How to Catch Walleye
Fishing expert Macy Wingate tells you everything you need to know about walleye fishing, including where to go, when to go, and what gear to use.
As a kid, my dad would wake me up at the crack of dawn to go walleye fishing. I would hurry up, get dressed, grab my life vest, fishing pole, and tackle box. Then I would make the cold trek out to the boat that was always anchored in about 1.5ft of water and about 50yds from shore. Once we made it out to our spot on the lake, I would tie up my rig, add a nightcrawler I caught the night before, and watch as the bottom bouncer made its way to the bottom.
As we would troll along every little rock the bottom bouncer tapped made my heart skip a beat. Then when one of those taps starts pulling away, I would set the hook, and know it was game on! I would hold my breath until I knew for sure my dad had landed the fish in the net. Seeing the golden yellow and olive green scales flopping around in the boat would set off fireworks in my belly! Ever since I was a kid, I made it my goal to try and master the art of walleye fishing. In this article, I will tell you everything I know about walleye fishing including where to go, when to go, and what gear to use.
Where to Go
Walleye’s native habitat encompasses almost all of the midwest, a few northwest states like Montana, and several northeast states like northern New York and New Hampshire. They also are native to a good portion of Canada. They have been introduced to some southern states as well.
Walleye anglers can find walleye in lakes, rivers, and reservoirs. The best way to find out if a specific body of water contains them is to visit that state's department of natural resources website. They will often have fishing reports and topography maps as well. Many inland lakes and reservoirs with no rivers connected are stocked with walleye, and you can usually find the amount they stock on the DNR website as well.
Rivers are great places to target walleye during their breeding time, known as the spawn. I personally only have experience fishing the spawn on the Maumee River in Ohio, which usually starts in March and ends in early April. Typically the younger males will make their way upriver first, then the older males and females arrive around the same time. If you happen to know where any deep pockets are near shallow rapids, that is the place to go. Shallow rapids give the fish less area to move, compared to deep wide areas of the river. The spawn is not the only time you can catch walleye in a river, but it is certainly the best. There are oftentimes residential walleye that do not go back to the lake.
Lakes are the best places to target walleye. They like rocky bottoms compared to smooth sandy bottoms. They also prefer drop-offs and little pockets that are deeper than the surrounding area. They do like it deeper in the summer because the water temperature is colder. I do not recommend fishing water deeper than 30ft, because their swim bladders will expand into their mouth when you reel them in. This is not good if the fish you catch is not a keeper, because they will not be able to swim and it will pretty much kill them.
If you are able to find a topographic map of the lake, I would look for bays first and then areas where the lines are close together which means there are a lot of depth changes. At night you might be able to find them near deeper weed beds where they go to feed.
Reservoirs can be great places to find some nice stocked walleye. I would try to look for similar features to those used while fishing in a lake. Usually, reservoirs have rocky bottoms, so look out for any holes or places with a good drop-off. Beware, reservoirs do not always allow boats with motors, so using a small rowboat, kayak, or fishing from shore are safer bets.
When to Go
I have a theory that people who go fishing get to see the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets ever. This is especially true when you get hooked on walleye fishing. From my experience, no matter where I am fishing for walleye or what tactic I am using, early morning and just before dusk are the prime times to go. That does not mean you will never catch a walleye in the middle of the afternoon, but the bite certainly seems to diminish.
Walleye are known to feed all through the night as well. As long as you have the proper lighting on your boat or kayak, you could stay out as late as you want. During the late fall on bigger lakes, like Lake Erie, the walleye will come close to shore to feed off the shad. This typically happens at night too, at which point, you can go to piers and look down using a headlamp and see tons of shad.
The time of day is not the only factor that affects when to go walleye fishing. I have also noticed that mainly when fishing larger bodies of water like Lake Erie, it can be bad fishing when the water is more turbulent and muddy looking. This seems to be true for bodies of water that are not normally muddy. If you are fishing in a river, for example, the Maumee River in Ohio, it may usually be turbulent and therefore have a muddied look most of the time. For larger lakes, it seems to be after big storms that the water really gets stirred up, the clarity almost non-existent, and the bite just turns off like a light. Not every body of water is crystal clear, but as long as you have some decent clarity and the water has a nice blue hue, you should be golden.
Walleye are their largest in the winter and early spring. They will feed in the fall to bulk up for winter. That means fishing through the ice can be very productive for walleye with big bellies. Walleyes are usually at their smallest from the late spring/early summer after the spawn until fall.
