There's a reason why four states claim the walleye as their state fish. Not only do walleye give anglers exciting, fast-paced action, they're one of the best tasting fish you can hoist out of freshwater outside of Northern Pike.
Found in lakes, reservoirs, and rivers throughout the U.S. and Canada, walleye are a very accessible fish, perfect for brand new anglers and seasoned pros alike.
If you're ready to learn how to catch walleye, this article covers everything you need to know to get started chasing this fun-to-catch, delicious fish. They can be found all over the continental United States, but catching them requires patience, skill and tact. Let's jump in.
Meet the Walleye
Walleye are native to Canada and much of the Northern United States, especially Minnesota, but have been introduced in waters from coast to coast, as far south as Arkansas. Walleye can be caught year-round by boat or from shore, and in the north, are a prime target for ice fisherman in the winter.
As the largest member of the perch family, walleye commonly grow up to 30 inches long and can weigh over 10 pounds. Male walleye reach maximum weights of approximately 6 pounds, whereas female walleye can grow well beyond the 10-pound mark.
Walleye have an olive to dark green back, brown-tinted yellow sides, and white bellies. They have a long but stout body, a tall, spiny dorsal fin, and a large mouth with sharp teeth.
Walleye get their name from their large, glassy, blind-looking, "wall-eyes." Their eyes have a reflective layer within the retina that helps them see in low light conditions. As predators, walleye use their excellent vision to their advantage, doing most of their hunting at dusk, dawn, and throughout the night.
Bait fish like minnows and the fry of other species are the primary food source of Walleye. In addition to bait fish, walleye feed on leeches, nightcrawlers, and really just about anything swimming that will fit in their mouth.
Where to Find Walleye
Walleye are a cool-water fish, favoring water slightly warmer than what a trout might prefer, but not as warm as the waters where bass and panfish thrive. Lakes and large rivers with cool, clean water, and a sandy or gravel bottom are ideal habitats for walleye.
Deep Water During the Day
During the day, walleye spend most of their time in deep water, from depths of 15 to well over 30-feet. Depending on the season and conditions, walleye either stay close to the bottom in deep water or move higher up in the water column to feed on schools of baitfish.
SHALLOW WATER AT DUSK AND DAWN
Late in the evening and early in the morning, walleye often move into the shallows to feed, eating their fill of baitfish before retreating to deeper water. You'll find them cruising along the shore near weed lines, rocky points, and other structure as they use their excellent eyesight to hunt.
OVERCAST DAYS AND CHOPPY WATER
There are two conditions where you’ll often find walleye feeding throughout the day: overcast days and choppy water. Since dark, cloudy days and choppy water, dubbed “walleye chop” by anglers, both limit the amount of light that can penetrate the water, these conditions give walleye the advantage over prey with lesser eyesight.
Walleye Fishing Gear
Before you set out on your next Walleye fishing trip, you are going to want to make sure you have the proper gear setup. Outfitting yourself correctly comes with multiple challenges. You'll want to make sure you have the right fishing rod, reel, fishing line, lures and bait.
To help you avoid any missteps, we've outlined what we feel are practical options for all your walleye fishing equipment needs in the breakdown below.
1. Choosing a Rod for Walleye Fishing
Even though walleye can get pretty big, they are notorious for having a very delicate bite.
They are also known to spit out a lure within a few seconds once they realize it's fake.
To maximize your success in detecting a bite and hooking a walleye, you need a rod that’s highly sensitive, but stiff enough to help you make a quick, solid hook set.
You also need a rod that’s powerful enough to help you get larger fish to the boat but isn't too much of a pain to carry with you on longer fishing trips.
Rods for Jigging and Lure Fishing:
Fast to extra fast action rods in the 5 1/2 to 6-foot range with medium-light to medium power are ideal for techniques like vertical jigging and other types of lure fishing for walleye. The shorter length reduces the distance between the rod tip and your hands, which helps you feel bites sooner. Shorter rods also weigh less than longer rods, which can reduce fatigue during long days of jigging and casting.
