How to Fish for Walleye – Beginners Guide on How to Catch Walleye
Walleye Fishing for Beginners
Walleye can be a challenging fish to target, but that’s what makes them so enticing. The challenge and their delicious fillets kick thousands of anglers into gear. I can’t make Walleye fishing easy, but I can make it easier for you to start fishing Walleye. Learning how to catch Walleye is a life long pursuit. I am going to walk you through what bait & tackle to use when fishing for Walleye, where to find them, and how to use popular techniques to catch Walleye. This in-depth article is curated for folks who understand the basics of fishing and would like to learn how to fish for Walleye. If you have never fished before I highly recommend starting with Fishing for Beginners.
Walleye Rods & Reels
A solid spinning combo is your first purchase to start fishing Walleye. A typical Medium Power 6-7 Ft. spinning rod and a medium sized 35 reel will give you versatility to fish many of the popular Walleye techniques. However, more finesse tactics like jigging and rigging live bait are best served under a Medium Light power rod. If you can afford to own both, you can execute two approaches with ease. Use the Medium power rod for artificial approaches like Crankbaits and Soft Plastics, switch to the Medium Light power for live bait. I sport both so I can easily switch between Live Bait and artificial, but I recommend getting started with the 6’6″ Medium for learning how to fish for Walleye. The rod should be Fast Action either way, I highly encourage a $59.99-$79.99 budget.
6’6″ Medium, Fast Action Spinning Rod + Size 35 (3500) Spinning Reel – Compatible with all tackle and techniques discussed, ideal for Lures and Soft Plastics.
6′ Medium Light, Fast Action Spinning Rod + Size 30 (3000) Spinning Reel – Ideal for sensitivity, best used when jigging or rigging Live Bait.
Fishing Line for Walleyes
For starting with only the 6’6″ M Combo, I recommend spooling it with an 8 Lb. Monofilament. Mono offers forgiving stretch, it’s readily available and inexpensive. You will be able to easily fish both Live Bait and Artificial directly to your Mono. If you were to start with both the 6’6 M Combo and 6′ ML Combo, I would recommend spooling up the most ideal line type for each form of presentation. On the 6′ ML Combo, I spool the whole reel with 12 Lb. Fluorocarbon. Fluoro has no stretch so you can accurately judge bites, and it is virtually invisible underwater. On the 6’6″ M Combo, I spool the main line with 10 Lb. Braid and tie on a 12 Lb. Fluorocarbon leader. In my experience, Braid has offered a smoother, more accurate cast vs. Fluoro. So on the 100+ cast days I would prefer to have Braid + Fluoro Leader on the 6’6″ M Combo and a full spool of Fluorocarbon tied directly to my bait on the 6′ ML Combo. The Bassmaster Blog has more advanced information on Fishing Line if you want to dive deeper.
How to Catch Walleye on Live Bait
Live Bait is the key to bountiful Walleye trips. Anyone who is just starting out should default to Live Bait as Walleye are generally more finicky and complicated to catch versus the typical Freshwater fish. You want all the cards in your favor to start getting on fish. There is a time and place for Crankbaits and Soft Plastics, albeit these are typically more advanced and are generally used to weed out the eater Walleye and target trophies. Live Bait is the best option when you’re first learning how to catch Walleye.
Minnows (Shiner), Nightcrawlers and Leeches are the most common Live Bait for Walleye
Minnows are the most popular bait option for Walleye Anglers, I have found consistent success with Shiner and Flathead Minnows. When targeting bigger fish, Shiners in the 4-6″ range are the mainstay, these will weed through some of the smaller fish and get you on 25″+ Walleye. If the bite is slow and I am marking fish, or if I am going for eater sized eyes I will use Flathead Minnows (2-3″).
Leaches & Worms
The second most popular option is Leeches, typically in the Large to Jumbo sizes. These are a great option in Walleye dominant bodies of water, however, in smaller bodies of water where Perch, Panfish and Bass populations are robust, your Leech will be the victim of theft. This can be true for Nightcrawlers as well, however rigging them to worm harness spinners lengthens their profile which sorts through the pests. Minnows and Leeches can be jigged, rigged, or floated on a Slip Bobber. Full Nightcrawlers are typically saved for spinner rigs but can also be a great float option.
