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Walleye Week: Walleye Baitfish Patterns

Understanding where the baitfish are during the walleye calendar will help you catch more fish.

Walleye Week: Walleye Baitfish Patterns
Whether its perch, shiners, or ciscoes, different baitfish patterns can be in play on different waters. Take the time to research the food web in the lake you are planning on fishing.

*From the pages of In-Fisherman's June 2024 edition.

When you follow the baitfish they take you straight to the walleyes. But their diet is often so diverse, a reflection in part of their diversity, plasticity, and geographic ever-presence that you’re left scratching your head and wondering, what baitfish should you shadow?

“When you look at the walleyes’ native range, it’s astounding,” says Nick Baccante, who worked in Ontario’s prestigious Walleye Research Unit that wrote The Synopsis of Biological Data on the Walleye for the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. “When you look at the differences in environmental conditions, from the Gulf of Mexico all the way up to the Arctic Circle, it has taken eons for the adaptations to work. So walleyes are more resilient and adaptive than we give them credit for.”

Perched for Success

Still, Baccante is quick to point out that there are some walleye predator/prey interactions you can never discount. Like the connectivity between the biggest member of the perch family and its smaller yellow perch cousin. It starts as soon as both species hatch and continues until their dying days.

“It’s especially true in the core of their range,” Baccante says. “For the first couple months—from the time that walleyes are big enough to start feeding—they mostly feed on plankton. But by the end of the first summer, they’re starting to feed on yellow perch larvae. The presence of perch is extremely important.”

Listening to Baccante describe the interconnection, I’m reminded of the many times we’ve marked big schools of walleyes and caught several fish quickly, only to have the action taper off, even though the Humminbird had revealed plenty more fish still swimming beneath the boat. The first few times it happened we chalked up the slump to the walleyes wising up to our lures, but a quick drop of the Aqua-Vu underwater camera revealed that the remaining fish were almost always yellow perch.

It’s no coincidence, either, that the perennial top walleye jigs typically feature a palette of hues including green, orange, black, and chartreuse that pattern small yellow perch. Ditto, the firetiger colored jerkbaits, crankbaits, and Jigging Raps that we use, as well as the beads and blades that adorn our spinner rigs and harnesses.

On this last note, one of the most crushing early season walleye patterns to emerge the last few years has been trolling unweighted single-hook rigs in the knee-deep weedy water where yellow perch spawn. I always start by attaching a red #2 Aberdeen hook to the end of a 4-foot, 10-pound-test monofilament leader. Then I slide half a dozen orange, green, black and chartreuse beads down the line before topping it off with a small to modest-size firetiger-colored Indiana, Colorado, or Mack’s Smile blade. Finally, I crown it with a single orange bead before attaching it to my mainline via a small VMC ball-bearing swivel to prevent line twist.

Trolling a minnow hooked through the mouth, out the gill, and back through the spine, weight-free over the emerging vegetation, has produced some honking big walleyes. We do the same thing later in the summer over the tops of any cabbage we can find—concentrating especially along the edge—early in the morning and late in the afternoon. I’ve found perch patterns to prevail in lakes, rivers, and reservoirs that are relatively shallow and typically don’t stratify. It’s not that perch-patterned baits and presentations don’t work well in larger, deeper, clearer waters, because they do, but bigger female walleyes, in particular, tend to move offshore quickly after spawning, presenting another cracking baitfish pattern you can’t neglect.

The Cisco Kid

I’m sure it’s rewarding to have wealthy, influential friends in high places, but I’ll take nerdy fish heads in outdoor laboratories, like my buddy Chris Therrien, any day of the week. Therrien is wrapping up his doctoral research at the University of Waterloo in southern Ontario where he’s been studying ciscoes—and everything that eats them—for so long now that he goes by the moniker ciscokidoutdoors.

school of baitfish
Chris Therrien says an overlooked pattern is fishing for walleyes in relatively shallow Shield-type lakes using cisco presentations. The soft, silvery baitfish, typically associated with cool waters of the thermocline, have an amazing ability to adapt to changing environments. In Wabigoon Lake, Ontario, for example, he’s found ciscoes feeding on schools of shiners in shallow water along shorelines.

