strikes on a windy day. The wind forms a belly in your line and buffets your rod tip, so a slight twitch often goes unnoticed. To keep the problem to a minimum, hold your rod tip low. The size of the belly will be much smaller, and the rod tip will not whip around as much.
Sensitive 5 ½ foot or 6 rod, with a light tip and stiff rod is a great choice. A light tip responds to a subtle tap yet the powerful butt enables you to sink the hook with a slight snap of the wrist.
Line is always important. Too light a line could lose you a trophy fish. Too heavy a line will unravel in coils, so it is almost impossible to keep your line tight. While its easier to see fluorescent mono for jig fishing because it is easy to see, in clear water though, fluorescent line will result in fewer strikes. Just pick up a pair of polarized glasses and solve that problem.
We’ve talked a lot about jigging with plastics or live bait, its important to remember how valuable jigging lures are. Jigging lures already have built in actions like vibrating blades or rotating blade. Jigging with a lure is similar to jigging with a jig. Keeping a taut line is critical to detecting a strike when vertical jigging. You can also certainly cast or trolling with jigging lures if the vertical jig isn’t producing any results. Vibrating blades are often more effective than jigs in murky water. Walleyes detect the wiggle with their lateral line, even if they cannot see the lure. Because vibrating blades sink rapidly, they work especially well in deep water or swift current. These qualities make them perfectly suited to the swift, murky water of most rivers. Attach a vibrating blade with a plain, round-nosed snap inserted through one of the line-attachment holes on the back.
Many lures feature the ability to change the direction, frequency, or wiggle, depending on the type of vibrating lure hole you select. Tail spins work best in water that is relatively clear. The added flash and vibration of the spinner blade may trigger a walleye that is not interested in a jig. Tie a tailspin directly to your line. Jigging spoons will take walleyes when jigged vertically in flooded timber. They can also be used for walleyes suspended in open water. Attach a jigging spoon to your line with a split-ring. You can use the same tackle when fishing with jigging lures as you would use with regular jigs. However, we would suggest a slightly longer, say 6 foot bait casting rod, with a stiffer butt. It would also be useful to use heavier line, 8-10 pound test.
The design is perfect for vertical jigging, swimming in and out of the strike zone. At just under .5 ounces, this vibrating blade has just enough sink to be of use in the deep water columns where walleye skulk.
The common blue and white pattern imitates common shad, a favorite of late spring and summer walleye so look to use this jig during those time frames for the greatest results.
Plugs aren’t super new to the walleye game. They were certainly used in trolling but overall improvement have really boosted their profiles recently. The introduction of new types and improvements have once again proven themselves worth using, not just trolling. Shoot for 3 to 6 inch plugs, although big walleyes will certainly go after 8 inch plugs. The plugs most commonly used Walleye lures are minnow plugs, crank baits, vibrating plugs, and trolling plugs.
Long and slender, these plugs are so irresistible to walleye because they resemble its most likely prey. Minnow Plugs for walleye resemble the shape of perch, ciscoes, shiners, and other fish. The tight wobble, even at a slow retrieve, gives minnow plugs a remarkably lifelike appearance. Short lipped floating plugs run at depths of 5 feet or less. They work best for casting or trolling over shallow shoals and weed-beds. Long-lipped floating models dive as deep as 12 feet and are generally used for trolling along deep structures or over deep weedbeds. Sinking models can be trolled in deep water, or counted down to a specific depth and retrieved at that level. Neutrally buoyant models can be retrieved very slowly without floating to the surface or sinking. When walleyes are inactive, a neutrally buoyant plug may work better than a floating or sinking type. Because neutrally buoyant plugs can be retrieved so slowly, they catch walleyes at water temperatures down to 40 degrees F. Other types of minnow plugs are effective at warmer temperatures.
This minnow bait has one internal metal ball to generate noise and activate a fishes lateral line sense. All styles of the LureMaster Minnow bait have a brilliant crystal fish attracting reflecting, a responsive darting action, durable ABS body material, and new sharper stronger hooks.
