An Affair of the Heart
There's no explaining a fascination with walleye. Granted they make A-1 table fare, but the fish usually inhabit deep water where we can't see them, and they are notoriously fickle. Should you hook one, it won't jump, and a walleye's fight, while not exactly dogged, could not be described as spectacular. And yet, without making a splash, so to speak, walleye have captured the hearts of anglers from coast to coast. Missouri, being smack in the middle, has its eye on becoming a walleye destination - a kind of Niagara Falls, where anglers can honeymoon with their beloved.
The best sign for the future of walleye in Missouri may not be in our numerous reservoirs or the strings of rivers that plait the state, but on the wall of the office of Jerry Conley, director of the Conservation Department.
Jerry makes no bones about the walleye being his favorite fish, and he's got an "almost" 14-pounder on his wall to prove it. He claims - the mount suffices as evidence - that he caught the fish from a lake in southern Idaho. He adds - without further proof but with a pretty convincing story - that he and his group caught several more big ones on a windy day, and lost one at the boat that was about the same size.
It only takes one great day to learn to love walleye and, maybe in part because Jerry had his great fishing day, the Conservation Department is now in the thick of "The Walleye Initiative."
That title stumbles a little over the tongue, but you'll learn to like it, because it means that the Conservation Department is working to establish more walleyes in more waters in Missouri. The chances of our having plenty of great walleye days are increasing.
The walleye initiative began in 1998 when, after a great deal of evaluation to pinpoint the Missouri lakes and rivers that would best support the fish, the Conservation Department began stocking walleyes in large numbers. During 1998, they put more than 2.1 million walleye fingerlings (fish about the size of a finger) into Missouri waters.
This initial stocking rate is meant to jump-start the walleye initiative. The actual average of fingerlings stocked from 1998 to 2004 will be more in the neighborhood of 1.2 million. This lower figure still represents about a 50 percent increase from the average number of walleye fingerlings stocked between 1990 and 1996 and a whopping 440 percent increase from the stocking average in the 1980s.
In 1998 and 1999, large numbers of the fingerlings went into Stockton, Lake of the Ozarks, Bull Shoals, Norfork, Smithville, Long Branch, Long View, Mark Twain and Pomme de Terre reservoirs. The St. Francis and Eleven Point rivers also received walleye in 1998.
Fisheries biologists are staggering the stocking schedule both to get the most from the supply of fingerlings they have available and to mimic the natural formation of strong year classes among fish. Strong year classes bulge their way through the population, in the manner of the human Baby Boomers.
The first stockings should start paying off this year and next. Normally it would take at least three years for walleye to reach the former legal length of 18 inches, but a part of the walleye initiative is a lowering of the statewide length limit to 15 inches beginning March 1.
The 18-inch limit will continue to be in force on some waters - Bull Shoals, Long Branch, Norfork and Table Rock lakes and the Current and Eleven Point rivers - but it will be in the form of a special regulation and not the statewide limit. There is no minimum length limit on walleyes taken from the Mississippi River.
In Missouri, young walleye grow to about 8 inches at the end of one year and reach about 15 inches at the end of their second growing season. This means that the huge stockings of 1998 should result in plenty of legal-sized walleye for anglers this year.
I hope to personally benefit from this bonanza. On my last outing to Stockton Lake in August, I caught more than a dozen sub-legal fish for every legal one. This year, with the fish growing larger and the length limit declining to 15 inches, I believe I may do better. And for the next several years, walleye fishing will just get hotter and hotter.
Walleye anglers have developed plenty of tricks to catch fish. Some of their techniques work better on some waters and times of the year than others. Some days none of them will work, but that's part of the allure of the walleye.
My favorite approach, except when the water is frigid, is to use my boat to drag around a spinner rig baited with a nightcrawler. Spinner rigs are composed of a few beads, a blade spinning on a clevis (see sidebar) and a pair of hooks rigged in tandem. You can buy complete rigs, but I make my own at home from 12-pound-test monofilament line and inexpensive components purchased from sporting goods catalogs and hobby shops.
I like to tie the spinner rig on an 18-inch leader, connecting it to the main line with a swivel. To keep the bait near or on the bottom, where walleyes almost always are, thread a 1/4- to 1/2-ounce bullet sinker in front of the swivel.
