The most popular seminar at the 2019 Tri-City Sportsman show was not about rainbow trout, smallmouth bass, or Chinook salmon. It was about walleye. Over the course of two days, armchair and seasoned anglers alike packed the presentation room and spilled over into adjacent hallways to learn how to and where to catch Columbia Basin walleye.
Area anglers are fanatic about walleye. I have witnessed altercations between strangers over whether an 8-pound female walleye should have been released. Anglers alter background details on catch photos to hide a secret spot. Friends no longer fish with friends.
Why all the hoopla? For one, walleye populations have expanded from one end of the Columbia Basin to the other over the past 20 years. For another, salmon and steelhead populations are generally depressed. Last but not least, walleye are one of the best tasting fish on the planet.
Records from state fisheries agencies indicate that walleye were first introduced to Lake Roosevelt sometime in the 1950s. Although adult-size fish migrated downstream, one- and two-age class walleye were rarely found until breeding populations found a toehold in selected backwaters below McNary Dam The lower Columbia River sport fishery was thought to begin near Rufus, Oregon in 1979 when anglers trolling for steelhead caught a strange-looking, toothy fish they called a “dogfish.” The strange-looking fish was showed to an angler from Minnesota who quickly identified them as walleye. What followed was a visit from a Midwest tackle manufacturer, sponsored walleye tournaments, and the launching of a 35-year career for Columbia River guide Ed Iman.
Walleye now occur as far downstream as the Willamette River and upstream in the Snake River upstream to Lower Monumental Reservoir. According to fisheries managers, it is unlikely they migrated upstream over fish ladders. “Guys who dumped their live well,” better explains their presence.
If your goal is a trophy walleye, you might try your luck in the Wallula Pool where the Washington state record of 20 pounds, 5 ounces was caught in 2014. Deep, wide, soft-bottom flats between the mouth of the Snake and Walla Walla Rivers harbor large walleye in the spring, many in the 12 to 16 pound range. This is a “bundle up and wear your life jacket” stretch of river in the spring when winds often challenge boat control. Lake Umatilla, the 76-mile stretch of reservoir between John Day and McNary Dam, is also home to a large population of double-digit weight walleyes.
The Hanford Reach also provides ample opportunity for walleye, although variable flow and strong currents can challenge. Some anglers troll near the confluence of the Yakima River. Further upstream, fish are found in shoreline inundations off the main flow, downstream of gravel bar islands and in deep swirl holes with sand-gravel bottom.
Walleye have advanced to inland waters in the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project using the complex network of canals as a means of travel. Three interior water bodies that stand out in terms of consistency are Moses Lake, the Lind Coulee arm of Potholes Reservoir, and Scooteney Reservoir. Each of these produce catchable-sized walleye consistently because of an abundant prey base.
In the Snake River, good numbers of walleye are found from the mouth of the Palouse River upstream to Texas Rapids and Little Goose Dam in Lower Monumental Reservoir. A ready supply of Gulp Alive minnows, in chartreuse and gray-white, can trigger a bite when juvenile fall Chinook salmon, a favorite spring-time food source for walleye, migrate downstream in late spring. The nine-mile stretch of tailwater from Ice Harbor Dam downstream to the confluence of the Columbia River is also productive.
Tactics and Technique
Walleye gear is not complicated, yet each method has a time and place. Standard methods include crankbaits or worm-harness spinner rigs kept deep with 1 to 3 oz bottom-walkers. Trolling in a downstream direction is an effective way to locate walleye when they are scattered. Innovative products such as the Mack’s Smile Blade Super Slow Death Rig and the Dutch Fork Butterfly Blade turn at desired trolling speeds of 1 mile-per-hour or slower. Nighttime trolling with a UV ProGlo worm harness can also lead to the pull of a big walleye. Flat-lining a plug can trigger a strike in shallower water.
The fun begins once a school of biters are found. Switch to a vertical presentation using lead head jigs or blade baits, and mark the location on your GPS. Universal colors of chartreuse and white provide improved visibility for your soft bait at depth. Berkeley Power Worms and scent-soaked Bucktail Rock Dancers also produce fish when dragged or twitched along the bottom. Use braided line, the lightest jig head possible, and keep your line taut to sense the subtle tick that signals a walleye bite.
Before You Go Fishing
Local harvest regulations vary across the region. Special rules apply in the Columbia and lower Snake River from the I-5 Bridge in Oregon upstream to Chief Joseph Dam, and in the Snake River upstream to the WA/ID border at Clarkston: no minimum size/no daily limit. Statewide regulations, i.e., daily bag limit of 5 fish, a minimum size of 16 inches and only one fish over 22 inches, are in effect elsewhere.
The liberal catch limit established by Washington and Oregon fisheries managers, while controversial to walleye aficionados, is an effort to reduce predation on salmon and steelhead populations listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act. However, many walleye anglers release larger females and limit themselves to no more than 10 “eater-size” walleye.
After dedicating the majority of my angling life to trout and steelhead, I admit to now chasing these toothy-predators on occasion. The decision is not a change in heart, but a practical matter. One thing is sure: walleye are here to stay.