“You Should’ve Been Here Yesterday!”
No angler wants to hear these words, but they are especially stinging to the ears of a walleye seeker. Always on the move, walleye rarely linger long and could be said to be a fish without a PO box. Even if they stay in one location, walleye are known for being picky, refusing to hit a lure that worked great just the day before.
Because of these habits, walleye can be challenging fish to catch. However, the pleasure of the chase and the delicious reward of a walleye dinner are enough to keep many anglers on the trail.
Improve your angling odds by understanding the annual patterns of Missouri reservoir walleye and learning some new techniques.
Native to Missouri
Walleye are native to portions of Missouri and many river populations sustain themselves with natural reproduction. However, walleye in our large and small reservoirs, and some streams, do not reproduce enough to meet desired catch and harvest levels. The Missouri Department of Conservation stocks fingerling walleye into these waters.
Each year, Department staff at Lost Valley and Chesapeake hatcheries raise and stock more than 1.2 million walleye into Missouri lakes and streams to meet angler demand and desired harvest levels. Lakes that receive walleye stockings include Bilby, Bull Shoals, Jacomo, Lake of the Ozarks, Longview, Long Branch, Mozingo, Norfork, Pomme de Terre, Smithville, Stockton, Table Rock, and Truman. These reservoirs offer a wide variety of walleye fishing opportunities in balance with other sport fish species. Some lakes, such as Stockton Lake, are harvest-oriented walleye fisheries, with a minimum length limit of 15 inches. Other lakes, such as Bull Shoals, are more trophy-oriented fisheries and have an 18-inch length limit.
The secret to fishing is to fish where the fish are. Finding walleye is not an easy task, but there are some seasonal patterns that can be counted on year after year.
In late winter, walleye are found in their traditional pre-spawn locations. Hot spots during this time are deep pools near spawning shoals in tributary rivers and streams. Walleye also congregate in main lake areas along rocky shorelines and points, as they prepare to spawn on these rocky substrates.
The timing of the spawn can vary greatly on any particular body of water from year to year. In addition to length of day, the timing of the walleye spawn is heavily influenced by water temperature and water flow. Spawning activity of males is typically initiated as water temperatures approach 50 degrees, but figuring out when females will move to the spawning shoals is difficult. Spawning typically begins in the first part of March with Missouri’s southernmost walleye populations and can continue through the middle of April in northern Missouri.
After the spawn, walleye are hungry and on the prowl. At this time, anglers catch walleye in a variety of habitats and at different depths. In reservoirs, this timing often coincides with the crappie and black bass spawning periods. Thus, a lot of walleye are caught by crappie and bass anglers as walleye cruise the shallows in search of food. During this time it is important to remember “find the bait, find the prey.” Walleye in Missouri impoundments prefer to eat shad and sunfishes. Locating these fish can be key to finding walleye in the spring and summer.
As water temperatures warm and summer patterns set in, walleye move to deep water in search of cooler temperatures. In reservoirs, knowing the location of the thermocline is a major key to finding schools of walleye in the summer. The thermocline is the layer of the water column where oxygen levels plummet to a level that cannot support fish. Walleye are a cool-water species, and they tend to hug the thermocline to stay in the coolest water that still has adequate levels of oxygen. Focusing on locations where the thermocline transects underwater humps, depressions, timber, and other structures often yields the best walleye catches in the summer. Walleye are a cool-weather species, so as water temperatures rise in the summer, they will move to deep water in search of cooler temperatures.
When fall arrives and water temperatures start to cool, the thermocline breaks up and walleye once again can be found in a variety of habitats. In late fall, walleye are again caught in shallow habitats and in tributary arms, following schools of shad. With the coming of winter, walleye tend to follow two major patterns. In mainlake areas, walleye can be found below large schools of shad in deep-water areas. In tributary habitats, walleye move back into large-pool habitats.
Points, Wind, and Light
In addition to these seasonal patterns, there are a few key factors that veteran walleye anglers keep in mind. These are points, wind, and light.
Walleye anglers know that point habitats are favorite ambush points for walleye. They also know that the side of the lake receiving a strong wind is the place to be because wind action concentrates phytoplankton, which attracts shad. Finally, walleye anglers know that low-light conditions are often the time when walleye are the most aggressive and feeding. Walleye get their name from their large eyes, which allow for exceptional vision in low-light conditions. Equipped with the advantage of low-light supremacy, walleye often move shallower to feed during the late evening, night, and early morning hours. Walleye also tend to move shallower on cloudy days.
