Instantly identifiable by their toothy jaws, olive gold color and haunting, moon-like eyes, walleye are a favorite game fish wherever they swim.
Walleye are widely distributed across the United States, favoring cool waters where they reach impressive sizes. In many places, the largest specimens reach over 25 inches and 10 pounds.
Walleye are referred to as yellow pike or wall-eyed pike in some parts of the country—both misnomers, as walleye are actually members of the perch family—but call them what you will, these fish are universally prized.
Not only are they hard-fighting, but walleye also are some of the tastiest fish in fresh water.
To some, walleye might seem mysterious, hard to locate and even harder to catch. But these fish actually abide by simple, easy-to-follow patterns which, with the right gear and a little know-how, put them within reach of anyone with a desire to catch them.
How to Catch Walleye
The overwhelming majority of walleyes’ diet consists of smaller fish.
Shad, ciscoes, smelt, yellow perch and a variety of minnows may be on the menu, depending on the available forage in any given body of water.
That natural diet makes minnows and minnow-imitating lures a great choice for walleye fishing, but they’re far from the only options.
Generally speaking, it’s best to hit the water ready to try a wide range of tactics, tackle and techniques. As the old saying goes, one of the biggest mistakes you can make is thinking ahead of time that you know what the fish want.
At times, walleye feed so voraciously that fast, flashy and brightly colored baits can trigger a “reaction strike” out of pure aggression. At other times, walleye become so inactive that you must slow your presentation to a crawl to tempt bites.
One thing to keep in mind, no matter what type of bait or lure you choose, is that walleye are almost always bottom-oriented fish. Keeping your presentation within a few feet of the bottom is usually the best way to find them.
Bait Fishing for Walleye
Live bait fishing is a favorite tactic among many walleye anglers for the simple reason that it works nearly any situation.
The most commonly used live baits for walleye are minnows, nightcrawlers and leeches, although note that using live fish for bait is not legal in some states.
Where allowed, minnows work best during spring and fall, the seasons in which walleye are most active and prone to chase a lively bait.
Most minnows in the 3- to 5-inch range are effective, including shiners, fathead minnows and chubs. Minnows can be jigged, fished beneath a slip bobber, or rigged on a worm harness rig.
Nightcrawlers can tempt walleye any time of year, but most fishermen turn to them in summer, when the walleye bite tends to be a bit slower.
Nightcrawlers are most commonly hooked on a worm harness rig, which typically has one or two hooks, along with series plastic beads and one or two spinning blades for flash and vibration.
Leeches are most popular in the Midwest, where they are fished in a manner similar to nightcrawlers. Most fishermen attach them to a worm harness rig and retrieve them slowly, either on or just above bottom.
Lure Fishing for Walleye
Walleye fishing with lures gives you the ability to fish quickly and cover a lot of water. It’s also an exciting way to fish.
Lures are especially popular during times when walleye are most actively feeding.
Crankbaits, jerkbaits and blade baits are some of the best walleye lures.
Crankbaits are usually minnow-imitating lures with stout bodies. Typically made of plastic or wood, crankbaits have a bill that helps the lure achieve a certain depth, and they’re great for walleye.
Deep-diving crankbaits, which run at a depth of 10 feet or more, are especially effective to reach walleye-holding water. These lures can either be cast or trolled.
Jerkbaits, which are sometimes referred to as stickbaits or plugs, are similar to crankbaits but have a narrower profile.
Jerkbaits work great for walleye in a wide range of situations, and most fishermen find the greatest success by retrieving them at a slow, steady pace.
Jerkbaits measuring 4 to 6 inches are great for walleye.
Blade baits and spoons can often draw strikes from walleye as well. They sink quickly, which makes them effective for deep water fishing.
Blade baits are sometimes tipped with a minnow head or a bit of nightcrawler.
Jig Fishing for Walleye
Jigs are the type of lure most often used to catch walleye, and most anglers would agree that they are the most effective.
At its most basic, a jig is simply a hook with a weighted head molded onto it. Many different jig body styles may be attached to it.
Hair jigs are an old standby for walleye in many parts of the country, but they’re also considered a little old fashioned by some. Soft plastic jigs are more modern and more widely used, and many would call them the ultimate walleye bait.
You can find soft plastic jigs in an array of styles and a broad spectrum of colors.
Straight-tail jigs, paddle-tail jigs and shad-style jigs are all effective, but the curly-tail (also known as twister-tail) jig is arguably the favorite.
A 1/4-ounce jighead with a 4-inch curly-tail jig can catch walleye in just about any situation. That being said, it’s always a good idea to have several sizes and styles handy so you can change tactics depending on what the fish seem to want.
Brightly colored jigs (white, chartreuse, hot pink) tend to be most effective, but darker black, brown and neutral-colored jigs can be better in low-light conditions.
Sometimes you can tempt more walleye by “sweetening” your jig with a piece of nightcrawler on the hook.
