Walleye Fishing 101: How To Catch Walleye for Beginners

huge walleye in anglers hand
Dale Shetler
By Dale Shetler
Updated February 3, 2021

You don't need to be an expert angler to catch walleye, but this fish species can be tricky. Locating them is the hardest part. Understanding where they like to swim, their feeding habits, the water conditions, and more can help you fish more successfully. The right presentation, bait, rigs, and techniques are also necessary to hook a good catch. In this article, we're breaking down all the tips that a beginner should know, including where walleye are, their behavior, and the best tackle, such as rods, reels, and baits. We'll also discuss techniques used to catch walleye, rigs, and more. With some patience and the right strategy, anyone can learn how to catch walleye.

Where You Can Fish For Walleye

Walleye are native to the Northern United States and Canada. They're the state fish of Minnesota, South Dakota, and Vermont, as well as the official provincial fish of Saskatchewan and Manitoba! They live in various bodies of water such as man-made and natural lakes, rivers, and streams with cool temperatures.

Gravel, rock, sand, and clay bottoms are some of their favorite places, along with underwater structures. While they often swim along the bottom of clear waters, you can still find them throughout the water column and in low-moderate clarity. They prefer water at 65-75 degrees, but they're still active in a colder water temperature.

What You Need To Know About Walleye Behavior

walleye sander vitreus illustration

If you're interested in walleye fishing, knowing a bit about how this fish species behaves can help you find the perfect strike zone. They're sensitive to bright light, so it's best to go out on overcast days, at dawn, or dusk. As for their feeding habits, walleye eat other fish, especially yellow perch and minnow. They usually enjoy their meals in shallow water around dawn and dusk. If an area has lots of vegetation, walleye can often be found hiding there. In the day, they're more likely to be in the weeds when the sun is bright.

Walleye spawn in the spring. In many areas, there are laws about walleye fishing during this season, so check in before you make plans. The summer peak happens about six weeks after spawning. Walleyes move to deep water, but still come to the shallows for food. You can expect the best fishing between 10 feet and 30 feet deep.

Because the baitfish that walleye feed on aren't big enough in the summer, the walleye are more likely to go after your live bait. Once the baitfish are bigger and more available, the walleye fishing season slows down a bit. In the fall, it picks back up a bit when more of the baitfish are eaten. Targeting fall walleye is great for anglers who don't have a boat as the fish move into shallow water during the evening and night time. It's easy to cast from the shore.

How To Catch Walleye

man showing how to catch walleye effectively

Because walleye swim in both the shallows and the depths, as well as in weeds or open water, there are a variety of techniques that get results:

Jigging (Live Bait And Soft Plastics)

Jigging is the most popular technique for walleye fishing. This is when you present the bait along the bottom with vertical jerks. The "jig" itself is a lead sinker with a hook molded into it. You can jig from either a boat, dock, or the shore. If you're on a boat and using live bait, you'll want to keep the bait in front of you. On the shore, aim for rocky, sandy bottoms or along the weedline.

To jig, let the bait hit the bottom and then bounce the jig every 3-5 seconds. Lift it a foot or so, drop it, and then pause for a second. Repeat. Jigging plastics is great for rivers in the fall where there's a strong current and active walleye. Experiment with how you move your jig, but keep the lure 1-2 feet off the bottom.

Cast And Retrieve

When walleye move to the shallows at dusk and dawn, try out the cast and retrieve method. It works best near the shoreline around structures like logs, vegetation, rocks, and more. Tie your bait or lure to your line and cast out. If you're using lures, natural colors work best. As soon as you cast out, start your retrieve. The walleye will most likely be near the bottom, so let your bait/lure sink. If you don't have a boat, you can try this standing on the shore or a dock.

Drop Shotting

Drop shot rig sinker and soft plastic lure bait setup for catching predatory fish

To drop shot, you simply put a weight at the end of your line, with the hook and bait above it. This weight at the bottom gives you control over where the lure hangs in the water. This is good for walleye swimming along the bottom. Drop shotting is also effective because you can slowly move your live bait, making it more realistic for suspicious walleye. Hitting the bottom also kicks up sediment, which is known to attract fish.

Also read: Best dropshot rods

Drifting

Drifting is when you drag your rig at the bottom of the body of water. It's bottom fishing + movement. It's traditionally done by boat as you allow the winds and currents to move you around. Speed matters. Going too fast or too slow can make it tricky to catch walleyes. If a high speed is the problem, you can slow down with a heavier lure or weight. Drifting a good technique for locating fish in a big body of water, especially if you don't have sonar or GPS. Generally, live bait rigs work best.

Trolling

Trolling is very similar to drifting because both involve dragging your line through the water. With trolling, however, it's more controlled because you use a boat's motor to move. Aim your fishing line about 50-100 yards behind the boat in depths of between 10 feet and 15 feet. About 1-2 mph should work. The trolling method is very popular in tournaments.

