Author Topic: Walleye on the Fly - Fly Fishing Tactics for Walleye  (Read 3836 times)

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Nick Laferriere

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Walleye on the Fly - Fly Fishing Tactics for Walleye
« on: March 29, 2012, 08:46:00 PM »
Walleye on the Fly

Red River Walleye - Greenback morph/subspecies

The Fish

To start off, lets talk about what a walleye is and where it fits in its ecosystem.
-Walleye are a mid-to-large sized predator that feed primarily on baitfish, leeches, and insect larvae.
-They have mid-sized teeth that sweep rearward that grasp prey and donít let them out.
-They have very good eye sight and have excellent vision in low-light.
-They are opportunistic and often are found in schools ranging from small groups to schools of hundreds of fish in large lakes like Lake Erie.
-Their habitats in lakes range from weedbeds, gravel bars, reefs, wind blown points, open-water, sandy shorelines, and docks.
-In rivers, they can be found in fast flows, deep pools, eddies, main channels and undercuts.
-They spawn in the spring, typically shortly after ice-out and most often on gravel shorelines, exposed to wind.
-Their main predators are Northern Pike and Musky in the water; and are also predated on by Loons, Cormorants, Mergansers, and Otters.
-Walleye typically have metallic gold markings with mottled markings and a distinctive white tip on the lower lobe of the tail/caudal fin. They have large eyes, rough scales, a spiny anterior dorsal fin, and sharp gill plates.

The Habitat

Walleye can be found in a variety of habitats and waterbodies. They are at home both in lakes and in rivers, and can tolerate fast flows. To better describe its habitat preferences Iíll break it into two categories; rivers and lakes.

In rivers, walleye can be found in both fertile and non-fertile, warmwater rivers. They can handle surprisingly fast flows and Iíve caught them in white water runs. They will hold more often in pools, eddies and the main channel during the day, and come out onto the riffles and shallow runs during low light situations. Iíve seen them seemingly stuck to the bottom in very fast flows, which made me realize how adaptive the species truly is.

In large rivers they can be widespread and a boat with a depth finder can make the difference for locating fish.
In rivers that are murky, walleye are more likely to feed during the day and seem to be less shy. In these fertile rivers, using bright, flashy flies can make the difference.

In clear rivers, walleye can be finicky and shy. In these scenarios, using fluorocarbon tippet and flies that are more natural coloured can make a huge difference. Also, fishing early and late in the day give you the best odds on getting onto active fish.

In lakes, your best bet is fishing the edges. My favourite spots for locating fish are edges of drop-offs, edges of gravel bars, edges of weedbeds, reefs, saddles, an d any transition between two different substrates (mud/sand, sand/boulders). Because they donít offer us any surface clues like trout, itís better to search out their desired habitats and narrowing it down.

The best conditions unfortunately are the least favourable for fly fishers. Wind. Walleye like wind. It offers them cover from aerial predators, it disorients their prey, it breaks up light entering the water, and it stirs up the water. During wind, itís best to fish wind blown points and shorelines. Here, walleye can be stacked up, waiting for baitfish to get carried in from the wind. Also, look for wind induced currents which occurs when wind creates currents between islands, along points, and in narrows.

Other good places to look for are in-flows. Walleye will pack up at the base of waterfalls and river mouths, sitting and waiting for schools of baitfish or picking off disoriented baitfish.

The Prey

As stated above, walleye feed primarily on baitfish, leeches, and insect larvae. They are apex predators that chase down their food. They prefer to use the cover of darkness or the transition periods of sunrise and sunset. During bright sunny days, walleye tend to lay low and not be as active.

Baitfish make up a large portion of their diet, and this is especially true for large, mature walleye. They feed on shiners, darters, perch, stickleback, dace, juvenile suckers, cisco, and chubs. Walleye will take a surprisingly large food item and fishing larger flies arenít out of the question.

Walleye also feed heavily on leeches when the water temperatures rise and leeches become more available. They make for an easy meal for walleye and they will gorge on them, especially in low light situations when leeches are most active.

They also will key in on insect hatches such as Hexagenia mayflies, damselflies, and dragonflies. They donít seem to target the smaller insects as much, but will feed on pre-occupied baitfish and ciscoes that are feeding on midge and smaller insects hatches.

The Tactics

Fishing for walleye with traditional live bait, spinners, jigs, and lures is well documented and very successful, however, fly fishing for walleye is less known. The biggest thing when targeting walleye, is getting down to where the fish. This means sink tips in rivers, and full-sinking lines in lakes. Mimicking some type of baitfish is your best bet to search out active, feeding walleye. Iíll typically tie on a deceiver pattern onto a type 3 or 5 sinking line or an intermediate sinking line, depending on how deep Iím fishing. Iíll often tie on a 2-fly rig as well to increase the chance of finding fish and discovering what their preference is for that period of time.

