‘Eyes on flies

Walleye fish are most often caught with artificial flies that resemble mayfly nymph, stonefly nymph or caddis fly pupae patterns. Techniques to attract the fish to the flies are discussed.
For years, walleyes have been regarded as structure-oriented and bottom-dwelling fish. But biologists and anglers are learning that these popular gamefish will suspend at midlevel depths or seek forage in shallow water. What’s the best way to catch these’eye? With a fly!

To one walleye angler, “perfection” might be a trophy take, mounted for the den wall. To another it’s sore arms from a full day of battling fish that weighed no less than two pounds. For others, perfection means a second helping of tasty walleye fillets fried golden brown over an open campfire.

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One day last June I experienced two of those three perfect pleasures while fishing Holinshead Lake, about an hour’s drive north of Thunder Bay, Ontario. As a glorious sunset ignited western clouds, I released yet another walleye, and marveled aloud as to how only an eight or 10-pounder could improve upon this day. Just then, a loon called as the last breath of wind died away. That’s when the caddis fly hatch began.

Jim Corbett, my Ojibway guide and the owner of Holinshead Lake Resort, noticed the first emerger. We watched as the insect wriggled free of its casing, then launched aloft like a miniature helicopter. Other dimples began to appear on the glass-smooth lake.

“Think they’ll take a fly?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Jim said. “Maybe a wet one. I haven’t caught a walleye on this spinner now for several minutes.”

My hands trembled as I rigged the little 7 1/2-foot fiberglass fly rod I use for farm pond bluegills, and that usually goes with me into the bush in the event speckled trout are available. Luckily the reel already contained a sinking fly line with a five-foot leader attached. In my wallet pack of basic fly patterns, I dug free a big gray-brown streamer that somewhat resembled a caddis nymph and secured it with a small knot, which in my haste I didn’t bother to trim. I then false-cast the fly a couple of times and set it on the placid lake surface about 30 feet from the boat. The line dipped and the fly sank from sight.

Although I’m not a hard-core flyfisherman, I still knew that to imitate an emerging insect, I would have to gently lift the artificial a few inches at a time while slowly bringing it back. I stripped a few inches of limp line, which suddenly slapped the rod. I had my first ‘eye on a fly.

My lightweight gear made the fish seem double the size of the cigar-shaped two-pounders we had been catching and releasing from this shallow reef at the lake’s north end. With my little rod curled into a C, I led the scrapper to the boat and saw the hint of telltale white along the under tail fin before slipping the walleye into our net. Jim was impressed with the 17-incher. “That looked like fun,” he said.

It was fun, and so were the eight or 10 others I caught and let go before darkness enveloped us. The biggest fish weighed only three pounds, but what did that matter? After a lifetime of trolling, jigging and drift-fishing with bottom-running gear, I had found a new and exciting way to catch walleyes!

Few anglers, flyfishermen included, think of going after walleyes with flyfishing tackle. “Walleyes are usually too deep to reach with flies,” one doubter will say. “They won’t take a dry fly at all,” insists another. A third contests, “It’s too much trouble. After you find walleyes, it’s much easier to take them on jigs, Lindy Rigs or crankbaits. Why mess with fancy gear?”

Fancy gear? What can be more basic than a rod, reel and handful of flies wrapped in a piece of sponge and folded into a shirt pocket? True, graphite rods are now state of the art. But competition among the many manufacturers is keeping prices affordable for us anglers who want to try the new game or upgrade old flyfishing gear. Cost to get set up with a decent rod, single-action reel, pair of lines, some leaders and tippets and a handful of flies is about $150, perhaps less if you shop for bargains or buy used equipment. (Consult the sidebar accompanying this article for tackle information, or see “Flyfishing Starter Kit” in the May 1992 issue for a complete fly tackle source list.)

Ever the opportunistic predator, walleyes eat insect larvae, pupae and winged adults in addition to their main diet of crayfish, minnows, leeches, worms and bugs. Once found, walleyes can usually be induced to bite when presentations appear natural. And nothing is more natural than flyfishing presentations.

What about deep-water fish, you ask? Yes, walleyes are bottom and structure-oriented, but they also suspend in deep lakes and frequent the shallows much more often than was formerly believed. A recent telemetry study on Lake Meredith in Texas revealed that walleyes there spent 75 percent of the time feeding in water 15 feet deep or less.

Each year four of every five tournaments in both the Masters Walleye Circuit and the Cabela’s/In-Fishermen Professional Walleye Trail are won in water 10 feet deep or less. Mike McClelland, one of the all-time money winners, has copped two tournaments by taking walleyes from only a foot of water. “Although I don’t flyfish,” McClelland told me, “I have no doubt that it would be a deadly tactic for shallow-water fish.”

Because walleyes are now found in nearly every state, flyfishermen have more opportunities than ever to catch them from rivers, reservoirs, inland lakes and each of the five Great Lakes. Flyfishermen can actually enjoy an advantage over other anglers, especially in clear water when walleyes are spooky. A balanced outfit allows the flycaster to put lightweight offerings on target without scaring fish, then make a natural, gentle presentation. In deeper water, high-density lines permit flyfishermen to get streamers and nymphal patterns to 20 feet. Insect larvae, leeches and crippled minnows can all be imitated with neutrally buoyant flies that act naturally when fished on sinking lines.

