Walleye is a freshwater perch fish native to the United States and Canada. Walleye are abundant in rivers, lakes and reservoirs throughout North American but they can be tricky to catch. Common methods for fishing Walleye include casting, trolling, and vertial jigging—using both live bait and artificial lures.
Fishing for walleye is one of the ultimate freshwater fishing experiences. It’s challenging, fun, and provides year round angling opportunities. And if you’re a fish eater, walleye makes an excellent tablefare. Nothing like cooking up your catch and washing it down with your favorite beverage after a hard day on the lake.
This guide is designed to help you up your game and catch more walleye, more consistently. But by way of introduction for you newbies, let’s learn a little bit more about this magnificent, yet elusive, freshwater predator—starting with its identification and some important characteristics.
- Walleye Identification and Characteristics
- Where You’ll Find Walleye
- Walleye Fishing Techniques
- Best Walleye Baits and Lures
- Walleye Rigs
Walleye Identification and Characteristics
Walleye is the largest of the perch family and can reach up to 3 feet in length and 25 pounds. Walleye are often confused with their slightly smaller cousin the sauger—but the two fish are actually quite distinct. To tell them apart, first compare the dorsal fins. The dorsal fin of the walleye has a dark splotch at the back which is absent on the sauger. Conversely, the dorsal fin of the sauger is covered in small dark spots absent on the walleye.
Other features unique to the walleye are smooths scales along their jaw and a distinct white patch at the bottom of the caudal fin. Sauger have rough scales on their jaw as well as a distinct mottled pattern along the sides of their body. Walleye have large glassy opaque eyes that protrude somewhat from the head, and adaptation that provides them excellent low-light vision.
Walleye’s ability to see in the dark is truly a unique adaptation that influences their movement and feeding patterns. They are a bentho-pelagic fish meaning they inhabit deeper water by day and shallower water by night. In deep low light conditions walleye forage in schools for baitfish, aquatic insects, crayfish, and snails. As night arrives, they move into the shallows and continue to forage.
Where You’ll Find Walleye
If you want to become a good walleye angler, knowing where walleye are at and how to find them in a given body of water is key.
Walleyes are found in lakes, rivers and reservoirs throughout North America. They are native to Canada, the Great Lakes region, as well as the upper Mississippi and Missouri River basins. They have been introduced in waterways throughout the United States and are now found as far west as Oregon and Washington.
Walleye fair perfectly well in both clear and moderately turbid water conditions, shallow or deep. In deeper lakes and reservoirs, they stay in the lower water column near the bottom by day where visibility low. As night settles in, and the sun goes down, they often move into the shallows to forage. River walleye will spend the daylight hours near holes, drop-offs or close to dams to escape the sun. They usually stick to areas that have rocky or sandy bottoms, and structure.
The following are common habitats where you’ll find walleye forage and holding.
- Freshwater Weed Beds
- Gradual Shores
- Inlets and Outlets
- Open Water
- Piers, Docks and Pilings
- Shoreline Shallows (at night)
- Springs Holes
- Walkways and Bridges
Consider the following facts and techniques when trying to locate walleye.
During early spring walleye look for rocky reefs and gravel shoals in relatively shallow water where they can spawn. They’ll remain near these spawning grounds for a few weeks feeding on an abudance of baitfish and aquatic insects that are found in the shallows near patches of healthy vegetation and weed beds.
As summer moves in and water temperatures warm, walleye move to deeper water where they’ll hold near structure or suspend in open water. Near the bottom, walleye feed primarily on schools of baitfish and crustaceans. As a fish that prefers low-light conditions, walleye will hold near deeper holes, drop-offs and structure during the day where they escape the sunlight.
Come fall, walleye begin to migrate from their summer holding pattern to sites where they’ll wait out the winter. Common wintertime hangouts in larger lakes are deep to mid-depth flats. In colder temperatures walleye will avoid current. Areas where current is mild, or non-existent, you’ll likely find walleye holding.
