How big is a trophy walleye, and which walleye states offer the best odds for catching one? Most states have trophy programs, and most have determined the 8-pound range is where walleyes first enter the “trophy zone.”
The best place to catch one? Trophy anglers in the East might point to Lake Erie, or Bay of Quinte—Lake Ontario, or the Niagara River. Anglers from the Rust Belt blurt out “Erie” too, but certainly include Lake St. Clair, Saginaw Bay, Bay de Noc, and Green Bay. Folks on our northern frontier might mention the St. Mary’s River, Rainy Lake, Portage Lake, or the Muskegon River, where a 14 pounder turns up now and again.
In Minnesota, it might be Mille Lacs, Lake of The Woods, or the Mississippi River. Anglers from the Dakotas might say Oahe, Sharpe, or Devil’s Lake. Folks from the Far West would nominate the Columbia River.
When it comes to walleyes over 13 pounds, I can only say I’ve watched others haul them in on the Columbia, Lake Erie, and the Saginaw River. But I have put four over 12 in the net. They came from the Columbia River, the Tittabawassee River, Lake Huron, and the Winnipeg River. Some 11-pound walleyes that stretched my line arose from Bay of Quinte, the Muskegon River, Mille Lacs, the Rainy River, Lake Erie, Green Bay, and the Mississippi. Those fisheries are spread all over the place, separated by hundreds, even thousands of miles in some cases. In other words—I have no reason to be prejudiced toward any particular region.
If provinces were states, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Quebec might top the list. Just saying. We go to Canada a lot. Anyone on a bucket-list mission to net a walleye over 15 pounds must pay homage to Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba, journey to the Columbia River along the Washington-Oregon border, and dabble along the Saskatchewan River down to Tobin Lake.
So why didn’t Oregon or Washington make this list? Because overall best states for walleye fishing are the only ones on it. While the Columbia River is one of the greatest trophy walleye fisheries on earth, it’s the only world-class fishery found in those two states. Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, and Montana have some great fisheries, too. But one Fort Peck, Lake McConaughy, or Boysen Reservoir isn’t quite enough.
States on this list have: 1/ Multiple resources that harbor walleyes statewide that include lakes, creeks, rivers, reservoirs, and/or flowages; 2/ A state fisheries department committed to improving walleye fisheries through not only stocking, but also the enhancement and protection of natural reproduction; 3/ Some native populations, and 4/ The presence of multiple fisheries with the potential for producing good numbers with some waters offering a sporting chance at trophies in the 8- to 10-pound class.
The state fish in Minnesota? What else? Fling a dead cat here and it hits a walleye. Walleye madness grips the state year ‘round. During winter, small cities of fish houses pop up out on Mille Lacs, Leech Lake, Bemidji Lake, and just about everywhere walleyes swim. During fall and a special early season every April (weather providing), ramp lots overflow down the local highways on both sides of the Rainy River up on the Ontario border. On opening day in May, good luck reaching the ramps on the state’s major venues. (The DNR reports that about 35,000 licenses are sold in the last 24 hours prior to the opening day of walleye season every year.)
Summer is an endless drift down the Mississippi, a trolling pass into the wilderness surrounding Lake of The Woods—campfires on the islands of Rainy Lake with fillets on the grill. It doesn’t get any better anywhere else.
The state record of 17.9 pounds was taken in 1979 from the Seagull River, which makes nobody’s list of top walleye fisheries in Minnesota. Look at it this way: No state produces more 10-pound walleyes from waters not appearing on anybody’s list of the best venues for walleye fishing.
World-class walleye fisheries in Minnesota: Mille Lacs, Leech Lake, the Mississippi River, Lake Winnibigoshish, Cass Lake, Lake Vermillion, Whitefish Lake, Lake Bemidji, Lake of The Woods, Rainy Lake, Big Stone Lake, Gull Lake, Red Lake, Lake Pepin, and the Rainy River.
Growing up in Michigan half a century ago, the most popular fish among the state’s anglers was always a trout of some kind. Michigan anglers were particularly fond of browns and brookies back then. But, sometime in the 1980s, surveys revealed that walleyes became the most popular and sought-after fish in the state.