When you're jigging in very deep water, the stiffer, fast action rod helps you impart lively action to your jig and helps you set the hook quickly and powerfully.
Rods for Live Bait Rigging:
Moderate to fast action rods in the 6 1/2 to 7 1/2 foot range with light to medium power are best suited for live bait rigging applications. They can also pull double duty for many cast and retrieve techniques.
The lighter power gives you a more sensitive rod overall which helps you detect subtle bites, and the longer length gives you more leverage to make a solid hook set. With more flexible, moderate action, the rod acts as a shock absorber, giving the fish more time to eat the bait before detecting the tension of the line, thus increasing your chances of a hookup.
Rods for Trolling:
Most walleye anglers who do a lot of trolling prefer medium to medium-heavy rods with moderate action in the 7 1/2 to 10-foot range. Since trolling rods are likely to get banged up in the boat, fiberglass is often used because, while it isn't as sensitive as graphite, it's more durable.
Using a longer rod for trolling keeps your line away from the boat and reduces the risk of getting tangled up in the propellers. Since the act of trolling bait and lures puts continuous stress on a rod, a rod with a more flexible, moderate action serves as a better shock absorber.
2. Reels for Walleye
Similar to when fishing for white or black crappie, spinning reels are perhaps the most versatile, durable, and easy to use of all the reels used for walleye fishing. For jigging, lure fishing, and live bait rigging, a good quality spinning reel such as the Pflueger Purist in the 1325X or 1330X size will cover most scenarios and last for many seasons.
If you plan on doing a lot of trolling, you'll want to look for a reel with a higher line capacity and a faster retrieve speed. Many trolling walleye anglers gravitate towards the traditional round baitcasting style reels such as the Shimano Tekota 300LC.
The Tekota has all the line capacity you'll need, and even has a built-in line counter so you know exactly how much line to let out to get your lures and bait to the right depth.
Young anglers and novice casters may want to consider using a spincast reel when first starting out. The simple thumb-button casting of a spincast reel makes it easy to focus on catching fish instead of worrying about tangling up the line.
The Zebco Omega ZO3PRO spincast reel is tough enough to handle larger walleye, but still offers the easy-to-use functionality of a classic spincast reel.
3. Line Selection for Walleye
Standard monofilament line in the 8-12 lb test range works well for most walleye fishing methods. Many walleye anglers, however, have found that braid and superlines offer a few distinct benefits over monofilament.
Braid and superlines in the 8-12 pound test range have a significantly smaller diameter than monofilament of the same strength. This allows you to load more line on your reel and also helps you cast greater distances. Braided line has little or no stretch, which helps animate a jig or lure when fishing deep, and helps make a quick, solid hook set.
For heavier duty fishing applications like trolling with lots of weight or dive boards, you may want to use a higher strength line, up to 20-pound test, but you don't want to go too high. Since most of your walleye fishing will be done on or near the bottom, it's inevitable that you'll get snagged every once in awhile.
If your line is too strong it can be difficult to break free, in which case you'd have to cut your line, which can get expensive over time. Save the thicker lines for carp fishing and just roll with the punches.
4. Lures for Walleye
While live bait has been the go-to method used to catch walleye for ages, artificial jigs and lures have become more and more popular among anglers of all skill levels. Here are some of the most popular and effective lures to catch walleye.
Jigs are very versatile and can be fished in the standard vertical jigging manner, or can be used as part of a trolling rig. Some anglers like to add small pieces of bait, either minnows or nightcrawlers, to their jigs to entice even more bites.
Jig Heads for Walleye:
For walleye, the best jig head sizes to use range from 1/16 ounce to 1 ounce. The Northland Fireball jig heads are designed with walleye anglers in mind and are a great place to start if you're not sure what to buy. They have an extra eyelet to attach a stinger hook and have a shorter shank that works well with standard jig bodies, and can be used with live bait as well.
