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Fishing for Walleye
By John Pitlo, Jr., Fisheries Research Biologist, Iowa DNR

The next time you catch a walleye, or for that matter its first cousin a sauger, take a moment to carefully examine its eyes. Not only are these features the origin of its common name and a prominent part of their appearance, but their unique physiology permits this fish to adapt into an ecological niche that is occupied by few other species. Walleye are perfectly adapted for capturing prey in very low light, or even in total darkness. At the same time in most clear waters that they occupy, they forage most effectively at dawn and dusk when the prey fishes have limited vision but remain active. For this reason, walleye are termed low light condition feeders, and fishing success is traditionally best during these periods. Some of the most avid walleye fishermen never fish during daytime, finding catch success best in semi- or total darkness.

Walleye fishing, like that for many of the predatory game fish species, can be separated into four distinct calendar periods: spring, summer, fall and winter. Fish location and movement is one of the paramount factors in each of these seasons principally because the fish are found in different habitats within each period. The intent of this article is to discuss the location of fish in these calender periods and to give the reader some hints on techniques that will improve their walleye catch.

Spring Fishing

As the ice cover melts from the lakes and rivers and the water warms in spring, walleye begin to move out of deep water winter habitats. Reproduction is the main motivation, and the fish migrate toward traditional spawning grounds. Movement can be over a short distance in small lakes and reservoirs, or it can be a lengthy ordeal in rivers like the Mississippi. Very good walleye fishing can be found in most waters during the pre-spawn period as fish congregate near spawning sites or below barrier structures that halt their movement.

Walleye spawn when the water temperature ranges from 42 degrees to 54 degrees F. Fishing is invariably poor during this period. The best you can hope for is some male fish that frequent the actual spawning sites. This is usually near rip-rap armoring, along the face of a dam or channel structure, shoreline revetments, natural stone reefs, gravel bars, rubble piles, and on occasion over flooded aquatic vegetation.

After spawning is completed, walleye disperse from the breeding grounds. Some of the males remain at the spawning site, probably anticipating late ripening of females. Fishing in the post-spawn is difficult because of this dispersal and the fact that there is physiological recuperation from the rigors of spawning. This resting period lasts from one to three weeks and feeding intensity is low.

Spring Angling Techniques

Very light weight monofilament line -- some walleye fishermen use 2-pound test line -- a slow retrieve, and natural baits are key factors in catching walleye at this time. Sensitive rods made of modern material like graphite are helpful in detecting light strikes. In large rivers, back-trolling using a Wolf River or three-way rig is most effective. On some days walleye seem to prefer a plain, standard shank hook and minnow, while on others the addition of two or three red or chartreuse beads forward of the hook works better. When the fish are active and suspended off the bottom, a floating jig or soft, plastic yarn floater is more effective. Regardless of what bait is used, the three-way rig should be fished in a "yo-yo" action, alternately lifting the rod tip, hesitating, then lowering the bait -- always letting it touch the bottom. Always set the hook as quickly as a strike is felt, and do not allow slack in the line.

Sometimes walleye have a habit of striking short, and the minnow or lure will show slash marks on the body. Rigging of a "stinger" hook will often mean the difference in fishing success. This rigging is accomplished by attaching a No. 10 or 12 treble hook to a main, single shank hook with a short length of 10 pound-test monofilament.

Another method for fishing large-river walleye in the spring is to slowly drift in a boat with the current through deep fish holding reaches. Light-colored leadheads in fluorescent shades, dressed with a small minnow or night crawler, or a jigging type sonar or sonic lure are very effective on light tackle. Drop the lure right to the bottom and then raise it one or two feet allowing it to return to the bottom. Vary the height of the jig and the intervals of upward motion.

