Where to go for Spring Walleyes

Spring is an exciting time of year to be a walleye. They spend the winter actively feeding without much competition from other fish. Then, as water temperature slowly warms, spawning behavior takes over. According to one published study, walleye spawning involves “a series of violent synchronous acts between promiscuous groups of fish.”

It’s no wonder big females go “off the bite” for a month or so, while they recover from the ordeal. Toss finicky weather conditions into the mix and angling opportunity can change over night. With these facts in mind, let’s review a promising line-up for ‘eyes’ within inland waterways of the Columbia Basin Project, a complex series of inter-connected reservoirs, canals and waste-ways in eastern Washington.

Moses Lake

A recent WDFW report stated that Moses Lake is “perhaps the best walleye fishery in the state of Washington and likely holds the new state record.” Moses Lake is on the circuit for walleye tournaments that line up in early May. According to walleye aficionado Dave Graybill, “Moses Lake is a great training ground for walleye fishermen due to a large number of fish.”

How much more endorsement does a person need?

Moses Lake holds a healthy population of ‘eaters’ with an average size approaching 16 inches and 2 lbs. Although the main sport fishery may not heat up until early May, Graybill says, “It’s one of the few lakes where you can get walleyes through the ice in the winter. A challenge for early season anglers could be build up of shoreline ice although there is usually enough current through the channel under the I-90 Bridge near Moses Lake State Park to provide open water.”

 Other areas to drag a spinner rig with a nightcrawler or leech include the deepwater channel within the Parker Horn (the east arm where Crab Creek empties into Moses Lake) and the Conley Park area in the Rocky Ford arm. Check out Graybill’s informative website (FishingMagician.com) for weekly updates on local fishing opportunity.

Potholes Reservoir

The Potholes is also on the Washington Walleye Circuit (spokanewalleyeclub.com). The age-size distribution of walleyes in the Potholes is consistent from year-to-year, centering around 2 years of age and 15 inches in length. However, a productive forage fish population leads to an abundance of trophy-sized walleye.

According to Mike Meseberg of MarDon Resort, March is a good time to start fishing the Lind Coulee arm where small males congregate looking to “do their thing.” Spawning typically begins when water temperatures approach 45 F along the face of O’Sullivan Dam. One consistent spring hotspot has been the Crab Creek channel.

Meseberg stressed slow presentations at 0.5 to 0.9 mph early in the season, advocating the use of Mack’s Smile Blades to provide adequate lure action at these troll speeds. “Most anglers start by trolling with a spinner and crawler rig. Once you find a walleye, mark the location on your GPS or drop a marker buoy and switch to a more vertical presentation using jigs tipped with a crawler”.

Having a boat is not essential to finding walleye action in the Potholes. For instance, jigging with swim baits (4”-6”) or crawlers off the MarDon Fishing Dock has yielded several “teeners”, some caught after the sun went down. Another tip from Meseberg is that blade baits, which have versatility for vertical jigging, cast and retrieve, and slow-trolling, seem to work “all season” for both boater and dock anglers.

MarDon Resort has bait, tackle, camping supplies, boat rentals, and a store/restaurant. Check out their website (mardonresort.com) for the latest fishing report. The nearby Potholes State park also has camping and a boat launch.

Scooteney Reservoir

The smallest of the “big three” of southeastern Washington walleye lakes, Scooteney Reservoir, has been a consistent producer of catchable-sized walleyes over the past 8 years. In 2009, 97% of walleye surveyed by the WDFW exceeded the new 12-inch minimum length limit. Although forage and spawning opportunity is not thought to be as plentiful here as other Columbia Basin lakes, surveys indicate a stable fall population of around 6,000 walleyes averaging about 15 inches in length. These numbers equate to around 8 per acre for those wondering about encounter probability.

According to WDFW biologist Paul Hoffarth, a large percentage of larger mature walleyes appear to migrate move out of the reservoir, either during times of high flow or drawdown in the fall and winter. These walleye may eventually end up in the Columbia River. However, enough spawners hang around to generate a good population of catchable-sized walleyes. In addition, the survival of 0- and 1-age fish is excellent due to an abundant prey base.

Early in the season, look for walleyes near the north end of the reservoir where the Potholes Canal feeds in. Current from any inlet may attract spawners, particularly where upstream movement is blocked. Working drop offs, rocky points and submerged humps are other choices. It’s a good idea to stick to the flats when pulling a bottom bouncer in order to avoid snagging a basalt outcropping.

Scooteney Reservoir is only open from dawn until dusk. It has a nice boat launch with dock near the RV campground and recreation area. There is also a primitive launch site at the south end of the main body of the lake.

Essential Behaviors

It’s a well-known fact that smaller male walleye move into spawning grounds first, typically soon after ice-out for lakes that freeze over during the winter. Larger females may not show up until after water warms to about 40 F, after which they stage in deep water before moving into the shallows to spawn. But, find a big female and you will likely find a pack of males.

But it’s not all about sex. Walleyes also respond to light. Consequently, they tend to stay in deeper water during the day and shallower water at night. A unique layer of light-gathering tissue in the back of their eyes, the tapetum lucidum, allows for detection of prey at low light levels. Take advantage of this sensory mechanism by using glow-in-the-dark or bright-colored jigs, such as chartreuse, during low light. A flashy jig may yield greater benefits in the middle of the day.

Having an underwater camera is useful for observing walleye behaviors, such as their location relative to the bottom, preferred depths and substrate type. The trick is to talk your buddy into running the camera while you continue to fish.

Bonus Fact for Angler-Sadists: Fizzing debunked!

When caught at depths greater than 20 feet and reeled quickly to the surface, a walleye’s swim bladder may expand, making it difficult for them to descend. The practice of “fizzing”, or a puncturing the swim bladder with a hypodermic needle to release excess gas, was once thought to increase survival upon release. However, scientific studies have since shown higher survival rates for “non-fizzed” walleyes.