Where Else For Walleye?
The Columbia is famous for big walleyes.
where else in Washington can anglers
hook into double-digit ’eyes?
By Terry W. Sheely
Hard as it may be to believe, the nationally-recognized walleye waters of the roily Columbia River do not have an exclusive lock on Washington’s finest ‘eye action.
Agreed, the biggest river in the Northwest is still the odds on favorite to produce the next “official” world record (having already produced several walleye that “unofficially” shattered that record), owns every Washington and Oregon state record ever posted, routinely attracts headlines from Portland to Kettle Falls,
and sucks up most of the tournament trail fishing pressure. But it’s also big water that can be tough to read, seasonally finicky, is sometimes downright dangerous requiring big water boats, quality gear and above average fishing skills. National celebrity that it is, the Columbia is a tough casual fishery for a family hungry to fish-away a weekend and sizzle walleye fillets.
Flanked by pastoral public parks and shade trees, Moses Lake, on the other hand, is fat with unsophisticated walleye that require little more than a nightcrawler with a spinner blade, bottom walker weight and a decent breeze to drift the family car-topper. At Scootney Reservoir, a forever overlooked hour-glass shaped impoundment in the wide-open alkaline country southeast of Othello, 45 percent of the fish are walleye that average just under 1½ pounds, with a free campground made for family fishing fun. The locals around Billy Clapp Lake think they’re sitting on the best walleye secret in the state tucked into a coulee between the wheat field sprawl west of Wilson Creek.
And those are just three of Washington’s “other” walleye honey holes—all thriving in blissful obscurity, on the shadowed edge of the spotlight shining on the superlatives of the big Columbia.
A quick check of the lakes and rivers listed in the Washington State Fishing Guide(www.tnscommunications.net) show several dozen waters, many unknown, with surprisingly decent walleye potential and another boatload of truly hot prospects. Most of these lakes and streams are just far enough off the well-pounded walleye trail to qualify as “local secrets.” All of them are located on the semi-arid, sun-washed east side of the Cascade Mountains and most are in the Columbia Basin. To narrow the chase I’ve trimmed the list of possibles down to 15 proven producers, with recommendations from top Basin fishermen and fishery biologists.
Compared to the big, windswept and sometimes brawling Columbia River these “other” walleye hot spots are mostly small-boat family-friendly, and some will include an oasis of green public parks, improved boat launches, campgrounds and plenty of succulent walleye fillets.
I can’t imagine a better lunch break than docking the boat, slicing off fresh white fillets of walleye, rolling them in egg white, slathering with cornmeal, and quick sizzling in a red-hot fry pan of peanut oil and melted butter. Fork the golden strips out of the pan red hot and dripping butter, sprits with lemon juice and eat. Whew! That’s a shore lunch that won’t be forgotten and the tasty reason that Washington walleye fanatics are willing to overlook the fish’s failings when it comes to fancy fighting skills.
Personally, I only keep the males for the skillet, those delectable 16 – 24 inchers, and release the biggest fish which are always the female brood stock.
Timing The Binge
Washington walleyes, like walleye everywhere, can be caught year-round but never as quickly or as aggressively as in the spring, especially around the spawn which occurs from March to June in different regions and in different lakes depending on water temperature.
Walleye expert Larry McClintock of the Lower Columbia River Walleye Club explains that, “Typically in Oregon and Washington spawn will usually be when water temperature is 47 degrees to 52 degrees. The pre-spawn (bite) begins when the water temperature gets to about 42 degrees and remains there for several days.
Once the water temperature rises to 47 degrees to 52 degrees and is constant for three to five days it triggers the spawn. Walleye will stage for the spawn in 30-50 foot of water then go up into the shallows of 1 to 8 feet to actually spawn.
“Not all the females (which are the trophy size walleye) will spawn at the same time and the spawn may be on for one to three weeks. If the temperature cools drastically it can cut off the spawn,” McClintock explains, adding, “If there is several reoccurring cold spells the females will just reabsorb the eggs and not spawn at all. Once the spawn is over the females may not be on the bite for a month or so while they are recuperating but the males will remain in the general vicinity and be fairly active.
“Once the females have recuperated they go on a feeding binge that won’t quit and if you are there it could be the best walleye bite of the year,” he declares.
