fishing is an endeavor I typically save for spring and fall. So with fall coming, along with an upcoming trip to Ontario, walleye have been on my mind. I spoke with Dave Stewart on his Wet Fly Swing podcast
recently about the subject of catching these toothy critters with flies. That episode will be out soon, and I wanted to write a little piece here to explain some of the basics of going after walleye with fly gear. [ The podcast went live 9/7, here is the link to Fly Fishing for Walleye with Matt Snider
(you can also find it on Spotify etc.) ]
I’ve been fly fishing for walleye (and catching walleye on the fly) for years, and I probably get more raised eyebrows than any other species when I tell fellow conventional anglers what I did. Walleye are ambushing predators and they like to eat smaller fish - that is essentially all you need to know to arm yourself with the very basics of how to go after them with a fly rod.
Walleye are one of the most sought-after gamefish in freshwater, and have captured the fascination and taste buds of most conventional tackle anglers. Not so much with fly fishers. It is a most highly held belief that they are lazy deep-sitting bottom-hugging fish. I have news for the people with that stereotype stuck in their head: walleye are every bit as tenacious, ferocious, and voracious as their toothy second cousins the northern pike. But they do a pretty good job relaxing too, so if you want to catch them when they’re not in the cafeteria line, you’re probably better off fishing bottom bouncers, vertical jigging, and using bait.
One of the reasons you may have come upon the FishExplorer website in the first place is because of walleye on the fly, perhaps in a roundabout way. Shortly after we launched FishExplorer in April 2006, Rocky Mountain Newspaper Outdoors Editor Ed Dentry and I began a conversation on fly fishing for walleye. He mentioned that he had never had a successful trip with anyone who stated they could do such. It was November, and while winter was threatening, we still had decent weather that year and I was getting as much boat time in as I could squeeze out of autumn.
I took Ed out on the boat a few days later in Northern Colorado. Ed with a wry “I’d like to see this” expression on his face toted his bag of camera gear and a bag of fly gear. I don’t recall Ed fishing much that day, but he is one of the more experienced and dedicated fly fishers and tyers that I know. I showed him around the lake and proceeded to cast, explaining to him how I used sonar to find spots I liked. At that time and place those spots consisted of depths in 10-12 feet of water near deeper water, and with brush or some other sort of cover on the bottom.
The first fish I caught was a small rock, and in typical form Ed grabbed his camera for what he calls an “insurance” photo – at least he tried, it was back in the drink before his lens cap came off. I am certain Ed thought I was a bit crazy and figured this would make a great article. Headline would read “Local says he catches walleye on a fly rod, catches rocks instead”.
Not long after that I caught a small perch, and I believe this one did make the camera roll. Better that than nothing. But then we cashed in. I caught a few walleye and Ed went home happy, wrote up a fine article which I have framed on my wall, and the word about FishExplorer got out to many people, which makes it what it is today.
The rig I was using then is basically the same as I use now, spring, summer, and fall. I use it for a variety of species in a variety of situations. It is my go-to setup, and if you want to get into warmwater fly fishing, I suggest that this be your first setup. I use a fast-action 9ft 6-weight rod with a sink-tip/running line to match, like the Rio In Touch 24ft sink tip (I think back then I was using a Teeny line). This gives me the ability to get long casts in a quick manner, cover a lot of water, and fish a variety of depths. If I plan to fish in windier conditions or a bit deeper I will grab my 8wt setup. My leader is usually a level 1x fluorocarbon anywhere from 3-8 feet long, shorter to help drive the flies deeper and longer to help them stay shallower.
There are only two flies you need to get you started. Clousers and Woolly Buggers (or similar baitfish and crayfish patterns, sorry to be so generic). What are walleye eating? Primarily baitfish but also crayfish in my neck of the woods. These two basic and readily available patterns work well to imitate both. If you want to build a larger arsenal, expand your color choices, weights, and density of fibers.
I tie clousers sparser when I would like them to sink faster or for when I am fishing clearer water, and denser when I want them to ride higher in the water column and so they make more “noise” and are easier to track in darker water. I don’t focus much on colors and focus more on contrast, but I tend to use a lot of these combos: black/white, gray/white, olive/white, black/chartreuse, and purple/white. I now almost always am fishing a couple of clousers in tandem, those flies tied with a little bit of flash in the body.
