One of the most popular sport fish in the northern and central United States has developed a similar reputation in Washington in the last several decades. Known for its exquisite flavor and large size, walleye are providing additional excitement and opportunity in a state already rich with fishing resources.
Walleye are not native to Washington fish, and exactly how they originally entered the state is unknown. The first verification of a walleye in Washington was in 1962, from Banks Lake in eastern Washington. Soon afterwards, populations began to show up in Lake Roosevelt (connected to Banks Lake through a huge pipe and pump). Since then they have spread from these original sites to the remainder of the main stem Columbia River, from near the mouth to the Canadian border and throughout reservoirs in the Columbia Basin Irrigation District.
Walleye continued to advance to other waters in the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project by using canals as frontier highways. They have established populations in Lake Billy Clapp, Moses Lake, Potholes Reservoir, Long Lake, Crescent Lake, Soda Lake and Scooteney Reservoir.
The walleye’s main appeal is certainly not its lethargic fight, although fish get so big here they can generate intense interest and excitement. Rather, it is their performance at the dinner table that keeps anglers returning, trip after trip. Many people consider walleye to be the best-flavored white-fleshed fish in fresh water. Aficionados of yellow perch (a close relative of the walleye) might disagree, but not vociferously. Both are superb in a number of recipes with the walleye’s larger size contributing bigger portions. Yellow Perch flesh is slightly sweeter tasting than walleye.
A good day’s fishing for walleye can yield several two-to- three-pound fish, with an occasional fish up to ten pounds. The current state record, caught in the Columbia River’s Wallula Pool in February 2014 weighed in at 20 pounds and 5 ounces. It is not uncommon to catch walleye in the 12 to 16 pound range in the main stem of the Columbia River near the Tri Cities in the late winter and early spring.
One characteristic that helps identify the walleye is its large, opaque-white eyes. This feature is an adaptation to the fish’s habits and preferences, which should be a clue to the perceptive angler. The large eyes have extremely fine light receptivity to see prey in dimly lit waters. Walleye evolved in turbid waters and in deep lakes and the ability to “see in the dark” has provided the necessary edge to survive.
Astute anglers know that this also means walleyes stay away from bright, sunny waters. When they have to come up to the surface or to shallow shore areas to feed or spawn, walleyes look for muddy waters or they wait and move in from dusk to dawn. This can be the best time to fish for them.
When walleye reach maturity, they become highly migratory. As soon as the lakes and rivers begin to warm and thaw in early spring, walleye make spawning journeys from their winter holding areas. Some of these migrations will cover dozens of miles to headwater tributaries. Other spawning may occur along shallow rocky lake shores, but in either instance, spawning areas are less than five feet deep.
During spring spawning runs, walleye stack up in headwater streams and below dams and are easy prey for anglers-in-the-know. Most of the famous walleye holes throughout the country are these types of waters. After spawning, walleye return to the main lake or river, staying in the shallows throughout the spring and early summer until the waters begin to warm, then moving to back to deeper, cooler water during the day, returning to the shallows to feed at dusk. During winter, it is generally thought that walleye hold up in deep waters until the spawning urge strikes again, but little is actually known about the winter habits of this fish.
Until 1985, statewide regulations for walleye fishing were simple: a daily limit of 15, of which no more than five could exceed 20 inches. But early in the 1980’s, as pressure increased on the fish, biologists began to notice a drop in the quality of fish caught in Roosevelt Lake, the state’s top walleye producer at the time. Average size of walleye caught by fishermen steadily declined from 18 1/2 inches in 1973 to 13 1/2 inches in 1985.
In 1985, regulations for Roosevelt Lake were changed to try to reduce this trend. The daily limit was reduced to eight, and a minimum size limit of 16 inches was established. The following year, limits on the state’s other walleye waters were reduced to five fish per day, with an 18-inch minimum size limit.