When surface temperatures get down around 32 degree fahrenheit, river walleyes gather in deep holes, pools and eddies that may anywhere from 15 to 30 feet deep or—deeper depending on the river.
As a bentho-pelagic species, walleye relate to the deeper water column during the day when the sun is at its brightest, and then move to the shallows to forage from dusk through the early morning. At first light, they move back to darkness of deeper water.
Whether you’re fishing from the shore or from a boat, understanding the daily movement of walleye, and adapting when and where you fish accordingly, is important to becoming a successful walleye angler.
A hotspot for targeting walleye right around dusk are flats in about 12 to 15 feet of water borded one side by vegetation or cabbage weed, and the other by a drop-off transitioning to deep water. You can bet your bottom dollar there are walleye holding just beyond the drop-off breakline during the day, and that they’ll be move up to the flat to feed on perch and baitfish as soon as the sun goes down.
Follow the food
Walleye are no different than other predatory fish—they like to eat. And when they’re done eating, they eat more. The first thing you want to do when targeting walleye is ask yourself, “What are the walleye here eating?” Do your research, talk with the local fish shops, hit up the regulars for a tid bit of information, but identify the forage. If you’re fishing a perch lake, you can bet the walleye are feeding on perch. In other lakes walleye may be feeding on minnows, crayfish, snales, mudpuppies, mayflies, or even frogs.
Find the food source and you’ll find the walleye.
Fishing current and structures
A lake or river may be full of walleye, but that doesn’t mean they’re everywhere. Walleye tend to position within the water—and current—where it’s most advantageous to finding food or conserving energy. In the wild, as well as the water, he who eats the most, and expends the least amount of energy, is likely to survive. Same holds true for walleye.
When fishing rivers and lakes, try fishing the water seams. Where the fast and slow current intersect there are often walleye holding. You’ll find current seams around points, edges of big eddies, sand bars, humps, boulders, wing dams, and other structure that obstructs water flow. Why do walleye hold in seams? To find food and conserve energy. Current is like a conveyor belt of food for walleye. Walleye sit just outside the seam in the calmer water and wait for the current to carry a baitfish, crustacean, or other morsel within striking distance.
If walleye aren’t holding along seams, there’s a good chance they’re holding near structure. In lakes look for clusters of islands, mid-lake humps, saddles, and edges of a weed beds or drop-offs. In rivers, bends, eddies, bridges, dams and so on are all hotspots for walleye activity. In general, look for areas that provide enough cover to hide a small school of walleye. Remember, walleye are predatory fish and like to hide where they can ambush passing prey.
Sometimes walleye hold on the open flats away from traditional structure when forage is abudant. Typically, when this is the case walleye hold to travel corridors such as edges of weed beds, strips of rocks, or troughs along the bottom to obscure their presence.
Walleye Fishing Techniques
There are several approaches for fishing walleye, but there isn’t one best method. An experienced angler will employ a variety of techniques for targeting walleye, which may include bait casting, jigging, trolling and even fishing live bait under a bobber. Below we’ll cover the most popular walleye fishing techniques employed by anglers.
Bait casting is a tried and true way to catch walleye that can be performed from a boat or from shore. Surprisingly, it’s a highly underutilized presentation that just recently has begun to gain traction among anglers. Casting for walleye is not only effective, it’s a lot of fun.
Casting is most effective when walleye are holding around specific structure in less than 15 feet of water. Target rocky, hard bottom areas, or where the bottom transitions from soft to hard. Walleye are notorious for following a bait and then turning away at the last second when they get close to the boat. If you find this happening, slow your retreive as it approaches and pause occasionally. This will get more walleye biting.
Walleye will readily take artificial lures or live bait when bait casting, but when you go artificial your presentation must look natural—and appetizing. A 3/8- to 3/16-ounce jig with a 3-inch soft plastic minnow is a great presentation to fish off points, drop-offs, along the edge of weed beds and transition zones when casting from shore. When targeting larger walleye, increase the size of your soft plastic an inch or two.