Under the right conditions, surface patterns will work, too. Years ago, for example, we caught after-dark walleyes in Michigan’s Lake St. Clair by tossing floating Rapalas to emergent weed beds. On summer evenings we could hear walleyes driving baitfish to the surface and swallowing them there. We never thought to rig flyfishing gear, but I’m certain it would have worked.

Below the dam powerhouse on Lake Oahe in South Dakota, anglers in the fall hammer walleyes on the surface after dark with stickbaits. I’ll bet a crippled minnow pattern would be a killer fly.

A few innovative flyfishermen have known for years that walleyes will take dry flies. Years ago, Bill Buckley, a friend of mine from Montana, spent the summer working as a teenage camp counselor at a lake in northwest Quebec. A rival counselor bragged about catching more than 100 keeper-size walleyes the summer before, and my friend, who had packed a crude fly rod, was determined to silence his boasting. One evening Buckley watched a school of walleyes mug a flight of spinners, big waxy yellow mayflies. Earlier that day he had spotted a dead evening grosbeak outside his cabin window. Plucking yellow feathers from the dead bird, Buckley tied up several crude flies with huge wing feathers and rough hackles. Over the next month he used those creations to catch more than 200 walleyes ranging from 16 to 24 inches.

I don’t know how many species of mayflies thrive in North America, but there must be thousands that hatch during the period from April to September. According to Mayflies, The Angler And The Trout by Fred Arbona Jr., a four-square-foot section of New York’s Beaverkill River turned up 35 species during an informal survey. Other sources list some thousand of kinds of caddis flies, and nearly 500 species of stoneflies. Walleyes are much less fussy than trout, and so matching the hatch is less critical. A handful of flies in varying sizes and colors will suffice for most hatches. About the time the hatches are coming on strong, walleyes are fully recuperated from the stress of spawning and will actively take these and other insect patterns.

However, probably 90 percent of “fly ‘eyes” are taken on mayfly or stonefly nymphs or caddis fly pupae patterns, which is why most walleye flyfishermen don’t bother with dry flies. Nearly any nymph pattern that approximates the size and color of the emerging insects will interest a feeding walleye. Many anglers stick with Muddler Minnow and crayfish patterns because they are nearly always in season as forage and are therefore deadly effective year-round.

“Because walleyes are the significant predator in our rivers, they eat nearly everything,” said Gord Ellis Jr., an Ontario writer friend of mine who began his flyfishing career pursuing speckled trout but now targets walleyes, too. “If you can approximate with flies what is on [the walleyes’] menu, you can get them to hit.” Ellis’ favorite technique is to wrap thin lead around the hook shank of a brown Muddler Minnow and then fish the streamer with a floating fly line. A Zonker pattern with metallic finish and fished like a crippled minnow is sure to interest a hungry walleye. Because Ellis also hooks the occasional northern pike, he fishes an 8-weight rod and likes a nine-foot leader of 12-pound test and a four-foot shock tippet of 15-pound test. Trout may be spooked by such a heavy leader, but most walleyes or northerns aren’t.

If northern pike are not on your agenda, though, shorten leaders to five feet and lighten the tippet to six-pound test or less. The reason? Long leaders make it more difficult to fish streamers above sinking fly lines. In addition to bucktails and muddlers, the Black Wooly Bugger is ideal for a subsurface presentation. Swim it like a jig or a leech.

Michigan steelhead rivers in the spring are often full of spawning walleyes, many of which are taken incidentally (and must be returned by law) on bright-colored streamers. Those experiences prompt Tony Petrella, a Sage rod representative and die-hard flyfisherman from Lansing, Michigan, to go after walleyes when the season opens in late April or mid-May.

“One of our dealers in South Bend, Indiana, turned me on to [flyfishing for walleyes] in the St. Joseph River a couple of years ago,” Petrella said. “Now I tie my own flies and fish for walleyes in the Chippewa and Tittabawassee rivers [in Michigan] as well as in the St. Joe.”

Petrella’s top fly is a minnow-imitating No. 2 or No. 4 streamer with silver Mylar body and white and yellow mixed marabou wings. He presents the fly in several ways–usually with a floating line or a sinking tip, sometimes with a Lee Wulff intermediate slow-sinking line while using the countdown method. “The idea is to predetermine the depth where walleyes are holding,” Petrella explained, “then let the fly sink naturally and retrieve it with an erratic strip.” His pattern is especially deadly because flies built from marabou exhibit pulsating, undulating action, much like the fins of a minnow.

Petrella’s best walleye to date, a sag-bellied eight-pounder from the St. Joe, nailed such a fly one evening in early September. While stripping slowly with the injured minnowlike retrieve, Petrella spotted the fish move a bit. A series of short tugs triggered the walleye into a rush, and Petrella set the hook hard.

Whoever said that walleyes don’t fight has certainly not dueled a strong river fish on lightweight flyfishing gear. So why not try it out? You should experience the subtle perfection of taking an ‘eye on a fly.

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