Walleye and Stoneflies
The line was taut while the fish was bulldogging against the current. I knew in a couple of minutes the fish would be in my landing net. I finally got a glimpse of the biggest Walleye I’ve taken on a fly and my excitement grew into euphoria. As the old saying goes “don’t count your Walleye before they hatch”. I stood there in disbelief staring at my fly dangling in mid air, swinging gently back and forth. After my fly stopped there was one fly fisherman that was frothing at the mouth like a rabid bear. Usually I don’t get that angry but losing a fish that size, well what can I say.
Now you may say that Walleye will not hit a fly but that is completely wrong. I have no doubt in my mind that during the right time of year, Walleye can and will be taken on aquatic nymph imitations. The species of insect that resulted in the above Walleye was a stonefly. These nymphs spend 1-2 years of their life in the nymphal stage and attain lengths of up to 2 inches. When they start to hatch, there is a migration of thousands of stoneflies towards the river bank. The Walleye (and other species of warm water fish) will pick up on this movement and start to gorge themselves on these tasty little morsels.
The nymph imitation that I was using is called the F.F.A. Stonefly Nymph. This fly has produced amazing results the last few years. Not only has it taken Walleye but trout, Goldeye, Smallmouth Bass, Sauger, and Lake Whitefish. The colors that have been successful are: black, to represent the genus (family) Pteronarcys, seal dun to represent the genus Acroneuria, and a cream color to represent the instar or growth stage of both nymphs.
The best location to fish these imitations is in fast riffle water that drops into a pool or along dam sites, but it doesn’t matter where you are located as long as you have a highly oxygenated river, you will have stoneflies and if you have stoneflies, you will have fish that feed on them.
Fishing with this pattern is somewhat specialized. You have to take into account how fast the water is flowing, which will tell you what type of sinking line you require and how to keep your fly down near the bottom. The technique I use is quite simple. First, the length of the leader is 1-2 feet long. Any longer, your fly will not be kept down where the fly line is which a disadvantage is. Second, when casting, quarter your cast upstream and then do some stack mending which will drop your fly at least an extra foot. This procedure will take a bit practice with a hi-speed hi-D line but well worth the effort. After stack mending, collect all the loose fly line so you gain control and then concentrate on the spot where your line meets the water. If you see or feel any hesitation, set the hook immediately. Whatever it is you will have a fight on your hands.
You can fish this imitation year round but the peak time to fish this pattern is in August. I have narrowed this time period down to 10 days in August. With a bit of research you can also narrow down the peak times of hatches in your area. Remember after you define the peak times, you must determine the genus of stonefly that is prominent. An excellent reference book is “Stoneflies” by Swisher, Richards, and Arbona. A definitive piece of reading material.
Have fun and remember the big Walleye are waiting for you.
“Similar” as stated in the dictionary means “related in appearance or nature; alike though not identical. In the world of fly fishing trout are the number one species of fish that are sought, test the angler’s ability to the maximum and can be so selective they can drive a fly fisherman to the brink of madness. Most people believe that there is no other fish that can compare with the finicky trout. This is where the word similar comes in. There is another fish that can be and is as selective as trout. Pursued mainly by conventional anglers the Walleye offer the same challenges and shows the same selectivity as any species of trout.
Take a look at what trout eat. Mayflies, Stoneflies, Caddis flies, Midges, Backswimmers, Boatman, Freshwater Shrimp, Baitfish, Crawfish, Leeches, and some I missed are all on the trout’s diet. The same list of food items are on the Walleye diet as well. Most anglers will associate Walleye being caught on heavily weighted streamers in gaudy looking colors and do not think about the natural food items that are present in the water. In my home province of Manitoba there is a plethora of aquatic insects that hatch throughout the summer months. The most prolific hatch that occurs is the HEXIGENIA family of mayflies. Because of our oliogotrophic lakes and silt Bottom Rivers, we experience a hatch that consists of roughly 4.2 metric tons of mayflies per year. During the months of June and July fly fishing for Walleye is at its peak using different mayfly imitations. One of my most favorite memories occurred during one of the biggest hatches I have ever witnessed. My friend, Dean, and I were casting and having a grand old time ribbing each other on our lack of fishing skills, then without warning dusk was upon us. The hatch was phenomenal! The Walleye and every other fish started to rise and gorge on the adult mayflies. Of course we targeted the largest swirls and every time we put our dry fly over one we were rewarded with a nice size Walleye.