What Gear to Use
Selecting what gear to use can be fun, but also frustrating. Walleye can be very selective when it comes to lures and bait. Something as simple as changing your lure color from chartreuse to pink can be a complete game-changer. Knowing what to use and when to use it is key to a successful fishing trip. The main tactics for walleye fishing are trolling, casting, jigging, and ice fishing.
Trolling can be leisurely to some and boring to others. For trolling, you simply hold on to your rod or place it in a rod holder and slowly cruise around where you think the walleye are. This is the method I grew up using and had a lot of success. When trolling there are two main types of lure/bait to use. You can use live bait or artificial. For live bait, you connect a bottom bouncer sinker to your mainline and then connect a leader to the bottom bouncer. I typically use a one-ounce bottom bouncer. Attached to the leader is usually a crawler harness or floating jig with a nightcrawler or leech. Typically the crawler harness provides some flash too. The most common artificial trolling lure is a deep-diving crankbait made for trolling.
Casting is just as it sounds, you cast and reel in your lure/bait over and over. For this method, deep-diving crankbaits are a good choice, as well as jerkbaits and spoons. When it comes to fishing the spawn in the river; however, the best method is a trolling rig that you actually cast and let the current take downstream. This set-up is called a Carolina rig. It is when you tie a weight with eyelets to your mainline on one end, and a leader to the other. You can also use a slip sinker and move it to wherever you think you will have a long enough leader. Attached to the leader is a floating jig and usually a soft plastic like a twister-tail grub. Cast out and you should be able to feel your weight bounce across the bottom. Once it gets far enough downstream that you can not feel the bottom anymore, reel it in.
Another method of walleye fishing is jigging. Jigging is when you have a weighted jig tied on, usually tipped with live bait like nightcrawlers or minnows, and you jig it up and down vertically. Jigging is best when you have a good honey hole dialed in and know exactly where the fish are. The type of jigs I like to use are bucktail jigs that literally have fur from a deer attached to the jig and are usually dyed in different colors like purple, chartreuse, orange, etc.
The last method for walleye fishing is ice fishing. Ice fishing consists of drilling a hole in the ice with an auger and either jigging or using a tip-up to catch the fish. Vertical jigging through the ice is exactly like vertical jigging anywhere else, except you will most likely use different lures, such as minnow baits with a plastic piece on the back folded over the rear hook that moves the bait in a figure-eight motion when you jig.
Tip-ups on the other hand are rectangular pieces that go across the hole and have a spool of fishing line and a flag attached. You tie on a treble hook with live bait, such as minnows or creek chubs, and send it down to the desired depth. When a fish is on and pulls on the line, the flag pops up signaling a fish.
When it comes to color selection, I have found that darker colors like purple or black work best when the water has decent clarity and the sun is out. For more overcast days or muddy waters, I like to use brighter-color lures like chartreuse or bright orange. If a certain color does not seem to be working, I highly recommend making a switch. Sometimes good fishing reports will mention what color lures are working well.
Night fishing usually means color is not as big of a factor, but vibration or action of the lure is. Using spoons/spinners that make a lot of movement can trigger big bites in comparison to just trolling with a floating jig.
When it comes to what rod to use, it depends on what method of fishing you are doing. For trolling you definitely want medium-heavy power and a medium rod tip action. You also want it to be longer than you would a casting or jigging setup. For jigging, you want a shorter rod with medium power and fast action so you can really give the jig some good movement and feel even the lightest bites. For casting, I would use a rod that is 7-8ft in length, medium power, and fast action.
Reels come in two main styles: spinning and casting (also known as baitcasters). I use large casting reels for my trolling rod. I also use smaller baitcasters for some of my casting rods. I use a spinning reel for my casting rod that I use in the river during the spawn. I also use a spinning reel for my jigging setup. I use these reels for these methods, simply because the way they retrieve helps fight the fish.
As for what line to use on the reels, I like to use fluorocarbon on my trolling and jigging reels, and braid on my casting reels. Braid is great when you want abrasion resistance, for example, a rocky river bottom. I also like to use monofilament for my leaders. I really like the sensitivity of the fluorocarbon compared to mono for my mainline.
If you have any questions about catching walleye or anything else about fishing, you can always reach out to a Fishing expert here on Curated for free, personalized advice.