You can cast and retrieve jigs slowly and steadily, or you can add some jerks and twitches to your retrieve. One of the most productive tactics is to let the jig bump off the bottom as you bring it in.
Trolling for Walleye
Trolling is a style of fishing that involves pulling one or more baits or lures behind your boat. It is most often seen as a method of finding fish, because it allows you to cover a lot of water in a short period of time, and with minimal effort.
Almost any of the aforementioned baits and lures can be useful for trolling.
The key to success often lies in adding just the right amount of weight to your line to keep your offering at a depth near the bottom.
Trolling live bait on a worm harness rig is tried-and-true method that seems to work for walleye anywhere in the country.
A variation in this rig, sometimes called a bottom walker rig, includes a weighted wire arm that bounces on the bottom, keeping your bait slightly elevated to avoid some snags while keeping the bait near the walleye.
As a general rule, you’ll want to use slightly heavier tackle for walleye than you would for bass fishing.
A medium-weight 6-foot, 6-inch spinning rod is a versatile choice that will work well for most walleye fishing techniques. Look for a fast-action rod (which is to say, a rod that only bends in its top third, or less).
The best type of fishing line for walleye depends on the situation you’re in, but 8-pound monofilament line will work in most cases. You could go with slightly heavier line if you’re fishing in very rocky areas that cause abrasion to your line.
If you’re using live bait, hook sizes 4, 6 and 8 will work nicely, depending on the size of your bait.
Slip sinkers work well for most walleye rigs, and it’s best to have a variety of sinkers handy weighing 1/8 to 1/2 ounce.
Although not entirely necessary, many fishermen prefer to use a strong wire leader at the end of their line.
The wire protects the line from abrasive rocks, and makes it harder for walleye to cut the line with their sharp teeth.
The downside is that it makes the line more visible, which might make finicky walleye shy away from biting.
Ice Fishing for Walleye
Walleye fishing through the ice is a favorite winter pastime in colder parts of the country where walleye are common.
Areas where deep and shallow water access are available in close proximity can be a great place to find winter walleye.
Many ice fishermen begin by fishing along a drop-off or steeply sloping point and then drilling multiple holes in the ice at varying depths to locate fish.
A variety of baits and lures can be effective for ice fishing for walleye.
As a general rule, fish are less active at this time of year, and slow and subtle presentations work best.
Try silver jigs and jigging spoons in clear water, or more brightly colored lures if the water is stained.
A small minnow on a jig head is a common bait choice when the bite is slow. Many ice fishermen will also add a minnow head or bit of nightcrawler to the hook of a jigging spoon.
If fish seem to be more active, you can lift and drop your jig more aggressively. But more often in winter, it’s a slow, subtle motion (or none at all) that works best.
Where to Catch Walleye
Walleye are native to Canada and a significant portion of the northern United States.
The Great Lakes and their tributaries are at the core of the walleye’s native range, which also extends throughout the Ohio, Missouri and upper Mississippi River basins.
But walleye have also been introduced far and wide, and now inhabit lakes, rivers and reservoirs well beyond their native territory.
You can catch walleye as far south as Texas and as far west as Washington and Oregon, where they have come to thrive in the Columbia River system.
But no matter where in North America you may be, the types of waters walleye prefer to inhabit, and the tactics you can use to catch them, are strikingly similar.
Walleye Fishing in Lakes and Reservoirs
Large lakes are where walleye really thrive.
These are not fish that do well in farm ponds and backwaters. They need deep, cool, preferably clear water with varying habitats and a wide range of potential forage.
This is why the Great Lakes and the large natural lakes that are common in places like Minnesota are perfect for walleye.
But man-made impoundments often provide conditions similar to the best natural walleye lakes, and these fish have come to thrive in large reservoirs.
These man-made bodies of water offer many of the things that help walleye prosper: rocky habitat, cool water, abundant forage and great variations of depth, usually with steep drop-offs.
The challenge of fishing a large lake—especially an unfamiliar lake—is that there is such a great abundance of potential walleye habitat available. That can make finding fish be difficult.
The need to locate the walleye is why trolling is often the best way to start. Trolling along a drop-off with crankbaits, worm harnesses or bottom-bouncer rigs is a great way to cover a lot of water quickly to find fish.
Once you’ve located a school, you can explore that specific area more thoroughly by casting jigs and crankbaits.
Another great tactic for catching walleye in lakes and reservoirs is to cast along rocky banks and the edges of weed beds with live bait, jigs or crankbaits during low-light hours when walleye feed most actively in shallower water.
Walleye Fishing in Rivers
Walleye thrive in rivers too, especially large, slow-moving rivers. From the St. Lawrence River in the East to the Columbia River in the west, major rivers with deep water and lots of rocky structure offer prime walleye habitat.
In most rivers, walleye inhabit deep pools or holes. Just how deep is considered “deep” depends on the river; in some smaller waterways the deepest available water is no more than 8 or 10 feet.