These minnows are targets of fish in upper water. That means, its important to throw this minnow bait when walleye move into the shallows. This minnow bait isn’t meant to target walleye in deep water.
Throw this lure in water less than 8′ of water when walleye target bait fish in the shallows, as we’ve mentioned earlier.
The stockier shape and pronounced wobble design of crank baits give them a different look and use than minnow baits, although crank baits come in the same four styles as minnow plugs. Crank baits are typically fished in the same conditions, however crank baits generally require a faster retrieve. Its best to fish for walleyes in warmer water when using crank baits.
The bright and visible colors and large eyes make it an uncanny reconstruction of the typical walleye prey. One of the more unique designs of crank bait, the Yongzhi wobbler crank bait has a built in gravity ball which helps raise the throw distance and to impart the normal fish-attracting rattle. Standard treble hooks on the front and back pieces promise a sure hook set.
The rapid wiggle of these plugs sets up vibrations that attract walleyes even in the murkiest water. Many have internal shot or beads to produce sound. Most vibrating plugs sink, so you can fish them at virtually any depth. Like crankbaits, they must be retrieved rapidly to attain maximum action, so they are most effective at temperatures above 50 degrees. Vibrating plugs have little wind resistance, so they cast easily. Models with internal shot will cast even farther and sink more quickly, so they are a good choice for casting or trolling along deep structure.
Rapala Rippin Rap is a classic lure all around Lure, not to mention just for walleye. With its skinny sides this bait flutters on the drop. Hard vibrating action on fast or slow retrieves accented with loud, distinctive BB rattle system. Textured scales and gills with deep set 3D holographic eyes.
Super easy to fish, the Rippin’ Rap is perfect for pulling over or through grass, bouncing off timber and rippin’ through rocks. Long-casting with variable running depth, this one is just right for clear water where look is key or for fishing stained, dark water where just the right sound is essential.
As talked about before, Walleye go for specific sized baits depending on the time of year and hatch. When choosing the right Rippin Rap, make sure to choose a larger one that imitates the kind of baits and minnows that Walleyes are chasing. Use a #6 lure in water depths of 3 to 8 feet for great success. It works in near all water temperatures, but vary your retrieves based on the temperature.
Most trolling Lures have broad foreheads which produce a wide wobbling action. But the broad forehead also adds wind resistance, making them a bit harder to cast. Without added weight, trolling plugs run at depths of 5 to 20 feet. Some are desiged for slow trolling, others for speed trolling. Models used for speed trolling work best in warmer water, above 60 degrees.
The Bandit Walleye FireTiger Bait is a great deep diving trolling lure. Its great for walleyes, zander, and other gamefish. The fire tiger design is universal, making it great for wide range usage.
This single body 5″ subsurface plug trolls around 27′ below the surface at its deepest. It just barely weights over half and inch. Its solid construction means it will stand up to hard hits and the solid steel treble hooks promise to hold on to your catch.
While meant for trolling, you could use this for casting in certain circumstances. Similar to crank and minnow bait usage, look for steep drop offs where water goes from shallow to deep quickly. Troll over weed beds and in deep water.
Deep water trolling would work the best as the water warms and walleye retreat to deeper water. As we’ve discussed earlier, walleye tend to hover above and below the thermocline depending on your geography. Know your water temperature and where the thermocline rests in the body of water you fish, and you can be sure to find yourself a walleye worth catching.
Walleye are elusive but they’re extremely rewarding fish to catch. Make sure to take all the information we’ve compiled to use next time you go out. Be sure think about the weather, time of day, and what season you’re fishing in because as you can see, we’ve shown you what kind of difference this has on how walleye act and feed. Know your local fish habitats, underwater structures, and local fish species so you can best pinpoint the perfect bait.
Bookmark this page so you’ll always know where to return to each season to plan your next walleye outing. There are plenty of fishermens jokes about bass being caught by boys while men catch walleye. Some days it feels like there’s some truth to that when you consider just how difficult it can be to catch walleye.
We hope that some of what we’ve gathered here can help you become a better fisherman and maybe be the difference between a wasted day on the water or a trophy citation. Let us know how we did!