In the months of May and October the Boatman and Backswimmers is the main quarry for Walleye. I have caught fish up to 26 inches on these imitations that range in size from a 10 to a 16. Being a Stonefly addict I can’t wait for the first week of August. Conventional fishermen will usually go down to thirty feet to catch fish at this time of year because of their beliefs, but what I do is fish the ACRONURIA Stonefly hatch that occurs this time of year. I regularly take 5 – 7 pound Walleye in one to three feet of water depth and no more than three feet from shore. Caddis flies are another staple of the Walleye diet. They are especially fond of the LIMNIPHILIADE larva. Occurring mostly in lakes these insects help make the bulk of the Walleye’s diet in June. I remember when my father was cleaning a couple of eaters for shore lunch. “Let’s see what they were eating?” I asked. So my dad cut the stomachs open and out popped hundreds of little sticks. I didn’t realize what I saw until a few years later but I always carry a couple of cased caddis patterns in my fly box all the time.
There are times when Walleye, like trout, will feed on the surface. They will readily take, when conditions are right, the adult stage of Mayflies, Stoneflies and Caddis flies. Match the size of the fly to the natural and start fishing. In fact the surface activity can be so hot it looks like someone turned a stove to make the water boil. When Walleye take the adult it is more of a slash/swirl type of rise. Walleye tend to be a bit more aggressive in their take.
There are other aquatic insects that Walleye will feed on. Freshwater Shrimp, Sow Bugs, Dragon and Damsel fly nymphs, and Midges all find their way into the Walleye’s diet. Some other food items are Leeches, Crawfish and the different forage minnows. In retrospect most fly anglers believe that a weighted fly with a sinking line is the only way to catch Walleye. This is a fallacy. Walleye like trout will feed from the surface down to the bottom. With all the food items available how can you think in a liner dimension? You can’t! Learn to think outside the box.
Walleye and trout are so similar in this respect I find that there is no difference. If you fly fish rivers for trout you can fly fish Walleye. Current seams, back eddies, tail race sections of dams, rip rap, mid stream rocks, and the head and tail of pools are just some of the areas that will hold Walleye. Have I told you about an area that you don’t fish when out trout fishing?
As with any fish that live in lakes they have to cruise to find food. Where is the most productive area? I make things to simplistic at times, just the way I am I guess. When giving instruction to clients I always ask them “Where do you go to eat?” Some say at home which is true but if you want to impress the better half you find a nice restaurant and if the establishment has a reputation then you are going to wait in line. Same as in fishing, the best restaurant for fish is a weed bed. It has a reputation of having just about every food item available and there are schools of Walleye waiting their turn. To make this a better scenario this weed bed would be adjacent drop off down to 10 to 15 feet. What more could one ask, protection from predators, cooler water when required and a full menu. The other areas to try are inlet and outlet rivers, underwater humps, islands, and drop offs.
If you fly fish trout you already know every technique you need to know to fly fish Walleye. There is absolutely no difference. If you use a Liesering lift for trout you can do the same for Walleye. Dead drift a nymph for trout, you bet you can do it for Walleye. Any style of fly fishing can be adapted to Walleye.
Now comes some interesting points from conventional anglers. Ever thought of using a drop shot rig, well if you are fishing tandem flies you are doing it. Slip bobbers, we have strike indicators. Suspended crank baits, a booby fly on a sinking line does wonders. All we fly fishermen have to do is think outside the box.