Deep pools with a current break, such as a bridge piling, large boulder or downed tree can be especially productive. Walleye use these structures as shelter from the current, and often position themselves directly downstream from a break.
Of course, walleye move into shallow water to hunt in rivers just as they do in lakes, and generally do so during the low-light hours. Rocky riverbanks, gravel bars and flats can be productive around dawn and dusk.
Some of the best places to find walleye in rivers are the tailrace areas directly below dams and spillways.
Tailrace areas can be especially productive in spring, when the outflow from dams often is high, and fish make their way upstream to a point just below the discharge.
(Editor’s note: Read about a veteran guide’s favorite ways to catch walleye in the Columbia River.)
When to Catch Walleye
Timing is everything when it comes to walleye fishing.
Not only do walleye follow seasonal patterns that govern their movements and behavior, but they are also heavily influenced by the time of day. An understanding of both is important when you’re planning your next walleye fishing trip.
Best Time of Day
Walleye have some of the most light-sensitive eyes in the freshwater fish kingdom, and as a result they can see in the dark better than just about any other game fish.
A lot of experienced walleye anglers swear that the best time to catch them is in the dead of night.
Generally speaking, the best walleye fishing takes place during low-light periods when neither completely light nor fully dark.
The evening hours when the sun is on its way down is a great time to be on the water, and the time from midnight to sunup can be equally productive.
Without a doubt, the worst time to catch walleye is during a bright, sunny afternoon.
It’s not impossible, but walleye seek out deep water and shade to avoid the harsh sunlight, and they tend not to feed actively during these conditions, so you’ll have to adapt your fishing locations and tactics accordingly.
All fish move in predictable patterns that are governed by the changing of the seasons. But walleye movements may be even more closely tied in with calendar changes than those of other freshwater game fish.
With a basic understanding of how seasonal changes affect walleye patterns, finding fish is often easier than one might expect. Of course, as we all know, finding and catching are two different things!
Spring is what you might call the “busy season” for walleye fishing.
As waters begin to warm up in late winter and early spring, walleye essentially have two things on their mind: eat and reproduce.
Walleye head toward shallow water in early spring to accomplish both goals, and in most lakes walleye are among the first fish to do so.
During the pre-spawn period walleye hole up on deep areas adjacent to spawning sites. Once the water has warmed sufficiently—walleye typically spawn at around 45 to 48 degrees—they head into the shallows.
Walleye make their way up rivers and tributaries to spawn if available; if not, shallow rock beds and gravelly reefs will suffice.
Once spawning is over, walleye head back toward deeper haunts, often spent of energy and feeding voraciously to make up for the effort of spawning.
In many lakes and reservoirs, the end of the walleye spawn coincides with the beginning of the yellow perch spawn, and walleye often feed heavily on perch at this time.
By late spring, most walleye settle into a predictable pattern of feeding heavily in emerging weed beds, rocky reefs and other shallow to mid-depth structures.
Walleye typically spend the sunny parts of the day in nearby deep waters, emerging at dusk to head toward shallow feeding grounds, where they may stay through the night.
As summer wears on, walleye typically slow down and feed less actively, but they still generally follow the same late spring/early summer patterns.
Walleye will still bite in summer, but typically are willing to expend less energy to get a meal. Slow, natural presentations tend to work best.
Rocky ledges and drop-offs leading to deep water are often the best places to catch summer walleye. The deeper edge of a weed bed, rock pile or reef is another place where you may find fish.
Walleye often hold just off bottom in these areas, waiting to ambush prey.
As with most fish species, fall is a season of change and transition for walleye.
These fish become more active during this season, almost as if they sense the coming winter and are desperate to stock up on food.
Several things happen that work to walleyes’ advantage in fall.
Summer weed beds begin to die off, leaving prey fish exposed. Also, the days get shorter and the water begins to get cooler, which increases the number of hours each day during which walleye can comfortably hunt in shallow water.
Walleye are more active during daylight hours in fall than in any other season.
Of course, these changes can work to savvy anglers’ advantage too.
The deeper edges of weed beds, reefs, rock piles, humps and transitional areas between deep water haunts and shallow hunting grounds offer prime fishing in fall.
Life slows down to a slow crawl for walleye in winter.
But contrary to common misconception, these fish are anything but inactive. Walleye still need to eat; they simply aren’t willing to expend much energy to capture a meal.
In early winter—around the time the first safe ice forms—walleye typically hold in deep water, but not far from drop-offs and other major structural elements.
Walleye often suspend off the deep end of a drop-off or rocky point, and they will choose a location where they can position themselves below a school of forage fish if possible.
As in most seasons, deep water areas with easy access to shallow water continue to be important.
By late winter, walleye will begin to move toward staging areas near spring spawning grounds, and they often do so before the ice has fully melted.
After ice-out, areas near rocky shorelines, gravel bars and tributaries become important.
And then begins the whole cycle all over again!