Every walleye stocked in Michigan comes from the native populations of Lake Michigan and Muskegon Lake. Those populations run up the Muskegon River to spawn, where the Michigan Department of Natural Resources gathers eggs and sperm via electroshocking. One of those boats approached me while wading the Muskegon for steelhead one day in 1986. I sat and signaled them on. They were polite enough to insist I finish fishing the hole, but I was relatively satisfied with my effort—one steelhead in about an hour on the spot. I don’t know which entity was more shocked—the giant 10- to 14-pound walleyes that bobbed to the surface right in front of me or myself.
From the mouth of the AuSable with Captain (John) Hook to the shorelines of Gogebic from a canoe, I’ve been lucky enough to catch walleyes in every fishery listed below and many others in Michigan. The Wolverine State truly is a walleye wonderland, encompassing the final frontier—those blue-water walleyes of the Great Lakes that continue to defy conventional wisdom and strategies.
Michigan’s state record walleye of 17.19 pounds was taken back in 1951 from the Pine River, a tributary of the Big Manistee. The fish was probably a spawning-run specimen from Lake Michigan. A dam has since been erected on the Big Manistee, preventing walleyes from reaching the Pine River, but specimens in the 13-pound class have been taken in many of the other waters listed here.
World-class walleye fisheries in Michigan: Saginaw Bay, the Saginaw River, Lake Michigan, the Tittabawassee River, Lake Huron, the AuSable River, the Detroit River, Lake Erie, Lake St. Clair, the Muskegon River, Big Bay de Noc, Little Bay de Noc, the Grand River, Portage Lake, the St. Mary’s River, the Menominee River, Lake Gogebic, Mullet Lake.
“I would say the two obvious factors making Wisconsin one of the best walleye states in the country are the Great Lakes, which produce some of the biggest walleyes in the nation, and the Mississippi River,” Haataja said. “And those two factors are on opposite ends of the state with great fishing in reservoirs, flowages, rivers, and lakes all the way across Wisconsin. The Mississippi has tremendous numbers of walleyes in all sizes. When it comes to lakes, Minnesota is the best walleye state. When you’re talking about river and flowage fisheries, Wisconsin is number one, hands down.”
The state record walleye in Wisconsin is a whopping 18 pounds, which is good. But it was taken in 1933, from High Lake. Which is bad. Old records tell us two things: Modern checks and balances on record keeping were not yet in place, and a similar fish hasn’t been taken in 80 years—casting a shadow on the original record. That being said, try to drive more than 20 miles in Wisconsin without encountering a decent walleye hole. And try fishing the Fox River, Green Bay, or the Menominee River for a couple days during prime time (October-November) without catching a 10. Not as easy as it sounds.
World-class walleye fisheries in Wisconsin: Green Bay, Sturgeon Bay, Lake Winnebago, the Flambeau River, Lake Mendota, the Mississippi River, the Wisconsin River, the Menominee River, the Fox River, and Lake Pepin.
I caught Craig Lewis of Erie Outfitters (Cleveland area, 440/949-8934) after he sold 600 dozen emerald shiners before lunch. He probably sells more bait than anybody on Erie because Ohio’s Western Basin is on fire. “Numbers and size-wise, you can’t do what Ohio does anywhere for walleyes,” Lewis said. “You can catch double-digit fish here every day. Right now a great 2003 year-class—the largest in documented history—is churning out walleyes that are all 8 pounds and up right now. Every day you can literally expect a handful of double-digit fish. We’ve grown to expect limits when you can get out there. We recently put 18 over 8 pounds in the boat in a day. With that kind of size and numbers, this has to be the best walleye fishing in the world.”
I asked Lewis where else he would go in Ohio to target walleyes. “Westbranch Reservoir to the south is a phenomenal inland fishery,” he replied. “The state stocks it heavily and you expect to catch limits every day. Down in that region the state has great tailrace fisheries below reservoirs like Pleasant Lake and Berlin Lake, and you can expect limits there every day, too.”
The state record walleye from Ohio, a 16-pound, 3-ounce beast, was very recently pulled from Lake Erie (1999). Meaning anglers still have an awesome shot at a 15 from the best walleye fishery in the world.
Ohio’s best walleye fisheries: Lake Erie, Westbranch Reservoir, Maumee River, Sandusky River, Ohio River (saugeye), Pymatuning Lake, Clear Fork, Indian lake, Buckeye Lake, Berlin Lake, Wells Creek, Mosquito Creek.
