How Far Do Big Winter Walleyes Move?

Walleyes move a surprising distance under the ice in big lakes. Not so far in small lakes. Not when compared to reports of walleyes swimming 240 miles in one direction. On the lake where I've been catching walleyes this week, a fish would have to circumnavigate it 12 times to swim that far.

Small lakes are charming in that respect. When you're lucky enough to find an overlooked population of walleyes in a small lake in Minnesota, you feel like dancing a jig every time the rod bends double in those typical walleye depths of 20 to 25 feet — almost the deepest water in the basin. Surrounded by snow-covered pines (the snow epoxied there by a rain event over a month ago) a short walk in any direction, it feels pretty special to find a good population of walleyes swimming below your feet.

Big lakes have a different kind of charm. Missions out there resemble a safari across the wind-blown flats of a frozen Sahara. That's where winter walleyes have been tracked moving long distance, as mentioned by Gord Pyzer in Winter Movement Under The Ice on this site:

"Perhaps the myth started with mark and recapture studies, like the one on Lake Champlain, that showed more than 60 percent of walleyes in the north end migrating over 30 miles downriver to the St. Lawrence. Another study, on Lake Winnebago, showed 21 percent of the tagged adult walleyes recaptured 25 to 90 miles away from their release point. Other studies have pegged walleye movements at 120, 160, and as many as 240 miles.

Most of this research, though, was conducted on large lakes and reservoirs. Furthermore, it was associated with prespawn and postspawn movements. Those walleyes swam long distances to reach suitable spawning grounds, or returned to their open-water summer haunts after spawning. Little tracking was associated with winter movements. Actually, it's because some walleyes in some lakes make long distance migrations prior to ice-up, that we enjoy some of the best and most stable ice action.

Many biologists and fishery researchers suspect that these big-water walleyes time long distance autumn moves to the vicinity of their spawning grounds, to take advantage of their peak physical condition. Better to make the journey in fall after a summer life of leisure than in spring when winter-weary egg-laden females would be stressed by the exercise. Winter fisheries around the west end of Lake Erie, the Bay of Quinte, and the Red River in Manitoba are examples. In each case, large groups of walleyes migrate long distances in fall, to settle and bunch for winter, close to where they spawn in March, April, or May."

I once caught a 12-pound, 2-ounce walleye in Michigan's Titabawassee River with a jaw tag (the fish was mounted and rests above my mantle because, well, that's another story — but rest assured, it wasn't my first choice of fates for that fish). We sent the tag information in to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and they reported that the fish had the steel band wrapped on its jaw near Oscoda, Michigan — in the mouth of the AuSable River, a distance of over 100 nautical miles from where I hooked it on that dreary day in February.

As anglers, we always believed Great Lakes Walleyes moved a long, long ways under the ice in the connected waterways and drowned river-mouth lakes that form part of their migratory pathway between perfect summer habitat (the perch, alewife, and goby-infested waters of the big lakes) and the sheltered spawning habitat of Michigan's gorgeous rivers and inland lakes. None of us were surprised to read the story told by that jaw tag.

In big inland lakes, walleyes are not sedentary creatures. They can move miles in fall, yes, but we also believe they move quite a bit under the ice. For one thing, walleyes begin staging, even in fall, near spawning habitat. Walleyes in lakes that spawn short distances up creeks or along shorelines are moving toward those spots all winter, according to many walleye experts I've encountered. For another thing, tagging studies in warmer months have shown that walleyes will cross miles of deep water, suspended 15 to 20 feet down, to find more agreeable foraging grounds. You could lay a chalk line down on their route across a chart. No reason to doubt they would do the same in winter if they "crop down" the areas they've been using. Walleyes will go where the forage is, and they seem to know where the most likely spots are before setting out.

Do you? Do any of us? We'll find out in some upcoming posts. But first — the hottest spoons and jigs for walleyes on ice this year. (Then a look at new ice rods for panfish.)

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