With a big smile on my face, I posed with my first-ever walleye. For our group, it was the first fish of the day, and the first walleye I had ever seen in person — all pointy fins, sharp teeth and cataract eyes. If Disney made a movie about freshwater fish, a walleye would be cast as the quirky sidekick to the main villian (probably a pike). I was proud; if it had been a trout, it would have been a keeper. However, since it was just under 18 inches long, we had to release it. But, as it slipped back into the waters of Chatfield Reserevoir, I began to calculate how much per inch that walleye had cost.
It was my first time out with a guide, and I was still trying to work it out in my head how I felt about paying to fish. My buddy, Alex, had arranged a fishing trip for himself, me, and another friend, Jerad, with Nathan Zelinsky of Tightline Outdoors. Alex had called on a Wednesday morning asking what I was doing two days later. “Work,” was my response. He then explained how he had set up the guided trip for Friday at 6 a.m. and asked if I wanted in on it. Typically, I would overthink it and say I’d get back to him, but after accepting invitations to elk hunt, deer hunt, bass fish, kayak for trout, etc., etc., I’ve learned that when it comes to Alex and outdoor adventures, always say yes.
It turned out I was very glad I did. As more fish were caught, the price per inch went way down. And the knowledge gained from Zelinsky was worth every penny. Alex agreed, “Hiring a guide to teach us new skills was very cheap considering all the money and time wasted on trips doing it wrong, and the emotional toll of being frustrated and not knowing what we don’t know,” he said.
I realized that for years, I had little problem spending money on gear, but thought I could figure the rest out on my own.
I had fished for walleye a few times before with no bites, no fish, no luck. Looking back on those trips, I was using lures better suited for bass, and bass or trout techniques. Only a walleye acting in very unwalleye-like fashion would have hit what I presented. What walleye wisdom I learned from Zelinsky is extremely contrary to my prior assumptions: My visions of schools of the species cruising around Chatfield like tuna in the Pacific or sharks having to swim or die is much different than what walleye actually do — they find structure and sit on it. And wait. My new impression of walleye is that they are fairly lazy. Zelinsky’s Lowrance HDS12 fish finder would show humpbacked lumps of yellow, orange and blue perched on the high points of Chatfield’s floor and very few actually suspended in the water.
“Eighty percent of walleye will be found sitting on the structure, the other 20 percent will cruise above — mostly large females,” said Zelinsky. “The big females can’t compete with the young males. Think of the females as freight trains trying to outmaneuver the sports-car-like young males.
“The walleye sit belly down to hide their shadows and camouflage themselves. With their mouths about 3.5 inches off the bottom, most hits come around 6 inches or so above the bottom of the reservoir,” said Zelinsky. “During the first half of the year, you’ll ‘spoon feed’ the walleye using larger baits. During the second half, you try to get the lure to them quickly and jig it in the shallow strike zone to trigger a reaction-style bite,” he added. Zelinsky used the Lowrance to find some fish on structure (most of what structure we fished was along Chatfield’s bouy line), then he showed us the first of the three lures and techniques we used that morning.
1. Rapala Jigging Rap W7 Fishing Lure
Zelinsky handed each of us a 5-foot, 9-inch medium-weight spincast rod rigged with a Rapala Jigging Rap W7 fishing lure attached to the leader with a snap swivel. He instructed us to cast into a target zone determined by the Lowrance. Then we would set the bail and hold the rod up at about a 45-degree angle and wait for the lure to hit the bottom. Once it hit, we would raise the rod about 16 inches at the tip, hold it there and let the lure pendulum back down to the bottom. Then we would lower the rod back to 45 degrees, reel just enough line in to keep it tight and raise it up again. Doing so, we didn’t jig the lure in place, but hopskipped it across the reservoir floor. Writing this, it sounds really easy. But that morning, it took us all at least an hour to catch on to the technique.
Walleyes usually hit while the jig is sinking, so if your line is not tight you won’t feel a strike. Zelinsky told us to feel for a tap-tap strike. The first tap is the walleye hitting the bait or lure and spinning it, the second is it taking the bait. When using this technique, it’s very important to set a steady rhythm and feel the touchpoints so you can detect a strike. Some strikes will feel like you are lightly caught on something. Basically, whenever you feel anything different, set the hook. We each missed out on a fair amount of fish at the start of the day because we were expecting bass-like hits. Walleye are much more subtle in taking the lure than bass or trout. I started out the morning casting out as far as I could, but discovered I could feel each step of the process better on a medium cast.
2. Mister Twister Curly Tail Grub (3-inch) with 1/4-ounce Jig Head
These were tied directly to the leader, and with a bit of worm attached to the hook. The worm is pinched off so it doesn’t extend past the end of the soft-plastic body of the lure. When attaching the denser head of the worm, we would just snag it to hook once. If using the thinner body of the worm, we would snag it on the hook twice. The casting technique is basically the same, except when you are raising the tip of the rod, do a quick hop-hop action since this setup is heavier and drops faster.
3. Live Bait Rig
This rig consisted of two size-8 octopus hooks snelled 1.25 inches apart. Above that was a small orange bead and a medium-sized gold propeller, which is typically used to tie flies. This was snelled on a 4-foot piece of 6-pound monofilament leader on which Zelinsky put a collar weight. He also switched us to 7-foot rods and trolled his (very nice) boat above the structure. We would do a very short cast out, let it hit bottom and then set the bail. The rods were held out about parallel to the surface of the reservoir, and at any action that felt different than the drag of the rig on the bottom, we were instructed to smoothly sweep the rods forward. Sometimes it was nothing. Sometimes it was weeds. But most importantly, sometimes it was a walleye. More finesse was required than how I normally have fished. But finesse started catching more and more walleye.
Walleye weren’t the only species to hit these rigs. Both Jerad and I caught a smallmouth, and Alex hooked a big beefy rainbow, but lost it right before it was in the net. And, as Jerad happily pointed out, a fish doesn’t count until it’s in the net.
After the morning out, I am still not a walleye master, but I think I passed Zelinsky’s Walleye 101. Armed with the knowledge I gained, and the enthusiasm one gets from a successful outing on the water, I am a better angler. Watch out, walleye.
Wayne D. Lewis is the editor and art director of Colorado Outdoors magazine.