Walleye are one of the most popular gamefish species in many parts of the US, but they are often as frustrating as there are fun to catch. This has led anglers to develop a variety of different tips and tricks for catching these alluring fish.
We’ll look at a few of the most common ways anglers find walleye, tempt them into biting the bait and successfully drag them up onto the boat.
As always, feel free to be creative or combine various techniques as necessary. There are no rules in fishing, and sometimes the most unusual approaches yield the best results.
If you are new to walleye fishing, you’ll need to start by learning a little about the species.
Known to scientists as Sander vitreus, the walleye derives its common name from its outward-facing eyes, which appear to look “towards the walls.”
Found throughout much of the United States and Canada, walleyes inhabit a variety of different waters, including large reservoirs, rivers and smaller impoundments.
Walleyes are medium-sized gamefish, averaging about 12 to 18 inches in length. However, they can grow much larger than this and 30-inch, 20-pound specimens are caught with reasonable regularity.
The largest individual ever recorded weighed nearly 30 pounds and measured over 40 inches in length.
Walleyes have excellent vision in low-light conditions, and they use this to their advantage when prowling for food. Because they are able to see better in dim, turbulent or cloudy water than their prey can, they typically become most active during such times.
They typically withdraw to the depths during bright, sunny days. Walleye are generalist predators, who greedily consume other fish (especially perch) and any invertebrates (including worms, leaches, crayfish and large insect larvae) that they encounter.
Walleye spawn during the early spring, once temperatures reach about 44 degrees Fahrenheit. They move into the shallows to spawn, before moving back into deep water immediately afterward.
The fry hatch a few weeks later, and begin feeding heavily on a variety of small aquatic organisms. Female walleyes are incredibly fecund, and may deposit nearly a half-million eggs in some cases.
Walleye are long-lived fish, who may reach 20 years of age in exceptional circumstances. However, relatively few reach such ages thanks to their popularity among anglers.
Eight Walleye-Catching Tips
Now that you understand the basic biology, habits and natural history of walleyes, it is time to begin trying to catch them.
1. Dress up your lure with some live bait.
The best way to entice more fish to strike your lure is to make your lure more appealing. And there are few better ways to do so than by incorporating a bit of real, live bait in your jigs, spinnerbaits and other offerings.
Live bait not only makes your lure look more realistic and enticing, but it helps make it taste, smell and feel more natural too.
This may give you another second or so to set the hook, before the walleye gets spooked by the metal or plastic materials of the lure and spits it out.
Nightcrawlers, leeches and minnows are the primary live baits used by walleye anglers. Nightcrawlers and leeches are typically most productive during the summer, while minnows are more effective during other portions of the year.
However, you should never be afraid to try minnows during the summer or worms during the winter.
2. Use a jigging technique appropriate for the temperatures.
Most fish, including walleye, are ectothermic (“cold-blooded”) animals, whose biology varies with the temperature. When the water is warm, they swim faster, hunt more aggressively and pursue other fish who are also moving more quickly.
In cold water, they become more sluggish and spend their time pursuing prey that is also moving at relatively slow speeds.
Incorporate this information into your jigging practices by slowing your presentation down when temperatures are slow, or speeding up your jigging movements (and making them more erratic and exaggerated) when the water is warm.
3. Consider trolling on unfamiliar waters or when you have trouble locating the fish.
One of the most challenging parts of fishing for walleyes is locating the fish.
So, while you may be able to pull your boat up to a familiar spot on a favorite river and be relatively certain to find walleye in the area, you won’t have such a luxury when working waters that you’ve never fished before.
In such situations, you may find that trolling is a helpful method for finding the fish. Be sure to present your lure at varying depths while keeping an eye on your fish finder and to try different speeds while doing so.
Once you hook a fish or two, circle back around and begin casting or vertically jigging in the area to help fill out your live well.
4. Don’t be afraid to use a float to reach walleye holding at mid-depths.
While walleyes often hold near the bottom of lakes and rivers, and anglers usually target them with various types of sinker rigs, they also move up through the mid depths of the water column.
A float can help keep your bait in front of these fish, and it will occasionally draw fish from below too.
However, because you’ll often want to be presenting your lure 10 to 20 feet below the surface, you can’t use a stationary bobber to do so (trying to cast such a monstrous rig would be difficult to say the least).
Instead, you’ll need to rig up a slip float, which will allow your bait to sink down to the desired depth before the float cinches the line tight and holds the lure at this depth.
5. Look for weed beds and other forms of cover.
Weed beds, flooded timber and laydowns are usually the types of cover sought by bass and bluegill anglers, but these places can also harbor walleyes.
You can try to swim your lure over the top of such areas in hopes of luring a walleye from its hiding place, or you can probe the cover deeply with the lure, which will put the bait right in front of the fish’s face.