Why is South Dakota one of the most awesome destinations possible for traveling walleye anglers? “Easy angling, tons of opportunities, and unpressured fish that can be caught any way at your comfort level,” says guide Chad Schilling (605/280-0881). “Whatever your strong-point is, you can catch walleyes here with that tactic. Our fish are stupid. You don’t need an 8-foot fluorocarbon leader, you don’t need finesse—the populations are so high that fish are aggressive 24/7 all year long. We just go fishing and catch ‘em. “People often overlook all the smaller lakes in the eastern part of the state,” Schilling added. “All kinds of opportunities in dozens of small bodies of water over there. To the West, all the lakes around the Black Hills have great populations of walleyes. Great family vacation spot. Go for the camping and sight seeing and if you see a ramp, dump the boat in, start fishing, and you’ll have walleyes in the net in no time.”
Walleye fishing is open to the public year ‘round. South Dakota Game, Fish And Parks notes that several strong year classes are available in practically every fishery in the state, and predicts great walleye fishing statewide for 2014.
World-class walleye waters in Lake Oahe, Lake Sharpe, the Missouri River, Lake Francis Case, Lake Angostura, Lewis and Clarke Reservoir, Lake Thompson, Oakwood Lakes.
Like it’s neighbor to the south, North Dakota is dotted with ponds and small glacial lakes. “The Missouri River is a walleye factory,” Feldner said. “Lake Sakakawea and the river itself generate tons of walleyes every year. But the North Dakota Game and Fish Department does a lot of stocking in all those smaller lakes. There are tons of lakes between 100 and 1000 acres, so we watch the stocking reports and hit those lakes that were stocked heavily a few years back.”
North Dakota has over 350 improved boat ramps and countless primitive ramps scattered across the state. While the state fish is the northern pike, the most popular fish with anglers is the walleye, according to the Game and Fish Department.
“Devil’s is the best lake in the state for size and numbers right now,” Feldner said. “All the bigger lakes have their moments, but Devil’s has a lot of good to great year classes running through it right now. The wild thing about Devils is you can fish any way you want. You can pitch jigs, rig up with slip bobbers, Lindy rig, cast cranks, or troll successfully anytime between ice-out and ice-up. You can fish rocks, weeds, wood, open water—any way you want to go, you’ll find walleyes in Devil’s Lake.”
The state record of 15 pounds, 12 ounces came from Wood Lake in 1959.
World class walleye waters in North Dakota: Devil’s Lake, Lake Sakakawea, Wood Lake, Lake Oahe, Missouri River, Lake Metigoshe, Red River of the North, Jamestown Reservoir.
“Eastern Lake Erie has been the best spot for numbers of walleyes the last few years,” says famous guide Frank Campbell (Buffalo area, 716/523-0013). “We have to go down as deep as 70 feet with 3-way rigs in summer, though so I switch to the lower Niagara River, which just might produce the next state record. We’re consistenly seeing 12 and 13 pounders in the Niagara, running 3-way righs and jigging big bucktails.
“Chautauqua Lake has an excellent walleye fishery,” Campbell added. “It’s a great early season lake before the weeds come up, producing big stringers on leeches or jigging with Heddon Sonars. We have a lot of big fish waters in New York, but big numbers, too.” New York has 7,500 lakes and 50,000 miles of rivers and streams within its boundaries. A large percentage of those waters have thriving populations of walleyes. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation says the Conesus Inlet Fish and Wildlife Management Area in Livingston County is one of the best places in the world to watch and photograph spawning walleyes in April of each year.
New York’s best walleye fisheries: Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, Niagara River, Mystic Lake, Delaware River, Oneida Lake, St. Lawrence River, Lake Champlain, Finger Lakes, Mohawk River, Conesus Lake, Honeoye Lake.