Spinning

Spin fishing is when you use a spinning lure to attract a bite. You can catch just about any species with spinning, but it's popular with walleye, especially in the summer. It works best for deep-water walleyes. It's a fairly simple method, which is nice for beginners. The key is using good spinner rigs, which we'll describe soon. Like jigging, spinning involves moving baits or lures, but the movement is horizontal as opposed to vertical.

What Rods And Reels Work Well For Walleye?

As is always the case with fishing, the best rod and reel depends on your style and the techniques you plan to use. For most beginner anglers, a medium power, 6-7 foot spinning rod paired with a medium-sized 35 reel is a great choice, especially for lures and soft plastics. This combo allows for versatility.

For more specific techniques like jigging and live bait rigs, a lighter rod and reel combo works. Think a medium light, 6-foot fast action spinning rod and medium-sized 30 reel. This combo also works better for lighter strikes, which walleye are known for. Generally, a rod designed for trolling has the least sensitivity while jigging rods are the most sensitive.

What Fishing Line Should You Use?

Most of the time, monofilament line is a good choice for beginners. It has a lot of stretch and it's inexpensive. It works with both live and artificial bait. That being said, anglers these days are turning to braided line. It's a good choice if you're using single hooks and catching walleye around lots of weeds.

Fluorocarbon, which is the most expensive type of line, makes it easier to notice a bite. It's also basically invisible, sinks well, and has great abrasion resistance. Fluorocarbon is an ideal leader. If someone is using mono, they might skip the leader, but braided line needs a fluorocarbon leader. For convenience, you can attach the leader to your regular line with a barrel swivel. A barrel swivel is also useful because it lets a lure twist with the current, but it won't twist your main line.

You can read more about the various advantages and disadvantages of these three line types here.

How strong should your line be? Fishing line strength is measured by a pound test. While the right strength varies depending on your technique, a general rule of thumb is 6-8 pounds for mono, 8-10 pounds for braid, and 10-12 pounds for a leader.

Walleye Jigs And Rigs

Now that we've talked about how to catch walleye, let's get into the two presentation options: jigs and rigs.

Non-Barbed Jigs

For jigging live bait, Fireball-style jigs between 1/4-1/8 ounce are great. They're specialized jig heads without a lead barb. Because they have a shorter shank, they're more compact.

Barbed Jigs

If you're using soft plastics, go with barbed jigs. Look for jigheads with a larger hook and a plastics keeper. For sizing, make sure your plastic covers the barb. The shank should stick out of the plastic enough for a solid hook set. For 2-3 inch plastics, 1/8-ounce jigs will work.

Slip Bobber Rig

This type of rig is excellent for beginners. The bobber slides on the line, which lets you choose where you want to position your bait. This is very useful when walleye are suspended at a specific depth. You can present the bait right in their eye line. Say you want to hang a minnow ten feet below the water's surface. Simply slide your bobber stop ten feet above the bait.

When you're fishing for walleyes, set the bobber stop so the bobber is a few inches above the bottom. You'll need good hooks and sinkers for a slip bobber, like red octopus hooks, split shot sinkers, and walking weights. When paired with a split shot, you can drag and drift the rig over vegetation, wood, and other underwater structures.

Slip Sinker Rig

Sinker types for slip sinker rig

Also known as a sliding sinker or Carolina rig, this is a versatile and popular rig with both walleye beginners and those with more experience. For bottom fishing, you'll cast the rig and let it settle on the bottom. Slip sinkers are great because walleye have a habit of grabbing live bait and then letting go when they feel the resistance from the fishing line. With a slip sinker rig, you can let the walleye swim away with the bait until you get a hookset.

Spinner Rigs

Walleye anglers have used spinner rigs for more than one hundred years. It's a generally more advanced method. These are beaded blade rigs that use either a single hook or double-hook harness. The blades create flash and vibration, imitating the baitfish walleye eat. You'll use a spinner for trolling and covering wide areas of the water.

Best Types Of Live Bait

When walleye fishing, the kind of bait you use matters. Live bait requires less skill, which is helpful for beginners. The time of year and jigs/rigs you're using are also affects how successful your bait is, but many anglers find that walleye can change their preference day to day. It just depends on their mood. That being said, there are three types of live bait that walleye nearly always love:

Minnow

Minnows are very popular. If you're going after big walleye, a shiner minnow between 4-6 inches is a good choice. You can also use fathead minnows, which are smaller at 2-3 inches. Minnows are a great choice for fishing in May and early June. A minnow can be jigged, rigged, and used on a slip bobber. For hooks, red octopus hooks are the go-to.

We recommend: How to hook a minnow (3 best ways)

Leech

If you're fishing in bodies of water mostly occupied by walleyes, leeches are a great choice. If there are other fish there - like perch and bass - you might end up with more bites from those fish. Ribbon leeches are the most common bait leech. Walleye will eat them pretty much all year round. Like minnows, you can stick with red octopus hooks. Use leeches for jigs and slip bobbers.

