The walleye: A favorite game fish of many

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11297516088955.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘The walleye is a favorite of Midwest anglers.’);

The walleye is a member of the perch family and has the characteristic spiny, anterior dorsal fin followed by a soft fin. This angler’s delight has several other common names that include pickerel, walleyed pike, marble eye, and pike perch. Its scientific name is Stizostedion vitreum, a name that should be sneezed rather than pronounced and means in Latin pungent throat and glassy, the specific name referring to the large, silvery eyes.

The walleye’s skin color is quite variable, depending on the clarity of the water, but usually it is olive green-brown on the top and sides and white on the belly side. The last few membranes of the spiny dorsal fin are black, and the bottom lobe of the tail fin is white. The historic range of the walleye is the Midwestern United States and most of Canada, but they have been widely introduced in other parts of the country, and today they are found as far east as New England and as far south as northern Texas.

In size, the walleye is intermediate between the smaller bass and larger members of the pike family. As far as can be determined, the Illinois record for a walleye is 14 pounds and was caught in the Kankakee River in 1961. The record walleye for the United States still stands, I believe, at 22 pounds, 11 ounces, taken from a lake in Arkansas.

In recent years, the Rock River from Rockford to Dixon, as a result of a successful stocking program, has become an excellent walleye fishery. Pierce Lake in Rock Cut State Park has a nice walleye population as does Shabbona Lake in the DeKalb area. Shabbona in recent years has yielded many walleye more than 10 pounds, and local experts predict an Illinois record walleye will be taken from that impoundment.

The Kishwaukee River is more of a bass stream and not a prime walleye locale. The best fishing for this prize on the Kish is just before it flows into the Rock River, but they have occasionally been taken upstream. A veteran fisherman of the Kish states he has heard of walleyes being caught as far south as Kirkland, but has never fished that area for them.

Like perch, walleyes travel in schools, and that often allows the angler a field day once a school is located. Walleyes are primarily fish eaters from the time they are large enough to swallow. In hatcheries, they show this propensity as soon as they hatch from the egg. If they are not immediately removed from the incubation vessels as soon as they hatch, they commence eating the tails off the fry ahead of them, while those behind are nibbling on their tails. It’s a vicious circle of cannibalism. Because of this mannerism, hatchery-raised walleyes must be rushed to the stocking site, or there will be little with which to stock.

As it is with many other animal species with a high juvenile mortality, a 10-pound walleye female may produce up to 250,000 eggs each spawning season. A female cod will produce about a million eggs a year, and a female oyster up to 3 million eggs per year. This ensures that despite a very high juvenile mortality, at least a few of the offspring will make it to sexual maturity and perpetuate the species.

This idea of overproduction of offspring by all animals was one of the key points in Darwin’s theory of the evolution of species by natural selection. Though most will die or be eaten by predators, a few will have advantageous variations that give them a better chance of survival. These survivors will, in turn, pass on these advantages to the next generation.

As noted, walleyes, as a general rule, are fish eaters, but will take night crawlers, spoons, spinner baits, plugs, and large artificial flies. If this were not so, much of the fun of catching them would be lost. The secret in catching walleyes is knowing where to find them. In waters never before fished, it is often advisable to secure the services of a local guide who knows the water to be fished well and the behavior of the local walleye population.

There is no doubt about it, walleyes are among the best eating fish there is. Years ago, my middle son, Mike Hedeen, and I fished for walleyes from the bank of our campsite on Basswood Lake in the Quetico Superior Park in Canada. Almost every cast of a June bug spinner with a night crawler attached produced a walleye in the 2 -3 pound class. We kept enough of them to provide supper for our group of eight “voyageurs,” and I must admit, the deep fried walleye from the cold water of Basswood Lake was the best fish fry I have ever been to. (Lino’s in Rockford notwithstanding.)

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

From the Oct. 19-25, 2005, issue

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