It was late summer, 90 degrees Fahrenheit, with high humidity. What do you do when you’re fishing for a creature that’s been called a golden prize? The answer depends on the lake you’re fishing and the ecosystem in place. Many walleye anglers search for baitfish off deep-water ledges. Most anglers on the water that day where I was were, in fact, doing precisely that.
Luckily for me, I had an experienced walleye angler with me that day — Cape Cod fishing guide Melvin Newton — and he did precisely the opposite. We spent the morning working shallow-water crankbaits near the shoreline, in approximately 4 feet of water. The looks we got from other anglers were priceless. But rather than acknowledge them, we spent the day bringing in a ton of walleyes (metaphorically speaking).
After lunch, Newton and I headed back out into the heat and humidity. The walleyes never did leave the shallows that day. We continued to pull out fish until winds pushed us and everyone else off the water.
A Formidable Predator
The walleye is a freshwater fish native to most of Canada and the northern United States. They grow to about 30 inches in length and weigh up to 15 pounds. Olive and gold in color, the mouth of a walleye is large and armed with sharp teeth. The fish is named for its concrete-appearing eyes, caused by a reflective layer of pigment that helps it see and feed at night and in murky water.
Many cooks consider walleye to have the best tasting flesh of any freshwater (even saltwater) fish. Because of its nocturnal feeding habits, walleyes are most easily caught at night using live minnows or lures that mimic small fish.
You can find great action from these tasty fish in a variety of settings, from lakes to shallow reservoirs to clear rivers. Some anglers might be skeptical when hearing the words “shallow” and “walleye” used together. At one time, I certainly was. Walleyes are deep-water fish, right? After learning how to catch walleyes from shallow water, however, I became a believer.
Many shallow-water walleyes live their lives untouched by anglers. Fishing magazines don’t focus on shallow walleye much, and many anglers still believe long-enduring myths about walleyes always preferring deep water.
As a species, walleyes are highly adaptable and multiply so rapidly they tend to take over some waters, preying upon resident fish. Good walleye habitat requires an ample supply of baitfish: 2- to 5-inch fingerlings, including shad, yellow perch and crayfish.
In many places, the walleye is considered by some to be a creature of the depths, hovering in dark waters far below anglers on the surface. The species often, but not always, avoids sunshine and calm water, preferring winds (3 to 10 miles per hour), small surface waves and depths of 20 to 60 feet. It’s not unheard of to catch walleyes in 90 feet of water.
Still, walleyes do oftentimes roam shallow waters because, simply stated, such waters are loaded with food for them. Some walleyes prefer to stay in the shallows year-round. Others move shallow along with forage. Both types of fish are accessible, but nomadic walleyes may stay shallow for shorter periods.
Fishing the Shallows
When fishing for shallow-water walleyes, remember the basics. Noise should always be kept to a minimum. If you’re fishing from an aluminum boat, carpet the floor. Don’t scrape bait containers or coolers on the deck. Don’t slam cooler covers or livewell hatches. Take fish from the net softly so they don’t flop on deck. Release them quietly.
When approaching a prime fishing area, cut the outboard. Drift toward the shallows, or use an electric trolling motor. Be careful where your boat shadows fall. Don’t drift over a spot until you’ve finished fishing it.
When using an electric trolling motor, I lower it only enough so it doesn’t come out of the water in waves. This eliminates slashing and cutting weeds. Use only enough power to maneuver, and only turn the motor on when necessary. I prefer moving slowly against the wind, which makes precise casting easier.
Cooking Your Catch
Original recipes for this fish include my grandmother’s favorite for Pan-Fried Walleye. For it, you need approximately 1 pound walleye fillets, two eggs, 1/4 cup milk, two sleeves Club Crackers, olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste.
Pat the fish dry with a paper towel, then combine eggs with milk and beat. Roll the crackers in a freezer bag using a rolling pin. Dip the fish in milk-egg mixture and add the crackers. Then, put olive oil in a frying pan, place the fish in it and cook until golden brown. It’s a simple way to prepare the fish but incredibly fine-tasting.
For Grilled Pecan Encrusted Walleye, you need four walleye fillets, 1/4 cup chopped pecans, 1 tablespoon melted butter, 1 teaspoon finely chopped onion, 1 teaspoon orange juice and seasoning.
Combine the butter, onion, juice and half the pecans in a small bowl and mix well; then, preheat the grill. Take a 12-inch-square piece of aluminum foil and cut 2-inch slits in it. Spray it with a nonstick spray and place it on grill. Put the fillets on the foil, sprinkle with seasoning and grill for about 10 minutes. Just before the fish starts to flake, top it with the pecan-butter-orange juice mixture. Remove from the heat and sprinkle on the remaining pecan pieces before serving.
A tasty recipe for Baked Walleye Fillets calls for 1/3 cup chopped green onion, 1 cup sliced mushrooms, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper, 1 teaspoon crumbled leaf marjoram, 2 tablespoons dry white wine, 2 teaspoons lemon juice, 1/4 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese, 1/4 cup fresh bread crumbs, one stick melted butter or margarine, and 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley.
With these ingredients in hand, butter a baking dish big enough so the fillets slightly overlap, and preheat your oven to 400 degrees F. Spread the green onions and mushrooms in the bottom of dish and then place the fish on top. Season with salt, pepper and marjoram; then, sprinkle with wine, lemon juice, cheese and bread crumbs. Slowly pour the melted butter over the breadcrumbs. Bake for four minutes; then loosely place aluminum foil over the fillets but do not seal the edges. Bake an additional 7 minutes or until the fish flakes with no effort.
Beer Battered Walleye calls for fillets, pancake mix and beer. Add the mix and beer together to make a thick batter. Dip the fillets in batter, and then fry in hot oil until they turn golden brown. Drain on paper towels.
Walleye is one of the best tasting fish to be found anywhere. Nothing beats a shore lunch of fresh walleye pan-fried over an open fire. It’s one tradition you really should sample. This is a fish whose taste is sure to please even finicky eaters.
Author: Joe Zentner is a freelance writer