A walleye over 10 pounds ranks among the greatest prizes in freshwater fishing. Catching a walleye that size is a difficult and often frustrating task, even for an accomplished angler.
Few bodies of water contain large numbers of big walleyes. In a moderately fished lake, for instance, the combination of natural mortality and angling catch reduces the number of fish of a given age by about 50 percent each year. Thus, if a population contained 1000 age-one walleyes, 500 would remain at age two, 250 at age three, and only 2 at age ten.
Adding to the challenge is the fact that big walleyes are much warier than small ones. Their exceedingly cautious nature explains why they live so long. If a big walleye sees or hears anything unusual, it stops feeding and heads for deeper water. Trophy hunters know that the poorest time to catch a big walleye is on the weekend when the lake is overrun with water skiers and pleasure boaters.
If you fish long enough, you may catch a trophy walleye using the same strategy you would employ for average-sized walleyes. But you can greatly boost your odds by selecting waters likely to produce big fish, carefully choosing your fishing times, and using techniques suited to trophy walleyes.
SELECTING THE WATER. One of the best-kept secrets in fishing is the location of a spot that produces trophy walleyes. It is highly unlikely that a fisherman who specializes in big walleyes will tell you where he catches his fish.
Many types of water are capable of producing big walleyes. You may find your trophy in a deep oligotrophic lake or in a shallow eutrophic lake infested with rough fish. In general, rivers are poorer choices than natural lakes or reservoirs because the fish grow more slowly. But large rivers impounded by dams produce some of the finest trophy-walleye fishing to be found anywhere.
In recent years, much has been written about trophy-walleye fishing in the Southeast. Reservoirs in this area produce some giant walleyes because of the fast growth rate. But walleyes in the North are more abundant and have a much longer life span. Even though the top-end weights are not quite as high, northern waters produce many more walleyes of 10 pounds or more.
If you want to catch a big walleye, but do not know where to go, base your choice on the following:
Water area - All other factors being equal, a large body of water is more likely to support big walleyes than a small one. A 500-acre natural lake may hold a few 10-pound walleyes, but on a per-acre basis, a 5000-acre lake would hold a lot more.
Size of walleye population - Waters that produce lots of small walleyes generally yield few trophies. Competition for food and living space makes it more difficult for the fish to grow to a large size. Strange as it may sound, your chances of boating a big walleye are often better in a body of water not known for good walleye fishing.
Waters where walleyes are plentiful usually attract large numbers of anglers. Heavy fishing pressure reduces the average size of the walleyes and cuts your odds of boating a trophy.
Usable forage - A body of water may be full of forage fish, but if they are not of a size acceptable to walleyes, they do not contribute to the trophy potential. In fact, a large population of unusable forage is detrimental. The productivity of any body of water is limited, so the larger the population of oversized forage, the smaller the crop of usable forage.
For example, many lakes in the North contain large populations of ciscoes. But in most cases, the cisco crop consists mainly of fish over 10 inches in length, too big for the vast majority of walleyes. These lakes produce few trophies. A few northern lakes, however, have populations of dwarf ciscoes, a strain that never grows longer than 7 inches. These lakes have much greater potential for big walleyes.
WHEN TO CATCH TROPHY WALLEYES.
Anglers catch by far the most trophy walleyes during the following three periods: just before spawning; in early summer, when the big females have completely recuperated from spawning; and in late fall, when the fish are feeding heavily in preparation for winter.
During the pre-spawn period, large numbers of big females crowd into a relatively small area. Although they are not feeding heavily, you may be able to catch a fish or two because of the sheer numbers present. Good fishing lasts until spawning begins.
About two weeks after spawning, the big females start to bite again, but they are still scattered and can be very difficult to find. You may catch an occasional large walleye, but seldom more than one. Your chances of finding a concentration of big walleyes are much better after they have settled into their typical summer locations. The best fishing begins about five to six weeks after spawning and generally lasts two to three weeks.