For more information on how to use live bait in various Freshwater fishing scenarios check out our post Live Bait Fishing.
Jigging is the most popular technique for targeting Walleye, we will cover this tactic in more detail near the end. To jig you will need jig heads. For jigging live bait, it is critically important to use Fireball style jigs. These are Walleye specialized jig heads that have no lead barb on the base of the jig and the hook shank is short with a wide gap. This mold condenses the exposure of the jig + hook, giving your Live Bait a covert presentation. You tip your jig by the lips of your Minnow or the head of your Leech so they can panic lively as you fish. However, bait rigged for jigging will not cover up the typical Barbed-Jig’s shank so, Fireballs are the best option. I recommend 1/4 Oz. and 1/8 Oz. for most circumstances, you will rarely need anything larger and anything smaller is going to be ineffective in the typical walleye depth range of 15-30 Ft. Chartreuse is my go to color for Live Bait jigging, however I always have some glow colors as well for late evening and night bites.
Barbed Jigs (Left), Fireball Jigs (Right)
Barbed Jigs do have an important spot in your arsenal for Soft Plastics. That is what the lead barb and long shank is molded for on all the popular jigs you see. Barbed Jigs are commonly used for all Freshwater species, their size should correspond to the Soft Plastics you are using. Common 1/4 Oz. Jigs are typically sized for 4-6″ Soft Plastics, and 1/8 Oz. are sized for 2-3″. This is just a rule of thumb, there are tons of specialty Jigs out there and manufacturer’s size the ratio of weight to hook shank differently. Your plastic should be fully secured, covering the barb, and the shank should be long enough to exit the plastic with a gap long enough to get a good hook set. Once again Chartreuse is my go to, but I like to use White jig heads on Swimbaits in Pearl to match the Baitfish as closely as possible.
Walleye Fishing Rigs
Whether drifting by boat or casting off the dock, Walleye Rigs are next in your line up. Rigs are typically the default when the Walleye bite is timid and jigging presentations are too aggressive. The three most popular Walleye Rigs are the Slip Bobber Rig, the Live Bait Rig, and the Spinner Rig. All three are methodically used to cover large expanses of water, but each tactic differs.
Slip Bobber Rig
I highly recommend this set-up as the primary tactic for anglers just getting started on Walleye. It’s also great for fishing in a large group. Slip Bobbers allow you to set your bait at any depth, offering the most natural presentation, while still covering water. Thread the Slip Tie onto your line first and pull it in place. Thread the Bead, then the Float and tie on your Hook. Add a #7 Split Shot about a foot above the hook, and clip the ends of the Slip Tie down. Let your line out and adjust the depth of the tie until your bait is a foot above the bottom and your Slip Bobber is upright. Bait your Hook, preferably a Red Octopus Hook, with a Minnow or Leech (#6 for Leeches and Flatheads, 1/0 for Shiners). Let the wind or current take your float, which will gradually drift your bait over a greater area. Adjust the depth as you cover more water, and don’t let the rig float too far away or you’re at the wrong depth.
Slip Bobber Rig: Tie > Bead > Float > Split Shot Sinker > Hook
Live Bait Rig
When jigging is not producing this is a go to for rocky or hard bottoms. The Live Bait Rig is a Walking Weight above a Snap Swivel which runs a 2-4 ft. mono-leader to your Hook. The Walking Weight (1/4-1/2 Oz) is molded so it slides over and around rocky crevasses. It’s not weedless, but it gets your bait swimming just above the bottom, 2-3 ft. away from the sinker and snap. This creates a very natural struggle as the Baitfish or Leech is treading against the slow drag. These rigs need to be drifted along the bottom at a gradual pace, ideally the drift is provided by natural waves + wind (Walleye Chop) that pushes your boat along. If no chop is available, use a Trolling Motor at the lowest setting, or cast and retrieve.