A 9 foot medium style of action rod capable of casting a 7 weight line is ideal. The reel has to hold 50 yards of backing. Walleye do not take extremely long runs; they are more of a bulldogging type of fighter. The leader is the most important items in your tackle selection. When fishing with a dry line and nymph or streamer, I prefer to have my leader two feet longer than the depth of water I’m fishing. In other words when I’m fishing in eight feet of water I will use a ten foot leader. This allows the fly to sink to the required depth while I keep my eye on the floating line to detect a strike. When fishing with a sink tip line my leader gets cut back to six feet and when I get down and dirty with a sinking line my leader is down to three feet or less depending on conditions. One thing to keep in mind is that Walleye will co-habitat with Pike and of course Pike are notorious for hitting anything that swims including your flies, the reason for using a 7 weight.
Listed below are local and common patterns that can be used to take Walleye.
Gold Ribbed Hares Ear
DDH Rubber Legs
The list can go on but these patterns are the best producing. As stated earlier, these two fish are very similar. They have the same characteristics, the same diet, live in the same water, and provide the angler with hours of frustration. What else could you ask for? Take the challenge. Go outside the box.
Spring Time Walleye
The Waterside guys were at it again. After helping plan and take part in the FLIPR (Fishing Improvement in the Parkland Region) Trout Festival, we decided to do some fishing other than trout. The three of us, Will Milne, Kim Russell, and me, made a decision to pursue a species better known to conventional fishermen. Will and Kim fished this spot a day or two before and landed some really nice fish. In fact Will caught the largest fish that day at 27 ½ inches. After telling me about the fishing they experienced I couldn’t wait to get there. We pulled up to the spot at about 12:30 in the afternoon and raced into our waders. You have never seen such a hilarious sight, three guys hopping up and down on one foot trying to get their waders on, fishing equipment flying in all directions. Did I mention it only took us 30 seconds to get to the waters edge? As always when I got down to the riverside not only myself but the other 2/3 of the Waterside guys stopped to study the water. Will and Kim decided to fish a backwater hole while I decided to fish the wall edge of the spillway. My second cast with a DDH Rubber Leg Leech produced the first fish. Will and Kim soon joined in the fun with fish of their own. Unfortunately they both had to leave after a couple of hours but I had the opportunity to stay. In 5 hours of fishing I managed to land a 41 inch Pike, a jumbo bull Perch at 14 ½ inches, and a whole hockey sock full of Walleye, the largest being 28 ½ inches. (For those who don’t speak Canadian hockey sock full means a whole bunch). It was an absolute wonderful day.
Now I know what you are thinking “What is a fly fisherman doing going after Walleye”?They certainly are not great fighters, no leaps or jumps and they don’t even make any long sizzling runs. In fact a lot of fly fishermen call them logs but I can honestly say that they are the most challenging, finicky, and picky eaters you will find anywhere.
The best time of year to fish Walleye is the spring so let’s concentrate on this time of year. In my home province of Manitoba the season opens mid-May, so spring for us is the following six weeks, which is the end of June. Let’s take a look at different locations to find Walleye at this time of year and then some techniques to catch them.
Like trout Walleye will hold in different areas. The number one area on a lake is a weed bed. This lunch buffet offers Walleye their choice of diet. Whether its baitfish, aquatic insects, leeches, or whatever, this area will give the fish what it needs, but all weed beds are not created equal. This is what to look for. The depth of the wed bed has to be from 3 – 8 feet with an adjacent drop off down to 15 feet or deeper, not only does this weed bed provide food but also provides protection, through deep water access, to the fish. Find one like this and you have a Walleye magnet.
