To describe why people behave as they do, in 1943 psychologist Abraham Maslow devised his famous “Pyramid of Needs.” The bottom tier consists of basic survival needs. Once those needs are met, the next level is the need to feel safe and secure, followed by the need for love and affection, and then the need to feel fulfilled, respected and well-liked. At the top is self-actualization, the need to be all you can be.
Judging from Maslow’s pyramid, our most basic drives aren’t so different from those of other creatures. And just as his theory can help us understand other people, envisioning a walleye’s pyramid of needs can help us understand what motivates walleyes.
Of course, we’re not analyzing whether walleyes are dealing with self-esteem issues—they’re programmed for two functions: survival and reproduction, not thinking in the human sense. So filling your livewell doesn’t result from “out-thinking” fish; it comes from understanding their basic needs so you can predict their behavior.
Figure out how they prioritize their many needs, and you’ll be able to predict where they’ll be and how you can catch them.
Food Then Shelter
At the base of the walleye’s pyramid is the need for food. Next up is security and comfort, which translates to cover and structure, or the right combination of water clarity, oxygen and temperature.
Of course, knowing walleyes need food, cover and structure is nothing new. What many anglers don’t realize, however, is that these needs are prioritized, and thus don’t play equal roles in where walleyes will be and what you need to do to catch them.
Simply put, if a place has food, ’eyes will be there, too, regardless of cover. In the same light, you can fish great structure all day long, but if there’s no food on it, walleyes won’t be there either.
Advanced anglers take this principle a step further, not only focusing on areas that contain baitfish, but specific types of forage. NAFC member Tom Keenan is one of them. He rose to become a top Cabela’s Masters Walleye Circuit competitor and 2003 RCL Walleye Tour Champion because he understands a critical component in the life of every walleye: No matter where they live, walleyes key on one primary food source most of the time.
“Ask yourself what’s on their menu,” Keenan says. “If you figure that out, it’s easy to catch them.” What specific forage species that is varies by region, or even by body of water within the same region. Walleyes also hit newly hatched insects or even frogs—it’s up to you to find the optimum food.
Although a lake might contain a variety of top forage species like perch, shad, ciscoes, alewives, smelt and more, ’eyes are likely eating one type nearly to the exclusion of others at any given time.
For example, although perch share the waters near Keenan’s northern Wisconsin home with a gamut of forage, he finds they top the walleye’s menu right after the spawn. “When the spawning ends, weeds emerge and perch are looking for cover. Plus, they’re hungry for small crustaceans and insects found on weeds,” he says. “Vegetation provides it all for perch and walleyes—comfort, security and food.”
The shad spawn is another example for river and reservoir walleyes. When water temperatures rise into the 50-degree range, shad head into shallow water and feeder rivers and creeks, and walleyes follow. After laying eggs over sand and rock bars at night, huge schools of shad return to suspend in deep water.
Regardless of what fish are keying on, Keenan takes care to match size. “For example, people often use small baits in early spring. But small shad have grown or been eaten by then. I catch more fish on big baits.”
When you narrow down what forage wall-eyes are keying on, then you can worry about cover and structure. Target the same classic walleye haunts you always have—just make sure those areas have the same preferred forage as other nearby places. If they don’t, you’ll go home empty-handed.
The parallels between the human pyramid of needs and the walleye’s are thrown a bit of a curve when water temperatures rise to 45 to 50 degrees in spring and walleyes focus on spawning. Food becomes a secondary concern as the drive to spawn suddenly overrules the need for food and security.
In essence, the top and bottom levels of the walleye pyramid temporarily flip-flop. Except for that change, however, the pyramid concept itself stays intact, and you can still use it to find and catch fish.
Look for spawning fish on hard-bottom flats in the northern sections of lakes, which warm first. The best locations are near the mouths of rivers and creeks that carry warm water.
Following the pyramid scheme, these areas, especially those with any additional cover or structure, or access to thicker concentrations of baitfish, will be the best bets.