Live Bait Rigs (Above), Spinner Rigs with Worm Harness (Below)
A more advanced tactic, Spinner Rigs are beaded blade rigs that can sport a single hook for trolling Minnows and Leeches, or a double-hook harness to sport a full Nightcrawler. Trolling involves running your lure or rig roughly 50-100 yards behind the boat at low speeds, preferably with a Trolling Motor. You’re motor provides the momentum to your bait and you can cover expanses of water effectively. The later is my recommendation, I like a Perch color blade for clear water and an Orange blade for stained. These are usually trolled with a Bottom Bouncer in 1-2 Oz. at speeds ranging from 1-2 MPH. Spinners are a flashy way to cover a lot of water, I have found them effective during the warm summer months on Mud Flats or Sunken Reefs when Walleye are spread out across mid-lake.
Best Walleye Lures
Walleye Lures such as Crankbaits and Soft Plastics are a staple among the Walleye elite. I recommend starting out with Live Bait, either jigging or rigging, to get your hands on some fish first. If Live Bait is not readily available or you’re set on targeting trophies, then lures are the way to go. Here are some of the most historically popular lure options for Walleye.
Crankbait, Grub, Paddle Tail Shad, and Ring Worm
Curl Tail Grubs
The best Walleye lure of all time, Grubs on a Jig are the most popular alternative to Live Bait. If you want to fish fast and avoid keeping bait alive this is your primary option. I really like natural colors like Black, White and Brown. Tails tipped with Chartreuse in these colors are effective in stained water. For beginners, I recommend a 3″ Grub. I really like 4″, but in the early stages you’re going get lot more action on a smaller profile that’s just long enough to ward off Panfish. Grubs in the 3-4″ range should be paired with 1/4 or 1/8 Oz. Barbed Jigs. Grubs are great options off the dock or on the boat, and they let you cover more water than Live Bait as you’re able to cast and retrieve more frequently without jeopardizing the liveliness of your Minnow. Jig, drag, or swim these along the bottom. Many of these techniques produce about a foot or so off the bottom.
Walleye Crankbaits are predominantly known for their trolling applications, typically behind planar boards to spread multiple lures apart and to avoid the commotion generated from the boat and motor. A deep diving Crankbait that drives 10-13 Ft. down is required to reach typical Walleye depths, a #8 in Firetiger is my favorite. These should be trolled along expansive Flats and Reefs during the summer months. Trolling requires a boat and is somewhat advanced, but I recommend having a Crankbait in your arsenal if you are a shoreline angler. These lures are great for searching out Walleye, then alternating to a more targeted approach, like a Slip Bobber Rig, once you can zone in. They will also catch a fair share of Pike and Bass which makes for exciting evenings on the dock.
Known for their effectiveness in Rivers, the vibrating ring worm is a go to for big Walleye in fast moving current. Getting the attention of Walleye in stained, fast moving water can be challenging. A 5″ Chartreuse Ring Worm on a 1/4 Oz.-1/2 Oz. Jig sends rippling vibrations to spark the interest of the Walleye’s lateral lines. The worms top heavy design lets the tail end float up when sitting on the bottom. Pausing on the retrieve sparks the majority of my bites. I like to rip these upward and let them sink. This way I can punch through the River’s bottom debris while also presenting a pause with the tail lifted up. Many times dragging, swimming or regular jigging along the bottom is the ticket instead. Experiment until you spot a pattern.
Paddle Tail Shads
I like to use Shads when I can locate schools of Baitfish. Casting into a ball of bait with a tail thumping shad will work well, but I haven’t had much luck with them outside of deep Summer and the Fall Mayfly Hatch when Baitfish are flourishing. In Summer, if I can find a deep school of Shad or Cisco, I will thump a Paddle Tail along the bottom. During the Mayfly Hatch when Baitfish are near the surface I will swim the Shad through the upper half of the water column. Beware, there will be a mixed bag of species in this approach. The general rule of thumb for Paddle Tail Shads is to match-the-hatch so stick with natural colors like Pearl, Shad, Smelt etc.
Walleye Hooks & Sinkers
Your going to need a good mix of Hooks and Sinkers for your Slip Bobber Rig, and to adjust your Live Bait and Spinner Rigs accordingly. Red Octopus Hooks, Bronze Baitholder Hooks, Split Shot Sinkers and Walking Weights are all you need to get started. More advanced terminal tackle like Bottom Bouncers, Beads, Blades, Trolling Accessories etc. can be put on hold until you get your licks in with everything I’m covering here.
