America's Gone Walleye

The fishing has never been better. Here's everything you need to know-secret tactics, new tackle, and top spots- to join the walleye craze.

Field & Stream Online Editors

When Gary Parsons decided to chuck his dental practice in favor of professional walleye angling in 1992, the fishery was still in its formative years. But with a decade of momentum since, the sport-competitive and recreational-is reaching a fever pitch.

More than a few factors are working in concert to feed the walleye fascination. Atop the list are the burgeoning Great Lakes walleye populations (thanks to the Clean Water Act) and efforts by many states to spike the proverbial punch by stocking. "The accessibility to big, boisterous walleyes is better than ever," says Parsons, who since trading crowns for crankbaits has become a top pro on the walleye circuit.

And like them or not, the tournaments that Parsons and thousands of others participate in have had a significant impact in the development of walleye-specific equipment, including seaworthy boats and tackle, and tactics. "If the fish are there," says Mark Dorn, director of walleye operations for FLW Outdoors, the outfit that puts on the Wal-Mart RCL Walleye Tour, "these guys figure out how to catch them, which gives 98 percent of the people who don't know how to catch them the techniques and the hope."

Finally, there's the walleye's unpredictable lifestyle to contend with. "Sometimes they'll be in 6 inches of water or suspended over 100 feet," says Parsons. "What they present is a monstrous challenge."

With peak season upon us, now is the time to crack the code. Just be careful. You don't want to lose the day job if you can help it.

WHERE TO FIND THEM
No matter where you live, chances are you're not too far from great walleye water. Here are our top picks across the country.

  • Chautauqua Lake New York This 13,000-acre lake was first juiced with walleye plants at the turn of the last century and was boosted by record spawns in the '90s. The deeper, clearer north half of the lake is more conducive to bottom bouncing and open-water trolling; the southern half, more suited to shallow-water jigging with plastics. Worthwhile checking are Warners Bar, Long Point, and Predergast Point. Chautauqua County Visitors Bureau, 800-242-4569; M&M; Sports Den, 716-664-5400.

  • Lake Erie Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York It's estimated that half the walleyes in North America reside in Lake Erie. The majority of them begin a counterclockwise circumnavigation of the inland sea with the start of summer. Even so, the Western Basin, around the Bass Islands in western Ohio, continues to give up big numbers of walleyes year-round to open-water trollers. Go with spinners and crankbaits (high-action Storm Hot 'N Tots, Storm Deep ThunderSticks) for suspended fish. Farther east, from Cleveland into the waters of western New York, pick off the deeper, migratory schools with lead-core line. Ottawa County Visitors Bureau (Port Clinton, Ohio), 800-441-1271; Lorain County Visitors Bureau (Lorain, Ohio), 800-334-1673; Chautauqua County Visitors Bureau (Dunkirk, New York), 800-242-4569.

  • Leech Lake Minnesota Resting in Minnesota's Northwoods, Leech Lake encompasses 100,000 acres. You'll find the fish in a variety of habitats, from shallow sandgrass and emerging cabbage weeds to rock humps and shoreline points sliding into the depths. Tip: Leech kicks tail on the windy side of the lake, where waves disorient baitfish and put walleyes on the feed. Leech Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, 218-547-1313; Reed's Tackle, 218-547-1505.

  • Lake Sharpe South Dakota With 80 miles of Missouri River impoundment between the Oahe Dam and Fort Thompson, Sharpe is packed to the gills with walleyes. Eighty-fish days don't even warrant chest thumping, but few fish exceed 20 inches. Hit the upstream side of points near the creek channel, where Berkley Power Minnows produce big time. Other patterns: trolling the bluffs with shad baits and pulling bottom bouncers and spinners downstream slighy faster than current speed. Pierre Chamber of Commerce, 800-962-2034; South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, 605-773-3381.

