Up from the bottom of lakes, rivers, and streams emerge the bugs. Rising. Hatching. Swarming. Even the hardiest of angling hardcores find it difficult to coexist with seemingly endless swarms of harmless mayflies befriending ears, nose, mouth, and arms as they move around your neck and down your shirt. It becomes a test of mind over mayfly. But for walleyes living in emerging mayfly waters, this is harvest time, packing bellies full of seasonal walleye food.
Of the estimated 700 mayfly species in North America, burrowing mayflies are the most important to walleyes. Burrowing mayflies hatch in hordes, and their large size can quickly fill a walleye’s stomach. They derive their name from the nymph stage that digs into the mud, silt, and clay of lake bottoms. Most lakes as well as large rivers support strong populations of these insects.
Major hatches often occur in waves a week or two apart, with peaks lasting for a day or two. Between the waves, however, minor hatches occur, with the total hatch lasting up to two months in some northern waters. Peak hatches often occur simultaneously on separate bodies of water, with water temperature theorized as the trigger.
Search classic spots to find walleyes — points, humps, bars or flats. Search shallow during twilight periods. Also investigate visual clouds and pods of mayflies in open-water basin areas. During heavy hatches, the bugs sometimes can be seen on sonar.
On some waters, mayfly hatches occur in such volumes that walleyes easily can feed successfully without having to move far to do so. When this occurs, the fish become hard to catch. Finesse tactics are necessary to entice overfed walleyes to take one more bite.
A slipfloat rig baited with a small baitfish, half a nightcrawler, or a small leech works in many situations. Hook baits on light leadheads (1/16 ounce) set several feet off the bottom. To work large flats where walleyes are feeding on mayflies, anchor upwind and let the breeze drift baits through the feeding grounds.
Moderate hatches may occur from year to year and from region to region. Some years, mayflies are thick in numbers, while at other times, the hatches are thin to medium. The best hatch from an angler’s perspective is one large enough to trigger walleyes to key on mayflies for food, but not so large that walleyes become overfed.
The Walleye Wiggler, a combination of weight-forward spinner and leader with a nymph imitation, is a proven mayfly rig. Cast the rig on light spinning tackle (10-pound mono) and work it a few feet above the bottom. The Erie Dearie Weapon and Anglers Edge Instigator are other pretied rigs that work during the hatch. A plain hook weighted with a single lead shot set about half a foot above a baited hook also works.
During hatches, walleyes often can be seen disturbing the surface during twilight. The open-water surface disturbances and fish-rises often are assumed to be carp or suckers, but don’t rule out walleyes.
At dawn or dusk, when walleyes are rising to take emerging nymphs or adults at the surface, slowly twitch a floating imitation minnow crankbait on the surface. Light jigs (1/16 to 1/8 ounce) in combination with dark plastic bodies — black, brown, purple — or hair jigs tipped with a piece of crawler, are good choices for casting toward pods of mayflies and fish-swirls. Keep your rod tip high and reel just fast enough to keep the jig a foot or so under the surface.
Adding walleyes to your list of fish landed on a flyrod has potential this season. Larger flies, like a black Wooly Bugger or Muddler Minnow are good during twilight periods. Mayfly larva flies also can be productive. The smaller patterns, however, aren’t as visible. And we’re not fishing finicky trout, here. Best go with a fly that can be picked out from the rest of the crowd. Cast toward emerging pods of nymphs, adults at the surface, and recent fish-rises.
On some waters, the mayfly hatch is so large that it becomes impossible for walleyes to take another bite. On other waters, pods of rising nymphs may attract and concentrate schools of walleyes keying on the emerging bugs for food. I get ‘the itch’ just thinking about it.