Most large interior streams, including the Des Moines, Iowa, Cedar, Raccoon, Little Sioux, and Wapsipinicon have walleye populations, and fishing for them is usually at its peak in spring. Part of the pre-spawn activity is movement upstream until the pathway is blocked by a lowhead dam or similar barrier. Here the fish congregate in the tailwaters, especially in small eddies and backwaters, and in the current breaks of the overflow. Leadhead and minnow combinations work well for walleye when they are cast cross-current and retrieved slowly with a pumping action by alternately raising and lowering the rod tip. Where the water is deep, in the pools, back trolling or casting with a spinner and minnow bait or a slip-sinker rig are also productive.

Spring fishing in lakes, both natural and man-made, call for essentially the same methods to locate and catch walleye. Fish are usually concentrated near structures, invariably over shallow shoals such as rock reefs, prominent land points, and the armored face along a dam. The most effective fishing method is slowly back trolling using a slip-sinker and minnow combination. This rig will allow a walleye to take the bait and move off without feeling the extra weight of the sinker. Several different ways are used to construct a slip-sinker rig. The slip-sinker is very versatile and can be used in other calender periods as well with only minor modifications and different bait.

Slip-sinker rigs are properly fished in the following manner. Strip out enough line so the sinker touches the bottom. With a very slow back and forth movement, lift the sinker from the bottom, then let it settle back down. With spinning gear, have the bail in an open position and hold the line with the fingertip. The strike is usually light -- only a short twitch in the line. When the strike occurs, allow the line to feed off the reel until it stops, count to 5 or 10, close the bail, and when the line tightens -- set the hook. The count may have to be varied to adjust to lighter or more aggressive strikes, but the success should be the same.

At times during the spring period, walleye move into very shallow depths, especially after darkness. In clear water a simple way to locate fish is to shine a bright light into water. Light reflecting in their eyes will give away their position, but it also spooks the fish, so don't overdo it. The best way to catch these fish is by long-line trolling a crank-bait or minnow plug type lure 150 feet or more behind the boat. Quietly wading in the shallows and casting a leadhead, minnow plug or crank-bait is also productive.

Summer Fishing

Some of the finest walleye and sauger fishing takes place in late spring and early summer, once spawning is completed and the fish begin to search for food. Forage fish are not abundant in this period and all predators are moving extensively, a phenomenon which makes it much easier to find the more aggressive fish. Fishing patterns for walleye are not well defined in early summer. Some fish are caught in deep water by still- or drift-fishing, while others are caught in the shallow waters with fast retrieved crank-baits. Later in the summer more definite activity patterns develop that favor the traditional dawn and dusk walleye feeding movements.

In lakes and reservoirs, early summer walleye movement is mostly at random and rather haphazard, often involving most reaches of an entire lake, reservoir or stream. As aquatic vegetation emerges and forms suitable protective cover, where these predators can lay in ambush, the fish associate closely with these natural structures. Movement is reduced, and the fish quickly establish smaller and more predictable activity centers. They inhabit these reaches throughout the summer and on into early autumn. Foraging is more attuned to low light periods, especially at dawn and dusk. A most favorite fishing technique in this situation is to present the bait through the heavy cover. At these times fishing with minnow-dressed leadheads or other live bait is most productive.

Many Iowa reservoirs do not develop vegetative cover because of fluctuating water levels, but in summer walleye still associate closely with underwater structures in the form of land points near drop-offs, stone rip-rap on a dam face, sunken islands, and flooded creek channels. Also, windswept underwater gravel bars and reefs or hard clay bottoms are good for walleye in summer. The basic fishing method does not differ from other waters, and most of those discussed work effectively.

In large rivers, like the Mississippi or Missouri, walleye return to the main channel and inhabit rock-protected sites, such as wing dams and channel revetment structures. Timing of this movement depends on water level. If the river discharge remains high, then flooded timber and other terrestrial plants provide additional cover, and the fish often stay in these reaches. Most wing dams and revetments hold walleye, but some are better and easier to fish than others. Look, in particular, for shallow water structures on the outside bend of the channel. Revetments that have moderate slope into deep water are often times productive.