“The presence of ciscoes and other coregonines (members of the whitefish and cisco sub-family) can totally change the growth trajectory, age of sexual maturity, and life span of fish,” he says. “The fact that a prey fish alone can change lake dynamics and life history of predators absolutely captured my imagination.”

He says that from a nutritional perspective, ciscoes offer walleyes everything they need, labeling the oily baitfish the healthiest food a walleye can capture in terms of their caloric density. He’s also done growth rate analyses on fish feeding on ciscoes and says their gains are nothing short of incredible.

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It’s no coincidence, either, that the soft-rayed, silvery baitfish have evolved to take advantage of the thermocline, the zone usually found between about 28 and 40 feet deep in summer, where the temperature typically ranges between 46°F and 54°F. It’s an evolutionary adaptation that’s essential for their survival.

“Ciscoes dominate the thermocline due to competing trade-offs between food availability, predation risk, and metabolic drivers like temperature and oxygen concentration,” Therrien says. “At the thermocline, zooplankton densities are highest as a result of seston accumulation (carbon debris) that zooplankton feed on between the epilimnion and hypolimnion. Zooplankton is the major component of cisco diets, so it is profitable for them to stay at that depth.

“In terms of predator avoidance, the thermocline is an advantageous habitat to be in as the major cisco predators have more generalist foraging strategies, so having some spatial isolation from littoral (shoreline) and profundal (deep basin) prey makes sense.

“If ciscoes can move away spatially from the other sources of prey, then their predators have to make a choice to pursue them. Not all predators will make that decision, and some will instead forage for other prey away from them.

“Lastly, the thermocline has the temperature profile and oxygen concentrations that are optimum for cisco basal metabolic rate. This is important because to avoid predators, ciscoes need to optimize their metabolic rate, while keeping it low enough to not unnecessarily lose energy through temperature mediated basal costs.”

sandy beach at lake of the woods
Beach-League Walleyes The sandy beaches where the walleye/shiner pattern plays out are easy to find on Shield-type lakes as they show up on the map as soft, half-moon-shaped shoreline areas. They’re also the favored anchorages of houseboats, pontoons, and cruiser crowds, so when you see a few boats pulled up on shore, punch in the waypoint and come back later.

Also hugely important is the fact that large, mature, trophy-size walleye pull out to deeper structures and cover in close proximity to the thermocline, for many of the same reasons as the ciscoes. By retreating to cooler water, they can reduce their metabolic demands and devote more energy to the production of eggs. But they can only do this if there is plenty of high-quality food swimming nearby.

Swimbait Supreme

No one has popularized using large, heavily weighted swimbaits for walleyes more than In-Fisherman Editor in Chief Doug Stange. It’s one of the deadliest presentations ever devised and completely makes sense, all these years after the pioneering efforts when we understand the role that ciscoes play.

Only partially jokingly, Therrien confesses that when he first began his research, he thought that warmwater fish stayed in warm water and coldwater fish stayed in cold water. But he quickly discovered that’s not the case. The light went on, he says, when he was doing a broad-scale monitoring survey with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and captured large northern pike close to the bottom in 90 feet of water. The big toothy critters were dining on whitefish.

Now, he says, when he’s fishing, targeting walleyes and other warmer-water species up shallow and the bite tapers off, he moves out to main lake features—underwater points, saddles, rockpiles, and shoals—and searches for ciscoes.

In-Fisherman readers who’ve followed Stange’s instruction over the years, know well what happens when you locate a main-lake structure that tops off at the depth that intersects—or comes close to criss-crossing—the upper reaches of the thermocline. Swim a 5- or 6-inch ciscoe-colored Basstrix or Hollow Belly Swimbait on a 3/4- to 1-ounce jighead, across the structure and you’ll waltz with the biggest walleyes in the lake. My best day ever doing this, during a blistering hot August heat wave, resulted in 11 walleyes over 10 pounds, crowned by a gargantuan 35-inch behemoth. It was the best big-walleye day of my life.

