Fishing

Hey, Larry, walleyes! What was once a leisurely pursuit has become a national mania

In the heart of western trout country, which has been my home for nearly 25 years now, few of my angling friends have much good to say about walleyes, which they see as just another warm-water meat fish, strictly declasse, a favorite of the aesthetically unevolved–people with minnow slime on their hands.

“Show me a single book on the poetry of walleye fishing,” an otherwise companionable trout freak argues, knowing there aren’t any.

Another friend does an amusing riff on what such a poetics might entail. “The sun was but a red glow on the horizon when I switched on my Raptor D-137 Liquid Crystal Fish Locator and kicked the new 175-horse Merc in the slats. Some call the deep roar and the blue fumes noxious, but to me it’s the sweet smell and sound of walleye fishing. I popped the lid on my box of night-crawlers. The juicy buggers were knotted in a brown mess, tails wagging, as though they too were eager to get into some fat ol’ marble-eyes….”

There is little one can say against such wit, and I sometimes envy my staunchly purist friends. Imagine being unshakably certain of one’s narrow purchase on the wide world and all its diversity sure that you are Right and others are Wrong (or, at the very least, pitifully Misguided). It must be as comfortable as it is self-limiting.

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So when the urge hits me now and then to talk a little walleye fishing, I have to avoid my hardcore troutnik friends and seek out my mailman, Larry. Larry is from Brainerd, Minnesota, where the walleye is not only the official state fish, it’s the official state bird and flower as well. In Brainerd, children go walleye fishing as soon as they can fit their little fingers around a rod grip. Rather like the Swiss with alpine skiing, Minnesotans have walleyes bred in their bones.

Larry has lived in Montana for a decade now, and has taken up trout fishing, but I have only to meet him at the door as he’s stuffing bills into my mailbox and say, “Hey, Larry, walleyes,” and his eyes get big and bright. For a few minutes we’re two Midwestern boys telling stories and vowing that one of these days we’ll head back East together and maybe hit big Leech Lake or the wing dams near Winona. “Yahh,” Larry says, like a character out of Fargo, “we gotta do it. One of these days, for sure…”

I doubt either of us believes we’ll actually make the trip, though that hardly matters. What we’re after is the emigrant’s pleasure in familiar memories and a shared appreciation for a kind of fishing not much understood by our local trout-drunk countrymen, who tend to view our fondness for walleyes as either quaint or an outright cultural aberration, akin to dog-eating or sluicing game-birds on the ground.

None of this is made easier by the fact that the appeal of walleye fishing is not easy to explain to the uninitiated, especially if one wishes to avoid typical angling hyperbole wherein simple fish are for purposes of effect likened to royalty, Albert Einstein, pugilists and large barnyard animals. In all honesty, walleyes are not particularly exciting to hook; which is to say, they are minimally game fighters. No leaps, no scalding runs. Successful technique rarely involves the kind of precision-casting finesse often required for largemouth bass; and it entirely lacks the rhythmic poetry of flyfishing for trout. In the looks department walleyes might at best be called handsome in a clean-cut, fine-scaled sort of way–pleasantly golden and shapely, once you get used to the marble eyes and gappy, homodont teeth. Compared to any slice-of-the-rainbow salmonid, however, walleye physiognomy is admittedly plain-jane and unspectacular.

Local Treasures: Despite these shortcomings, in the Midwest country where I grew up walleyes were perhaps the most treasured of all gamefish–excepting muskellunge, of course, which were mythic. The appeal, as far as I can evince it, was two-fold. They were (and still are) considered the best-tasting of all freshwater fish. And they could be maddeningly difficult to hook with any day to day, season to consistency. Such a blending of utility and challenge is bound to prove irresistible to even the most vestigial pioneer spirit. Very few walleyes got put back in the water in those days. Catch-and-release except for runts, which we disdainfully called “cigars,” would have been not only a shocking concept, but an outrageous one as well.

Our techniques were simple and time-worn. Pinky jigs–with their stiff, white bucktail dressing and trademark hot-pink bullet heads–tipped with fathead minnows or nigh/crawlers. Rapalas and Heddon River Runts fished deep and slow. And the old-reliable June-Bug Spinner, with its oval blade and string of ruby beads and the long trailing hook, which was always sweetened with one or two nigh/crawlers. This was weighted and fished along the bottom; drifted; or, where legal, trolled at a snail’s pace. The hope was always that you would pinpoint a good school. Then you could anchor and cast jigs or plugs, taking big golden walleyes on nearly every cast until the school spooked and departed farther into the murky depths.