  • Lake Winnebago Wisconsin Opportunity knocks everywhere on central Wisconsin's enormous Winnebago, a system that includes the eponymous lake and upriver waters of Lakes Poygan, Winneconne, and Butte des Morts. The deepest, 'Bago itself, bottoms out at 22 feet. Local anglers troll crankbaits behind boards over the mudflats. In the shallows of Poygan and Butte des Morts, pull shad-shaped crankbaits (blue holographic No. 5 Rapala Shad Raps imitate juvenile sheepshead) in 6 feet of water, or poke around in a foot or two of water on the fringe of cane beds with jigs and plastics or live bait. Oshkosh Convention Bureau, 877-303-9200; Pioneer Resort & Marina, 800-683-1980.

HOW TO CATCH THEM
The walleyes just left the spawning grounds. Here's where they're headed.

Walleyes leave the spawning grounds in June and enter their summer pattern. Unfortunately, this pattern has no dominant trait. On any given day the fish can be just about anywhere in the lake-shallow, deep, or suspended. To find them you need to cover water without dawdling. Here's where and how to focus your search.

In the Shallows
When walleyes are in the shallows, they congregate on bottom irregularities-a clump of weeds, a slight rise, a patch of rocks. Find this structure by cruising with electronics. You can also break out a Rapala Shad Rap or a Cotton Cordell Wally Diver and crosshatch the water with casts until you bump rocks or catch a fish. If you do either, pick up a jig tipped with soft plastic or a leech and pitch back in.

When deep water swings close to the shallows, it provides a natural pathway for walleyes to access a feeding flat. When you find such a situation, stake it out.

Down Deep
In the depths, you'll find walleyes on points that taper off to deep water and ridges that rise off the bottom. But if anything concentrates walleyes, it's clusters of bugs emerging from the depths. Bugs bring baitfish, which in turn bring walleyes. Look for these hatches after the weather has been stable for a few days. On your fishfinder they'll resemble a congregation of periods and apostrophes.

If you can't find bugs, there's no better deep-water search tool than a bottom bouncer teamed with a spinner (a No. 2 or No. 3 Colorado blade works well) and nightcrawler. The weight puts the spinner in the fish zone, and its wire arm transmits the sensation of the bottom composition. A guideline for bouncer weight is 1 ounce for every 10 feet of water. Pull the rig from the bow under power of a trolling motor. Try keeping your speed at .8 to 1.2 miles per hour (speed over ground on GPS) or just fast enough to spin the blades.

In Between
If the fish aren't holding in shallows or down deep, chances are they're suspended. Your best bet for finding them is trolling. As you're covering water, keep an eye on electronics for streaks that look like contrails heading downward. These are pods of fish that the boat has spooked. To catch them you need to break out the planer boards and crankbaits. For starters, cover every tier in the water column at intervals of 10 feet and match crankbaits to the predominant food source: Try shad-shaped baits (Rapala Shad Raps) where shad are prevalent; and minnow baits (Storm ThunderSticks) where longer, thinner food sources, such as smelt, are the norm. When you find a specific depth where the walleyes are concentrated, bring your lures to the same level, and mop them up. You never know where they'll be hitting tomorrow.

WHAT TO THROW AT THEM
It's time to join the plastic revolution

With all due respect to walleye phenom Mike Gofron-the Tiger, the Michael, the Ichiro of his sport-the man is darned near addicted to live bait. With wriggling critters on jigs and spinners, the 38-year-old has won about $500,000 in professional tournaments, a gob of money in the sport of competitive walleye angling.

Which is why, on an outing to Michigan's Upper Peninsula with Gofron, the bait virtuoso was reluctant to give up on his fathead minnow until the score was lopsided: my plastic worm, 5; his live bait, 0. But when Gofron switched to plastic, his first cast connected, and he proceeded to put on a show.

Soft plastics are the new paradigm of walleye fishing, an emerging discipline at odds with a fixation on live bait. Plastics, you see, are not just for bass anymore. They have evolved-in sizes, shapes, and textures-far beyond the venerable curly-tailed grub. Given a generous amount of speed and snap, jigs and plastics commonly trump bait in side-by-side comparisons.