Another prime location in lakes are the underwater humps or depressions. We fly fishermen have to take a page out of the conventional angler’s diary to achieve the ability to see through water. A fish locator, whether it’s a Fishin’ Buddy II or a high end Lowrance unit, is a must. These units should actually be called structure finders because that is what you are looking for. With this said lets look at a fishing day, of course after you find the hump or depression. If you are fishing an underwater hump in late morning, with the sun beating down on you and the water warming it, what side of the hump will hold fish. If the sun is in the east fish the west side of the hump. It will offer cooler water and shade and this fact could turn the Walleye on. The old spot within a spot. Now let’s change the hump to a depression. The opposite occurs; the east side would have to fish because that is the side that offers the shade and cooler temperatures.
The third location is inlet or outlet rivers and streams. Some of my most memorable fishing has taken place in streams you could jump across. Trout fishing rules apply when you fish these areas. Low silhouettes and careful approaches are a must. Casting accurately is a cornerstone in this style of fly fishing. Hitting pocket water or casting tight to structure will ensure your success. Walleye when found in inlet or outlet streams will always look for the nearest structure. It doesn’t matter if it’s a log or mid stream boulder a fish will be there. An accurate cast will be well rewarded.
I will further classify rivers into two types. The first is with man made structures such as dams or water control gates and the second as free flowing. When fishing man made structure do you ever stop to think “If I was a fish where would I be hiding?” Certainly not in the middle of the river where the current is the strongest, no, I would look for places that there is less current but where the current brings me food”. If you thought like this while out fishing do you think you would catch more fish? You bet!
The first areas that I like to fish are the back eddy pockets. There is a virtual smorgasbord of food items swirling around the fish’s head just waiting to be eaten. My next spot, if I can get to it, is the inside wall of the locks. Baitfish congregate along these walls, less current and food availability, and the Walleye know it. All they do is sit underneath these food items and eat away.
In free flowing rivers the trout fly angler has the upper hand in locating fish. Walleye behave similar to trout in this situation so if you know your trout fishing you know how to fish Walleye. One of the best areas you can fish is the riffle/head of the pool location. Once again the food drifts down river and collects at the head of the pool; hence you are fishing for fish that have attained huge proportions. If you are lucky enough to fish a river with a waterfall try the base of the falls. Less current and more food.
The last area to fish that I will tell you about is found on both types of river water. This tip is something my father passed on to me when I was about 6 years old and it still has merit today. I have caught so many fish doing this it is unbelievable, in fact my son out fishes me in these spots because he is much younger and can run faster to these spots. Are you interested? Foam patches. How many times have you walked by a foam patch on the water and never entertained a thought of tossing your fly in the centre of the patch. Let me explain to you why you should. First there is nothing on God’s given earth that can see through foam. No bird, no animal, no human being. Total security in the fish’s brain, safety from above. Two, can sunshine penetrate the foam? No, we now have protection and shade. Three, can aquatic insects when they hatch, push up through the foam? No. That’s like me piling 12 feet of dirt on you and telling you to dig out. Impossible! With the aquatic insects trapped what happens? The forage fish start coming to feed. Now we have an area that has protection from above, cooler temperatures, and a menu of food items that is unreal. I’ll bet you’ll never look at a foam patch the same way again.
These techniques I’m about to explain you may have tried already. In fact if you are a fanatical outdoor magazine reader you may have read about some of these but let me assure you these techniques work. One system I read about was back in the late 70’s. there was an English magazine that I was fond of reading and inside the magazine was an article on fishing booby flies effectively. The bulb went on and the light was so intense it was blinding. So naturally I tied up 2 black and 2 yellow booby flies and tried this technique on walleye. All I could say was “WOW!!” The walleye just annihilated all 4 flies; in fact all I had left were the bare hooks. To fish this fly effectively requires patience. If you don’t have it this technique is not for you. To start you require at least a type IV sinking line. Add to this a 3 ft piece of 6 pound tippet material then tie your fly on. Cast the line and let it sink. A type IV line will usually sink 4-6 inches per second. If the water is 10 feet deep count to 20, then add a couple of extra seconds. The line should be at the bottom and you start the retrieve. The retrieve is also important, one six inch strip for every 30 seconds. The fly should be riding approximately one to two feet off the bottom. The most important thing to be done while fishing this system is to watch your fly line. If it moves set the hook. There is only one reason the line moves and that is a fish has your fly.