Fishing a point on the windy side of the lake, in low light conditions, is a good way to start the day.
Baits and Presentations
Fishing technology and innovations are changing every day, offering new tools for anglers. However, the four most common types of walleye baits used in Missouri are crankbaits, bottom-bouncers, jigs, and spoons. Color choices can be classified into two types: natural and loud. It is a good idea to have both options in your tackle box. Natural colors mimic baits that walleye are actually eating on your body of water. Loud colors are bright colors, such as chartreuse or pink, that are used to get a reaction bite. The best bait choices on a particular fishing trip depend upon the time of year and the type of habitat you are fishing. Let’s look at some times to use these four types of baits throughout the year.
During the pre-spawn and spawning period, walleye are sluggish due to low water temperatures and lower metabolism rates. To trigger strikes, slower presentations are key. Jigs and/or worms on the bottom and suspending jerk baits are pre-spawn favorites. This is the time for bank anglers to shine, as walleye stack into tributary streams and along the lake’s rocky shores. While walleye have other things on their mind during the spawn, it can be a great time for beginning walleye anglers to get into a lot of fish.
Post-spawn walleye are found in a variety of habitats and water depths, meaning that there is a wide variety of bait options that can be successful during this period. Crankbaits, bottom bouncers, and jigs are all effective.
Trolling crankbaits enables an angler to cover a lot of water and locate walleye quicker. Trolling speeds can vary from 1.5 to 3 mph, with the lower end better for feeding walleye and the upper end for triggering “reaction” strikes.
Bottom bouncers are probably the most popular bait of Missouri walleye anglers. They trigger more strikes due to the use of live baits such as night crawlers, minnows, or leeches. A bottom bouncer is a large weight that keeps the bait at or near the bottom of the lake. Attached to the bouncer is a line and lure, which is trolled at a speed slower than 1 mph. A quick Internet search will result in dozens of methods and baits used with bottom bouncing setups.
Fishing a jig head tipped with a crawler, minnow, or soft plastic is a great option when fishing a location known to hold walleye.
Summer offers some of the most consistent fishing patterns for walleye angling, especially in daytime hours. As mentioned before, location of the thermocline is key.
During summer in particular, when you catch a walleye, continue to fish the same depth and habitat type to find more walleye. Trolling deep water for suspended walleye is a favorite of veteran walleye anglers in the summer. This type of trolling takes a lot of experience to perfect. Getting the right speed and equipment setup to put your crankbait into the narrow depth range that suspended walleye are using is critical. The biggest factors that deter-mine lure depth are type of crankbait, type of line, and length of line unspooled. Tools such as line counting reels, metered line, lead-core line, and crankbait diving charts can be found with a simple Internet search. Fishing with spoons can be really effective in the summer, once suspended walleye are located. With this method, you simply lower your spoon vertically below the boat, rip the bait upward, and let it fall back through the suspended fish. The falling spoon looks like a dying baitfish falling through the water column. Perhaps the best place to use spoons is in or near standing timber where crankbaits and jigs would become snagged. As in the spring, bottom bouncers and jigs tipped with live bait are hard to beat when wall-eye are found near the bottom of the lake.
When walleye move shallow in the fall, a favored method is casting shallow crankbaits. Just remember to keep your trolling motor run-ning and to not stay in one location too long. Walleye are on the move, and you should be, too. Fishing in the fall can be some of the most action-packed angling, as other species such as black bass and white bass are also shallow and feeding aggressively. As always, try mainlake and secondary points, but also be on the lookout for congregating baitfish in tributary streams.
With the onset of winter, walleye feeding behavior slows, but they can still be caught with specialized tactics. Walleye will often be very deep. Vertical fishing with spoons, jigs, and other heavy lures below schools of shad in the main lake can be effective. This technique is similar to summertime spoon fishing. Let the bait fall to a desired depth, jerk it upward, and let it fall downward through the fish.
If you don’t enjoy cold weather, winter is also a good time to clean out your freezer. Use up tasty walleye fillets in preparation for the new year’s walleye spawn and the start of the new season.
Where’s the Walleye?
With walleye, nothing stays the same for long. However, using the patterns and presentations discussed here, you will have a better chance of success the next time you’re on their trail. By also keeping a fishing journal, you will be able to track the times and conditions when you were able to locate walleye. These observations will help you quickly and effectively locate walleye in the future.
To learn more about walleye fishing and fishing prospects for your area, visit our Walleye Fishing Web page at mdc.mo.gov/node/5769.