“River walleye fishing is exceptional here,” says outdoor journalist and In-Fisherman contributor Darl Black. “French Creek has an awesome walleye population by small creek standards. The Delaware River along the border with New Jersey has a good walleye fishery, though it may have declined a bit recently. Some really nice stringers were reported there recently. We had an exceptional year on Lake Erie in 2013. Most of those fish wander through here from the Ohio portion of Erie, but we do have a native population out there.” The state record of 17 pounds, 9 ounces came out of the Allegheny Reservoir (also called the Kinzua Reservoir) in 1980, but Pennsylvania apparently has the potential to produce even bigger fish—all-tackle world records, in fact. “Pennsylvania recently produced a 24-pound walleye, taken by an angler that refused to turn it in or publicize it in any way,” Black said. “I have a picture of that fish on my bulletin board here and it’s mammoth. That’s the mystery fish from PA.”
Like neighboring Ohio, Pennsylvania has small reservoirs, rivers, and streams dotted thoughout the state that produce walleyes. “Lake Pymatuning isn’t a real trophy fishery, but it puts out limits of 15 to 18 inchers very consistently,” Black said. “Numbers and size have both increased, so that fishery is on the rise. It’s a spring and fall fishery, like so much of Pennsylvania. I don’t bother chasing walleyes in summer here, unless I feel like trolling on Lake Erie—which isn’t that often.
“Lake Arthur is pretty well known for walleyes, too,” Black added. “It doesn’t have the population that Pymatuning does, but it has some big fish. Lake Wallenpaupack, a power-generation lake in the northeast of Pennsylvania, has some huge walleyes in it. Pennyslvania has some dozens of small walleye lakes and reservoirs that are stocked, so the pressure is pretty well spread out.”
Top walleye waters in Pennsylvania: Lake Erie, Allegheny Reservoir, Allegheny River, French Creek, Lake Wallenpaupack, Susquehanna River, Lake Pymatuning, Lake Arthur, Monogahela River, Youghiogheny River, Delaware River.
Until now. greenevillesun.com recently posted an article proclaiming Walleye Fishing Could Be The Next Big Thing in Tennessee. And why not? Tennessee has overlooked, underfished populations of native walleyes thriving in creeks, rivers, tailraces, and reservoirs throughout the state. Bobby Wilson, chief of fisheries for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) said walleyes may not be the top priority in a state known for world-class bass and crappie fisheries, but walleye stocking and management continues to be a priority here.
Dale Hollow has a massive population of walleyes. So many, in fact, that it provides enough fry to stock the entire state. Fishing legend Billy Westmorland, who caught more 10-pound smallmouths than anyone in history, once told me when he wasn’t chasing smallies he loved to play with Dale Hollow’s big walleyes.
Walleyes in Center Hill are averaging around 19 inches or so these days, according to guides, while 5 and 6 pounders have become increasingly common. Some larger fish are turning up on South Holston, generally considered the best walleye lake in the state next to Dale Hollow.
Guide Steve Headrick (931/644-4165) who works Dale Hollow, Center Hill, and other fisheries says April is the time to come and they mostly fish at night. “We light up the banks with special boat lights I sell,” he said. “It allows you to see the banks where walleyes are feeding on shad at night and you can see where to pitch a jig or a swimbait. We’re catching fish from 2 to 10 pounds. The average size is somewhere between, and we’re catching limits every night. Walleyes are coming back big time all across the state. The TWRA is stocking them everywhere and walleye fishing has just exploded. We now have a number of fisheries where you can expect to boat a 10 pounder if you put your time in.” World-class fisheries from Tennessee: Tennessee River, Norris Lake, Dale Hollow, Center Hill, Lake Wautaga, Lake Normandy, South Holston.
“Bull Shoals and Lake Norfork are great walleye lakes,” says Darrel Binks of Binks Guide Service (870/499-7384), who has been guiding for walleyes for 23 years. “Bull Shoals is probably the better of the two right now. In this area, the stripers, the bass then walleyes are the most sought-after fish. I get more customers for walleyes than bass on these lakes. It starts in April and goes strong right through September. We vertically jig with spoons or troll bottom bouncers with night crawlers throughout summer with great success.”
River and stream fishing for walleyes is relatively unpublicized and underutilized in Arkansas, but almost every tailrace and small river has good numbers, including the Ouachita River, the Upper Fork and Middle Fork, the White River and the Norfork River. Best walleye fisheries in Arkansas: Bull Shoals, Lake Norfork, Greer’s Ferry, Lake Ouachita, White River, Eleven Point River, Greeson Lake, Hamilton Lake, Spring Lake, Black Lake, Beaver Lake Little Missouri River, Devil’s Fork.