Instead of using a whole nightcrawler, hook the head of one on the front hook and, after calculating how much the nightcrawler will stretch out, insert the rear hook. Pinch off the rest. Walleyes are notorious nippers, and it's hard to get a hook into them if your nightcrawler has a long, stretched out tail.
Spinner rigs are great search lures when walleyes are scattered along dropoffs or shorelines. Move along a dropoff just fast enough to keep the blade rolling. In calm water, I prefer using the troll motor but, in the wind, my outboard provides better control and doesn't seem to spook the fish.
If the bottom is uncluttered, you can let your lines out 50 feet or more behind the boat. Keep the lines shorter if the bottom is snaggy so you can lift your rigs clear the moment you feel them contact a snag.
Because you have a hook in the tail end of your bait, you can set the hook as soon as you feel a bite. You can also fish minnows or leeches behind spinner rigs, again using a two-hook setup, although it's pretty hard to beat a nightcrawler.
My second best solution for walleye involves trolling crankbaits. I have in my possession a crankbait on which I caught no fewer than 12 walleye in a row - all of them larger than 6 pounds. I'm now afraid to use it for fear of losing it. They don't make the color anymore, and although I've tried to paint other lures to match it, nothing competes with the original.
My best luck recently has been on shad-colored and shad-shaped crankbaits. I troll them as I do the spinner rigs, only faster. They help you search for fish over vast areas of shoreline, flats or dropoffs. I've found that walleye seem to prefer gradual dropoffs to steep-sided ones. You can also cast crankbaits toward windblown shorelines or over underwater points - both prime walleye haunts.
As is the case with the spinner rigs, I troll crankbaits near bottom. I usually expect to find fish somewhere in 10-foot to 22-foot deep water. . Walleye may venture shallower or deeper, but crankbaits and spinner rigs both work best in that range. Cover a variety of depths and let the fish tell you how deep they are that day.
If I find a concentration of walleyes (they usually travel in schools), I like to stop the boat and fish for them by casting and retrieving crankbaits or baited jigs. This same approach works for shore or river anglers.
Other techniques that frequently pay off include jigging heavy, flashy spoons and using a slip bobber to suspend baits just off the bottom. Anglers also catch a lot of fish with just a nightcrawler or minnow on a hook using a split shot or two for weight.
Walleyes, with their reflective eyes, have the reputation of being night feeders, but you can say "fiddlesticks" to that. My absolute best catch came between noon and 1 p.m. on a sunny summer day.
That catch did not make a pattern, however, for my second through fourth best catches came within an hour after dark. I also remember catching a passel of walleyes in the hour before first light three mornings in a row. On one lake just after dawn proved best, but on another lake walleyes started biting between 9 and 10 a.m. When we ice-fished up north, walleyes started pulling bobbers down in the half hour between sunset and full dark.
Besides proving that the fish can and will bite at any time of day, my findings suggest that each successful encounter with walleyes also bites pretty deep into the memory banks. Thanks to the Conservation Department's walleye initiative, your brain may be similarly afflicted.
Tie your own spinner rigs at home while you are watching television or sitting out on your patio. After completing only a few, you will be an expert. For the most savings, buy clevises, blades, beads and hooks in bulk from fishing equipment suppliers.
Start with two hooks (I prefer size 4 hooks - a standard eye hook for the rear and a turned back eye for the front.) To the tag-end of a spool of 12-pound test monofilament line, snell the front hook, leaving at least 6 inches of line below the hook. Tie the second hook with a clinch or Palomar knot so that its eye is about 2 inches below the eye of the front hook. Trim the second knot close.
For instructions on how to tie both knots, consult the Conservation Department booklet, "An Introduction to Fishing," which is available free at nature centers and regional offices or by writing "An Introduction to Fishing," Conservation Department, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City, MO 65102-0180.
Cut the line from the spool about 24 inches up from the hooks and string on about three beads of any color. Popular bead colors include red, chartreuse, orange, white and green, which can be arranged in fetching combinations.
Install the blade on the clevis, which you can then string onto the line. (The scoop in the blade goes toward the hooks.) Add a few more beads and, if you prefer, a second blade and group of beads. Tie a small loop in the cut end to keep everything from sliding off the line.
Loop spinner rigs together loosely and store them in small plastic sandwich bags or wallet-sized picture envelopes, or wrap them around a cardboard or plastic tube.