It was all a delightful mystery. Imagination and guesswork and pure uncertainty made the whole game intensely absorbing. You would lean over the gunwale of a 16-foot Lund and peer into the depths of a clear Wisconsin lake seeing boulders and deceptive, fish-shaped rocks 30 feet down, and you would wonder: Where the hell could they be? Or, bobbing along on a tea-tinted, windswept flowage, one of the huge man-made impoundments, you felt your spirits dip with a needle-in-the-haystack sense of futility. What were the odds of finding a, tight school of walleyes in such a whitecapped vastness?

Of course, that was another time, a comparative age of innocence. Our techniques were basic, and our understanding of the fish themselves was nothing less than primitive. Not like today. Today’s walleye fisherman is apt to be another breed entirely. Sophisticated, finely and expensively equipped, knowledgeable. The modern fanatic has one set of techniques for “prespawn” walleyes, and another for “post-spawn” (and specific approaches for the other key phases: pre-summer, summer, summer peak, post-summer, fall turnover, and so forth). Nowadays one hits the water armed with state-of-the-art electronic fishfinders, GPS locating systems, voice-activated electric trolling motors and an armory of specialist lures and tackle. A new custom “walleye boat,” replete with 175-horse outboard, can set you back 22 grand.

Golden Boys: Once only a regionally valued species, in the last 20 years walleyes have become the golden boys of national anglingdom. So popular that they have been stocked by demand in places as far from their natural habitat as Texas, Mississippi, Oregon and New Mexico. And the fish are no longer prized mainly as table fare. They have literally become a cash crop. Not only are there many local walleye clubs and friendly weekend tournaments, there is now a full-time pro circuit: professional walleye fishermen on the Professional Walleye Trail, roving the country in hopes of heavy catches and heavier, five- to six-figure checks.

Where there was once merely walleye fishing there is now Walleye World, part national industry, part zany subculture. Whether the commercialization of a gamefish is an American inevitability and a fine thing or a travesty on the essential heart and spirit of sport fishing is a debate too lengthy to go into here. I admit I was not particularly charmed by an industry rep at a national fishing show who, mistaking me for a fellow profiteer, rubbed his hands with unabashed avarice and gestured to a huge array of late-breaking walleye specialty gear. “I’m tellin’ you,” he said, “there’s big money in these moon-eyed fish. Won’t be long and we’ll be big as bass.”

This is a long way from the innocence of peering over the side of a boat into the mysterious depths of a clear lake, while praying that a walleye will find your jig. But I was buoyed somewhat a few days later, when I was invited to fish the Mississippi near LaCrosse with one of the pros who do it for a living. We launched the fancy boat and switched on the various electronics and, as my troutnik friend would say, kicked the big outboard in the slats. Zooming over water I remembered fondly from decades, ago, all the joys came back. The old brown river, the wing dams, the pull of a lure in the current.

We fished hard all afternoon, hooking only a few cigar runts. The pro was affable, unpretentious; pleasantly real. “These damn fish,” he said, grinning. “They should be here, only they don’t know it. With walleyes you never can tell.”

It was one of the rare times when not catching fish made me happy. Despite all the changes, all the technology and science and commercialism and fancy gear, the golden fish of my youth could still prove elusive. The challenge, the delightful sense of mystery, was happily intact. I just wish Larry, my mailman, had been along to share the day.

Walleye World has been accompanied by such a flood of specialty rods and reels, it’s not always easy to know what to choose. A few basic suggestions:

The generalist walleye outfit includes a six- to 6 1/2-foot graphite spinning rod, medium to fast action, with a flexible tip and blank-through-the-handle construction for maximum sensitivity. Match it to a medium freshwater spin reel with at least a 5:1 retrieve ratio. Six-pound-test line is a good standard for jig and drift fishing; but carry spare spools of 4- and 8-pound line just in case.

For vertical jigging, go with a stiff 5 1/2-foot rod; for casting or trolling crankbaits, try a six-foot lightweight baitcaster, fast-action with long handle and flexible tip, or the same basic configuration in a spin rod that’s seven feet long.

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