Jig Bodies for Walleye:
Curly tail grubs, like the Yamamoto Single Tail Grub, come in a wide range of sizes used to target different species, but for walleye, you'll want them in the 3 to 5-inch range. When balanced on the right size jig head hook, curly tail grubs wiggle and pulsate when pulled through the water, imitating the action of a live minnow.
For an even more realistic imitation of a minnow or other bait fish, you can use one of the many swimbaits available, like the PowerBait Ripple Shad. When rigged on a jig head and pulled through the water, their paddle-like tails wag and vibrate creating an action that walleye can't resist.
Just like bass, spoons often catch walleye when nothing else will. There are two main types of spoons used to catch walleye: jigging spoons and flutter spoons. Jigging spoons are usually fished by vertical jigging and imitate an injured or dying minnow falling to the bottom.
Flutter spoons can be fished either cast and retrieve or as part of a trolling rig, acting more as attractors than any specific imitation.
Jigging spoons are narrow, heavy, and designed to get to the bottom quickly. Spoons weighing between 1/2 ounce and 1 ounce are ideal for walleye, with 3/4 ounce being a good all-around size for many conditions.
There are many different styles of spoons to choose from and all provide different action, but The Cotton Cordell C.C. jigging spoon is a time-tested classic that every walleye angler should have in their tackle box.
Flutter spoons, like the Michigan Stinger Scorpion Spoon, have wider, thinner blades that take longer to sink but provide a more fast-paced wobble and flash. Since they weigh less, flutter spoons often need additional weight added when casting or trolling.
Crankbaits are hard bodied lures with a lip that causes them to dive down when pulled through the water. Most crankbaits are shaped like a baitfish, and the shad style crankbaits are most effective on walleye.
The best crankbaits, like the Berkley Flicker Shad, have a rattle inside that makes a noise, making the crankbait even more attractive walleye. Crankbaits can be fished by casting or by trolling, and are great when you need to cover lots of water to find fish.
5. bait for Walleye
For those times when you try every lure in your tackle box yet nothing seems to work, live bait will rarely let you down.
The best bait to catch walleye is often what they feed on naturally, and different baits work better than others depending on the season and conditions.
For most walleye anglers, minnows are the live bait of choice. You can use minnows year-round, but they are typically most productive in the spring and fall when the water is colder.
In many regions, shiners are the most widely available type of minnow and are sold at most bait shops. Creek chubs, shad, and red tails also make good live bait for walleye. If you have a cast net, you can catch your own bait, but if not, head to your local bait shop and they should have what you need.
You can use minnows anywhere from 2 inches up to 8 inches long. Smaller minnows will likely land you good eating size walleyes, whereas the larger minnows will help you hook into some real trophies.
Ribbon leeches and tiger leeches are found in abundance in many lakes and rivers and make excellent bait for walleye. Leeches are very hardy creatures and fished most effectively in water with temperatures in the 60s and 70s.
Bait shops often carry both varieties of leeches or whatever happens to be the preferred variety for the area in a range of sizes, anywhere from 2 to 8 inches long.
Nightcrawlers can be used in nearly all conditions, but are favored for fishing in warmer waters. Since nightcrawlers are so versatile (and cost effective), it's always a good idea to have a few packs on hand for a day of walleye fishing.
Walleye Fishing Tactics
Walleye are a very approachable fish. From the simple act of jigging, to elaborate and sometimes complicated trolling rigs, walleye have something to offer all anglers, regardless of skill level. Here are a few rigs and techniques to help you get started. Before we jump into our tips, let's take a look at a great video from Tim Galati Outdoors:
Jigging is a very versatile technique that can be used in nearly all water depths, conditions, and seasons. Jigging can be done with soft plastics, spoons, and with live bait, but regardless of what's at the end of your line, the basic rig and technique is essentially the same.