If you want to work a lure through dense cover, you’ll need to make sure you use weedless lures or that you hide the tip of the lure in the bait to prevent snags. Braided line is also a good idea when fishing these areas, thanks to its superior abrasion resistance.
6. Fish during low light conditions when the walleye feed.
Walleye may be active at any hour of the day or night, but they are clearly most active during periods of low light.
And while most anglers typically fish during the day, you may want to wait until nightfall (or at least dusk) before heading out on the water, to give you the best chance at landing a few fish.
Alternatively, you may want to try fishing on overcast days, particularly if you are on the leading edge of a stormfront (just be sure to use good judgement and avoid putting yourself in danger), as these days typically cause the walleye to become more active.
Windy days are also extremely productive, as the choppy surface conditions scatter the sunlight, making the water below dimmer.
7. Use slip sinkers to prevent the fish from feeling resistance.
Walleye are notorious for spitting out the lure if they feel the slightest resistance, so it is typically advantageous to use a slip-sinker rigging when fishing along the bottom.
A slip-sinker allows the line to pass right through the middle of the weight, which means that the walleye will not feel very much resistance when taking the lure.
You can tie a swivel to your line between the sinker and the bait if you want to ensure they stay separated, but you’ll want to add a bead to your line to protect the knot from the sinker when doing so.
This will save a lot of wear and tear on your line, which will reduce the chances of the line snapping during a battle with a big fish.
8. Let the fish inhale the lure completely before setting the hook.
Many anglers elicit strikes, yet they have difficulty achieving a solid hook set. This typically occurs because you are not giving the fish enough time to inhale the lure completely before setting the hook.
The best way to overcome this problem is simply through practice – you must pause for just a moment after feeling the initial strike before setting the hook. However, you cannot wait too long, or the fish may determine that there is something wrong with the “food” and spit it back out.
However, you can also help reduce the chances of pulling the lure free prematurely by using a rod with a slower action or by using a monofilament leader, which will provide a little elasticity to your rig.
This will help slow the hookset a bit, and hopefully allow you to land more fish.
Rod, Reel and Line Basics
As with lures, baits and techniques, there are no rules regarding walleye fishing gear. Catching a sack full of walleyes with a cane pole and an old hook is just as satisfying as catching a couple with the latest and greatest high-tech fishing gear.
Nevertheless, most anglers tend to use relatively similar gear, which provides a good starting point for those who have just begun fishing for walleyes.
Most anglers prefer the simplicity of spinning reels when fishing for walleye, as they allow you to concentrate on fishing, rather than messing around with a baitcasting reel all afternoon and trying to untangle birds’ nests.
Additionally, spinning reels are usually better suited for the small lures and baits most walleye anglers use. However, those hunting for big walleyes or using large baits may appreciate having a baitcasting reel with them.
Some anglers may also prefer using baitcasting reels when trolling.
In either case, you’ll want a reel with a moderate retrieval rate, as this will give you the brawn to pull big walleyes up from deep water and it will help prevent you from yanking the bait out of the walleye’s mouth before it can properly inhale the bait.
You’ll obviously have to start by obtaining the right kind of rod for the reel you select:
Use a spinning reel with a spinning rod, or a baitcasting reel with a baitcasting rod. Most walleye anglers find that a rod between 6 and 7.5 feet works best, depending on the technique being used.
For example, those who are casting in the shallows will likely find that the longer rod enables longer casts (which allow you to cover more water), while those who are trolling or vertically jigging may find a shorter rod is easier to control.
In either case, look for a rod with a medium action, as this will help you avoid ripping the hook from the walleye’s mouth, and it will serve as a bit of a shock absorber when a fish hits your lure like a ton of bricks.
Most anglers find a rod with a medium-light to medium power rating to be sufficient for handling the fish, while still being light enough to cast small lures.
However, you can use a lighter power rod if you prefer – just be sure to use a reel with a silky-smooth drag action if you do so.
Line choice is largely a matter of personal preference, although you should take your fishing technique, target fish size and fishing location into account when making your selection.
Generally speaking, most anglers use a monofilament or fluorocarbon line in the 6- to 14-pound-test range for most applications, although you may want to use 16- to 24-pound-test braided line if you are fishing in extremely deep water or near abrasive cover.
In most cases, it is preferable to use the lightest line possible, to make it easy for the fish to inhale the lure. Additionally, because walleyes may spit out the bait upon feeling any resistance, light line will generally result in more hooksets.
It is often helpful to use a lightweight leader to help accomplish this.
If you are planning on trolling for walleyes, you may want to experiment with lead core line, which will help you get your lure down to the depths at which the fish are holding.
Walleye fishing techniques are always changing as anglers develop new and better methods for catching these prized fish. Just keep the biology and habits of these fish in mind when trying to locate them and elicit strikes.
Do you have any walleye fishing tips you’d like to share? We’d love to hear all about them in the comments below. You never know when your secret tricks will help other anglers have a little more fun during a day on the water.