The Way to Walleye
Many anglers don’t know anything more about walleyes than that they are good eating. That’s solid information, of course, but it doesn’t help you catch them.
What does help is learning that walleyes are considered a cool-water fish. The species, Stizostedium Vitreum Vitreum, generally prefers cooler water than largemouth bass, but warmer water than trout. When water temperatures are in their preferred range, somewhere just south of 70 degrees, walleye move and eat more, making them more susceptible to anglers. In Missouri, late spring and early fall provide some of the best walleye fishing of the year.
It’s rare to see a walleye unless you are bringing it up on the end of your line. That’s because these slender fish usually hang out in deeper water than many other species. Except during a brief early spring spawn, they seldom frequent the shallows and almost never jump from the water or cruise along the surface.
So that identification is not a problem, you should know that walleye are a longish fish—small ones are often called “cigars.” Their backs and sides are olive green to brown, and they have white bellies. Their large mouths are full of jagged teeth.
Walleyes also have a white spot on the lower part of their tail. The spot helps distinguish them from saugers, a smaller fish in the same genus. Saugers are also typically darker than walleye and their coloration is splotchier. Walleyes grow larger, too. The Missouri record is 21 pounds, 1 ounce. Sauger only rarely exceed 5 pounds.
The dictionary may help you understand how they got their name. The word walleye refers to a condition in which the eye shows more white than normal. At times, walleye will give you a milky white stare, especially if you shine a light on them.
Their eyes, like those of raccoons, deer, cats and other nocturnal animals, have a light gathering layer that helps them see well in dim or dark light. This gives them a vision advantage over much of their prey and is almost certainly the reason walleye fishing is often best in low light conditions, or even during the dark of night.
Sometimes just a darkening is enough. A few clouds blocking the sun or a brisk wind that creates a chop on the water may trigger walleyes to feed. Veteran anglers unanimously recommend fishing shallow water on the side of the lake that receives a strong wind. They speculate that the waves buffeting the shallows disorient small preyfish and muddy the water, offering walleyes a good chance to grab a meal.
Anytime you catch a walleye, note the location and fish the same area hard. Walleye are schooling fish, and where you catch one you’ll often find more. The schools sometimes operate on a strict schedule, too. I’ve caught walleye on certain points at almost exactly the same time for days in a row. Those points were, from my perspective, without walleyes before and after those times.
Whither Goest Thou?
There are numerous paths to becoming “one” with walleyes, but you might well start with a journey to Stockton Lake. After all, if the Conservation Department has spent more than a decade helping the lake rank among the premier walleye waters in country, it seems like the beginning of wisdom to go there.
Like many Missouri walleye waters, Stockton Lake is a reservoir of underwater points that jut out into the arms and main body of the lake. The best points for walleye usually have deep water nearby.
Fish often feed on top of the points or can be found along the edge where they drop off into the depths. Gently sloping drop-offs are usually better than steep drop-offs. A lake map showing bottom contours is invaluable. Look for where the contour lines have some space between them, rather than being tightly bunched. A depth finder is an excellent tool for locating good spots for walleye.
Another good use for a depth finder is to locate baitfish. Some walleyes follow big schools of gizzard shad the way lions shadow wildebeest. Bigger fish—not just walleyes—show up as larger “marks” beneath the herds of shad. Sometimes they’ll be suspended in deep water several feet below the baitfish schools, but they may remain well below them on the bottom, as well.
Old river channels and bluff edges are ideal places to take advantage of the shad/walleye connection. Look especially for places where the shad school extends to within 5-10 feet of the bottom. A hard or rocky bottom, which most depth finders also can identify, is best. A good spot along a bluff is where rocks that have sloughed off the bluff face form a debris pile near the base.
Although it’s the best known, Stockton is far from being the only good walleye lake in the state. You can find good walleye fishing at Pomme de Terre, Bull Shoals, Table Rock, Norfolk and Smithville lakes, as well as at many others, including some lakes not much larger than 100 acres.
Walleye seekers can obtain good guidance by searching the Fishing Prospects Web page (www.MissouriConservation.org/4193) for lakes and rivers that offer walleye fishing. Click on the link to the lake or river you’re interested in, and you’ll also learn some valuable fishing and population information.
How you fish for walleye depends primarily on what areas you are fishing. If you are targeting fish beneath schools of shad, for example, one of the best techniques is to jig for them with heavy spoons.
Jigging spoons trigger walleye into striking. Fish a spoon near the bottom. Rip or lift it up several feet and let it settle back down. When it is released, the spoon erratically darts and slides toward the bottom, resembling a crippled or dying shad dropping out of the school. The walleye usually hit when the lure is falling, which is why you don’t want a completely slack line.
If you’re fishing deeper than 20 feet, you’ll probably need a 3/4-ounce spoon. In shallower water you can get good results with 1/2-ounce spoons. Silver is a good starting color, but gold and lime colors also work well.
This isn’t finesse fishing; use heavy (although flexible) line and a stout rod. If you are fishing jigging spoons correctly and in the right places, you’ll frequently have to pull them out of snags.
You have a multitude of fishing options when fishing points. Many anglers make a “milk run” of these underwater structures. They’ll first cast crankbaits over the top of a point and then troll the same lures along the sides. If they don’t get any action, they’ll move on to the next point.
If you’re less jittery, you can work a point more slowly and thoroughly. Use a troll motor to drag a jig baited with minnow or night crawler along the sides and tip of the point. Fish right below the boat, and be alert because walleyes sometimes just swim along with the jig in its mouth. All you feel is a kind of heaviness that wasn’t there before.
Cast and slowly retrieve the jig across the point to catch fish up on top. An even slower, but not necessarily less productive technique is to anchor atop the point and wait for the fish to find your jigs or baited hooks. Even bobber fishing works on flattish tops of points, as long as the bait is kept fairly close to the bottom.
My favorite technique is to drag spinner rigs along drop-offs. This works best where the drop isn’t sudden, but gradual.
Spinner rigs have a blade and some beads in front of a hook or series of hooks that are usually baited with night crawlers. You can buy manufactured rigs or fascinate yourself by devising your own. The simple ingredients—clevises, blades and beads—are available at most bait shops. You can fish spinner rigs behind a three-way swivel, with a pinch-weight ahead of them on the line or behind bottom bouncers.
Experiment and let the fish tell you how fast to drag them. You wouldn’t think so, but sometimes barely moving a spinner rig, with a slight lift-drop works best; other times you’ve got to speed the rigs along to attract walleye. No matter how fast you go, make sure you keep your rig near bottom.
Go With the Flow
Don’t overlook walleyes in rivers. They may be the most underfished populations of all. Our big rivers—the Missouri and Mississippi—have plenty of wing dams, jetties and riprap, all of which attract walleye. The fish also relate to sand flats, rock ledges and clam beds at different times of the year.
The same trolling and casting techniques used in lakes work well in rivers. The fish are generally shallower than they are in reservoirs, but fishing near bottom is still a must. Look for current breaks, where something interrupts the flow. Seldom will the fish be in the fastest water.
You’ll learn all this and much more on your own as you come closer to your goal of becoming a better walleye angler. The journey requires study, discipline and experimentation. That sounds like work, and it would be if it wasn’t so much fun.