The Angler’s Pyramid
Walleye anglers can envision their own pyramid of needs when it comes to establishing an effective pattern. Just as walleyes prioritize their needs, catching them hinges on looking at all elements of where and how to present your baits in a progressive hierarchy. Obviously, location, which you should be able to surmise by understanding walleye “psychology,” comes first. And of course, the depth fish are holding is critical, as it determines whether you should troll, jig, live bait rig or cast cranks. Once you’ve narrowed down these basics you can begin focusing on your presentation’s speed and action.
What mood are walleyes in—lethargic or aggressive and feeding heavily? Water temperature is usually the deciding factor. Walleyes’ metabolism is higher and they are more aggressive at higher temperatures nearer their preferred range of 70 degrees; colder temperatures call for slower, more subtle presentations. However, there are no hard-and-fast rules.
Case in point: When time was running out on the final day of a recent tournament on Minnesota’s Big Stone Lake, Keenan was only catching small walleyes. As he finished a trolling pass at 1.5 to 2 mph, he sped up for a quick 180-degree turn to make another pass. As his outside planer board bounced along at about 4 mph, a good fish hit.
Keenan resumed trolling, but kept the quick pace of 3.5 to 4 mph for the next 30 minutes and caught five more good fish, earning him second place in the event. The lesson is that although you might be on fish and running baits right past them, if your speed isn’t dialed in, you won’t catch many fish—despite all the other positive aspects of your presentation. With presentation speed under wraps, then worry about color. Most walleye spots see a lot of pressure, and fish are used to common color choices. A contrasting hue often provokes strikes when walleyes are indifferent to the colors they see all the time. Sound is the next rung in the ladder. With location, depth, speed and color lined up, sound can make the crucial difference, but its effectiveness changes based on water conditions.
For example, if wind and rain turn water murky, choose a presentation that incorporates sound, such as a leech- or ’crawler-tipped grub-body jig with rattles. If the weather breaks but the water remains stained, remove the plastic grub body, but keep the rattles; if the water clears entirely, lose the rattles.
Scent is the final consideration—the icing on the cake. If you’ve narrowed down all the preceding elements, you’re probably going to be catching fish, regardless of scent, but the right essence might mean the difference on the one or two good fish that separate a good day from a great one.
Often, that “right” scent is simply anything but a human scent. Rather than adding scent to attract fish, take more care to be sure your hands are clean and you don’t transfer odors (such as gasoline) that might repel them.
The next time you head for the water, pause to envision the walleye’s pyramid—food, security, reproduction—and the angler’s pyramid—location, depth, action, color, sound and scent. You just might find yourself making your dreams come true. Maslow would be proud!
'Eyes On Water Temperature
Understanding how water temperature factors into the walleye’s pyramid of needs is critical to consistant success. But it’s not as complex as you might think. Top pros such as Jason Przekurat, past MWC World Champion and 2003 Wal-Mart RCL Angler of the Year, have a simple game plan.
When the water temperature reaches 45 to 52 degrees in spring (this will happen first on the northern end of lakes and reservoirs, and near feeder creeks) Przekurat finds ’eyes by checking hard-bottom spawning areas near feeder rivers and creeks.
As the water temperature rises to 50 to 60 degrees, ’eyes revert to their usual hierarchy of needs and move south, following baitfish along shoreline structure—the more complex the better.
If weeds are present, that’s better than a clean spot. If a spot has more than one variety of weeds, it trumps another with just one. And if the structure boasts multiple weeds and rock piles, you’ve hit the jackpot.
Don’t waste time fishing the entire length of a weedline. Concentrate on inside turns and places where vegetation types meet. Those spots signal a change in bottom content, and that means a wider variety of forage.
As water moves to the 55- to 65-degree range, check flooded timber near structure. Przekurat finds the best timber on steeper breaks close to rocky shorelines. Use slip float rigs and No-Snagg jigs tipped with leeches or nightcrawlers.
Move from the shoreline toward the middle of the lake when water warms into the 65- to 70-degree range.
Search for rock piles that top out in water less than 10 feet deep. “These are generally big-fish magnets,” Przekurat says. Start by motoring around the rock pile to identify subtle changes in shape. Anchor and fish the points and in
side turns with slip floats, small jigs and leeches.