In tiny Valentine, Nebraska, situated on the east edge of the Sand Hills and just a couple of miles from the Niobrara River, is the Peppermill Restaurant.
Every small town in America has its iconic local eating establishment, but the Peppermill is different, not because of the salad bar, the mixed drinks, or the chicken fried steak, but because of its seafood menu.
It’s not really seafood if it’s a freshwater fish, but if you ever eat there, you won’t mind the misnomer. The exception on the menu that you should order is the walleye fillet.
Walleye is the best-eating freshwater fish in North America. Many claim it is the best fish period, saltwater species included.
There is a mania associated with fishing for walleye that competes and possibly goes beyond the craziness associated with fly-fishing for trout and the total insanity that follows the quest for largemouth bass. It even transcends the lunacy often found in English carp fishing fanatics.
Yes, the fish is that good.
Walleye Fishing Lexicon
Walleye are an apex predator of Northern American lakes and ubiquitous a bit farther north in almost every lake, river, and watershed in Canada.
They get their name from the placement of their eyes far back on the side of their head, hence the name walleye (looking at a wall).
They are closely related to the Sauger, and just a few spots on the fins, length, and shape of fins allow the close observer to tell the difference.
Walleye are related to yellow perch but are often misnamed as yellow pickerel, a warmer water species that they are not related to.
Walleyes prefer cold northern lakes. They can be caught throughout the year, in open water, or through the ice.
These highly valued fish can reach almost 25 pounds (ca. 11 kg) in extreme circumstances. Minnesota and Wisconsin are regarded as the best states for walleye fishing, but the record comes from 1960, a long way from the frigid Great Northwest on Old Hickory Reservoir in Tennessee when Marbry Harper landed a 25-pound monster.
While big fish are the goal of a select group of anglers, the majority of walleye fishermen are looking for quality fillets. The best walleye to eat weigh from three to five pounds.
Larger fish often have higher levels of mercury and other heavy metals sadly found in the Great Lakes and Mississippi drainage as a result of industrial pollution.
Fish in the three to five-pound range produce perfectly portioned fillets, the goal of any serious walleye angler.
We Know They Taste Great, But How Do You Catch Walleye?
Books have been written on how to catch walleye, and library shelves are full of volumes suggesting this or that technique that works in every condition to catch these magnificent fish.
The truth is, there is no one all-consuming lure, bait, or technique that will always catch walleye. The secret is hard work, research (real research, not a mouse click), and beating the brush, or better said, the water, in pursuit of these fish.
It certainly helps to have one of my top picks of the best Walleye rods.
Walleye are predators; that’s the most important bit of information you should carry with you. They prefer certain underwater structures over others. At the end of the day, they don’t really care if it’s a rocky outcropping, a shallow bed of aquatic weeds, or a sandbank with a fast-moving tributary boiling the water. Walleye care about baitfish.
They’ll eat just about anything that swims or crawls beneath the surface.
Walleye feed on minnows, trout, perch and crappie fry, crawfish, worms, and other aquatic insects suspended under the water’s surface.
You won’t see many walleye breaking the surface to feed, but you’ll know when they are in the area by watching the tiny baitfish boil on the surface in a desperate attempt at survival.
Watching baitfish is one way to find walleye. Another is to watch shorebirds as they feed on these same baitfish.
Birds hunting baitfish will locate these tiny fish quickly. Spot a few pelicans, seagulls, or cormorants diving and feeding from above, and there is a good chance walleye are working the water below or on their way. It’s a rough life for baitfish when this two-pronged attack takes place.
Best Seasons for Fishing for Walleye
The best time to catch walleye, at least on the high plains of Wyoming, is in the late spring and early summer. Many Wyoming lakes contain these prized fish, but Boysen Reservoir in Fremont County lays claim to the state record at 19 pounds (ca. 9 kg) 10 ounces, and more importantly, the greatest success rate in catching this soft-hitting delicious fish.
The best walleye lakes in Wyoming are reservoirs fed either by agricultural overflow or from dammed rivers.
Boysen Reservoir, Glendo Reservoir, and Guernsey Reservoir are all great places to catch walleye, I’ve fished all three, but I’ve had the greatest success on Boysen in the springtime.
You can find similar situations in lakes across Montana, Idaho, and the Dakotas, anywhere, you find large reservoirs surrounded by potato, alfalfa, corn, or grain fields.
When the runoff from nearby irrigated agricultural land begins, walleye fishing is at its best.
Part of this perfect angling storm is the time of year. Walleyes are hungry in spring. They’ve spent the long winter months in a state of near-suspended animation, with little food, while they wait for the approach of spring to begin melting the ice above them.
Once the ice is off and the lake has turned. A turning lake is a phenomenon of northern lakes and reservoirs where the cold water on the bottom suddenly rises to the top of a lake or reservoir, in effect flipping the lake upside down. Think of an ice cube popping to the surface of a glass of water, and you get the idea of walleye beginning to move into the shallows.
