Walleye grow much faster in southern environs, and many walleye experts predict the next world record walleye will come from south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Photo courtesy of Kentucky Fish and Wildlife.
A long-standing tradition, walleye fishing in the northern tier of states has been the accepted norm among anglers. Historically, millions of tourism dollars have poured into core communities supporting walleye based businesses. The surprise for many anglers is that the traditional line for walleye fishing has slipped southward in the last four decades.
Walleye originally inhabited Canada and the northern part of the U.S. With growing popularity, walleye have been introduced to waters throughout the U.S. Successful stocking programs have been implemented in dozens of large reservoirs with suitable walleye habitat. For many anglers catching their first walleye (most often by accident), the prompted question "What is this?" has brought delightful answers.
Once fishermen have conquered their initial shock and tasted the delectable white flesh of walleye, trying to intentionally catch more "moon-eyes" presents the first of many challenges in the paths of these newborn walleye aficionados.
Understanding the basics of walleye biology and habitat requirements is key to being a consistently successful walleye angler. Walleye feed almost exclusively during low-light periods, at dawn and dusk. Structure, including rocks, timber and the edge of weedbeds, provide favorite hangouts. Here they feed on crayfish and leeches. Baitfish, usually found in deeper water, is also a primary food source.
Walleye require highly oxygenated water and prefer moderately clear water with a moderate pH level. Temperatures from 68-to-73-degrees are perfect, but walleye can tolerate levels from 32-to-86-degress, which has contributed markedly to their survival rates in southern reservoirs.
Crayfish colored crankbaits are good prospecting lures for Walleye.
Walleye are the largest member of the North American perch family. Fondly referred to as "Old Marble-Eyes" by passionate anglers because of its large luminescent eyes that provide excellent vision in low light conditions, walleye are south to stay.
Most walleye anglers harvest fish ranging from one to four pounds. However, the fish are capable of reaching weights in excess of 20 pounds and a length of 40 inches!
Southern fishermen have welcomed walleye to their home territory. Since they grow much faster in southern environs, predictions soon began to hum that the next world record walleye would come from south of the Mason-Dixon Line. While this may sound like heresy to the neophyte northern angler, veteran walleye anglers know that monster walleye, including several new world records, have been caught from southern lakes. Tennessee's Old Hickory Lake produced a world record fish of just over 25 pounds in 1960. The record was later discredited and replaced by a 22-pound 11-ounce fish caught from Greers Ferry Lake in Arkansas in 1982 by Al Nelson. A 21-pound 12-ounce walleye had been caught from Greers Ferry in 1979.
As a matter of fact, the four largest walleye on record came from Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas and Missouri. Fish in the 16 to 19 pound class have been caught in Oregon, Washington, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and West Virginia. Fishermen targeting monster walleye should target waters in these states. For local anglers looking to expand their walleye horizons, learning the basics is a perquisite to consistent success. Northerners on hiatus from their homebound haunts will find that a walleye is a walleye no matter where they swim.
Walleye fishing tactics are highly varied according to season and location. Large reservoirs receive the most fishing pressure. When approaching a new lake, it is wise to talk with individuals at local tackle stores to quickly eliminate unproductive waters.
Once you pinpoint the portion of the lake with the most walleyes, target the ends of main lake points and the tops of large flats. Reservoir walleye are highly mobile. Step one is to locate the schools, which will most often be around structure of some sort. However, if walleye are not found in numbers on traditional structure, check nearby locations.
Big Walleye, like this 12 pound specimen from Missouri, have become more common in Southern waters.
For example, if you catch a few fish on a flat in 18 feet of water, or at 20 feet on a point, move a short distance off the structure and check for fish at the same depth. Walleye relate to weeds throughout their range. Check for fish suspended over massive weedbeds, or just off the weedbeds at the same depth. The depth of the outside edge of the weedbed is the key factor to finding nearby fish.
Finding productive structure is the critical starting point to begin catching walleye. They typically move on and off structure in response to baitfish movements, weather changes and fishing pressure.
If the bite is there, fish the structure you find on your electronics. However, if the fish are not on the traditional structure, use a locator to find suspended fish either above or off to the sides of the structure.
Zigzagging your boat slowly back and forth across the structure is the preferred method to find suspended fish. In deep water, walleye seek out submerged islands, humps and underwater points. Zebra mussels have invaded more and more waterways. Their beds have in turn become a favorite hangout of walleye.
Trolling is the standard method for taking suspended walleye. Your bait stays in the strike zone longer and unproductive areas can be quickly eliminated. Crankbaits and spinner rigs are two of the most popular applications. Throwing a crankbait is a great way to prospect for walleye. They are best, too, when the fish are in an aggressive feeding mode. Spinner rigs require a much slower presentation and work well for methodically fishing a school of walleye once they are located.
Walleye eat a lot of baitfish. Matching the size of available forage pays big dividends. Deep diving Shad Raps, Storm Thunder Sticks, Lucky Craft Pointer Minnows and Wiggle Warts are favored crankbaits. Bass Pro Shops XPS Lazer Eye crankbaits are seeing a lot of action, too. Adding a length of nightcrawler to the trebles on these baits often gives walleye exactly what they want.
Dark, crawdad patterns work well in deep water. Chartreuse should be used in the deepest, dark water and the lighter colors and metallics work best in clear water situations. Trolling a variety of crankbaits together allows you to prospect various depths until fish are located. Then it is simply a matter of modifying your rigs to reach the depth at which you find most of the fish.
Walleye feed on practically every species of minnow in North America. Finding out the primary minnow species in your part of the world will help catch walleye. Walleye take advantage of seasonal peaks of their forage and you should, too. In the Great Lakes, prey will include gizzard shad, alewives, shiners, perch and smelt. In Midwestern and Southern lakes, walleye often feed on bluegill, crappie and bullheads. With the increased popularity of swimbaits, varieties to match your local hatch are available and they work.
What walleye are feeding on will determine where they go. Studying the lifecycle of forage base fish and insects of the waters you fish may provide the secret to finding fish. However, two facts to keep in mind always are: 1) walleye cruise weed edges and sometimes suspend near structure to feed on schools of baitfish in deeper water; 2) during low light periods, walleye move into shallow water where they feed heavily. Dawn, dusk and after dark are the peak of walleye feeding periods. They utilize their name-sake eyes to take advantage of forage fish that cannot see so well in low light.
Regardless of what method you prefer to catch walleye, the constant challenge is to outsmart the 'eyes. If you are passionate about hooking a record book walleye or just filling the skillet with fine filets, start fishing the most likely spot -- down South. For that down home touch, toss in some hominy grits and mint juleps!