How walleyes, a Midwest native, crossed the Continental Divide to invade the Evergreen State without the official blessing of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is an ongoing mystery that even WDFW can’t explain. The most common theory is they arrived in Banks Lake by stowing away in a federal fish planting operation as part of the mitigation for fish loses from construction of Columbia River dams.
The first verification of a walleye in Washington was in 1962 in Banks, immediately followed by reports in Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake which is connected to Banks Lake
by a pipe and pump). While they don’t know where they came from, WDFW knows how they spread—by plunging into the mainstem Columbia River infiltrating the vast irrigation system, midnight bucket brigade, and in recent years WDFW has also judiciously planted walleyes. These tasty predators are now spread up and down the mainstem Columbia River and are caught from the edge of saltwater to the Canadian border.
The biggest concentration of walleye water is in the Columbia Basin where the capillary network of agricultural irrigation canals became wet highways for migrating walleye to establish major populations in Potholes Reservoir, Moses, Billy Clapp, Long, Crescent and Soda lakes among others.
This spring walleye are the dominant sport fish in several of those original waters and in a choice scattering of other Basin lakes. Here’s a few of those “other” walleye waters.
“Moses Lake is my walleye destination of choice,” exclaims Leavenworth walleye aficionado Dave Graybill. “Moses has had a population explosion of walleye over the last few years,” he points out, adding, “I’m not sure what to attribute that too exactly, but there is such a big population of walleye in the lake that fishing is really productive and quite a few are really nice size fish,” Dave’s outdoor radio program (www.FishingMagician.com) and newspaper columns are delivered throughout the Columbia Basin and his news contacts keep him up to speed on what’s hot and where.
And what’s hot for walleye, Dave says, is Moses Lake. “There’s so many walleye in Moses now that WDFW decided to expand the opportunity for anglers to catch them by reducing the minimum size from 16 inches to 12 and increasing the daily limit from 5 to 8. You can have one fish over 22 inches. It’s a fishery that starts in late April or early May and then I’ll fish it right up to July1 when the salmon season opens.
Moses has a reputation for delivering small walleye, and while Dave agrees the big lake has its share of “eaters” it also has thriving population of big fish. “Last year—Dennis Beich, director of WDFW’s Region 2, and I fished for just 4 hours on Moses and wound up with five walleye from 19 to 27 inches. That’s a very healthy population of big fish,” Dave points out.
This big central Washington lake covers 6,815 acres, on the edge of the city of Moses Lake and at 38 feet deep with a long, narrow channel, crossed twice by I-90, is excellent walleye habitat borne out by hot April-June walleye fishery. A recent state study of the lake’s fish composition showed that 16 percent were walleye, and 60 percent perch—a close cousin of walleye, and even better a walleye favorite food.
Lakeshore public parks and boat launches make this one of the most family friendly walleye spots in the state.
Dave says his preferred technique at Moses is “trolling a spreader wire with bottom
walker and Mack’s Lure Cha Cha Squidder, a little hoochie with a floating body and Smile Blade. I always bait it with a nightcrawler and give it a serious dose of Graybill’s Guide Formula scent. Just go slow and keep it on the bottom. After the spawn, I concentrate on following the canal. Nothing hard, to it,” he adds.
Billy Clapp Lake
Far enough off the beaten track to miss almost all of the walleye pressure, 1,010-acre Billy Clapp Lake is as close to an unheralded walleye hot spot as you’re likely to fish. Billy Clapp is cached in a long coulee in the lonesome country south of Coulee City between Wilson Creek and Soap Lake, with the Summer Falls state park day use area on the north end.
Which also, according to Graybill, is “where the best walleye fishing is? It can be really productive and pretty popular, but it’s just remote enough that it’s primarily fished by locals and they’re pretty good about keeping quiet about it,” he chuckles. You’ll need a boat because of the cliff-like bank, and there’s a WDFW launch on the
southwest shore and another at the Summer Falls access. Billy Clapp is fed by Banks
Lake and headwater of Moses Lake and the timing of the spawn and bites closely parallel Moses.
Another lonely walleye lake of the great wide-open 685-acre Scooteney Reservoir is between Othello and Mesa near state highway 17 in Franklin County on the walleye-filled Potholes canal system. According to WDFW regional biologist Jeff Korth it provides decent fishing for walleye up to eight pounds, and there are two boat launches on the reservoir’s south end, and a BOR campground. “It’s a little tricky to troll,” Graybill notes, “because there’s a lot of structure, lots of haystack rocks on
the bottom that are good tackle grabbers. It’s also good structure to find walleyes. This is another one of those lakes that’s primarily fished by local crowd, and you won’t hear much about it.”
