It's time to start thinking about walleye. In just a few weeks the walleye will start their annual spawn, attracting a growing number of anglers from all around the state.
Walleye have long been a popular sport-fish across the United States. But they are just starting to win the hearts of Utah fishermen — primarily because of the long-standing purist trout tradition which has dominated the fishing climate in Utah for all of recorded history.
But now the word is getting out: Utah offers some very good walleye fishing.
Although most walleye caught in Utah range from 2 to 5 pounds, new state record fish have been caught regularly and another may show up this year. It may have your name on it!
You can catch walleye year-round if you are willing to work at it. But this big member of the perch family attracts the most attention during its early spring spawn, when the fish congregate in the shallows along lake and reservoir shorelines and inlet streams. During the rest of the year they spread out in the reservoirs, making them more difficult to locate.
An old wive's tale suggests that walleye don't bite during the spawn — that you have to snag them. Actually, it is against the law to intentionally snag game fish in Utah. The only way you can legally take walleye is to dangle a hook in front of their nose.
It is true that walleye don't feed as actively during the spawn. You have to tease and entice them. They often go on a feeding binge immediately after spawning, at the time most anglers are putting away their boats and rods.
So when will all this excitement begin this year? You'll have to ask Mother Nature that question. Staging fish typically begin to show up 6 to 10 days after ice is off the lake or reservoir. When late winter temperatures are mild that may happen during the first week of March at Willard Bay and Utah Lake. When early March weather is cold the fish may not spawn actively until the third week of the month.
The spawn gains momentum when there are consecutive warm days, and slows when the mercury drops. Wind can also stall the spawn, but it will pick up again when calm returns. Water temperature is an effective way to judge walleye activity. Some fish are seen spawning when the surface temperature reaches the low 40's. Activity seems to peak when the surface warms to the high 40's and low 50's. Generally, that's about the first week of April.
Pat Milburn of Anglers Inn fame is an avid walleye fisherman. Actually, he enjoys almost every type of fishing, and spends about two days a week out on the water. He offers these tips for walleye:
"More walleye are caught on jigs than anything else," Pat said. "Bright colors seem to work the best: yellows, chartreuse, whites. Sometimes it helps to use a brightly colored lead head which contrasts with the jig. Mixing and matching colors can improve success."
Jigs are inexpensive and come in an almost overwhelming number of colors, shapes and sizes. Bring plenty and experiment until you find what works. Curly-tail and feathered jigs are good bets, along with gitzits and any grub imitation.
Lures are also effective for walleye, — particularly minnow or shad imitations. Rapalas, thinfin shad and rebel minnows are good. Most bass plugs also work. "Mepps are often overlooked, but can work very well. The Lusox Mepp fished with bait (nightcrawler or minnow) is a good bet."
During the spawn, walleye concentrate along the dikes and shorelines, in water which is only 2 to 8 feet deep. Many people troll these shallows. Others anchor and cast. "The primary advantage of a boat is it can get you away from the crowds," Pat said. "But I know lots of people without boats who catch a lot of fish. Waders are helpful. Float tubes are an excellent way to walleye fish. You can be real quiet and get right in among the fish."
Cast as nearly parallel to the dike or shore as you can, then when you retrieve, your hook will be in the productive zone for the maximum amount of time. When you catch a fish, pay close attention to how deep your jig or lure was when the fish hit. Try to fish at that depth.
"Probably the most common mistake people make during the spawn is they fish too fast," Pat said. "It's better to fish too slow than too fast." You want to be just off the bottom most of the time, bumping rocks occasionally.
You may want to use a casting bubble to suspend your hook inches off the bottom. You'll then be able to fish as slowly as you desire, jigging and teasing without fear of snags.
"That's one of the best rigs for walleye," Pat said. "The trick is to keep slack out of your line. If you let the line go slack, you can't feel the strike."
Angler's Inn offered a special jig head designed especially for the walleye run. It featured a large hook, but only a 1/16 ounce head. "You can't cast it very far, but it's so light that you can fish it very slowly. It doesn't settle into the rocks."
As water temperatures warm, walleye become more aggressive and you can fish faster.
Strikes are very subtle. "Many times your lure simply stops, or quits vibrating. The fish often takes the hook while swimming toward you. Anything which feels different may be a strike, so you should give your rod a twitch."
Utah Lake and Willard Bay are Utah's most popular early spring Walleye waters. In Utah Lake, Pat said Bird Island, Lincoln Beach, Provo Harbor and dikes near Lindon and Geneva are productive spots. "They really concentrate in these areas — you know right where to find them."
You need a boat to fish Bird Island. The lake level rises and falls so often, water depths around the island are unpredictable. "You can be out 200 to 300 feet from an exposed part of the island and knock your motor off," Pat said.
At Willard, the dikes and the west side are best. The water level drops off fast there, so you can't really wade effectively. Use a boat, or stay on the dirt.
The fish don't concentrate so much in Starvation and Yuba so they are harder to predict. Look for shallow, rocky shorelines.
"These are tricky reservoirs to fish," Pat said. You've got to spend some time getting to know them."
Walleye fishing is usually best at night, but many of the fish are also caught during the early morning and late afternoon. The fish seem to be light sensitive, particularly during the spawn.
The water in Utah Lake is quite murky, and so light doesn't seem to be as big a factor there.
Pat said he ranks walleye at the top of the list for taste. "They're delicious. You can't beat them fried or broiled. Roll them in seasoned flour or corn meal."