If you want to up your game, try fishing a casting crankbait or swimbait. Hardbody lipped crankbaits create a natural presentation that allow you to cover a lot of water down deep along the bottom. Crankbaits have a tendency to travel in a straight line, so give it some action to mimic a real fish. Swimbaits have a soft body and no bill. They mimic a live baitfish. A swimbait on a jig fished over structure in low light conditions will catch walleye.
For a deep water presentation when you’ll out on the lake, fish a 3/28 to 5/8-ounce metal bladebait in about 20 to 40 feet of water around structure, drop-offs, and transition zones. Working a bladebait slowly across the bottom is a good technique to use during warmer summer months when walleye are holding deeper.
If you’re not versed in the art of vertical jigging, its a technique worth learning and perfecting. Vertical jigging for walleye is fun and it’s effective. When done right, it provides maximum control of your bait and presentation. More importantly it entices strikes.
The gist of vertical jigging is to fish your line and lure vertically in the water column directly below you. Drop your bait to the bottom, reel it up a few feet and start jigging with two or three quick pops of your wrist. Then allow your bait to fall back to the bottom. Walleye will often strike as your bait flutters to the bottom. You can jig right on the bottom or up a few feet off the bottom.
Vertical jigging is most effective when you’re positioned directly above walleye. Casting and trolling are good techniques for locating walleye, but for jigging to be effective you really need to know where the fish are first. Target transition zones between rocky and soft bottom, mid-lake humps, saddles, and other structure where walleye typically hold. If you can, use a fish finder or sonar to find where schools of walleye are holding then pound them from above with your jig.
Jigging is equally effective in lakes and rivers. When jigging in a lake I’ve found that walleye will rise up off the bottom a few feet to take the bait. In rivers with flowing water walleye are typically right on the bottom, and this is where you want to fish your jig. When jigging for walleye in rivers with current use a low-stretch fishing line, such as a braid, to better maintain a vertical presentation and feel strikes.
Vertical jigging in the river is much less of a finesse technique than it is when jigging in a lake. When river jigging for walleye you want to use a jig that is heavy enough to get to the bottom and that won’t tip over once there. A 3/8 to 5/8 Odd’Ball Jig is a good option. This jig uses a razor-sharp Mastad hook with a unique head design that keeps your presentation riding upright. You can fish this jig with live or soft plastic baits.
When vertical jigging for walleye in a lake you can use a Odd’Ball jig, jigging spoons or an ice fishing jig tipped with a live bait or soft plastic. When vertical fishing for walleye in open water a traditional jigging spoon is my go-to lure.
When water is warmer walleye are more active and you can be a bit more aggressive with the action. When water is cooler in spring and fall you’ll want to slow things down just a bit. When ice fishing for walleye, vertical jigging is really your best and only technique.
One of the things I like most about vertical jigging over techniques like casting is that you get far fewer snags.
Trolling for walleye
Trolling is one of the best techniques for targeting walleye on large expanses of open water when you need to cover a lot territory to locate fish. When walleye are scattered or suspended on large bodies of water, such as Lake Erie or Lake Michigan, trolling is going to be your go-to fishing method.
You can make trolling for walleye as complicated or simple as you want. If you’re just beginning, you’ll want to get yourself a good rod and reel combo. This is a must in my book. Everything else can wait, but you want a rod and reel that are up to the task. 7’6″ to 8’6″ is an ideal length for a trolling rod. If you’re going to be flatlining (trolling straight behind the boat with no weight) a longer rod in the 10′ to 12′ range is more popular.
A medium to moderate action rod is ideal for trolling. A medium action rod is going to have less bend than a moderate action, and is a good choice when you plan on holding the rod while fishing. A moderate action rod offers a little more bend and is better for trolling when using rod holders or planer boards that don’t provide any give. My favorite walleye trolling rod is the newer Shimano Compre 8’3″. This is a great rod for trolling a single crankbait behind a boat.
