A walleye is a walleye regardless of where it swims. Fishermen know the rules for catching these fish in what are considered traditional walleye waters in the North, but in “nontraditional” waters the rules change.
Think of it like this: A wheat farmer in Kansas uses the same equipment as one in North Dakota. But growing seasons, soil types and rainfall levels force them to tailor their approach to their circumstances. The same is true for walleye fishing. Although you’ll use the same equipment and techniques when fishing nontraditional (Southern) waters, you’ll need to change your mindset to succeed.
From the Canadian Shield to Arkansas, from Western reservoirs to those on the Eastern Seaboard, the key to finding and catching spring and early summer ’eyes lies in identifying whether they are in a staging, spawning or postspawn mode.
As walleye-savvy anglers already know, this will dictate whether walleyes are in shallow, out deep or transitioning between the two. Of course, spawn stage is not universal, and waters as close as a few miles apart might be on a different schedule due to physical factors that affect water temperature.
When you’re talking about waters as far as 1,000 miles apart in latitude (north to south) the differences become really apparent, as factors like photoperiod (daylight length) and water temperature vary by extremes. As a result, Southern ’eyes obviously spawn much sooner than their Northern counterparts.
The lesson is, whether you fish walleyes in Oregon or Georgia, if you rely on traditional walleye spawning schedules when formulating strategies, you’ll be behind the game. To keep up to speed, consult a local fisheries biologist and inquire about peak spawning dates for your home waters.
Where They Go
Aside from the difference in timing, I’ve found postspawn walleyes behave slightly different in nontraditional waters. Unlike Northern walleyes, which often stay near spawning areas, feeding heavily before gradually transitioning to summer haunts, I’ve found Southern ’eyes transition into midsummer patterns immediately after spawning.
That brings up another important benefit from consulting biologists. The same electroshocking studies that tell biologists when walleyes are spawning also reveal dates when fewer and fewer fish begin showing up in surveys. Take note of when these results wane. When those dates roll around, be prepared to abandon spawning patterns and switch to midsummer tactics.
Forage differences are also important. In many Northern fisheries, walleyes share their waters with yellow perch and feed on them heavily, especially immediately after the spawn. In nontraditional waters, shad—threadfin and gizzard—are often the primary prey.
Young perch hunker down in shallow weeds in spring and walleyes will be spawning nearby. As a result, after the spawn walleyes hit these weeds to gorge on perch.
Southern ’eyes, on the other hand, will need to go wherever roaming shad are congregated. “If you’re not marking shad, don’t bother fishing that area,” says Georgia fisheries biologist Jim Hakala, who works on northwestern Georgia’s Carters Lake. “Postspawn and early summer walleyes depend on these baitfish, and are pretty much forced to go wherever they do. In May and June, that can be almost anywhere, but you’ll often find concentrations of shad spawning along shallow banks.”
But not just any shad will do. Al-though the previous year’s crop of threadfin shad will be small enough for walleyes, most gizzards will be too large for all but the biggest walleyes. If threadfins are down, Southern walleyes will key more on invertebrates such as midges than their Northern cousins until young-of-the-year shad hatch.
Slight Tweaks, Big Rewards
Remember that fishing nontraditional waters often requires patience and trial and error. Don’t get intimidated by these walleyes’ slightly different behavior or schedules; they’re playing the same game, and once you understand the rules, you can beat them at it.
Postspawn Pressure Cooker
As lakes stratify and a thermocline sets up in spring and summer, walleyes are caught between a rock and a hard place. Above them, water becomes progressively warmer; below them are the oxygen-poor depths beneath the thermocline.
This can happen North and South, with timing and other specifics dependent on the fishery. But in Northern waters, this phenomenon is less restricting, as water temperatures don’t get as high, nor does warmth last as long as in nontraditional waters. As a result, Northern ’eyes don’t feel the squeeze as severely.
In stratified sunbelt fisheries, however, the thermocline sets up earlier, and temps stay warmer longer, forcing walleyes into an ever-thinning band of water at the thermocline. “On Arkansas’ Bull Shoals Lake, we have a thermocline set up in May, 20 to 30 feet down,” says Arkansas fisheries biologist Mark Oliver. “As the water warms, walleyes become more concentrated at the thermocline where they have enough oxygen and tolerable temperatures.”
Find and fish the thermocline, and you’ll likely find huge concentrations of nontraditional ’eyes throughout the warm season.