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Walleyes Forever - Walleyes 101

Walleye 101

The basics of walleye fishing
(Reprinted with permission from The Billings Gazette)

Walleye Words

Sometimes fishing lingo can seem a bit daunting. Here are some walleye fishing definitions to help clear things up:
Eye - As in, "I got one eye!" Unless you're talking to a cyclops, "one eye" is short for one walleye.
Crawler harness - A two- or three-hook rigging, usually with a spinner blade, that you use to fish night crawlers, most often behind a bottom bouncer.
Bottom bouncer - Sort of a sinker on a stick. A lead weight is formed midway on an approximately 6-inch-long, stiff wire that bounces along the bottom as you troll it.
Crankbait - A minnow-shaped lure made of plastic or wood that can be cast or trolled.Bait rig - A rigging used to fish minnows, leeches or night crawlers.
Jigs - A hook with a lead weight molded to it. It is usually fished with a minnow, leech or night crawler on the hook.
Walleye chop - Enough wind to make decent-sized waves which will pound a shoreline.
Mud line - A place where waves from a walleye chop begin washing mud from the bank that dirties the water.
Planer board - A device used when trolling. As the boat moves along, it takes your line and lure far out to the side of your boat.
Kicker - A second, much smaller outboard motor on a boat that allows you to troll more slowly than the big motor.
Electric - An electric trolling motor, which may be operated by hand or by a foot pedal.
Dink - A walleye too small to keep.
Backtrolling - Trolling backwards, with the stern of the boat going first rather than the bow.
Console - A boat operated with a steering wheel with one or two consoles and perhaps a windshield. These boats typically have large-horsepower motors.
Tiller - A boat operated with a handle directly on the outboard motor. A "big tiller" has a large-horsepower motor.
Sauger - A close cousin to the walleye which is native to the big rivers of Eastern Montana.
Suspended walleyes - Walleyes that are far up off the bottom, all hanging at a particular depth, usually over deep water.

Copyright © The Billings Gazette,
- a division of Lee Enterprises.

Walleye fishing spots

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has an Internet page that can help you plan a fishing trip to some walleye spots and learn where state fishing accesses are located throughout the state. You can find the page at:

Here is a sampling of walleye waters you might try:

Bighorn Lake: Always a place that holds a few huge walleyes, this lake that straddles the Montana-Wyoming state line has come on strong with big walleyes in the past few years. It's fished primarily with jigs near the steep banks, or with trolled crankbaits for suspended walleyes.

Cooney Reservoir: Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks stocks walleyes, as well as rainbow trout, in this Carbon County water, west of Boyd. Some grow huge. In fact, a past state record was caught there.

Yellowstone River: From the Hysham area downstream there is good fishing for both walleyes and sauger. Fishing is often best in the late summer, fall and into the winter as long as the river stays ice-free.

Fort Peck Reservoir: Undoubtedly the best walleye water in Montana, it's big and takes a good-sized boat for safety's sake. Fishing is best in the reservoir's upper reaches and the Big Dry Arm in May and early June. As summer progresses, fishing in those areas slows down and the middle reaches and dam area of the lake are best.

Nelson Reservoir: Located east of Malta, it's a very good water for walleyes, perch and northern pike. June is typically one of the better months to fish Nelson and the lake generally ice fishes very well, too.

Missouri River: Anglers fish the Missouri both above and below Fort Peck Reservoir. Above the lake, it's a great fall fishery clear to ice-up. Below the lake, there's good fishing in the winter and into the spring.

Tongue River Reservoir: Some good walleyes are caught out of this Bighorn County water. Better known for its crappies and with good smallmouth bass numbers, it produces plenty of walleyes, too, for those who know it well.

Fresno Reservoir: Located near Havre on the Milk River, this reservoir historically has produced plenty of decent-sized walleyes. It has been hit hard by drought the past few years, but remains a good place for walleyes, sauger and northern pike.

Canyon Ferry Reservoir: Strong walleye hatches came off in 1996 and 1997 resulting in plenty of walleyes running 22 to 25 inches. The best bite is in June. Just look for the crowds of boats on the south end of the lake.

Boysen Reservoir: This Wyoming reservoir near Thermopolis is a fine walleye water, especially into the month of June. You can fish the points with jigs or spinners or troll crankbaits out in the middle for suspended walleyes.

Copyright © The Billings Gazette, a division of Lee Enterprises.
- Billings Gazette Outdoor Editor

Nobody knows exactly when the first walleyes were stocked in the waters of Montana and Wyoming. It was probably about 100 years ago - a time when many new fish species like brown trout, rainbow trout, bass, perch and carp were being tried in countless waters in hopes they would survive and multiply.

But even if they are a century-old resident of Big Sky Country, joining their close cousins, the native sauger, walleyes are still very much the new frontier for fishermen of Montana and Wyoming.