A conventional spinning reel with a high gear ratio, smooth drag system and line capacity of 200′ are the specs you want to look for when selecting a walleye trolling reel. Purchasing your rod and reel together as a combo will ensure they’re fully compatible.
As rule of thumb troll for walleye between 1.5 and 2.5 miles per hour. If you plan on trolling multiple lines, using planer boards to stagger lines is a great technique.
Slip bobbers for walleye fishing
Fishing walleye using a slip bobber is an underated technique that isn’t for everyone—but it has its place. If you want to keep walleye fishing simple and straightforward, there’s no better way than using a slip bobber. Bobber fishing for walleye is fun and can be very effective if done right.
Fishing for walleye using a slip bobber is akin to vertical jigging but without the finesse. It also requires that you find where fish are holding before you drop your line in the water. Targeting common walleye hangouts including hard bottoms, weed edges, drop-offs, and structure is a good place to start, but using an electronic fish finder is a lot more productive.
Run your line through the bobber, attach your hook, weight your line with a split shot, adjust your bobber stop for the desired depth, and you’re good to go. If you don’t get any bites, reel in and move to another spot.
You can fish a slip bobber from an anchored boat, or fish unanchored and let your rig drift. When fishing a specific structure, anchoring in place is usually more effective. If you want to cover a larger structure, such as an underwater hump, drifting makes sense.
Lindy Rig for walleye
One of the most effective rigs made for fishing walleye off the bottom is the good ol’ trusty lindy rig. The lindy rig is great for probing deeper breaklines using a stop and go retrieve, fishing sand bars, points, weed edges and small flats, and for keeping bait in a walleye’s strike zone in a natural, subtle way.
The lindy rig can be fished on the bottom, or just off the bottom. Some anglers will bounce the weight along the bottom with the bait trailing behind. A better technique is to maintain the weight just off the bottom. If you’re using a fluorocarbon leader, that is at least 18″ long, you’ll bait will stay on the bottom, or pretty darn close—without needing to drag your entire rig through rocks and mud.
A lindy rig is traditionally fished with a nice juicy jumbo leech, but you can also use a minnow or nightcrawler. The key here is to go big. Fishing small bait will get you small fish. If you want to reel in walleye instead of perch, you need to use a walleye size bait.
The lindy rig shines when you’re drifting and moving around slowly in clear water. You want to drift at about .5 to .8 miles per hour. When drifting, make sure you pay attention to your line angle as it enters the water. If your line is hitting the water at 45 degrees you’re presentation is probably a little high in the water and you’ll want to let out a bit more line to get your bait back on the bottom.
The following are the most common methods and techniques used to catch walleye:
Best Walleye Baits and Lures
Walleye will take a variety of artificial lures, but you really can’t beat live bait when it comes to walleye fishing. Walleye like their meat, and they like it fresh. Hands down, the best live baits for walleye are minnows, leeches and nightcrawlers. With nothing more than a hook, a decent rod, a little bit of fishing line, and a bucket full of nightcrawlers, you can catch a bunch of walleye.
Nightcrawlers (or big worms)
There’s a pretty good chance you caught your first fish on a worm, and there’s a simple reason why. Fish love worms. Walleye, bass, trout, you name it, most fish will go for a nightcrawler. They’re also easy to get. You can dig them up in your garden or pick up a carton at just about any bait shop—including Walmart. Fishing for walleye with nightcrawlers is a no-brainer.
Nightcrawlers can be presented in a number of ways to entice a strike. Suspending a nightcrawler beneath a slip float is probably one of the easiest and most effective. They can also be fished on your favorite walleye lure. Tip a jig or a crankbait with a quarter of a nightcrawler and you’ve created a winning combination that a walleye can’t resist.
Black and brown ribbon leeches are another walleye favorite. Some anglers swear black leeches generates more strikes, but I believe brown and black fish equally well. When it comes to selecting and fishing a leech, what’s more important is action. It’s the leech’s action that attracts walleye, much more than their color.