In the spring of 1990, regulations at Roosevelt Lake were changed again, after it became apparent that the 16-inch minimum size limit was giving too much protection to small fish. Fish below 16 inches were becoming quite thin, and growth had slowed markedly, due to a lack of forage to support the growing population of small fish. Because of the continued increase in Roosevelt’s walleye population and the decline in average size, the daily bag limit is currently 16 fish, with no size restrictions. Anglers are encouraged to retain walleye from Roosevelt and take them home to enjoy a fine meal.
The statewide regulation is a daily bag limit of 5 fish, a minimum size of 16” and only one fish over 22” may be retained. There are special regulations in effect in several waters though, so make sure you always consult the latest regulations for the water in which you are fishing.
ROOSEVELT LAKE: Washington’s first walleye lake remains an important one. The best walleye fishing is in the Spokane River arm in the spring, followed later in the year by the northern part of the reservoir near Northport and Hunters. In the fall, quality walleye fishing can be found throughout the lake.
Access to the Spokane arm is available at Porcupine Bay and Fort Spokane, approximately 20 and 24 miles north of Davenport, respectively. Access to the upper part is available at Hunters Park and Gifford.
BANKS LAKE: Located in an old glacial channel of the Columbia River, Banks Lake produces a reliable walleye fishery for a variety of sizes. Access is available at a number of sites on the south and east shores, from Coulee City to Electric City.
RUFUS WOODS LAKE: Immediately below Grand Coulee Dam there is some fairly good walleye fishing. Access to this stretch is available off state route 155, three miles north of Elmer City. The only other access to this lake is on the lower section near Chief Joseph Dam.
LAKE PATEROS: Walleye productivity below Chief Joseph Dam has been low in recent years, but dedicated anglers may find the tailrace a sleeping giant during spring spawning runs. Access to the tailrace can be found in Bridgeport.
LAKE ENTIAT: The tailrace below Wells Dam has also been a slow producer in recent years, similar to Lake Pateros. Access is very limited, but a few knowledgeable anglers avidly fish this area.
ROCK ISLAND POOL: A limited walleye fishery exists in Rock Island Pool and in the tailrace below Rocky Reach Dam. Access to the reservoir and tailrace is available near Wenatchee.
WANAPUM POOL: Walleye fishing has improved recently in Wanapum Pool, from Vantage up to the tailrace below Rock Island Dam. Fair fishing occurs year-round, with peaks in November-December and February-March. Access is a problem, however. The closest boat ramp is at Crescent Bar, 14 miles below Rock Island Dam, with three others at the lower end of the reservoir near Vantage.
PRIEST RAPIDS LAKE: A small walleye fishery exists below Wanapum Dam, and a boat launch is conveniently located at the Wanapum Dam Tour Center. A limited fishery also exists below Priest Rapids Dam, but access is poor. There is a restricted-use boat launch at Vernita Bridge, and the next access is near White Bluffs. Boaters and bank anglers should watch for rapidly fluctuating river flows.
LAKE WALLULA (above McNary Dam) and HANFORD REACH: The Wallula Pool in the Columbia River is getting to be known as the home of the largest walleye in the country and where the current Washington State record of 20 lbs. 5 oz. was caught in February, 2014. Late winter and spring is the best time to fish for big fish, when 10 to 15 pounders are not uncommon. The Hanford Reach, adjacent to the Hanford Reservation is further upriver and is also getting to be known as a reliable walleye fishery. Boating in the channels however, can be treacherous.
LAKE UMATILLA (John Day Pool): Large walleyes are the target of anglers in this stretch. Best fishing is from Paterson Slough upstream to McNary Dam. The former 18+ lb. state record walleye was caught in this area. Access is available near Plymouth Park.
LAKE CELILO (above The Dalles Dam): Biologists feel that there are a fair number of walleyes below John Day Dam, and this is a favorite spot for both Washington and Oregon anglers. There is a boat launch just downstream of John Day Dam, and another located near Maryhill.
BONNEVILLE POOL: This is another option for Washington and Oregon anglers, particularly in the upper portion near The Dalles Dam, and in the Stevenson and Wind River areas. Access on the Washington side is available in Bingen, along Highway 14 at Drano Lake, at Waterfront Park near Carson and at Sailboard Park in Stevenson.