When I find active fish, I like to stop and analyze why the fish are holding in a certain spot. Typically, fish on one side of the lake or in one spot will be in the same sort of spot on another part of the lake. Keep in mind that there may only be a few active fish in a school that will take your attractor flies. However, this doesnít mean you canít catch the other fish in the school. By switching to a smaller pattern or a leech pattern can get you catching some of the less aggressive fish in the group.

Some keys to success:
-Water clarity and light levels should determine your fly colour choice. Typically during low light times and when the water is stained or murky, bright colours like pink, orange, yellow, and chartreuse, can be very effective. Fly size matters less in this situation as well, and you can get away with a larger fly. Also, donít rule out using a solid white or solid black coloured fly.
-In clear water and during times of high light intensity, sticking with a more natural coloured fly and a fly sized appropriately can be the key to catching fish.
-Takes can be light at times and itís important to keep a tight line and to hookset quickly to avoid missing fish. They will ďhit and spitĒ very quickly, so having a quick-reflex, hookset, can be invaluable! And sometimes, you wonít even feel the strike. Youíll be stripping your line and just feel a bit of weight on the end. Set the hook! Other times, fish will demolish your fly! Just depends on their mood.
-Iíve found that you donít get many short strikes when fly fishing for walleye as you do when fishing with conventional gear. I donít know why this is, but Iím not complaining!
-Large walleye are a blast to catch with fly gear and put up a hard fought battle! These large walleye often catch me off guard and I incidentally catch them often when fishing for pike, crappie, and bass.

The Flies

Flies with a minnow shape work well. My favourite minnow pattern to fish with is the deceiver pattern. It looks great in the water, casts well, and just simply, catches fish! My favourite colours are black/white, pink, chartreuse, olive/white, brown/gold, silver/white, chartreuse/orange w/ vertical stripes (perch) and blue/white. I also will add lead eyes or a conehead to a deceiver to get it down deeper. I like using a deceiver in a size 2-4 or 2.5-3-inches in length. Most of the baitfish they feed on is in that size range. As the light fades you can get away with larger sized flies and especially for catching large walleye, switching to a 2/0 or 4-inch fly is not out of the question!

Another good fly pattern for mimicking baitfish is the zonker. Itís simple to tie and its effective. The use of rabbit fur adds a lifelike appearance in the water. They can water-log and be harder to cast than deceivers, but youíll definitely want to add a couple zonkers to your arsenal.

For fishing in rivers, clouser minnows can be effective for cutting down through the current and skipping along the bottom. This technique also works well in lakes situations, especially on sandy flats!

Leech patterns, youíre going to want to have a couple. Either you stick to the standard woolly bugger which works great, or you use patterns like mohair leeches or other typical trout patterns, they all work and make sure you have some. Typically a leech pattern in a size 4-6 is the best size. This best mimics the ribbon leech which they prefer.

Lastly, having a couple Hex mayfly nymph patterns and a couple dragonfly nymph patterns can save your day when those surprise hatches happen! Also, at times when walleye just donít seem to want to eat, crawling a dragonfly nymph past them can trigger the response to have one more morsel.

The Equipment

You definitely arenít going to need anything over the top here. Personally, I like to use a 6- or 7-weight setup. These weights are best suited for tossing deceivers and dealing with wind. You could easily land the majority of walleye on lighter rods but having the extra backbone is nice in case you tangle into a large fish!

Walleye arenít Olympic athletes and you could get away with no backing. They typically donít run or jump, but instead headshake and wage a deep battle. Large fish will do numerous short runs of up to 20 yards with headshakes mixed in.

Walleye do have teeth, but theyíre less likely to bite through than pike. However, it is recommended to have at least 6lb tippet. Only in very clear water is it truly necessary for a long leader and the use of fluorocarbon. Iíve found them to be less line shy when using fly gear. Iíll typically run a 3-5ft leader off my sinking line. I like to have a section of 12lb leader, triple surgeoníd to a section of 8lb leader/tippet. This seems to be sufficient for most situations, unless youíre in a high pike concentration. Then it can be invaluable to tie in wire bite tippet. You can get very thin, titanium leader material that doesnít kink, itís very lightweight and will fend off those pesky little pikeís teeth.

Itís important to keep a tight line on the fish while fighting them. They are masters at throwing a hook and in areas where barbless hooks are mandatory, it can be frustrating losing fish.

The Conclusion

Walleye may not be the hardest fighting adversary but they offer a challenge and the reward of catching a trophy-sized walleye on fly gear is fantastic! They also offer a great, mid-afternoon shore lunch!