Summer Angling Techniques

Fishing methods for walleye and sauger are more varied in summer than in any other calender period. Back trolling with a slip-sinker rig is the best means of locating fish. Begin your fishing trip by using bait-fish, but always carry a few night crawlers or leeches. Instead of a plain hook rig it is on occasion better to add colored beads or a spinner blade in one of the bright fluorescent colors. Sometimes when the fish are using heavy cover such as weeds, stumps, or boulders, it may be necessary to use a slip-bobber rig, which is most effective when fished with natural bait in snag-infested locations. Specialized jig heads which stand at a 45 degree angle when on the bottom and tipped with a large minnow, can produce fish when others fail.

When walleye are associated with aquatic vegetation, one of the best techniques for night-time fishing is long-lining with a minnow shaped floater-diver plug or a night crawler-leech on a harness. Let out 120 to 150 feet of line and troll the bait just above the weed line so it occasionally touches the plants. After dark cast crank-baits over shallow bars, land points and rock reefs for walleye. This type of casting works as well by wading as it does from a boat.

A popular method for walleye fishing in Iowa reservoirs is speed trolling. Deep diving crank-baits are fished over rock bars and reefs, along flooded river channels and submerged roadways in 8 to 12 feet of water at a constant speed of 3 to 5 mph. Walleye usually strike this lure as it bumps off submerged structures. One word of caution: when speed trolling loosen the reel drag because hooked fish stop the plug suddenly in the water, and if the drag is set too tight, the line will break.

Fishing for walleye in reservoirs using other techniques, such as shoreline wading, can often times be productive in summer, providing you can locate the fish. Best suggestions seem to be night-time fishing near rocky structure, on hard-bottomed land points, and around submerged road beds and islands. Casting with a leadhead tipped with a bait-fish or other natural bait is the most successful method.

Wing dams and dike fields are optimum locations for walleye and sauger fishing in the Great Border Rivers. One of the better methods for fishing these structures is back trolling with a minnow plug type lure or a night crawler on a slip-sinker or three-way rig. Stay about 30 feet above the structure and work along the face and crest of the dam, using just enough weight so the bait touches the rocks. As soon as the sinker touches bottom, lift it with a slow sweep of the rod, and then let it sink again. Continue this sweeping action across the entire length of the structure. Some wing dams are better than others. If no fish are landed after 15 to 20 minutes -- move to another.

Walleye fishing in the interior rivers in summer is consistently best in the deep pools and scour holes immediately downstream from riffles and lowhead dams. Working a slip-sinker rig or a leadhead tipped with a night crawler or plastic lure during low light periods will usually end with fish on the stringer. Start fishing in the head end up the pool and cover it completely, then gradually move to the deepest part of the pool. Present the lure or bait along the bottom while using a pumping action -- alternately raising and lowering the rod tip. Minnows and leeches also work well for walleye, and don't overlook experimenting with a small crawfish for bait.

Early summer fishing is usually best and slowly tapers off until late summer when walleye and sauger fishing becomes more difficult because of an abundance of natural forage. Don't be afraid to experiment with different baits. Change your presentation, and look for alternate locations when you don't catch fish. Walleye are there, but many times they are very selective in their food habits or inactive.

Fall Fishing

Autumn in the life of a walleye is a time of continual change. The water temperature is declining; natural structure such as aquatic vegetation that has provided protective cover all summer, is dying; lakes and reservoirs with thermal stratification in summer are turning over; and forage, that was abundant just a short time before, is now scarce or too large to swallow. Walleye and sauger respond in different ways to these changes, and their response has a direct effect on fishing.

Walleye in lakes and reservoirs that have been utilizing heavy vegetative cover and other natural structures move from the shallows into deeper water, often associating with land points, gravel bars, and rock reefs. Fish that occupied gradual sloping contours with vegetation in warm weather abandon this habitat for sharper breaking structures -- flooded creek channels, sunken islands, and inundated road beds. Fish, that in summer were scattered at random throughout this cover, are now found in loose aggregations moving along heavier structure.

