What Walleyes See
December 04, 2019
As backdrop to our quest to put walleyes on the ice it helps to know what walleyes can see. In-Fisherman has long been about blending the best science with extensive field experience to bring you honest answers about fishing questions. A short-hand version of what we know about walleye vision goes like this.
Walleyes have eyes that easily gather light so they have an advantage over most prey in dim light. This advantage is most obvious during twilight periods, but also after dark, although even walleyes have limited vision in the complete blackness brought on by nightfall under ice covered by snow.
Walleyes can’t see details well, although anglers often assume the opposite because they have such large and impressive eyes. But it’s the cone cells in the back of the eye, in the retina, not eye size, that determines color vision and the ability to see details like the subtle patterns on lures.
Walleyes are unique in having some of the largest cone cells of any predatory animal on land or seas. Cone cells are like pixels on a large-screen TV in a sports bar—the bigger the pixels the fuzzier the picture. Another indication that walleyes don’t have detailed vision relates to their eyes being so good at gathering scattered light, which is what helps them see so well in dim light. That also helps make details fuzzy.
Walleyes do have color vision that peaks in the orange-red-green portions of the spectrum. They see colors on both sides of each peak, but sensitivity declines. So they see wavelengths shorter than green and longer than orange-red, but not well. Overall, they see orange and red well, followed green and yellow. They’re least sensitive to blue and violet, so much so that in most situations they probably can’t distinguish them. That includes purple.
They also don’t see ultraviolet (UV) light, although the addition of UV brighteners to lures may at times help those lures fluoresce, which means the brightness of the lures increases when fluorescent paint is used. In order for this to happen, though, there needs to be enough light present to allow UV to penetrate the water column. Such light generally isn’t available under ice cover with snow, the more so in twilight conditions that often result I the most active feeding.
UV light and fluorescence shouldn’t be confused with phosphorescence, where a chemical compound in paint emits visible light (glow) after being charged by a light source. In dim light this light is more visible to walleyes and it is a proven producer in some situations.
Putting what we know together we can say that like most predator fish, walleyes in clear water can sense movements well at a distance—in the best light perhaps out to 50 feet or so. In dim light that distance is reduces to perhaps 5 to 10 feet at early twilight. As the walleyes closes the distance, the moving lure is flashing and flickering as it falls. There may e a hint of color. We are predisposing the walleye to thinking “food.” It’s a grand game of sleight of hand and illusion.
Further closing the distance, the best vision discrimination occurs for a short distance from perhaps a foot or so out to five feet, where the fish has binocular vision. Even then, though we know that walleyes don’t see details well. And when the fish closes the distance to within about foot, binocular vision disappears, making it even more difficult the fish to discriminate.
This is why it’s possible for a spoon, which looks like nothing a walleye ever eats, to be mistaken as food. See why it’s so important to hint at this and that to get the fish to bite? See why a slight rod tip movement that causes the lure to “nod” can help the fish find what it’s looking for after being attracted from a distance? Too, as we’ve said, raising the lure even a touch at this range brings the lure into better view above the walleye’s snout.
It’s walleye with the flick of a wrist. It’s walleyes by sleight of hand. It’s all about the “big tease.” And it’s a calculated process that can be learned. Those are the rules of the road for walleyes.