Red River Walleye - Greenback morph/subspecies

God's River Walleye - caught in crystal clear, white water

26" War Eagle Lake Walleye - caught on a perch deceiver pattern

War Eagle Lake Walleye - Gold morph

Todd Oishi

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Re: Walleye on the Fly - Fly Fishing Tactics for Walleye
« Reply #1 on: March 29, 2012, 09:02:20 PM »
Thank-you very much for submitting this very informative and well written article Nick! I've never fished for Walleye, but the knowledge that I've gained from your article will be very helpful when I eventually have the opportunity to target them.

For me, the quality of a trout is not measured in inches or pounds, but rather by the journey and circumstances that allowed our paths to cross...

Jeff Weltz

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Re: Walleye on the Fly - Fly Fishing Tactics for Walleye
« Reply #2 on: March 31, 2012, 08:15:47 PM »
Thank You Nick

I tried for walleye with fly gear a few times back in the late 80's, mostly in tobacco country around Lake Erie. It was a frustrating experience, with my bait chucking relatives catching eyes all around me.

Nick Laferriere

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Re: Walleye on the Fly - Fly Fishing Tactics for Walleye
« Reply #3 on: April 02, 2012, 09:53:22 PM »
They can be frustrating...I find the hardest part is getting your fly down to their level since they're more bottom oriented. Using balanced leech patterns under an indicator definitely would help or using heavily weight patterns to skip along the bottom.

This is exactly what I ended up doing on the river on the weekend. I had tied a pattern which used the cookie cutter design of the Bow River Bugger but I added lead eyes to it so it would cut through the current. Also, I tied the eyes so it would flip the fly and force the hook point to stay up! This way I could skip the fly right on the bottom and off rocks with less chance of snagging it. This worked perfect and I was able to fish it for several hours without losing it! By the end the pattern was trashed from the fish's teeth but it passed my test! I'll be tying more of these!

Here's the pattern hanging out of a 22" greenback walleye.


Robert Stroud

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Re: Walleye on the Fly - Fly Fishing Tactics for Walleye
« Reply #4 on: April 03, 2012, 09:05:57 AM »
I used to fish walleye in the great lakes systems using zonkers. An interesting and extremely useful addition to the traditional zonker was the use of worm rattles, the kind found in the bass sections of tackle shops. They were inserted into the mylar body. Most were tied inverted with dumbbell eyes to reach the bottom structure. Loved the article.

Nick Laferriere

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Re: Walleye on the Fly - Fly Fishing Tactics for Walleye
« Reply #5 on: April 03, 2012, 11:04:53 AM »
Cheers Robert!

Ya those rattles work great! They're pretty loud in the water too. I tie a crayfish pattern that has lead eyes and two glass rattles tied on either side of the hook shank. I use this for skipping along the bottom in the Red River, but I'm sure it'd work great for bass and walleye too!

An advantage that fly anglers have over the hardware crowd is we can suspend our bait but still get action out of our fly. This is achieved using intermediate lines and utilizing rabbit and marabou. I've caught a lot of walleye when I just paused my retrieve for a few seconds. BOOM!

The majority of fish are going to be coming off the bottom though. From my hardware days I used to skip 5" soft plastic jerkbaits off the bottom and just lay a lickin' on the marble-eyes. After discovering how effective this was I transferred that knowledge over to fly fishing and it's helped me hone my mindset and adapting my techniques.

A pattern I'm anxious to tie up is a fly I saw for carp fishing. You use a 90ļ jig hook and tie lead eyes onto the bend or just back from the bend. What you achieve is a fly that headstands on the bottom! This is exactly what I was doing with those soft plastic jerkbaits! I figure using a rabbit strip off the back you could come up with a really effective walleye pattern! I'll surely be playing with this and will post some photos of the results!

In the mean-time here's a side by side comparison of the Greenback colour morph vs the Gold colour morph.

Greenback from Lake Winnipeg and tributaries. Biologists figure its a subspecies. Hard to tell from this picture but the back of this morph is a vibrant, iridescent emerald green. They're actually quite stunning!

Gold-morph from Lake of the Woods, ON. This is your typical walleye coloration.

Another gold-morph from Beren's River, MB when I was on a moose hunt. Very dark fish!

Danie Erasmus

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Re: Walleye on the Fly - Fly Fishing Tactics for Walleye
« Reply #6 on: April 03, 2012, 06:45:44 PM »
Enjoyed the read, Walleye is a species that I still need to get on the fly. I did have on 13 years ago  ;D

Love the photos of the different morphs!!

John Kent

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Re: Walleye on the Fly - Fly Fishing Tactics for Walleye
« Reply #7 on: April 04, 2012, 06:38:53 AM »
I usually flyfish for walleye a couple times a year here in Alberta and not until it's too hot for trout. The lake behind the plant where I work has a hexagenia hatch which is the only adult insect I've seen walleye come to the surface for and usually in the evening.

At other times white streamers, woolly buggers, baitfish patterns and balanced patterns fished off the bottom near structure is always a good place to start, as Nick eluded to so eloquently!