More and more people are making their first walleye fishing trips each year. They head to sprawling Fort Peck Reservoir, or go to the spectacular canyons of Bighorn Lake. They hope to catch the hot June bite on Canyon Ferry Reservoir, or troll crankbaits on Wyoming's Boysen Reservoir.

Many of these new walleye fishermen are actually old trout fishermen. When they felt the trout waters had grown too crowded, they opted instead for boat fishing and the wide open spaces of the big reservoirs. That's when they discovered walleyes.

Like the wiliest of brown trout in different seasons, walleyes present a great and ever-changing challenge for fishermen. There's always something new to learn. There's always a new piece of equipment to buy. There's always a bigger trophy out there, just waiting to be caught.

If you've never fished for walleyes before and want to give it a try, here's my course for beginners on what you need to know if you want to become a walleye fisherman.

Know your prey

Walleyes are a member of the perch family and are a close cousin to sauger, which is a native species of the rivers of Eastern Montana and Wyoming. Walleye are sharp-toothed predators, feeding on minnows, perch, cisco and young fish of all species.

They typically travel in schools, with a number of walleyes found together, although sometimes the school may fan out over a wide area. The trick is to find a school that is actively feeding and willing to bite.

It takes about 10 years or more for a walleye to grow to 30 inches long and weigh about 10 pounds. The oldest known walleye taken out of Fort Peck Reservoir was aged at 18 years by a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist.

The best eating walleyes are the smaller ones, up to about 3 pounds. They're one of the tastiest fish to eat you'll ever find. You can fillet them and take a thick, long strip of almost boneless meat off each side.

Baits and tactics

There are three basic techniques that fishermen use for walleyes - with a number of variations, of course.

You can fish a jig - a hook with a lead head - tipped with a minnow, leech or night crawler on the end of the hook. These are cast and retrieved near the bottom or fished vertically over the side of the boat, just off the bottom.

You can fish a spinner and crawler harness - a colored spinner blade tipped with bait - behind a bottom-bouncer sinker. These are trolled just fast enough so that the sinker is near the bottom and the blade spins.

You can fish crankbaits - a plastic or wood minnow-shaped lure - either by casting and retrieving them or by trolling them behind a boat.

Fishing jigs is typically the best way to fish when the water temperatures are coldest because the walleyes are sluggish and you can fish jigs very slowly.

As waters warm and walleyes become more active, spinner and crawler harnesses and trolled crankbaits become the preferred method of fishing. Fish are more active in the warmer water and will chase moving objects.


You can catch plenty of walleyes on inexpensive rod and reel combos that cost $30 or less. It doesn't take a fancy rod and reel to troll a crankbait.

On the other hand, a more expensive fishing rod will make it easier to feel the gentle take of a walleye on a jig, or the taps of a sauger on a crawler harness.

As fishermen progress at the walleye game, they usually have at least a couple of fishing rods they use. They'll get a spinning reel and rod for jigs, using 6-pound or 8-pound test monofilament. They'll have an open-spool baitcasting reel and rod for bottom bouncers and crankbaits, using 10- to 17-pound test monofilament.

The best colors for spinner blades and crankbaits are chartreuse, perch finish and blue and silver. And real men don't fish pink. Actually, the real men fish that color, they just call it bubble gum or watermelon. Women do fish pink.


You can catch walleyes from shore or by wading and casting for them. Most often, this is done best in big rivers, although shore fishermen on reservoirs can also catch fish.

The best way you can start at walleye fishing is to find a walleye fisherman who already has a boat and go along with them.

Most walleye fishing on reservoirs in Montana and Wyoming is a boating game, perhaps because so much of the waters in these states don't have very much shore access for fishermen.

And because these reservoirs are often very big, the boats that run them tend to be big, too. Boats of 17, 18, 19 and 20 feet with motors of 100, 150, 175 and 200 horsepower are common.

Then there's the gear you must - and can - put in them. The list is endless. Life jackets are mandatory for everyone onboard. But then you can add fish locators, Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers, marine radios, downriggers, planer boards, rod holders, a smaller trolling outboard called a kicker, electric trolling motor, plus several tackle boxes full of jigs, spinners and crankbaits. It's a marine equipment and tackle dealer's dream.

But to start out as a walleye fisherman, you really don't need all those things.

Try the sport and find out if you like it. Then decide how far you want to delve into it.

Most important

Before you head for the stream or lake, make sure you get the proper fishing license, if you need one, which varies by age in Montana and Wyoming. License agents will help you get what you need.

Make sure as well that you check the fishing regulations for the particular water where you plan to fish. Regulations vary for different waters, especially for sauger.

Then go have fun. It doesn't matter if you're a beginning walleye fisherman or a veteran. The most important thing when you go fishing is to have fun.

Mark Henckel was the outdoor editor of The Billings Gazette until 2010. His columns appeared Thursdays and Sundays. The are archive n the Bllings Gazette site. Webmaster can be contacted by phone at: (406) 633-2598, or by e-mail at:

Copyright © The Billings Gazette, a division of Lee Enterprises.

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