In spring and fall it doesn’t seem to matter much what time of day you fish – if you find feeding walleye you will catch them. In the summer you’ll want to focus on daylight and dusk, overcast days, as well as in the dark of night to find feeding walleye more consistently. I don’t fish in the dark much, I tend to target other fish during the dog days of summer. But if you do fish at night, hold on, that’s when the big boys (and girls) eat. I don’t worry too much on pre-spawn or post-spawn, but those periods are good to know in the body of water you are fishing.
I am primarily fishing for actively feeding fish when targeting walleye on the fly, so to find success I need to locate actively feeding fish. That can change based on season, time of day, lake, food sources, etc. The variables are endless. This is where your homework and knowledge of a body of water come into play. Experience pays off in spades.
To find feeding fish, do research and learn the body of water you plan to fish. Research the contours, structure and cover provided in a lake. This is where the hunter (walleye) goes to hunt. Research the other species in the lake, most importantly the food sources (what sort of baitfish, are there plenty of crayfish?) Then learn the lake through experience. Get to know its tendencies, its nooks and crannies. Find the good structure and cover and find the spots on those spots that hold more active fish. Find the presentation angles that tend to be more successful.
And find fish food. I focus mostly on baitfish and I like sections of a lake where there is more overall activity showing on sonar, both baitfish and gamefish, especially over deeper open water. Where deep water containing high baitfish/gamefish activity meets shallower water with structure and/or cover, you will find predators lurking.
In the spring and early summer I love weed edges, especially the deeper side and in proximity to deeper water, and even more so if wind is blowing into them. In most situations, early season weed bedswill not be visible to the naked eye. You will have to rely on your sonar and personal knowledge to know where the vegetation exists. Fishing over young weed beds is a very effective strategy to find fish – they know where the weedbeds are all year, thick or not. I spend a lot of time marking up my maps while out on the water, marking weed beds for later reference. Sometimes that drives my fishing partner crazy, but it’s worth it.
I also love wind-blown flooded brush. Later in the spring and into early summer I focus more on structure. That typically means points that jut out into deeper water, or reefs topping out at 5-10 feet deep out of deeper water. Add some wind-induced current to those spots, and some baitfish nearby, and you’ve got a winner. Steep walls with wind-induced current is also a winner, look for bubble lines. Wind will also create mudlines where predators like to ambush prey, so if you find those, fish them. Wind is your friend.
As far as how to fish these spots, it is almost always trial and error every time I go out. Hungry veracious fish will eat fast stripped clousers, especially when you find them actively chasing baitfish schools up high in the water column (yes, like stripers/wipers). Snacking walleye may like suspending baitfish patterns or twitched crayfish patterns. Walleye cruising around open water schools of baitfish may be setting themselves up below the balls and will eat clousers that drop beneath them. Consider baitfish schools structure, even over deep water - find them, and fish them, it is especially effective for me in late summer into late fall.
I do have a strip retrieve that I lean towards for each species. For walleye, when fishing clousers, I always start with a sharp 6-inch strip in a medium cadence, say about one strip per second. Keep the strips sharp, darting the clousers through the water, letting them sink or hover for a second between strips. Then I may go to quick 2-inch strips in various repetitions, with a pause between, varying the pause length. So maybe a twitch-twitch-pause, then a twitch-twitch-twitch-long…pause, then another twitch and longer pause, and so on. For deeper fish I will let the flies and line sink for a bit before retrieve, count it down, experimenting with different timing and depths. I don’t fish buggers much when targeting walleye, but if you are fishing crayfish patterns I like to focus more on the pause than on the strip - quick short strips are interspersed with long pauses, trying to keep the flies close to the bottom of the lake.
With the fly line setup I described, you can effectively fish shallow water (with quicker stripping) and deep water down to 12 feet or so effectively (with longer sink at beginning, and slower retrieve.) Keep in mind that if you find fish hanging out on a point 20 feet deep, you do not need to get down that far to get these eaters to bite. They are more than capable of speedily attacking something 10-15 feet above them. I usually fish two clousers or two buggers in tandem, about 18 inches apart, the lead fly tied off on a tag from a blood knot or a double surgeons knot to give it a more lifelike motion.
This short intro to walleye fly fishing from my perspective will hopefully give you some confidence to give it a go yourself. My last piece of advice for you: keep at it, grind away. Be prepared to spend hours hunting down these hunters. At times you may feel like you’re chasing muskie with all the fruitless casting you’re doing. But at some point you will feel the alarming attack of a strong toothy walleye, and it will test your fighting skills. Enjoy!