Fall Angling Techniques

Fishing techniques in this period include back trolling with a slip-sinker rig baited with a minnow or casting a leadhead dressed with a minnow. Fish are more difficult to locate because they are concentrated into larger groups. But once that location is found, some fine fishing can result. Another location worth trying is a flowing inlet from an adjacent lake, marsh or embayment. The slight currents invariably attract bait-fish and walleye move in to forage on them. Leadheads tipped with minnows or count-down minnow plug type lures are very productive. Long-lining in low light periods, close to a rocky shoreline, dam-face, or shallow reef with rocky structure with a floating-diving plug can also score in the fall.

Walleye and sauger that have been widely scattered in summer begin an accelerated movement into the lock and dam tailwaters in the Mississippi. Some large walleye remain downstream and move into scour holes along wing dams well into winter, and this is always the best time to catch a trophy fish. Three-way rigs with colored beads and baited with a minnow are the overwhelming favorite of river fishermen. Fish this rig in the same manner as in the spring period. Sometimes drift fishing over deep pool areas in the Mississippi with a twister-tail or minnow-dressed leadhead is also a good method. Presentation should be slower in fall, and make sure the bait or lure is fished just off the bottom. One walleye fishing expert summed up the three best walleye presentations in fall as slow - slower - slowest.

Fishing the interior rivers is best in only one location -- the deepest pool in a river reach that you can find. Walleye congregate in these holes as the water cools. Look for deep pools on outside river bends just off cut-banks where the current has scoured the bed of the stream. If there are rocks, logs or other structure present -- so much the better. A large chub baited slip-sinker rig, leadhead -- preferably dark in color and tipped with a minnow -- or a deep running plug are best for catching walleye in these waters.

Winter Fishing

Nature slows its pace in winter, and walleye become sedentary. Digestive processes have slowed to the lowest point of the year, the fish do not feed as often, thus lengthening the time between foraging activity. Location of the fish changes very little from autumn; they remain in the deepest water. When feeding activity occurs, it is usually in low light period -- dawn and dusk.

Winter Angling Techniques

Fishing methods in the winter period differ little from those in the fall, except in the Great Border Rivers. Lake fishing is the best while fishing with a minnow or chub and by vertical jigging a spoon or similar lure. The gear is simple; ice auger, short rod, ice strainer and bait or lures. Both live bait and jigging lures should be fished within 18 inches of the bottom. With minnows resist the temptation to set the hook immediately when the bobber disappears, for walleye often move a short distance before swallowing the bait. It is always the best idea to use the lightest line and weight and the smallest bobber practical to reduce resistance. Jigging lures should be dropped straight to the bottom and then jerked upward in a quick motion with the wrist allowing the lure to flutter to the bottom. Be alert at all times because most strikes come when the lure is sinking. If fishing is slow, tip the hook with a fish eyeball, a small piece of white belly meat, or a small minnow. Some walleye fishermen prefer tip-ups to the conventional type of fishing gear in winter, especially when fishing is slow.

Fishing for walleye and sauger fish in the Great Border Rivers in winter is nearly identical to fall fishing. Only during extreme cold periods, when the river freezes completely, do many fishermen use conventional through-the-ice fishing methods. Even then the techniques with three-way rigs and jigging with sonars are the most popular methods. Other times anglers simply continue to fish from boats immediately below dams and channel structures in the open water. Fishing methods and equipment are identical with that in the spring and fall, except there is a need for heavier clothing, a bucket of charcoal for warmth, and an occasional stop along the shoreline to walk around and restore circulation -- and perhaps spin a fishing tale or two.


*Mayhew, J. (editor). 1987. Iowa Fish and Fishing. Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Des Moines, Iowa. 323 pp.