Night Crawler

earthworms

Night crawlers are great for spinner rigs. In fact, a spinner rig used to be called a night crawler harness. If you're using large night crawlers, a spinner with a double-hook harness works best. Walleye tend to go after night crawlers more often in warm temperatures above 60-degrees. For your hooks, we recommend bronze baitholder hooks.

Best Lures For Catching Walleye

While many anglers recommend walleye fishing with live bait first, lures are also an option, especially if you have some experience. Lures are cleaner to work with, more convenient, and you don't have to keep buying them like minnows or worms. The main downside is that they don't attract fish like live bait; you need to bring your lure to a hot spot. If that's a trade-off you're willing to make or you're interested in improving your skills, here are the best lures for walleyes:

Curly Tail Grubs

curly tail grub

You'll most often see curly tail grubs on a jighead hopping along the bottom, but you can use a drop shot rig or vertical jigging, too. The benefits of grubs over live bait is that grubs cover more water and get retrieved more quickly. You can use this lure in a boat or off a dock. If you're using grubs between 3-4 inches, use a barbed jig that's 1/4 or 1/8-ounce.

Jerkbaits

jerkbait minnow

Jerkbaits (also known as "stickbaits") are slender, minnow-shaped lures with a horizontal presentation. When you use a straight retrieve, the jerkbait shimmies around aggressively. You can find a variety of styles that can dive to shallow and mid-depth waters. They're often mistaken for crankbaits, but there are some differences.

Crankbaits

Round bill crankbaits

These lures are great for trolling and work for both active and sleepy fish. Crankbaits come in all kinds of shapes, colors, and sizes. Simplified, you can find crankbaits in "lipped" or "lipless" styles. Lipped are meant to dive to a certain depth and have a wider wobble than lipless. In the summer, use a crankbait to troll along flats and reefs. Once you find a hot spot, switching to a slip bobber rig can give you better targeting. Crankbaits and jerkbaits are used for similar reasons, but crankbaits are shorter and fatter. They're also better for deeper water, so they're a great choice for lake fishing.

Ring Worms

ringworm bait

A vibrating ring worm will serve you well when you're walleye fishing in a river. River fishing can be challenging because of fast currents, so a ring worm can help. As it vibrates,the ring worm releases air bubbles that catch a walleye's attention in a way a different bait or lure might not. Pair a ring worm with jigheads or spinner rigs. 1/4-1/2-ounce is a good size.

Paddle Tail Shads

Paddle Tail Shad

A type of swimbait, this lure has a unique wiggling design. For many years, they were relegated as saltwater lures, but that's changed. Paddle tails are great for at least locating schools of walleye, even if you don't want to use them all the time. For best results, use natural colors. You can find a variety of styles such as hollow paddle, solid paddle, line thru, and more.

Walleyes And Color

Before we move on from lures, let's talk about color. You might think it's not that important, but expert tips say otherwise. Using a certain color could make or break your time on the water. You can find lures that look very natural, but some are very bright and clearly artificial.

Generally, it's best to use natural colors in clear water and brighter colors in muggier water. At the same time, you shouldn't hesitate to experiment and try a brighter color in clear water if you aren't getting strikes. Even if you are getting lucky with a certain color, switch it up and see if a new color brings you even more success.

Ice Fishing For Walleye

walleye caught ice fishing

Walleyes are primarily thought of as a summer and fall fish, but ice anglers value walleye, too. At night seems to be a great time because the walleye become more active and eager to feed.

Anglers who are out by themselves will auger multiple holes around an underwater structure, fishing at each hole for a few minutes. You can also take the time and effort to find a prime spot and then wait it out. Using electronics like a flasher help significantly. This tool lets you detect your lure, as well as the walleye.

Speaking of lures, glow lures are very useful. They come in multiple colors. Your lures should be chosen based on water clarity. As an example, muggier waters require brightly-colored glow lures. More natural ones like brown or black are too hard for the walleye to see. If you're using live bait, any minnow species should work. Jigging will get a walleye's attention. Drop shotting or using a slip sinker rig also works for ice fishing.

Safety is always important when fishing, but it's even more vital during the winter at night. If you're a beginner, going out by yourself may not be the best choice. You should read up on all the gear you'll need and make sure the ice is safe to fish on.

Also Read:

Final Thoughts

This article explored walleye fishing 101 for beginners, including what rod combos work best, how to catch walleye, types of fishing line, techniques, rigs, live baits and lures, and more. Whether you're visiting the great lakes or fishing in a river, walleye are one of the most prized fish because of the challenge they present. They're also delicious.

The best walleye anglers are patient, practiced, and open to experimenting. They'll try a different rod, jig, rig, bait, line, and anything else that affects success. When fishing for walleyes in the spring, summer, fall, or winter, failing and learning are part of the experience. The biggest rule of thumb with walleye fishing is don't give up. When you find success, it's all the more invigorating.

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