Finding Great Lakes Walleye Early & Late
I’ve fished walleye most of my life. I’d like to say I know everything there is to know about this species, but to be brutally honest that simply isn’t true. Experience has taught us a lot about how to catch walleye, but there are still way more things we don’t know about this species compared to what we know to be fact.
This amazing photo taken by Jake Romanack on Saginaw Bay should put the pitter patter into your heart. This instant in time is the “moment of truth” that makes all the work associated with ice fishing worth while.
What we have learned about walleye is that this species is not afraid to migrate hundreds of miles to find suitable spawning habitat, food to forage upon or other creature comforts. In the case of Lake Erie walleye spawn in April on the many shallow water reefs of the Western Basin. After spawning the adults point their noses to the east and begin a migration that will ultimately take them as far east as they can swim.
Fish that spawn in the Western Basin routinely spend their summers in the Eastern Basin a distance of more than 240 miles. Interestingly enough, these same fish that felt the need to swim all the way to the east end of the lake, turn around and head back to the Western Basin beginning in the fall and extending throughout the winter and early spring months. About the time the ice is melting in the spring, walleye find themselves in the neighborhood of the same spawning reefs from which they hatched.
Biologists aren’t exactly sure why this dramatic and annual migration occurs. In theory the Eastern Basin produces a more desirable forage base for adult fish with adult sized appetites. The deeper waters of the Eastern Basin support an abundant supply of smelt, alewives, gizzard shad, ciscoes and emerald shiners. The forage base in the Western Basin is primarily made up of emerald shiners which just happen to be the perfect size for younger walleye.
We don’t know exactly why walleye do what they do, but data collected from jaw tag and radio telemetry studies confirms the fact that walleye routinely embark on some epic migrations. It’s also interesting to note that the walleye migration that has been documented on Lake Erie isn’t exactly unique to this body of water.
In fact, similar migrations among walleye populations occur with fish that spawn in the Tittabawassee and Saginaw Rivers, only to spend their summers in the outer reaches of Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron. In Wisconsin, walleye run the Fox River and spawn in the spring, only to turn around and swim through Sturgeon Bay and into Lake Michigan during the summer months.
Great Lakes walleye are interesting creatures. Most of the time in the late fall, winter and early Spring they will be found near bottom in deep water. However for every rule in fishing there is an exception to that rule. When suspended marks appear on your sonar unit, don’t assume those are trash fish. Sometimes those suspended marks turn out to be walleye who just never bothered to read the book on walleye fishing!!
Walleye found in the western impoundments do pretty much the same thing. The one thing that is consistent with these seasonal migrations is that during the fall of the year and throughout the winter months and even into the pre-spawn period of spring, walleye on average tend to be found in deeper water. This is not to say that walleye can’t turn up in shallow water during the fall, winter or very early spring months. Walleye are going to be found anywhere forage is abundant, but it’s a safe bet that you’ll find more walleye using deeper water in the fall and winter than shallow water.
Finding walleye is often about eliminating the paces they are not as likely to be and focusing the search on the places they routinely hang out. Of course for every rule there is an exception to that rule. Case in point -- Lake Erie walleye tend to be found primarily on the bottom during the winter and early spring.
Despite this fact, some walleye are still suspending in the water column for reasons we don’t completely understand. Interestingly enough, when a suspended mark suddenly appears on the sonar while ice fishing or jigging early in the spring, there is a pretty good chance that fish can be tempted into biting.
The moral of this story is to keep an open mind and be flexible in your fishing approach. This winter most of the walleye caught in Erie, Saginaw Bay, Little Bay de Noc, Green Bay and the Bay of Quinte are going to be taken near the bottom. That stated, if you see a suspended mark on your sonar, don’t assume it’s a trash fish. Chances are that fish is also a walleye and just as likely to bite.