How to Set up a Jig Rig:
Setting up a jig rig couldn't be easier: simply tie on your jigging spoon or jig head to your main line and you're ready to fish. Some anglers like to attach a swivel and leader material to their line before tying on a spoon or jig, but for most applications tying onto your main line is best. If using a jig head, thread on a soft plastic jig body or live bait onto the hook.
Use lighter spoons and jigs when fishing in shallower, calmer water, and heavier spoons and jigs when fishing deeper, or in heavy currents. Ideally, you want just enough weight to get your lure down, but not too much to limit its movement and action.
How to Fish Jigs:
Most jigging for walleye is done vertically, directly below your boat. There isn't really any casting involved when jigging; you simply open the bail on your spinning reel and let your jig or spoon drop into the water until it reaches the bottom.
Once you feel your jig hit the bottom, close the bail on your spinning reel and reel in any slack until your line is tight. Walleye have a very subtle bite and can strike at any moment, so as soon as your jig hits the bottom be prepared to set the hook.
With your jig on the bottom, gently raise your rod tip between 1 and 3 feet then drop it back down. This movement will lift your jig off the bottom and animate it in the water, hopefully getting the attention of a nearby walleye. Continue this action with brief pauses in between.
When you feel a bite, set the hook with a quick, firm raise of the rod tip. If your hook connects, reel in your prize. If you don't get a bite, move to a different location or try a different lure.
2. Cast and Retrieve
At dusk and dawn when walleye move into the shallows to feed, cast and retrieve fishing with crankbaits and other lures like jig heads with shad imitations, can be very effective.
How to Set up a Cast and Retrieve Rig:
To rig up for cast and retrieve fishing, simply tie on a lure to your main line and cast away. For any given fishing situation, there are usually a handful of lures that will prove effective. As you fish, switch out lures until you find the one that gets a walleye’s attention.
Size, color, and action in the water are your primary considerations when choosing a lure for cast and retrieve fishing. The best advice is to try and "match the hatch" by using a lure that represents or imitates the forage of your local walleye. Start with natural colors like silvers, grays, and whites when using crankbaits or shad imitations, but there are times when you'll need a brighter, flashier, more attractor-based lure to get a walleye's attention.
How Fish Cast and Retrieve:
Cast and retrieve fishing is usually best done near the shoreline at dusk and dawn when walleye move into the shallows to feed. Structures like rock piles, jetties, vegetation, sunken logs, stumps, and flooded timber are great places to find walleye feeding on baitfish in the shallows.
When you find a good area with adequate structure, simply cast your lure near the structure and start your retrieve. Most of the time walleye will be near the bottom, so you'll need to give your lure time to sink to get into the strike zone. There's no one right way to retrieve a lure; the challenge is to experiment with your retrieve pattern until you get a strike.
In large lakes, reservoirs, and rivers, trolling is one of the most effective ways to cover lots of water and find fish. In essence, trolling involves hanging lures and bait out the back of the boat as you slowly motor along. In the world of walleye fishing, there are many different trolling rigs to use, from the simplest to the most elaborate and complex.
Before we get into trolling rigs, check out this huge walleye that was reeled in by a fisherman at Josh Outdoors on Youtube.
The Bottom Bouncer and Spinner Trolling Rig:
This trolling technique involves a special weight called a "bottom bouncer" with a spinner blade and crawler harness trailing behind. The spinner blades create flash and vibration that draws walleye in, and the addition of live bait like nightcrawlers or minnows gives off a scent that gets the walleye to bite.
Setting Up a Bouncer and Spinner Rig:
The basic bottom bouncer rig and spinner rig consists of:
If you plan on building your own rigs from scratch, you'll need hooks. Most anglers prefer octopus style hooks for this application. Size 2 or 4 is perfect. Gamakatsu makes some of the best.
You can either buy all the components separately and build your own rigs, or you can buy pre-made spinner and crawler harness rigs that are ready to tie on and fish.
How to set up the bottom bouncer and spinner rig with a pre-made spinner rig and crawler harness:
How to build a bottom bouncer and spinner rig from scratch:
Fishing the Bottom Bouncer and Spinner Trolling Rig:
The key to fishing this rig is dialing in the right boat speed. Ideally, you want to troll at speeds of 1 to 2 mph.
