Walleye Habitat and Characteristics
If you want to fish walleye, it helps to be familiar with their habits and haunts. The more you know about your adversary, the better success you’ll have.
Scientific Name: Sander vitreus, aka Stizostedion Vitreum
Fish Family: Percidae
Other Names: yellow pickerel, pickerel, yellow walleye, colored pike, walleyed pike, jack salmon, jack, walleyed pike-perch, pike-perch, pike, gray pike, green pike, ‘eye, marbleye, glass-eye; French: doreé
The walleye is olive to off brown in color, broken up by darker stripes extending down the flanks to its lighter colored belly. There is a noticeable dark spot at the base of the last spines on the first dorsal fin. The dorsal and anal fins are distinctly spiny and the mouth contains an army of very sharp teeth. The walleye is named for its large, marble-like glowing eyes, caused by the tapetum lucidum, a reflective layer of pigment that allows it to see prey at night and in deeper, dark water. Its lifespan ranges from 5-6 years in heavily fished areas to 10-20 years in less exploited waters. A mature walleye can reach 30 inches and weigh up to 20 pounds.
Walleyes spawn in spring, soon after the ice breaks up and the water temperature hovers in the 38 to 45° range. In rivers, they prefer to broadcast their eggs over gravel or rocky areas. Lake walleyes will spawn in weeds, or over reefs and shoals.
Young walleye feed on plankton and insect larvae until they’re large enough to eat fish smaller than them, namely minnows. Minnows remain a favorite meal throughout the walleye’s life, though I’ve heard tell they also appreciate yellow perch, largely because they frequent the same locations and share similar diets. But, don’t let the walleye’s love for fish keep you from using night crawlers, leeches or artificial baits. The pros will tell you walleyes feed on a variety of critters if presented correctly, and I can second that from personal experience.
Map Courtesy of USGS – Click through image for more detail
Walleye are distributed across a wide swath of North America, from the Arctic down through most of Canada to the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes. They are also found in the Mississippi River basins and the Gulf drainages of Alabama and Mississippi. Stocking programs have introduced walleye to Atlantic Coast drainages from Vermont to South Carolina, and throughout the western states, with the exception of California.
You’ll find them in lakes, and in medium to large rivers. They do particularly well in large, shallow lakes prone to moderately turbid conditions.
Walleyes are particular about their surroundings. Their hangouts depend on the season, time of day, water temperature, availability of baitfish, etc. They can tolerate temperatures from 32° to 90° Fahrenheit, but they’re happiest in 70 degree waters. Lake walleyes will usually hang at the bottom during daylight and move to the shallows to feed around dawn and dusk. Similarly, river walleyes will spend daytime near drop-offs or in holes to escape the sunlight and move to the shallows in the dark hours. They also like to hold near dams, out of the main current. No matter their location, walleyes prefer packed sand, gravel or rocky bottoms and will use weed beds, submerged trees or other structures as cover during the day.
Hopefully, this information on walleye habitat gives you a good foundation for how to catch them.
But Wait! Three types of Walleye?
Well, technically, yes. They are the aforementioned Walleye, the Sauger and the Suageye. Walleye and Sauger are cousins and the Saugeye is a hybrid. They’re all members of the perch family, have similar looks, enjoy the same foods, can often be found in the same waters, and taste exactly the same.
But, there are differences and the first is size. Full grown walleye can grow to a length of 30 inches and weigh upward of 15 pounds. Sauger generally reach up to 15 inches and 4 pounds.
Though often found in the same waters, both have their preferences. Walleye excel in deep, cool, clear lakes and are partial to hard, rocky bottoms. Sauger do well in streams and rivers with deep, murky pools and soft, sandy or muddy bottoms. In lakes, sauger will go deeper than walleye, because as good as walleye sight is in the dark, the sauger’s is even better.
The saugeye, as you may have guessed by the name, is the result of crossing a female walleye with a male sauger. Though this hybridization does occur naturally, the saugeye is almost exclusively produced in hatcheries and stocked by state DNRs. In Ohio, for instance, the Division of Wildlife adds over 7 million saugeye to 70+ reservoirs every year. Saugeye fare much better in reserviors than walleye because, like the Sauger, their eyes are better adapted to the lower light of deep, murky water.
Their sensitivity to light dictates that walleyes hang out in deeper pools or in the shelter of sunken trees or weed beds during the day. They take advantage of their visual acuity to feed at dawn, dusk and into the nighttime hours. However, walleyes will feed during daylight hours if the water is murky or if the weather is overcast. They are also more active on windy days when “walleye chop” cuts down on light penetrating the water.