Late-fall fishing is extremely unpredictable, but if you can find the walleyes, a high percentage of them will be big. The preponderance of large walleyes in late fall can be explained by the fact that most of them are females. To nourish their developing eggs, females must consume more food than males, up to six times more according to some feeding studies.
In waters that stratify, the depths are warmer than the shallows once the fall turnover is completed. Big walleyes may swim into shallow water for short feeding sprees, but at other times may be found as deep as 50 feet. Although difficult to find, they form tight schools, so you may be able to catch several from the same area.
TECHNIQUES FOR TROPHY WALLEYES. Catching a walleye over 10 pounds is a once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment for most anglers. But some fishermen catch several that size each year. If you spend a lot of time fishing waters known for trophy walleyes, but seldom land a big one, you are probably making one or more of the following mistakes:
- You may be fishing at the wrong depth. In most waters, big walleyes feed in the shallows during low-light periods, especially in spring and fall. But at most other times, they prefer relatively deep water, deeper than the areas where you typically find smaller walleyes.
Often, big walleyes use the same structure as the smaller ones, but hang 10 to 15 feet deeper. This behavior can be attributed to a walleye's increasing sensitivity to light as it grows older. In addition, bigger walleyes prefer cooler water, and they can usually find it by moving deeper.
In deep northern lakes, however, the shallow water stays cool enough for big walleyes through the summer. If the walleyes can find boulders or other shallow-water cover to provide shade, they may spend the summer at depths of 10 feet or less. In these lakes, most anglers fish too deep.
- You may be using baits and lures too small to interest trophy walleyes. If you have ever cleaned a big walleye, you were probably surprised to find one or more 6- to 8-inch baitfish in its stomach. Yet few walleye anglers would consider tying on a bait this large. Instead, they use smaller baits and, not surprisingly, catch smaller walleyes.
Big baits draw far fewer strikes than small ones, and most anglers are not willing to fish all day for one or two opportunities. But if you are intent on catching a trophy, that is the price you must pay.
- You may be fishing at the wrong time of day. If the water is very clear, or if there is a great deal of boat traffic, big walleyes will feed almost exclusively at night.
- Your presentation may be too sloppy. Many fishermen assume that they need big hooks and heavy leaders to catch trophy walleyes, but the reverse is actually true. Big walleyes are extremely cautious. They are much more likely to take a bait attached to a size-6 hook and a 6-pound-test leader than one attached to a 1/0 hook and 15-pound leader. In clear water, some trophy specialists use a 4-pound leader.
A small hook allows a walleye to swallow the bait without feeling anything unusual. And a small hook will not break or pull out. Most big walleyes are hooked under snag-free conditions, so if you take your time and do not attempt to horse the fish, light line will do the job.
Another common mistake is making too much noise. Unless the fish are in water deeper than 20 feet, you should not troll over them with your outboard motor. Avoid dropping anything in the boat and do not attempt to anchor on top of the fish. Set your anchor at a distance and let the wind drift your boat into position.
Tips on Night Fishing for Trophy Walleyes
SCOUT likely walleye structure during midday, when fishing is slow. Anchor a large white jug on the edge of a shallow reef or shoal likely to hold walleyes at night. Remember the position of the jug so that you can find the exact spot after dark.
LOCATE the jug with a spotlight, but avoid shining the beam into the water because it may spook the fish. When you spot the jug, shut off your outboard. Let the breeze push you into position or move in with an electric motor. Anchor upwind of the spot you want to fish.
Other Tips for Trophy Walleyes
SELECT a jig with a hook larger than normal when tipping with big minnows. A smaller one will hook fewer fish because too little of the hook is exposed.
CHECK your line frequently, especially when fishing for trophy walleyes. You may get only a few bites each day, so you do not want to lose a fish because of a frayed line.
USE minnow plugs up to 8 inches long. Big lures work better than small lures; a big walleye can save energy by eating one large baitfish instead of several smaller ones.