Baitholder Hooks, Octopus Hooks, Jigs, Split Shot Sinkers
Red Octopus Hooks are the standard for Walleye fishing with Leeches and Minnows. This is what you will primarily tie onto your Slip Bobber Rig. Size 6 is best used for Leeches and Flathead Minnows, a Size 1/0 is the standard for larger Shiners. Most Rigs come pre-tied with gunsmoke or bronze colored hooks, if your using minnows or leeches it may be worth the effort to replace them with Red Octopus Hooks.
Bronze Baitholder hooks are a classic and work well when using Nightcrawlers. If you are balling them up you can get away with a single #2. This is a classic approach, but I like to use 2 x #6 Baitholders to harness my worm, elongating it while covering up as much Hook as possible. Try both approaches.
These shoe shaped Sinkers let your rigs drag across the bottom at a reduced rate of snagging. You will get snagged sometimes, but this is a greatly reduced occurrence compared to a regular Split Shot. Use a 1/4 Oz. for most situations in the beginning. As you go more often you will have times when wind conditions or depth will require you to step up to a 1/2 Oz.
Split Shot Sinkers
Size 7 or 3/0 will cover most of the scenarios and are an essential component to your Slip Bobber Rig. The Split Shot will give enough pull to stand your Bobber upright and reduce the tension needed for Walleye to take the bait. Keep them a foot above your Hook as they serve an important purpose in your Live Bait’s presentation. You want the Minnow to look lively and panicked, but you don’t want Minnow’s so nimble that they can escape the Walleye’s snatch. Split Shot weights keep your Minnow or Leech in place so they don’t duck behind cover.
These are an essential component for Live Bait and Spinner Rigs because they secure your leader to the main line and allow the rig to rotate without twisting the main line. Without Swivels your rigs tangle with your main line, losing you fish. Go for the smallest you can, a #12 Snap Swivel will do the trick. While Snap Swivels make it easy to switch baits, do not use them directly on your main lure. Added hardware is disturbing and reflects light, reserve Snap Swivels for rigs with leaders.
All the Walleye Fishing Tackle discussed here is available in our Walleye Fishing Kit
Where to Fish for Walleye
Locating Walleye is the most difficult part of fishing for them. Walleye are generally deeper than 10 Ft., so locating them has a lot to do with your understanding of whats going on underneath the water. The keys to finding Walleye are their relation to the structure of the lake, what types of cover they use, and how water temperature and light conditions affect their feeding habits.
Targeting structure is the primary factor in finding Walleye. Structure can be broadly defined as a-typical, or ideal areas of the water body’s floor that transition in depth or consistency from the general make up of the lake. Walleye navigate and hold according to structure. Identifying structural transitions is most often the key to finding Baitfish and their ensuing Walleye. Points on the shoreline are the most popular referrers to classic Walleye structure. Points are where shallow water protrudes out into the lake, often bringing with it whatever makes up the shoreline. A Sandy Beach? The Point will support a Sand Bar. Rocky Ledges? The Point will often support a rock pile. When the shallow bar reaches the uniform structure of the lake, the Point often transitions into a ledge or drop off. Walleye’s love Points because they sport multiple depth irregularities around a small area. Walleye seek deeper water during the day and feed shallow at night. A Point’s shallow bar that transitions to a steep drop off greatly reduces the distance Walleye need complete their daily routine. Walleye can feed in the rocky, sandy, or grassy shallows during the dusk and dawn feeding hours, then swim a few yards away to position themselves along the deep drop off during their low light preference of mid-day. Other types of shoreline that indicate structure are turns, bends, and mouths of bays or creeks.
Examples of Fishing Structure
Mid-lake structure requires access to a vessel. Flats, holes, humps, saddles and sunken islands are a few examples. The first three are the most typical. Flats are generally long areas at a similar depth that maintain a bottom substance different from the majority of the lake. An example would be a Mud Flat that ranges 10-13 Ft deep and spans a quarter mile. A hole is a deep pocket of the lake, usually depressing in a circular shape with the deepest point in the center. A hump is typically an oblong rise in depth, kind of like a sunken mound or hill. Think of rolling hills underwater. The spot-on-the-spot is typically the part of the structure that transitions in depth or bottom consistency to the rest of the lake or another structural feature.
