Walleye Habitat, Diet, Spawning & Fishing Facts (Sander vitreus)
Walleye, sometimes known as pike-perch, yellow walleye, glass eye, or marble eye, are the largest members of the perch family (Percidae). They are native to much of the Nearctic region, which comprises North America as far south as northern Mexico and includes Greenland. They are one of the most favored fishes by anglers due to their tasty fillets and rather elusive temperaments that can make them a pleasant challenge to catch. They are often stocked throughout the U.S. as both a food source and for sport fishing.
The common name “walleye” originated from the Icelandic word “Vagl,” which translates approximately to, “film over eye” and is in reference to their reflective tapetum lucidum, a tissue layer behind the retina that reflects visible light back through the retina. It can result in eyeshine similar to that seen in predatory mammals like cats. This is why walleye appear to have rather uniquely opaque, glasslike eyes.
This specially adapted trait allows them to see incredibly well in low-light conditions and means that they tend to avoid bright areas, preferring deeper waters and to be most active at night. This further adds to the challenge of catching them, as they are not easy to find or see! Walleyes are not inherently born with fully developed tapetum lucidum, but instead this layer is formed as the walleye grows into adulthood.
These fish are typically a drab olive to brown or dark tan in color and have darker vertical stripes that extend down their sides to their belly. Typically, their dorsal side ranges from olive to more golden toward the flanks, or the region between the ribs and tail. Their belly can be off-white, yellowish, golden, or light brown. They have incredibly sharp teeth, including canines! One of their most distinguishing features, aside from reflective, glassy eyes, is the presence of a conspicuous dark (often black) spot located at the base of the last three spines of the first dorsal fin. Walleyes can resemble their close relative the sauger, but walleyes are distinguished by their first dorsal fin having a darker coloration and lacking any spots.
They can live up to 20 years, but average closer to 5 years in more heavily fished areas. Regardless of gender, they can reach over three feet in size and weigh up to twenty pounds! However, the average size of caught walleye is around a foot in length and 11 pounds.
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Walleye Habitat Facts – Where Do They Live?
Walleyes are quite widespread throughout many lakes and large rivers throughout its native (and sometimes non-native) range, which includes parts of the Arctic including Alaska and Greenland, much of Canada, and as far south as North Carolina and as far west as Arkansas. However, due to their popularity as a sport and food fish, they have been introduced throughout drainages of the Atlantic, Pacific, and the Gulf of Mexico. Scientists are trying to determine the possible impacts of such broad introduction of walleye outside of their historically native ranges.
They can be found in both cool and more mild waters, but tend to have longer lifespans within their cooler, more northern ranges. They most prefer deep, dim waters in lakes and larger rivers, but can be found in more shallow areas in the evenings and at night when daylight won’t harm their sensitive, low-light adapted eyes. They can also do well in more shallow lakes if they’re on the somewhat turbid side.
They are found exclusively in freshwater as they cannot tolerate even moderately brackish water. They prefer murky water, again because their eyes are so sensitive to light, and prefer to hide out amongst vegetation during the day. Interestingly, though they prefer turbid water, they favor locations with sandy, gravelly, or rocky bottoms that afford drop-offs and holes that they can hide in during the daylight hours.
What Do Walleye Eat? (Walleye Diet Facts)
Walleyes are carnivorous, and their larger size, sharp teeth, and fantastic eyesight in locations where many other fish can’t see well make them fantastic predators. As juveniles, they primarily eat zooplankton as their eyesight is not yet well-developed enough to allow them to hunt for insects and other fish. Adults are mostly piscivorous but are rather opportunistic hunters.
As they mature, so does their tapetum lucidum, which enables them to become avid hunters. Throughout their life, minnows are a favorite of walleyes, but they will also each crayfish and other smaller crustaceans, yellow perch and ciscoes smaller than them, leeches, aquatic insects and insect larvae (such as mayfly larvae and caddisfly larvae), snails, mudpuppy salamanders, and the occasional small mammal that wanders into water. They typically only feed on the lattermost if other primary food sources are low.
Walleyes don’t just serve a predatory role in the food web. Though they are top predators as adults and really only have to worry about humans during this stage of their life, they are vulnerable when young. Eggs, fry, and small juveniles are preyed on by other fish, including channel catfish, largemouth and white bass, white perch, muskellunge, and the voracious northern pike. As such, walleyes can play an important ecological role throughout their lifespans.
Walleye Spawning Facts
Each spring once water temperatures reach between 38 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit (3.3 to 7.2° C), walleye spawning behavior is triggered. In lakes and large ponds, walleye will move to the shallows where vegetation is present. In rivers, they’ll move to shallower portions of water with rocky or gravelly bottoms, though sandy bottoms are sometimes acceptable if vegetation is present. In either case, the females will broadcast their eggs, which will stick to vegetation and rocks respectively. Then, the males swim through and broadcast their sperm over top of the eggs.
Males reach reproductive maturity by around three to four years of age, while females take an average of a year longer. Larger females can lay as many as 500,000 eggs per spawn. These eggs are on their own from that moment on, as no protection or extra care is given either to eggs or fry by either males or females. It can take anywhere from two to four weeks for eggs to hatch, and this depends rather on temperature – cooler temperatures result in a longer incubation period, while temperatures in the mid to upper 40s Fahrenheit (7.2 to 10° C) typically result in quicker development and hatching.
Walleye Fishing Considerations
Fishing for walleye is incredibly common and loved within the fish’s native and introduced range. As mentioned before, their introduction to a variety of non-native locations is being studied to determine possible adverse impacts. However, the popularity of these fish amongst anglers generates a great amount of income for local economies as well as for state and federal conservation funding, especially in the Great Lakes region and the central U.S.
Walleye fishing is regulated and populations are managed by wildlife and natural resource agencies, but these regulations differ depending on location. For example, in most of Michigan you cannot harvest walleye smaller than 15 inches (38 cm), and instead must release them, and there is a daily catch limit that differs throughout the seasons. In Wisconsin, however, the size and catch limits for walleye differ depending on the county and sometimes even the exact water body. It’s best to do some research on specific walleye regulations for your location to be sure. In most locations, walleye fishing can occur year-round, with walleye ice fishing also being popular.
Best Walleye Fishing Spots & Fishing Tips
Fishing for walleye can take patience, and lots of it, both due to their dim habitat preferences and their elusive nature. Your best chances of catching walleye include fishing for them at night in more shallow waters, during the day at depths of up to twenty feet, or on overcast or very windy days that result in something called “walleye chop,” which is when the wind results in choppy waters that cut down on the amount of sunlight that is able to pierce through the surface, which results in walleye being more active. Another popular time to fish for walleye is during the spawning season, which begins in spring shortly after the ice breaks up and begins to melt and reaches its height when waters near 50° F (10°C).
Feel free to try a variety of lures with walleye since they have a varied diet and can be rather opportunistic. Lures that mimic the appearance and movement of a minnow or other small fish work just as well as those that look more like leeches or insect larvae. Be sure to use fairly strong line, as the walleye’s sharp teeth have been known to sever a line or two, though you won’t need line as hardy as you would if you were fishing for pike.