When the shallows are fed by a seasonal tributary, an agricultural ditch, or a traditional stream or river overflowing with runoff from melting snow in the nearby mountains, the fishing can be tremendous.
Your first step in locating walleye is a map of the lake or reservoir you intend to fish. Locate the tributaries that feed this body of water.
The best is often the seasonal ones, the overflowing narrow channels that exist from late April to early July and then dry up.
Once you find a few of these on the map, drive out to the site and check things out. The ideal walleye fishing area for this time of year will have a good flow of water entering the lake. Rapids, with water noisily splashing over the rocks or sand entering the mouth of the lake, are a great place to start.
With the location established, look for those feeding birds or baitfish jumping out of the water.
The best locations to fish are adjacent to the main flow of the incoming water. You can catch a few walleye in the direct flow of the channel, but your best chance is a few yards off the flow of water as it slows entering the lake.
Now comes the choice of bait. Walleye are live bait feeders, but they don’t hit like rainbow trout or bass.
Largemouth bass and rainbow trout let you know when they’re feeding, they’ll rip the lure right off your line; Walleye don’t feed that way.
In looking at the armor-plated body, the gaping jaws, and the razor-sharp teeth of a big walleye, you’d think they would rip a baitfish in half, but they don’t. Walleye are nibblers; they taste bait, mouthing it before they swallow the fish. That makes setting the hook a challenge.
Early Season Walleye Technique
Walleye from April to late June in northern latitudes will move into the shallow water to get a good meal. That’s where you’ll find baitfish in early summer and late spring. The secret is to mimic these baitfish with the lures you toss into the water.
Learning how to catch walleye from shore is the most important step in becoming an expert angler for these fish.
There are several good fishing techniques for this time of the season, we’ll walk you through a few of them.
Black and silver synthetic gulp minnows are candy to walleye. You can’t just hook them on a bare hook and hope for the best. With proper technique, you’ll get a lot of hits, and hits that you can feel with these soft-biting fish, and in the process, you’ll have a great chance of bringing in your limit.
Hook a rubber minnow to a lead head jib. Lead head jigs come in sizes from 1/16th to ¼ ounce. A 1/8th ounce jig is often the best. The heavier jigs work in fast-moving water, and the lighter jigs can work in still water, but as in “Goldilocks”, the 1/8th is just right.
Hook the minnow so the black side is up and the silver on the bottom.
Cast your line and count to 10 to let it hit the bottom. Crank three times, jerk your rod, count to three, and jerk again, followed by three cranks. This action mimics a baitfish jumping out of the underlying foliage or rocky structure on the bottom. The magic of this technique is that walleye will watch the jig and usually strike as you are jerking the jig upward. It makes setting the hook much easier since the walleye hit on the power stroke.
Many anglers refrain from using jigs since it requires dexterity, skill, and a lot of practice to perfect the art, instead they use live minnows hooked just under the dorsal fin with size 2 or 4 hooks.
These minnows are what walleye are after, but they need to be presented correctly.
A pinched lead sinker 18 inches (0.46 m) above the minnow will drag the bait down deeper into the water. Guessing the correct depth is the primary skill in this technique.
You can jig with the minnow as you would with the rubber Gulp minnow, or you can slowly wind the line in, allowing the minnow to attract walleye with their natural swimming motion. It won’t be as easy to feel a walleye strike since the bait is largely stationary, but it will work.
Walleye Fishing From a Boat
In the early summer season, trolling doesn’t usually produce the results you want. It may seem counterintuitive, but moving your boat near the shore, adjacent to an inflowing source of water, is often your best location.
You’ll be fishing in almost the same location as you would from shore. However, you have the advantage of a stationary platform in your boat where you can jig straight down or make short casts to the side of your anchored boat.
Minnows work well from a boat since they can be suspended directly below the watercraft, and determining depth is much easier.
Boats allow you to move locations easier as well. You can row or hit the trolling motor to move in, out or at right angles to the inflow of water, then set the anchor and work the area again. Minnows and jigs work well here, but so does a technique called “dropshotting”.
Drop shotting allows an angler to work for weed beds without fouling the line, bait and hook with underwater foliage.
The basic principle is to tie a weight 18 to 48 inches (1.22 m) below your baited hook. The weight takes the bait to just above the highest point of the water plants. Bouncing the weight through the weeks keeps the bait just above the top of the weeds, the exact place that walleye will often strike.
Summer Walleye Fishing
In the heat of the summer months, walleye will seek a band of cool water. The top of the lake may hit 80 or 85 degrees, but there will be layers beneath the surface where the temperature hovers between 50 and 65 degrees, perfect conditions for walleye.
One summer, I fished Glendo Reservoir in Platte and Converse Counties in Wyoming. My friend Terry was an avid walleye angler. He knew the ins and outs of the great walleye structure on this reservoir.