26″ Walleye caught off a Rocky Point
The stuff that provides shelter or shade within the body of water. Finding structure that holds Cover will increase your chances of finding fish. For Walleye this typically means weedlines, rocks and boulders located in accordance with a structural feature. Look for larger Cover that expands across Structure such as emerging weeds that cover an entire Flat or rock piles surrounding a Point. Walleye school, so unlike targeting a few Bass under dock cover, we are looking for large areas of Cover to support large schools of Walleye. Once located, focus on areas where Cover is transitioning, like the edge of a weedline. Often times, transitions in Cover occur where transitions in Structure happen. The drop off area following a rocky Point will likely not hold the same rocky cover. Walleye will hold to changes in Structure, and position themselves right outside the Cover to ambush prey. So in the Rocky Point example, Walleye will hold near the ledge and ambush Baitfish that mosey around near the end of the rocks. Identifying cover and structure is critical for learning how to catch Walleye.
Check our our post here for more information on Fishing Cover vs. Structure.
Almost everyone who fishes Walleye in your local area will talk about what depths they are producing fish. I don’t want you to feel like you’re out of the loop after reading this, but depth is subjective to the body of water. Here are some generalities so you have a frame of reference. Walleye are generally caught between 10-40 Ft. A typical mid-sized lake in the Midwest would likely hold Walleye between the depths of 10-15 Ft. during the Spring, 15-25 Ft. transitioning to Summer, 25-40 Ft. during Summer and back to 15-25 Ft. in the Fall. This example can be totally different depending on the location and water body. The famous Red Lake fishery won’t get deeper than 15 Ft. and hold trophies, while at the same time Walleyes are feasting on Smelt in depths of 50-60 Ft. in the Great Lakes. It’s better to know how Walleyes move based on seasonality, and apply that to your area. Shallow in Spring, Deep in Summer, Shallower in Fall.
65-75 degree range is the optimal temperature for Walleye activity. This range typically occurs during the transition from Spring to Summer. Walleye are hungry after the spawn, and the water around Points have heated up. This is where you will see many boats aligned on Points, spreading out from the shallows to the drop offs.
45-65 Degrees is the typical range for Spring, you should target the warmest areas of the lake. Lakes heat up first on the Northern side and hardbottom areas will be the warmest. Walleye will be spawning but not all at once so try to target just outside of Northern bays and inlets to find Walleye’s making their way out from spawning.
75-80 Degrees is the typical range for summer doldrums. Hot water temps and bright light are going to push Walleye deep, so targeting mid-lake structure like Holes and the Saddles of Humps are a go to on small to mid-sized lakes. On larger bodies of water trolling over Reefs and Flats are good options.
Walleye have a high sensitivity to light. Generally, the best time to fish for Walleye is early morning and late evening. When the sun is high at midday, Walleye move deeper and hold tightly to shade providing Cover. During periods of low light however, Walleye will move in shallow to feed on baitfish holding close to shore. Therefore, it’s easier to target Walleyes condensed in the shallows during low light vs. finding them in the deeper expanses during a sunny afternoon. Their internal feeding clock is ticking more actively during dawn and dusk regardless of light conditions during the day. Early and late hours are a great opportunity for shoreline and dockside anglers to have a shot at the marble eyes.
Seasonal Walleye Habits
In early Spring, Walleye are spawning when water temps reach 40 degrees. Unlike Bass and Crappie, Walleye do not guard their eggs so targeting them in Spawn is less effective. Post Spawn however, is the most effective time to target Walleye. Larger Females feed heavily in late Spring, about a month after spawning, to regain the weight they lost. Closer to Canada this is typically May/June and closer to the Lower Midwest it’s April/May. As Summer approaches in July, the Baitfish population ramps up to a surplus as water temps rise and Walleye move deep in search of their ideal temperature range. Walleye spread out and save their energy for survival during these less optimal water conditions. The Summer Slump is a result of less active feeding due to a surplus of Baitfish and spreading out across mid-lake. As water temps begin to drop in the Fall, Walleye sense the urge to bulk up for Winter. As Summer vegetation erodes, Baitfish are pushed deep into the Walleye territory right when they become aggressive. Walleye are covering a lot of water in the Fall, and school tightly to large packs. Finding them consistently in the Fall can be a challenge as they are moving throughout the water body fast, but once you find them the numbers will be countless.
