When people think of fly fishing, a few species come to mind: trout, bonefish, and maybe bass. Most, however, do not think of walleye. Well, I’m here to tell you that walleye is a great species to target on the fly. Guides and anglers in the conventional fishing world use flies to catch them in rivers because walleye love flash and the other materials fly tiers use. Most fly anglers catch them by accident while targeting other species, but recently there has been a growing movement of anglers targeting them and having great success. In today’s strange times, fly fishermen and women are looking for new species close to home. With these tips, you’ll be wondering why it took this long to target them on the fly!
Where to Find Walleye:
I think the main reason people don’t target them is that these fish are on the move (walleye follow the food) and/or usually retreat to deeper water during the heat of summer. They are, at times, more difficult to catch than other species, because getting flies deep over a structure can be difficult. However, technology advances in electronics and fly lines have made it easier to locate, target, and catch them. The possibility of detecting a bite in 20-30 feet of water is easier than ever.
To be successful in targeting walleye on the fly, understanding their habitat and biology are good but knowing your water body is even more important. It’s not as complicated as you may think. Walleye require the same things as other, more familiar, fish: cover, food sources, well-oxygenated water, and have a preferred temperature range.
Lakes vs. Rivers for Walleye
Both have their pros and cons to locate walleye. Lakes are probably more complex or difficult for fly anglers to access than rivers. Most lakes require some sort of watercraft to consistently find walleye. In any case, if you’re going to try a lake, look for rocks piles, sand flats, fresh weed lines, transition areas (from sand to rock, rock to sand, weeds to rock/sand, etc.), distinct current seams (wind-blown points are a classic walleye magnet), underwater humps, and inflowing water from streams or storm drains.
Depending on their size, rivers can be more accessible for the fly angler to get out and target walleye. Similar to any fish in a river, they want to hold in the prime feeding areas with as little work as required. The locations mentioned above for lakes are good starting points, but also look for current seams in large pools, back eddies, dams or current breaks, log jams, and undercut banks.
What Fly Fishing Gear for Walleye:
You probably already own all the gear needed to target walleye, a standard 5wt to 8wt rod is a good start. A floating line and at least one sinking line will be needed. As far as reels go, you can use any of your bass or larger trout reels. It helps to have a spare spool with a different line spooled, so you can quickly switch between floating and sinking lines. A smooth drag will also be helpful; walleye aren’t known for their long runs, but they bulldog and head shake. A large walleye will definitely test your drag. If you’re a two-handed fly angler, a Spey or switch rod is a perfect tool to fish rivers and chuck big flies far and to get deep. A 4 to 8wt Spey rod is an excellent choice–it’s my preferred way to cover water and find fish in rivers.
Fly lines are a difficult subject, as deciding which one will depend on how and where you target them. Walleye can be caught on dry flies, streamers, under an indicator, or in 30 feet water or anywhere else in the water columm. So, at the very least have one floating line and one sinking line to match your rod. Just like every other technique or style of fly fishing, there is a specific line to match.
Leaders have a purpose and depending on how you fish may differ slightly. Try to keep it simple–a 7.5 to 12ft long leader for floating lines (you can add or subtract tippet as needed). For sinking lines a 3ft long leader is a good start. If you need to keep your fly off the bottom due to potential snags, then a longer leader may be required–up to 6ft. Tippet size is dictated by structure, other species present (like pike) and water clarity. For the most part, a good fluorocarbon in the 6lbs to 12lbs is a good choice, (leaning on the heavier side if possible, as walleye have teeth and if they eat your whole fly, you run the risk of losing them).
What Flies for Walleye:
This is my favorite part, the flies. You can make it as easy as you want or can tie the most realistic and challenging patterns to catch them. Walleye eat insects, leeches, crawfish, and minnows for the most part and sometimes it varies, but these will get you started.
- Woolly buggers, Clouser minnow, deceivers, and half/half are all tried and true, walleye-catching flies. Plan to have a variety of weights and colors–such as white, brown, black, purple, and olive. Orange/chart, chart/yellow, black/red, chart/pink, red/white, red/black, and all black are also great colors for catching walleye.
- A balanced leech is an excellent pattern to hang below an indicator.
- Sculpin patterns in brown, black, and olive are one of my favorites (I am biased though, I landed the Ontario record walleye on a black sculpin a few years back).
- Insect flies, both in the nymph stage and the adult dry fly, at times are very effective. So, think of mayflies, Stillwater caddis, and stoneflies, especially in a hatch when the water is exploding with fish everywhere. It is one of those special moments to catch a walleye on a dry fly, who wouldn’t love that.
- Crawfish flies are a fly I find that people don’t use enough, especially in the spring during their molting phase when they are orange in color. Great patterns to use are Dave Whitlock’s Near Nuff, a Super Bugger, Morlock Craw, all in either tan, brown, olive, or orange.
- If you like to use intricate patterns, look no further than the sex dungeon, swimmy jimmy, chunky dunker, and articulated leech.
Walleye on the fly used to be an unheard-of thing. But as people try new things and learn more about their local waters, they are finding more and more ways to target them. The gap between conventional fishing and fly fishing for walleye is closing. After all, we are all doing the same thing for the same reasons, just in a different way or using another tool in the box.
For more information about targeting walleye, check out this YouTube video: Introduction to Walleye on the Fly.
Cover picture courtesy of Colin Campbell, @streamsideoutfitters.