Another technique I have used with great success is the dropper system or what conventional anglers call a drop shot rig. There are numerous ways to rig droppers but there is only one way to rig for walleye. I run a 9 foot leader and to the end of the leader I add approximately 2 feet of tippet with a blood knot. I leave an 8 to 12 inch tag end and my leader is ready. There are two flies that I like to use. A heavily weighted deep Clouser in chartreuse and white or a pearl dace imitation on the point and on the tag I will tie my foam leech pattern. Now you may ask what type of fly line to use. All of them. I have used this system on sinking, sink-tip, and floating lines. This way you can cover fish that are sitting on the bottom or that are suspended in mid water depths. How do you fish for suspended fish? I have found that when walleye are suspended they will usually feed on minnows. When I first started fly fishing suspended walleye I used a fly that had part of a turkey quill for a body and a shaped cork head that fit into the cut portion of the quill. On the back was a marabou quill that was tied down and extended past the body quill to form a tail. I put this fly on a sink-tip line and over the first few years caught a few walleye this way. Who ever invested the Crease fly – Thank You! Using this fly has increased the percentages of hook ups.
When fishing insect hatches you present the fly in the same manner as you would while trout fishing. I have caught walleye on stonefly nymphs, caddis emergers and mayflies. I would like to say that I am blessed living in the province of Manitoba and reason is this. With all our silt bottom lakes and rivers they offer ideal habitat for burrowing mayflies. To be exact the Hexigenia family. The largest hatch in the world occurs in and around the Winnipeg area. Metric tons hatch every year and Walleye key in on this food item. It starts in June and may last a month, with the peak of the hatch occurring in the last two weeks. When the hatch starts I look for a sand or mud bottom flat in 3 to 8 feet of water. A light beige Montana nymph works wonders at this time of year but Will Milne has come up with a Hex pattern that just absolutely destroys Walleye. When the nymphs emerge to adults it’s time to put on a dry fly but with a twist. The dry I use is tied on a size 6 dry fly hook with an extended body of deer body hair. Around the deer body hair on the shank I use a cream colored dubbing. Then two complete mallard breast feathers tied fan wing style, and finally the hackle. When you cast this fly the sound is akin to a helicopter flying past your ear. When it lands it spins like crazy but as soon as it touches the water the walleye will smack it.
One last thing I would like to allude to. When you go out fishing take the time to read the water. Also start asking yourself some questions, such as “Where would I be if I was a fish”? If you do manage to catch a fish ask yourself “Why did I catch that fish there”?Doesn’t matter if you spook any more fish out of that spot as long as you find out why that fish was there. I hope I have piqued your interest.
Most times a nice mid flex 9 foot, 7 weight rod will suffice. A reel with enough capacity to hold the fly line and 50 yards of backing will do. There are times that big pike inhabit the same water and will hit your fly and if you know this then you may want to upgrade the line weight to 8 or 9 weight. Leaders are quite basic and a 9 foot tapered down to 6 pound will do. If you use a dropper system make sure you bring extra tippet spools.
Flies are another matter. The following are a blend of traditional and local patterns.
Attractor Patterns – Easter Egg Bugger, Mickey Finn, and a DDH Head in Pink and White
Leech Patterns – DDH Leech, DDH Rubber Leg Leech, and a floating Foam Leech
Bait Fish Patterns – Clouser Minnows tied in the following color combinations:
Chartreuse and White, White, Red and Black and White, Yellow and Black, Crease Fly,
and Black Nose Dace
Aquatic Insect Patterns – Will’s Hex Nymph, F.F.A. Stonefly, F.F.A. Caddis Emerger,
Beige Montana and Light Cahill fan wing dry fly.