LOWER COLUMBIA RIVER: Walleye can be caught in the Columbia River from Bonneville Dam almost to Ilwaco. The number of fish being caught is limited, but they can be large. Numerous access sites exist along this stretch of the mighty Columbia, including: below Bonneville Dam, at Beacon Rock, in Camas, Vancouver, Kalama, on the Cowlitz near Kelso, and at Cathlamet.
MOSES LAKE: Moses Lake has one of the highest densities of walleye anywhere and the catch rates reflect that. During most times of the year, the daily bag limit of 8 fish (only one over 22” but a minimum size limit of 12”) can be dependably caught. There are many smaller fish, but they are fat and fast-growing and the smaller fish are great for eating. Located adjacent to the City of Moses Lake, there are several access sites for fishermen to use.
POTHOLES RESERVOIR: Located south of Moses Lake, this lake also has outstanding opportunities for walleye. Like Moses Lake the density is high as are the catch rates. The regulations are the same as Moses as well. There are several boat launches available on the south end near O’Sullivan Dam. Walleye can also be caught in several of the Seep Lakes below Potholes. The best are Soda, Long and Crescent Lakes. Boat access is available on Soda and Long Lakes.
BILLY CLAPP LAKE: Located east of Soap Lake, this lake’s walleye fishery is similar to Banks Lake, and gets walleye migrating from Banks Lake through the canal. Access is available on the south end, off state highway 28 as well as at Summer Falls State Park on the north end.
SCOOTENEY RESERVOIR: Situated between Othello and Mesa near state highway 17 in Franklin County, this component of the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project canal system provides good fishing for walleye, plus a variety of panfish species. Two boat launches are available on the reservoir’s south end and the Bureau of Land Management has a park with camping and day use available.
SNAKE RIVER: Very good fishing for walleye can be had at the confluence of the Snake and the Columbia Rivers in the late winter and early spring. Fish can also be caught in the Snake River up to near Ice Harbor Dam. Three access sites are available at the confluence of the Snake and Columbia Rivers near Highway 12, southeast of Pasco.
There are three tried and true techniques for catching walleye (at least): fish on the bottom; fish slowly; and use night crawlers. The first two of these are the most important. Walleye stay close to the bottom, and they don’t spend a lot of energy chasing their food. The most consistent fishing depth during daytime is 18 to 25 feet. Rocky bottoms are usually preferred, with a nearby depth change or a “break line” as a desirable feature. Good catches can also be made in or around weed beds at certain times.
A good walleye rig is one that can be cast or trolled slowly along the bottom without getting hung up too often. Although not necessary, a wire or fluorocarbon leader 12 inches above the hook will protect the line from abrasive rocks, and will keep the walleye’s sharp teeth from cutting the line once the fish is hooked.
Many kinds of lures, jigs, spinners and spoons will fool walleyes, with most of them being much more effective if a live night crawler is attached. Anglers that prefer trolling will often put a worm on a stout, sharp 1/0 hook attached to a flashy spinner with a fluorocarbon leader tied to a good swivel. Eighteen inches in front of the swivel they will put a small split shot that will keep a one to two-ounce barrel weight in place. Casters must use a lure that is heavy enough to sink rapidly to the bottom.
Large deep-diving plugs and “bottom bouncing” are also a popular and productive techniques. These are usually in bright colors that will show up in the depths, and are trolled without any bait attached. Chartreuse is a color that walleye can easily see and is attractive to them in low light conditions.
Whatever bait or lure is used, it’s important to fish very slowly. Some anglers even troll in reverse (when it is safe to do so) to get their speed down to what a walleye will chase. Once a walleye is caught, continue fishing the same area. Where there is one there will be more.
One final tip is to keep the hooks razor sharp. In addition to a mouthful of teeth, walleyes have a hard, bony palate to protect themselves from the spines of the fish they eat. A sharp hook is mandatory in getting a solid hookup.