What are the most interesting aspects of a Walleye? Some may imagine hooking into a trophy 20-pounder. Others may just think they taste delicious fried or on the grill. Sure, that’s Walleye, Canada’s favourite freshwater fish. However, have you considered their adaptability and what lends to their elusive and sometimes mysterious behaviour?
Walleye spawn in the spring, when the water temperature reaches a certain range, and then disappear into the depths of lakes and rivers. But where do they go? How do they find their mates? And how can you catch them after they spawn? These are some of the questions that we will explore in this article, as we follow the elaborate and unique habits of Walleye spawning.
Can I Fish for Spawning Walleye in Ontario?
No, you cannot fish for Walleye during spawn season in Ontario.
While they are plentiful and can be found in many water bodies throughout Canada many biologists and regulatory bodies have gone to great lengths to protect their fisheries. In Ontario, many lakes and rivers have restrictions on when Walleye can be fished. For the French River, Spring Opener starts after the third Saturday in May after the fish had time to spawn.
While we cannot fish for them during spawn it is still important to understand their migration habits and how they affects Walleye fishing post-spawn.
When Do Walleyes Spawn?
Walleye like most other gamefish spawn in the spring. Their season normally lasts between mid-March to mid-May but can spawn as late as June in Northern Ontario. The triggers for Walleye spawning depends on several factors like water temperature, photoperiod (day length), moon phase, and weather conditions. They prefer to spawn when the water temperature is between 6.7°C to 8.9°C (44°F to 48°F). Yet, they can spawn as low as 5.5°C (42°F) to as high as 10°C (50°F) depending on the body of water.
While more research is needed, there are indicators that Walleye tend to spawn around the full moon or new moon periods. What is known, is spawning occurs usually at night or in low light conditions before sunset and sunrise with proper shading.
How Long Does Spawning Last?
Spawning for each Walleye lasts about 4 hours. Some individuals may finish in one night while others complete the activity over successive days according to Mike McClelland of WalleyeCentral.com.
The three determining factors are largely reliant on water temperatures, water levels, and oxygen levels. If conditions are not right, the fish may skip a season entirely and instead absorb their eggs to conserve energy.
Where Do Walleye Spawn?
Walleye typically spawn at depths 0.3 – 3.1 metres (1 – 10 feet) in coastal areas of lakes or shallow creeks and feeder rivers. Yet, they can also spawn deeper. For example, Lake Erie Walleye are reported to spawn at depths of up to 18 metres (60 feet).
Walleye spawning areas rarely move and their fry will return to the water they hatched from to continue the cycle. Interestingly, there’s research in the Columbia River of Washington State indicating spawning habits are “learned behaviours by adults”.
They look for areas with gravelly or rocky bottoms that provide oxygenation and protection for their eggs. For the water to be oxygenated, current or wave action helps disperse their eggs and prevent siltation. In lakes, they seek shallows close to the shoreline that’s exposed to winds. As for rivers, Walleye like a strong current in waters with a hard bottom that has access to slower waters nearby.
How Do Walleye Spawn?
Walleye are broadcast spawners, meaning they release their eggs and sperm into the water column without any parental care. Females release between 300 to 400 eggs per five-minute interval while multiple male Walleyes coax her with their fins and snouts. Then, about 95 percent of their eggs are fertilized by competing males before sinking to the bottom and adhering to rocks or vegetation until they hatch.
However, only a small fraction of these eggs will survive predation by other fish or environmental factors. Under the best conditions, 5 to 20 percent of Walleye eggs will hatch in 12 to 18 days from spawning.
The newly hatched Walleye fries are about a ½ inch long and paper thin making them difficult to see. They drift about for several days as they absorb their tiny yolk. After 10 to 15 days from hatching, they disperse into the upper levels of open water to feed on microorganisms.
How Many Eggs Do Female Walleyes Produce?
Depending on size and age, a female Walleye can produce between 25,000 to 50,000 eggs per pound of body weight per year according to a 1981 article in the New York Times. However, females over 28 inches are estimated to have over 200,000 eggs.
For this reason, Ontario’s current French River Walleye release slots are:
- None between 43 cm (16.93 in) to 60 cm (23.62 in).
- Average length to weights according to In-Fisherman’s Walleye Conversion Chart is:
- 16.93 inch is approximately 1.87 lbs producing roughly 46,750 to 93,500 eggs.
- 23.62 inch is about 5.36 lbs producing roughly 134,000 to 268,000 eggs.
The largest recorded estimate was 612,000 eggs in Western Lake Erie for the Journal of Great Lakes Research (1993).
Best Time to Fish Post Spawn?
The short answer is when they’re hungry and active.
Walleyes always look for food after they spawn. They are hungry and need to regain their strength. This is important to remember as after spawning, Walleyes can take anywhere from a week or two for females to resume feeding. Depending on the environment, it may also take them up to a month to fully recover their body weight.
Thankfully, Spring Opener and the following two to three weeks can be great for catching numbers of Walleye in Ontario. You just need to know where to find them and how to tempt them with the right baits and techniques.
Where to Catch Post Spawn Walleyes?
Catching Walleyes post-spawn is similar to Spring Walleye fishing.
Post-spawn Walleyes are not as easy to locate as pre-spawn or spawning Walleyes, because they disperse from their shallow spawning areas to deeper water habitats. However, they are still predictable if you pay attention to the fish’s environment.
Larger schools of Walleye will stick close to shore, typically within 4.6 metres (15 feet) of water in the early spring chasing after minnows, fish fry, and larval hatch. Though larger Walleyes will be in deeper water more in the 30 – 40 foot range.
If you have a fish finder, you should be searching for schools of baitfish or Walleye. If you don’t, then you are in the wrong place! If you’re not catching walleyes, try a different spot and be on the hunt like them.
Areas of interest depending on water levels are:
- Sand or Gravel Bottoms
- Edges of Weed Beds and other Vegetation (e.g. Flooded Forests)
- Rock points, Saddles, or Humps near current
How Do I Catch Them?
Assuming you already have a Walleye Rod and Reel selected we will dive into recommended lures and baits. If not, check out this detailed explanation in my previous article, Understanding Walleye Rods, Reels & Lines.
For post-spawn Walleye fishing in Ontario, water temperature will be the major factor in bait and lure selection. The classic option for these fish is live bait using minnows or worms with jigs as it works for most situations. Yet, there are also options for top water and shallow running lures for years with high water or early weed growth.
Sometimes if you want to catch Walleyes in shallow water, try using shallow crankbaits, spinnerbaits, or stickbaits. Cast them along the shore or over weed flats, and reel them in slowly and steadily. Sometimes, stop or jerk the bait during the retrieve. The key is to be random and erratic like real baitfish and play into the bait’s presentation.
Walleye are a valuable and fascinating species that have a complex and unique reproductive cycle. They face many challenges for their spawning but it is important to Ontario’s fishery as it provides anglers with renewed opportunities each season.
Finding and catching them is challenging. However, understanding their lifecycle, using the right tools and techniques will increase your odds of finding post-spawn Walleyes.
How can we help protect and conserve these amazing fish? Follow the Ontario Fishing Regulations and to our specific area – Zone 10 French River. You can visit the Ontario Community Hatchery Program website for more conservation information.
Article by Joe Barefoot, M.B., Outdoor Writer and Nationally Published Author & Photographer. A member of Professional Outdoor Media Association of Canada