"Live bait is too often a crutch," says Eric Naig, a professional walleye angler living in Cylinder, Iowa. "In the last few years we've figured out we can catch bigger fish on artificials than on live bait. People are finally coming around in spite of themselves."

Until the last few years, most soft plastics have been too garish for walleyes. Tentacles, wings, and action tails have bass written all over them. Enter the straightforward Bass Pro Shops 4-inch Squirmin' Worm, with pumpkin body and chartreuse tail. The subtle worm is the perfect size and profile for walleyes. Other plastics engineered specifically for walleyes are Mann's 4-inch Walleye Worm and Berkley's Power Jigworm, a 3-inch model with soft tail for flapping action, and new favorites, Berkley's 3- and 4-inch Power Minnows. In addition to their flexibility, the ersatz minnows are infused with scent developed and tested on captives in the company's laboratories.

How you work any of the soft plastics plays an important role in their effectiveness. When jigging, try boosting up with an extra 1/8-ounce of weight-a 1/4-ounce jig in place of 1/8; 3/8 instead of 1/4. Extra weight is needed to snap the jig, and speed is crucial to triggering bites. Cast out, let the jig sink to the bottom on a tight line, pull out the slack, and snap it. Let it fall back, and the moment it touches bottom, snap it again. You'll either feel the line jump when a walleye grabs the jig on the fall, or set the hook with the next snap.

Tackle selection helps, too. Pick a 6-foot 6-inch spinning rod and spool the reel with stretch-free 8-pound Berkley FireLine. The superline gives the jig extra snap, pops it free from weeds, and sets the hook in a flash.

Consider plastics the end of your bait-bucket dependence. th wriggling critters on jigs and spinners, the 38-year-old has won about $500,000 in professional tournaments, a gob of money in the sport of competitive walleye angling.

Which is why, on an outing to Michigan's Upper Peninsula with Gofron, the bait virtuoso was reluctant to give up on his fathead minnow until the score was lopsided: my plastic worm, 5; his live bait, 0. But when Gofron switched to plastic, his first cast connected, and he proceeded to put on a show.

Soft plastics are the new paradigm of walleye fishing, an emerging discipline at odds with a fixation on live bait. Plastics, you see, are not just for bass anymore. They have evolved-in sizes, shapes, and textures-far beyond the venerable curly-tailed grub. Given a generous amount of speed and snap, jigs and plastics commonly trump bait in side-by-side comparisons.

"Live bait is too often a crutch," says Eric Naig, a professional walleye angler living in Cylinder, Iowa. "In the last few years we've figured out we can catch bigger fish on artificials than on live bait. People are finally coming around in spite of themselves."

Until the last few years, most soft plastics have been too garish for walleyes. Tentacles, wings, and action tails have bass written all over them. Enter the straightforward Bass Pro Shops 4-inch Squirmin' Worm, with pumpkin body and chartreuse tail. The subtle worm is the perfect size and profile for walleyes. Other plastics engineered specifically for walleyes are Mann's 4-inch Walleye Worm and Berkley's Power Jigworm, a 3-inch model with soft tail for flapping action, and new favorites, Berkley's 3- and 4-inch Power Minnows. In addition to their flexibility, the ersatz minnows are infused with scent developed and tested on captives in the company's laboratories.

How you work any of the soft plastics plays an important role in their effectiveness. When jigging, try boosting up with an extra 1/8-ounce of weight-a 1/4-ounce jig in place of 1/8; 3/8 instead of 1/4. Extra weight is needed to snap the jig, and speed is crucial to triggering bites. Cast out, let the jig sink to the bottom on a tight line, pull out the slack, and snap it. Let it fall back, and the moment it touches bottom, snap it again. You'll either feel the line jump when a walleye grabs the jig on the fall, or set the hook with the next snap.

Tackle selection helps, too. Pick a 6-foot 6-inch spinning rod and spool the reel with stretch-free 8-pound Berkley FireLine. The superline gives the jig extra snap, pops it free from weeds, and sets the hook in a flash.

Consider plastics the end of your bait-bucket dependence.