Understanding a Walleye's Preferred Prey

Lady Evelyn lady angler shows off a really nice walleye just before releasin it.

There is a tremendous amount of really good information out there on walleye fishing so I like to read everything I can find. For me the only problem is that most of the information is based on opinion and not on actual scientific fact. For this article I have decided to stick with facts that are based on scientific studies. To be your most successful as a walleye fisherman it is important to know the predation habits of the target species.

Most walleye fishermen already know that walleye tend to most actively feed at lower light intensities suspended off the bottom sometimes but not always utilizing structure for cover. But do you know their attack habits? Do you know about the size and shape preference of the walleye's prey? Do you know what baitfish they seem to prefer over others? Can knowing this information help you catch more walleye? I guessing it might just help!

Wildlife biologists Lisa Einfelt and David Wahl conducted a study on walleye predation habits and found some very interesting results. The first result observed was that walleye are more "pursuers" of prey as opposed to being "stalkers" of prey like say a northern pike would be. Walleye follow schools of baitfish and look for opportunities. They prefer to attack and consume any baitfish that strays outside the school. This indicates that you should always fish your lure on the extremities of baitfish schools as opposed to the middle of baitfish schools.

A perfect example on Lady Evelyn is when you find a shallow bar 5' to 15' that is loaded up with yearling smallmouth bass that are stealing every bait you drop you have found a potentially productive spot along the deep edges of that bar for some very good walleye fishing.

Another example is a large expanse of weeds that are just full of undersized "bait-stealing" perch. If you keep fishing the deeper outside edges of those weeds, you can be sure the walleye will be there eventually looking for the unlucky perch that leaves the protection of those weeds.

Diagram of walleye location during morning and evening low light hours.

The Walleye Point of Attack

Another interesting thing scientists realized was finding out their point of attack. I’ve seen it suggested that walleye (like bass) will hide in wait and attack from the side. This wasn’t the case in this study. It seems that walleye prefer to follow and attack from below and behind inhaling a baitfish from the tail region. Then they manipulate the prey in their mouth to allow for head first swallowing and ingestion. The exception to this rule is when they are attacking a larger baitfish which would be difficult to maneuver prior to swallowing. This requires a head first attack which does sometimes occur but on a much lesser scale. This walleye habit makes a good case for using trailer hooks in the presentation of your lure to ensure you take advantage of the walleyes attack habits.

     Walleye Prey Sizes

Large size walleye swimbait.

This research found that larger walleye tend to go after larger prey. Probably because there is a better risk/reward ratio. Sometimes that isn't an option but when it is the larger prey always attracted the larger walleye's attention. If you are fishing for trophy walleye, consider using large swim baits or if you are searching deeper water use a bit heavier jigs with longer narrow plastic worms. My personal experience has shown that using a whole giant nightcrawler lightly hooked in the nose has a better hook up ratio than a small half crawler on larger walleye. This research backs that up by pointing out that walleye will attack larger prey from the head because it is easier to manuever to swallow.

Walleye chose prey sizes that were toward the upper end or larger than those predicted to be optimal. For instance they observed a 100mm walleye consumed prey over a 20mm size range, whereas for 200mm fish, this range was about 50mm. However it seemed that body depth of the baitfish offered more constraint to a walleye than body length. For baitfish with larger depth bodies the walleye would selectively pick out smaller targets for easier swallowing. They also preferred baitfish with more of a contour at the head and the tail. This probably has a lot to do with their smaller mouth openings and has been learned over thousands years of evolution in selecting the right shape in larger prey.

The lesson here is to fish lures with proper contour that have less depth and may be a little longer in size. It also seemed that walleye preferred baitfish that lacked a spine and stiff body structure. Even though gizzard shad have more body depth they lacked a spine and had bodies that could easily be compressed for swallowing. Gizzard shad were preferred over both golden shiners and especially more rounded species like bluegill and crappie. Always try to find out what baitfish exists in the fishery you are going to be fishing. Next watch the hatch so to speak utilizing your knowledge of the baitfish that would be preferred based on the above results.

Garden Island angler holding up a nice Lady Evelyn walleye before releasing it.

Some Common Baitfish in Ontario

So far I have not been able to locate any MNR list of baitfish in Lady Evelyn Lake. In 20 years of fishing here I personally haven't seen any large schools of baitfish. I have seen large schools of smallmouth and walleye frey but not baitfish. I'm sure there are baitfish in the lake but I probably just have never been in the right place to see them.

I do know for a fact that wherever perch are available in Lady Evelyn perch are a walleye favorite and in some areas the entire season of walleye location can be based on these perch. Around the deeper end of Lady Evelyn wherever smallmouth fry are available you can nearly always find larger walleye waiting in the deeper water for them to venture too far from home. Overall it is my own theory that there might be a lack of baitfish in Lady Evelyn which contributes to another issue I have noticed. Most 28" - 30" walleye here are long with big heads and relatively skinny bodies as compared to larger impoundments like Lake of the Woods, Bay of Quinte or Lake Erie.

Some of the more common baitfish you might find in Ontario are emerald shiner, blacknose shiner, blackchin shiner, fathead minnow, bluntnose minnow, mimic shiner, spottail shiner, cisco.

Imitate an Easy Target For More Walleye

Chartreuse jig and narrow plastic grub for walleye fishing.

Walleye just don’t like to put a lot of energy into their pursuit. In studies a walleye's prey preferences were related to the amount of time and energy spent on capture. The walleye could more easily follow and get closer to the schooling baitfish and don't have to spend a lot of excess energy with wasted missed strikes. Easy soft long narrow targets were taken more often than any other large round potential prey species. This is not really newsworthy. It simply substantiates what most walleye fishermen already know. Provide an easy target from the walleye's point of view and get more strikes.

Knowing the predatory habits of the walleye definitely gives a fisherman an advantage. Preparing unique methods and utilizing this type of information can help give a walleye fisherman a slight edge in locating and enticing walleye to strike his offerings. It will also help you pinpoint locations frequented by trophy walleye.

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