More recently, we’ve begun using forward-facing sonar to pinpoint schools of ciscoes in the open water interface adjacent to deep structures. Typically, we see pods of walleyes trailing baitfish, like packs of wolves following herds of caribou. Drop a Rapala Crush City Freeloader on a 3/7-ounce Nishine Smelthead over the side of the boat and hang it dead still, 3 to 5 feet above the walleyes. Or, make short, underhanded pitches to the pods and follow your lure down so that you can shake, flicker, and flinch it a few feet above them. It’s more than any princely walleye can stand.

Take a Shine(r) to Walleyes

The walleye/cisco connection is so other worldly good that we go out of our way these days to fish the bodies of water with the densest populations of the soft oily baitfish. But sometimes you don’t have the luxury of cherry picking your lakes and you’re forced to fish for walleyes in shallow waters that don’t stratify or lack a cisco (or perch) forage base. Fear not, because shiners—emerald, lake, and spottail—will rescue you.

Fishery researchers Paul Cooley and Gavin Hanke have studied the walleye/shiner connection in Lake Winnipeg for years and discovered the silvery baitfish are the principal forage fish in the massive southern basin. The soft, silvery, finger-length shiners are the primary reason we catch massive greenbacks throughout the year in the second largest walleye fishery on Earth. And they do the same thing, usually unnoticed, in scores of other lakes within the walleye heartland.

The reason the shiner pattern flies so far under the radar of most walleye anglers is because the best fishing typically occurs at the last spot you’d expect it to happen—sandy beaches—under the least expected hot, sunny, calm conditions.

big walleye
Walleye feeding patterns pivot with water temperatures. Below 55°F, walleyes feed at maintenance levels but above that mark consumption increases as the water warms. In Lake of the Woods, for example, mature walleyes consume 1 percent of their body weight in June, 2 percent in July, and 3 percent during August and September.

Critical to the baitfish pattern is the lack of offshore structure in the main lake that you’re fishing. It forces walleyes to remain mobile, hunting for food. At the same time, however, windless warm conditions heat up sandy beach bottoms that attract hordes of shiners to feed and spawn.

“Schooling walleyes find these areas ideal places to forage,” Cooley says. “There are few boulders behind which shiners can hide, and shallow water closes the door on a vertical escape route. In short, beaches are perfect places for walleyes to conduct search-and-destroy feeding forays.”

To give you a quick idea of just how many prized shiners (they have a caloric density similar to ciscoes) will swarm onto a beach, Cooley and Hanke once pulled a short 15-foot-long seine net down a 150-foot stretch of Lake Winnipeg beach and captured 14,963 fish. Most of them were shiners.

But everything has an Achilles heel, and wind is the soft underbelly of the shiner baitfish pattern. Nothing disperses and pushes them offshore faster than a breeze. “The longer the weather remains stable and calm, the number of emerald shiners on the beaches increases,” Cooley says. Three consecutive days of stable weather with little wave action is all you need for massive inshore movements.”

After Cooley filled me in on the walleye/shiner connection many years ago, I started probing the hundreds of small- and medium-size beaches on Lake of the Woods and Rainy Lake, to see if the same thing was happening there as on Lake Winnipeg. Fishing early in the morning and late in the afternoon—often in the middle of the week to avoid the beach bums—we crushed walleyes casting Glass Ghost-colored X-Rap Countdowns and similar shiner-hued soft-plastic swimbaits.

Even after the peak bite ended with the completion of shiner spawn in early summer, we still enjoyed superb action all summer long when we hit the beaches after two or three days of calm weather. And to this day, it’s rare to see another boat fishing for walleyes. Which is just the way I like it.

04-walleye-baitfish-dreamstime_mac
Ciscos are a lot like cheeseburgers ... and the walleyes love 'em!

Ciscoes and Cheeseburgers

Ciscoes are so vital to the health and vibrancy of so many world class walleye fisheries that In-Fisherman contributor Jeff Matity, who works at Saskatchewan’s Fort Qu’Appelle Fish Hatchery, calculated their caloric benefits to walleye, and every other species that devour them including lake trout, smallmouth bass, and pike. He discovered that a pound of ciscoes represents the same caloric energy as two popular fast-food cheeseburgers.




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