You want to fish leeches in a manner that doesn’t impede their natural action. Avoid using overly large hooks that hamper their swimming action and create an unnatural look. Live leeches produce a unique rollercoaster action that doesn’t require any extra finesse on your part. Fish a leech slow and let it do it’s work. Fishing a leech too fast will result in little to no action—and fewer strikes.
Something else you want to avoid when fishing with leeches is cold water. A leech in cold water will ball up around the hook. Instead of their natural rollercoaster action, they are nearly motionless.
A #6 octopus hook is ideal for fishing ribbon leeches.
You can’t go wrong fishing minnows. Most walleye will take a minnow just as readily as a nightcrawler or leech. The issue with minnows is practicality. They can be difficult to find, difficult to keep alive, and downright expensive.
My preferred hook for fishing minnows when targeting walleye is a #6 Aberdeen. An octopus hook will work, but an Aberdeen hook—with its round bend and long shank—is ideal for rigging minnows. Run the Aberdeen through the minnow’s mouth, out the gills, and into the back. Rigging the hook farther back is preferred for trolling and fishing heavy cover.
If you’re going to fish minnows, make sure to use the type of minnow that walleye prefer. This will vary by lake. Common minnow species that walleye feed on include smelt, cisco, shad, chubs, herring, and shiners. In the great lakes, the preferred baitfish are emerald shiners. Head inland a bit and walleye are feeding on golden shiners. Match your baitfish to the local forage for a higher catch rate.
Live bait is preferred for walleye fishing, but you don’t always need to fish live bait to catch walleye. There are several articial baits that will have you reeling in walleye all day. Probably the most popular—and reliable—artificial bait presentation is a jig rigged with a soft plastic. Simple, yet effective. Pair a jig with a 3- to 5-inch plastic minnow, worm, or curly tail grub and you’ll catch walleye. You can’t go wrong with a good old bucktail jig either.
The following are few more popular lures for fishing walleye.
Crankbaits aren’t live bait but they do a good job imitating a baitfish—and walleye love’m. My experience has been if you want to target larger fish go with a crankbait, but make sure it’s dialed in. Most crankbait will swim perfectly straight right out of the package, but you want to double check. If the small wire eye protruding from the bill is bent, a crankbait may vear to the left of the right.
Crankbaits can be cast or trolled and are a must have for serious walleye anglers. I recommend maintaining a selection of lipless and deep-diving crankbaits from 2 to 6 inches.
No better way to target trophy walleye than with a Swimbait. Paddletail or thumbertail-style swimbaits are right up their with crankbaits and live bait for catching walleye. You can fish internally weighted swimbaits solo or fish them on a jig. Larger swimbaits in the 4- to 5-inch range are ideal for most walleye fishing, but keep some smaller baits in your arsenal as well. When water is clear, or fish just aren’t biting, a small finesse bait will often do the trick.
Jerkbaits produce an erratic action that draw walleye in and produce strikes. Jerkbaits are traditionally big bass lures, but they have their place with walleye fishing as well. When working a jerkbait for walleye you want to tone back the action just a bit. I prefer the deeper-diving jerkbait that I can fish in about 12 to 15 feet of water, but you can fish them deeper.
Trolling spoons are a staple for walleye trolling. They’re the bait of choice for targeting suspending walleye on large, open bodies of water such as Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes. Spinners tipped with scented softbaits, as well as minnow baits, are also effective trolling lures for open-water.
Finally, let’s not forget jigging lures. Jigging lures including jigging spoons, gliding jigs, and blade baits are great for catching walleye, spring, summer, fall, and winter.
You can learn more about common walleye lures below.
Sometimes it’s not as much what you fish as much as how you fish it. This is particularly true when walleye are finicky or just aren’t biting. This is when using a walleye rig comes in really handy. There are walleye rigs for trolling, casting, drifting, and still fising.
Using a tried and tested rig for catching walleye is a great way to improve your presentation, attractive more walleye to your bait, get more bites, and ultimately catch more fish.