With your boat at the appropriate speed, make a short cast with your rig, or simply drop it in the water and let out line. You want your line to extend into the water at roughly a 45-degree angle.
You can either place your rod into a rod holder or hold the rod in your hands as you troll. While holding the rod you should feel the bottom bouncer making contact with the bottom. When you see a bend in your rod, it's time to set the hook and reel in your walleye!
How to Find and Catch Walleye in Every Season
As with most fish species, walleye behave differently throughout the year. Each season brings unique fishing opportunities and challenges, and it's your job as an angler to adapt accordingly to catch your limit.
It's worth noting that geography can also play a part in locating the best walleye fishing areas. Sticking to the northern states in the winter comes with problems (weather) but you can still fish for plenty of Walleye, even in adverse conditions.
1. Fishing for walleye in the Spring
In the springtime, water temperatures begin to rise, and walleye begin to spawn. The spawn brings walleye into sandy-bottomed shallows close to shore where they make nests and lay their eggs. During this time, the fish get very aggressive, striking at nearly anything that comes near their nests.
Cast and retrieve fishing with crankbaits or shad imitation lures can be very productive when walleye are in the shallows. Dusk and dawn are hot times to catch larger female walleye, as they will often leave their nest to cruise the shallows and feed. Cast your lure near structure where you would expect baitfish to hold, slowly retrieve, and get ready to set the hook!
Trolling near shore with crankbaits can also be very effective, especially if you're not sure exactly where the fish are located. Try to find sand bars or weeded areas with sandy bottoms to slowly troll over. If you get a few bites in a certain area, consider stopping the boat to do some cast and retrieve fishing.
2. Fishing for Walleye in the summer
As spring transitions into summer, the water warms and walleye head to deeper water. Vertical jigging in deep water can be very effective. White curly tail grub jigs or basic silver jigging spoons are good lures to use in the summer.
As summer progresses, the fish will head into the deepest parts of a lake or reservoir and a good fish finder really comes in handy. When searching for fish in the summer, trolling techniques that use deep-diving crankbaits, heavy bottom bouncers, or planer and diver boards are often your best bet. When you do find a pod of walleye, stop trolling and switch over to vertical jigging with spoons, curly tail grubs, or live bait.
Although the biggest walleye spend the bulk of their time in deep water in the summer, they still often move into the shallows at night to feed on bait fish. Night fishing with crankbaits in the shallows can be very productive in the summer, but it's helpful to be familiar with an area before trying to navigate at night.
3. Fishing for Walleye in the Fall
Most walleye anglers consider fall to one of the toughest seasons to catch walleye consistently. The key to successful fall walleye fishing is being versatile and willing to experiment with different locations, techniques, and lures until you find fish that are willing to bite.
As walleye transition from their deep water summer dwellings into their fall and winter locations, their feeding activity often slows down. Regardless of your fishing methods, try slowing down. Use less weight on your jigs to get them to fall slower and have a more relaxed jigging action; use smaller crankbaits with a slower retrieve; ramp down your trolling motor a few clicks. And if slowing down doesn't work, try speeding up! You never really know how walleye will act in the fall, so be prepared to try everything and get creative!
4. Fishing for walleye in the Winter
In the majority of walleye fisheries in the north, winter fishing for walleye generally means ice fishing with a hand or power auger by your side. In southern states where the lakes and reservoirs don't ice over, many of the same principles of fall walleye fishing apply to winter. The fishing is generally much slower and identifying patterns become more challenging. Try to fish with an open mind, be willing to experiment, and when you do hook into that winter walleye, celebrate!
Three Insider Tips to Hook and Land More Walleye
Fishing for walleye can be a very rewarding pursuit, especially when dinner time rolls around. To you make sure you don't come home empty-handed, here are a few tips to help you hook and land more walleye.