How to catch a walleye

Illustration of a walleye

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A walleye

Minnesota is one of America's premier walleye fishing destinations, and if you haven't tried to catch one of these fish, well, you should. Minnesota's state fish is a good fighter, tastes excellent and is common throughout most of Minnesota. Minnesotans are so proud of their walleye fishing that two communities – Garrison and Baudette – each claim to be the Walleye Capitol of the World.

When to fish

Minnesota's inland walleye fishing season opens in mid-May and closes in mid-February. Check the fishing regulations based on where you want to fish. Some waters have special regulations for walleye.

  • Inland: waters within Minnesota
  • Border: waters that border other states or countries
  • Special: waters that have special or experimental regulations in place that differ from statewide regulations.

Fishing success tends to be highest in May and June. That’s when walleye are most frequently in shallow or semi-shallow locations near shore, thereby making them easier to catch. Walleye move to deeper locations as water temperatures rise throughout summer.

Hours near dawn and dusk are often the best time to fish for walleye. These are traditional feeding times. It’s when meal-seeking walleye will often swim up from deep water onto shallow flats to feed on schools of minnow and small prey. Many anglers look forward to when the sun starts to set because that can be the best fishing of the day.

Where to fish

Where to fish depends on the season. Walleye want to be where prey, water temperature, oxygen levels and other factors best suit their needs, and these factors change by season. In spring, it is common for walleye to be concentrated in near-shore locations – especially big sand flats – where they feed on schools of shiner minnows and other prey. As the season progresses they typically move to deep water further off shore. This time of year they can be found in various types of mid-lake structure such as humps, saddles and along or on top of points that extend from shore. In late summer and early fall walleye will gradually move back to shoreline locations though some will continue to stay in deep water. Fall is a good time to troll with hard plastic baits near shallow or semi-shallow weedlines, gravel bars and points.

Underwater photo of a walleye

A walleye

How to fish

There is no one way to catch walleye. In fact, there are many different ways. Popular techniques include casting a jig-and-minnow, trolling live bait, casting or trolling hard plastic lures and even fishing with a bobber. All work. The smart thing to do is experiment, and when you find a technique you like hone that skill. Briefly, what follows is a little more detail on these techniques.

  • Jig-and-minnow: Many anglers like to fish with jigs early in the fishing season, tipping their jig with a shiner minnow or fathead chub. Basically, you’ll want to fish with a jig that is heavy enough so that you can feel the bottom but not overly heavy. Typically, this means a 1/8-ounce, 3/8-ounce or 1/4 –ounce jig. Try a variety of dark and bright colors. Typically, one color will perform better than others so experiment with color. Ball-style jigs work best for vertical jigging.
  • A slip-sinker rig: A slip-sinker rig – sometimes called a Lindy rig – is a common mid-summer fishing technique that puts a minnow, night crawler or leech in front of a walleye at the bottom of the lake. When a fish bites – and often it is a very light bite or tap, tap, tap – you allow line to come freely off your reel for several seconds, slowly reel-in until you feel tension and then set the hook.
  • Hard plastic baits: Trolling or casting small hard plastic baits that look like perch and other small prey fish are popular in autumn when walleye return to the shallows and are fairly spread out. Trolling is an efficient way to cover large areas in short time. Still, trolling speeds should be slow - in the one mile per hour range - or just fast enough to get the lure’s action to work.
  • Bobber fishing: Effective year-round, hovering a leech, night crawler or minnow just above a rocky reef, hump or other form is structure is another good and easy way to fish. This is best accomplished with a slip bobber, which allows you to cast even when the bait’s depth is set to 20 feet or more.
Gear

A medium action spinning rod and reel loaded with six- to 10-pound pound test line will work fine. Some anglers prefer monofilament line and other braided line, with some using both in the form of braided line on the reel and near invisible monofilament line tied onto it for a leader.

Other good things to have when walleye fishing include a net, pliers or other tool for removing a hook and a few first aid items as walleyes have sharp teeth.

What’s important to know
  • Jigs are an excellent lure choice. They come in many different styles, hook lengths, weights and colors. In fact, the choices are so broad it can be confusing. When in doubt, consult your local bait shop or retail outlet on popular sizes and types in your areas. The same is true with hard plastic baits. Lures that come in size No. 5 and No. 7 are popular with many walleye anglers.
Basic biology
  • Walleye are a member of the perch family.
  • The walleye is named for its pearlescent eye, which is caused by a reflective layer of pigment called the tapetum luicum that helps them feed at night and in murky water.
  • Adult walleyes eat mostly other fish. In summer they often feed on insects emerging from the lake bottom.
  • Walleyes have a distinctive white spot on the bottom of their tail.
  • The state record walleye weighed 17 pounds, eight ounces.