The elusive nature of the walleye has intrigued generations of fishermen. Anyone who has spent much time fishing walleyes knows that they can bite like mad one day, then disappear for the next week for no apparent reason. And when walleyes decide to quit biting, almost nothing can change their minds.
But despite their unpredictable behavior, walleyes rank among the nation's most popular gamefish. Some anglers pursue walleyes for the challenge, others because walleye fillets make prime table fare.
Originally, walleyes were found only in a triangular area extending across Canada and south to Alabama. But as a result of widespread stocking, they are now found in almost every state and province. Few attempts have been made to introduce walleyes outside North America.
Two subspecies of walleyes have been identified in North America: the yellow walleye, Stizostedion vitreum vitreum, and the blue walleye or blue pike, Stizostedion vitreum glaucum. The yellow walleye, commonly referred to simply as walleye, is the only remaining subspecies.
Yellow walleyes usually have an olive-green back, golden sides and a white belly. Distinctive markings include a milky-white tip on the lower lobe of the tail and a black blotch at the rear base of the spiny dorsal fin.
Coloration of walleyes varies greatly in different waters. In waters that are relatively clear, walleyes have the typical golden hue. But in bog-stained or coffee-colored waters, they are noticeably darker and often have yellowish bellies. In extremely turbid waters, walleyes usually have a grayish coloration.
Blue walleyes had a steel-blue back, silvery sides and larger eyes. They were found only in lakes Erie and Ontario. But due to severe water pollution and excessive commercial fishing in the past, they are now thought to be extinct.
In many waters, fishermen mistake the walleye for its close relative, the sauger. But saugers have a distinctly different coloration and do not grow as large. To further complicate matters, walleyes and saugers sometimes hybridize, producing a fish called the saugeye with characteristics intermediate between those of the parents. Except perch and darters, walleyes have no other North American relatives. However, walleyes are closely related to the European zander, or pike-perch. The two look remarkably similar, but walleyes distribute their eggs at random while zanders are nest-builders.
The walleye's common names lead to much confusion among fishermen. In much of Canada, walleyes are called pickerel, jackfish or dorŽ, the French name for the species. In the United States, they are often called walleyed pike. But that term is a misnomer because walleyes belong not to the pike family, but to the perch family.
Walleyes are strong but not spectacular fighters. They do not jump like bass or make sizzling runs like northern pike. Instead, they wage a dogged, head-shaking battle, stubbornly refusing to be pulled from deep water.
The world-record walleye weighed 25 pounds and was caught by Mabry Harper in Old Hickory Lake, Tennessee, on August 2, 1960. Harper caught the huge walleye on a big minnow while fishing for catfish. His tackle included a 6/0 hook and 75-pound-test line.
Several other walleyes exceeding 20 pounds have been caught in southeastern reservoirs, causing biologists to speculate that these waters contain a unique, fast-growing strain.
SAUGERS have several rows of distinct black spots on the dorsal fin. The pectoral fins have a dark spot at the base. The overall coloration is grayish to brownish with dark blotches. There is no black area at the lower rear of the dorsal. The tail may have a thin white band at the bottom. The body is slimmer than that of a walleye.
SAUGEYES usually have a spotted dorsal fin, but the spots are not round like those of a sauger. There may be a small black area at the lower rear of the dorsal. The sides are often tinged with gold and may have faint blotches. The tail resembles that of a sauger, with no prominent white corner on the lower lobe.