It was a heavy runoff that spring and Glendo had a very high water level for July. The farmers downstream on the Platte River had not drawn the level down yet, so the walleye were in areas I wasn’t familiar with.
Terry gunned his boat towards one of the camping areas. At Glendo, they shut the lake down during the winter, draining the chambers under the concrete toilets, shutting off the water and electricity, and letting the park wait for summer to return.
The picnic tables in this area were concrete as well.
Terry began jigging with live minnows above the picnic tables, fire pits, and toilets, still submerged 12 feet (3.66 m) below the surface of the overflowing reservoir.
I had a couple of hits but didn’t land any fish. Terry enjoyed having me along since it meant he’d get a double limit of walleye. He proceeded to catch 12 nice walleye weighing an average of four pounds each. My job that day was to supply him with another legal limit.
River Walleyes During the Summer
Sometimes the best walleye fishing isn’t in still water at all, but in rivers. The spillways below dams across the west in the early summer, when regulatory agencies try to slow the runoff and prevent downstream flooding, can be fantastic areas to catch walleye.
Jigs work ok, not great, but ok in this fast-moving environment. Live bait doesn’t last long in fast-moving water, either. In rapidly moving water, where walleye can be swimming-free after being washed over a spillway, your best bet is often worm rigs or large spinners.
A worm harness is buoyant enough to float in the stream flow. The way it moves can be regulated with lead weights or by carefully casting it into eddies in the water.
A worm harness with silver or gold spinners just above the hooks offers a dual attraction to walleye. The spinning blades attract the walleye visually, and the worms bring them in on scent. It’s a great combination.
A big spinner, like Blue Fox, or Mepps can catch a walleye’s interest. Cast the lure upstream and rapidly crank your reel to bring the lure in motion with the water. It’s easier to cast downstream and let the blades work in the current, but walleye won’t be fooled. Baitfish don’t act this way. They swim with the flow of water.
It’s more work, but you’ll get more strikes by going with, rather than against, the flow.
A caveat to this technique is that you’ll catch more trout than walleye if they coexist in the water. Big rainbows are a joy to catch, and if you’re catching and release fishing, they’re about the most fun you can have on the water.
Summer Trolling for Walleye
Trolling is a lazy man’s method of fishing, but it can bring in walleye if you work the beds where they’re hanging out in the summer. They won’t get angry like largemouth bass, but they’ll hit spinners and spoons that resemble baitfish when they come rolling by. A slow troll is better than a fast one with walleye.
Rapalas work well in this technique, but spoons and spinners are hard to be on a hot, sunny afternoon.
Ice Fishing for Walleye
Ice fishing for walleye can often be the best time of the year for catching these magnificent fish. Locate a good structure under the ice, drill your holes in a circular pattern so they’re easier to reach, and get to work.
Fishing with minnows is best through the ice. Drop a line with a weight to determine depth, or take a fish finder to locate an underwater structure.
When you find a good section of the lake bottom, set your lines so the minnows float a few feet above the bottom and wait for your tip-ups to pop up.
Check local regulations to see how many holes you can work legally. Set your tip-ups in the holes, but leave one open for you to jig.
Jigging works great through the ice, especially with minnows on the hook. The live minnows attract fish by scent as well as action. Jigging enhances visual attraction.
Ice fishing is a 24-hour method, meaning it can be great during the day, but often it’s even better during the wee hours of the morning.
A clear, bright day or a moonless night can be equally good when using live minnows through the ice.
Walleye fishing is an art, a tasty art if you happen to catch a few of these awesome fish. The best walleye to eat is between 18 and 24 inches (0.61 m) in length, which corresponds to the three to the five-pound size range.
They can be caught during all 12 months of the year, but the techniques used to catch them vary with the season. Be aware of the lake conditions, the weather, and local runoff, and use a fish finder or the guess-and-check method to find the bands of water they hang out in.
The springtime is often the best season for walleye fishing since they’re hungry, and food is suddenly abundant in the fast inflow of snowmelt off tributaries entering a lake or reservoir.
Feeling a walleye strike, and being quick enough to set the hook, is the greatest challenge in catching these wonderful fish.
You can cast, jig, crank in lures or wait patiently with live bait, but if you can’t set the hook, all that work is for naught.
Walleye is often considered one of the top game fish in America. Not because they fight, they don’t, but because of how they taste.
A big walleye on the line is about as much fun as reeling in a screen door. They hold tight and pull against the line.
If you’re after a furious, tail-dancing, deep-diving fish, stick to rainbow trout and largemouth bass. These guys will fight you to the end, walleye won’t.
But trout and bass pale in comparison to walleye once they’re filleted and in the pan.
Nothing quite compares to the taste of a well-prepared walleye fillet.
For a great video about fishing for walleye, check out this one below:
For help finding the line to use when fishing for walleye, check out the page below:
For help finding all other fishing gear, check out these pages: