The number of walleye anglers in the United States and Canada has increased dramatically over the last 20 years, from 5.2 million in 1980, to 5.8 million in 1990, to over 6 million in 1996. Anglers rate walleyes the most popular quarry in three states, second in four, and third in four more, indicating its broad appeal geographically. And in areas where bass, crappies, catfish, and stripers have had top billing since the first survey takers pounded on doors, walleyes are moving up the charts as anglers on the fringe of the walleye range discover this fish’s combination of large size, challenging behavior, and unsurpassed table excellence.
Ichthyologists believe the ancestors of walleyes originated in Europe, moving across the Bering Sea land bridge to colonize North America, apparently during the Pliocene Epoch. The earliest fossils of walleyelike fish in North America date back to the late Pleistocene, less than a million years ago. Present distribution of walleyes and their closest cousin, the sauger, were established during the glacial retreat less than a million years ago.
Ichthyologists originally noted two subspecies of walleye, the usual form, Stizostedion vitreum vitreum, and the blue pike, Stizostedion vitreum glaucum. Researchers generally believe that the blue pike is extinct, due to overfishing and habitat alteration, or has been absorbed into the gene pool of the walleye.
Native range of walleye (Stizostedion vitreum) extended on the north from Great Bear Lake to James Bay and the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and south along the Allegheny Mountains to Georgia and into the Gulf Coast drainages of Alabama and Mississippi. Its western limit originally extended along a line from Arkansas north through the Dakotas. Stocking programs have extended the walleye’s range to Atlantic Coast drainages from Vermont to South Carolina, and westward throughout all western states except California, into British Columbia.
Within these boundaries, naturally reproducing populations of walleyes generally occur in large lakes of moderate fertility (mesotrophic) or in large rivers. In the upper midwest and Canada, natural populations also inhabit smaller streams within the drainages of major walleye rivers. Populations of walleyes sustained by stocking thrive in smaller lakes and impoundments within their natural and expanded range.
The Spawning Period begins the walleye year. In natural populations, success of the spawn affects fishing in future years. And walleye behavior in spring determines fishing patterns from ice-out until early summer.
When water temperatures rise into the upper 30°F range, walleyes leave deep overwintering areas and move toward spawning sites. In lakes and reservoirs, they may migrate into tributaries while ice remains. In rivers, they spawn over rocky shoals or gravel bars, or migrate up tributaries to find suitable substrates and current. In either case, we call this prespawn movement the walleye “run.”
Timing of the spawning run varies with latitude and local weather. Spawning as early as January has been reported in the Pearl River in Mississippi and as late as July in the Yukon and Northwest Territories. Male walleyes move to spawning grounds first and remain longer than females because they spawn with several females over a period of a week or two, while a female generally releases all her eggs in one night.
Southern walleye populations spawn at somewhat higher temperatures and over longer periods. At the southern edge of the walleye range, biologists note that spawning peaks at water temperatures of around 50°F, and spawning activity lasts up to six weeks. In Minnesota, runs peak at water temperatures of around 42°F to 45°F and last about two weeks.
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