Techniques on How to Fish for Walleye
Now you know where the Walleye are and what tackle you need to catch them. You need to put your bait and tackle to work with some classic techniques. Align your tackle selection to the water characteristics you have identified and execute the following techniques accordingly.
28″ Walleye caught off a Slip Bobber Rig
Jigging Live Bait
Jigging is the act of presenting your bait near the bottom through lifts, drops and pauses to entice a bite. This approach if most effective during Spring, when Walleyes are actively feeding on condensed structure like Points. If jigging from a boat, keep your bait right in front of you, this way you can accurately gauge your relation to the bottom as your boat drifts or slowly trolls over an area. Make sure you can feel bottom and bounce your jig along every 3-5 seconds, lifting up a foot, dropping it, then pausing on the bottom for a moment. You can jig from dock or shore by casting and jigging your bait back on the retreive. Typically shoot for rocky or sandy bottoms, or alongside the weedline when fishing on shore. Jigging from shore can be challenging if you have to much vegetation, revert to a Slip Bobber if jigging ends in countless weeds.
This is the method used to drag Live Bait Rigs along the bottom. Drifting Live Bait is ideal for lethargic Walleyes in early Spring Spawn, or when poor conditions leave Walleye timid during Late Spring and Early Summer. Ideally there will be a Walleye Chop, or winds just strong enough to drive waves a little less than a foot high. Walleye Chop can move your boat along at about 0.2-0.4 MPH on good days. When these winds are a bit stronger, use a drift sock to slow the roll. If there is no chop, utilize a Trolling Motor on low to get the same effect. Let your line out next to the boat like you would jigging, keeping it only a few yards away from the boat. If you let out too much line after you reach bottom, the sharper angle will wedge your sinker into rocks. Feel along the bottom, letting your walking weight tick against the rocks. The difference between a bite and the ticks is a tap-tap-tap feel rather than the gradually pull or rolling of the rocks against your sinker.
Drifting a Slip Bobber is the best beginner option year round. It will be most effective in Spring and Fall when you locate a school, but Float Drifting will also work during the prime dusk/dawn feeding hours during Summer. Target a 20 yard radius of uniform depth around the Structure you are fishing. Anchor your boat and set your Slip Tie so your bait is a foot off the bottom and your Slip Float is upright. Cast 5-10 yards away from the boat and let chop drift your Slip Float through the target area. Continue to rotate around your boat covering the drifts. Anchor up and keep moving to new locations until you start getting bites.
Ideal for Rivers with strong currents or actively searching for revved up Walleye in the Fall. You are trying to cover a lot of water casting and searching for Walleyes when your jigging plastics. Cast your Soft Plastics rigged to Jig Heads and try bouncing, dragging, and swimming them back along the bottom. Alternate cadences and pauses, try a bunch of different actions but keep your lure in the strike zone a foot or two off the bottom. Keep moving and searching, check out Walleye 411 Plastics article for more advanced techniques.
Best performed on Flats with uniform depth, trolling can return Walleyes on Offshore Reefs during the summer and near shore Mudflats during the Fall Mayfly Hatch. Trolling is typically executed with planar boards to spread your offerings out and away from noisy motors. However, you can simply troll behind your boat about a 50-100 yards back and still find success. Speeds between 1-2 MPH are common with Crankbaits. Speeds closer to 1 MPH is common for spinner rigs. Generally target depths of 10-15 ft. so your lures can stay close to the bottom.
Walleye Fishing Takes Patience
Learning how to fish for Walleye can be frustrating. They are picky and many of the slow days are out of your control. Focus your efforts on locating Walleye according to structure and feeding habits. Start targeting them with live bait and get some fish on the boat. Once you figure out how to catch a few Walleye, you will greatly appreciate the challenge.
Free Fishing PDFs Including a How to Fish for Walleye E-Book