Not far from Scooteney, Mesa Reservoir is 50 acres of walleye potential in a lake barely 12 feet deep at the deepest. It’s not a mega producer, but Mesa is small, shallow, easily fished and rarely sees a walleye angler. Through in the public access on the west shore and you’ve got a good combination for finding overlooked walleye. Bring lots of nightcrawler because there’s lot of perch to compete.
Rufus Woods Reservoir
While technically part of the Columbia River, this big impoundment is famous for producing state record size triploid rainbows, which in recent years have have pushed one of the state’s great walleye fisheries into the shadows. Which is okay by walleye addicts. The upper end of the reservoir, below Grand Coulee Dam is a productive fall, winter and spring hot spot for walleye, especially in the Seaton Grove area.
One of many popular lakes in the Quincy Wildlife Area between I-90 and Quincy, Evergreen is long-skinny lake of only 235 acres but covering 1½ miles and is developing into a must-fish walleye water. Fishing starts in the early spring at the inlet as the reservoir fills, and then later it is good top to bottom with crank baits and bottom walkers and spinners baited with crawlers. The introduction of tiger muskies has put an element of mystery in every strike. There’s three ramps and year-round WDFW access.
Crescent Bay Lake
Another one of Graybill’s big little walleye secrets is Crescent Bay Lake a 90-acre impoundment formed by a dike on an arm of Lake Roosevelt about one-half mile east of Grand Coulee. There’s a public access, decent population of “eater” walleye are almost no anglers. Hit it as early in spring as you can.
While it’s about as far from a walleye secret as you can get, Potholes (AKA O’Sullivan Lake) is too good to leave off the “other” list. According to a recent WDFW survey almost 60 percent of the fish in this Columbia Basin landmark are walleye—“averaging 15 inches and 1.6 pounds with an unusually high percentage of 4 to 8 pound” lunkers. The reservoir is on the circuit for many walleye tournaments and is likely the most popular walleye lake on the “other” list. MarDon Resort (509-346-2651) is the information and recreational heartbeat for
Potholes Reservoir and includes a motel, camping, store, restaurant, boat rentals and fishing dock. Just up the road is Potholes State Park, a fine camping area with excellent ramp. The Crab Creek Channel is always a hot spot for spring walleyes.
Just below the O’Sullivan Dam impounding Potholes Reservoir is the Seep Lakes region a nest of approximately 50 small fishing lakes including several productive walleye waters. Seventy-five acre Long Lake and nearby 180-acre Soda Lake are wide spots in the Potholes Canal, and both “have a fairly good fishery for walleye,” according to WDFW’s Korth. When I’m prowling the Seep Lakes in April and May I try to also hit Black, Crescent, Lower and Upper Goose Lakes, and Hutchinson lakes—all potential walleye producers with minimal fishing pressure. Check in at MarDon for the latest hot spot on the Seep Lakes walleye circuit.
Rigs That Walleyes Love To Eat
When it comes to hooking walleye Washington anglers have just three rules: fish on the bottom; fish slowly; and use night crawlers or leeches. Of these, the first two are the most important. Walleyes stay close to the bottom, and for predatory meat-eaters they’re pretty lazy, and won’t expend much energy chasing food. According to state fishery researchers, the most consistent fishing depth during daylight is 18 to 25 feet, and rocky bottoms are preferred, near depth change or “breakline.”
A productive walleye rig is one that can be cast and crawled back or trolled slowly along the bottom without hanging up. Bottom walker weights with wire spreaders that suspend the leader-bait off the bottom are great. A stout wire leader 12 inches above the hook will protect the line from abrasive rocks, and will keep the walleye’s sharp teeth from cutting the line once the fish is hooked, but may also make your offering less attractive.
Many kinds of lures, jigs, spinners and spoons will fool walleyes, with most of them being much more effective if a live night crawler is attached. Trollers typically impale lively nightcrawlers on a razor-sharp (walleye have hard mouths) 1/0 hook attached to a flashy spinner. Eighteen inches in front of the spinner add a small split shot to act as a stopper for a one to two-ounce sliding barrel sinker.
Bob Schmidt, General Manager of Mack's Lure (www.mackslure.com) in Wenatchee
specializes in developing Basin walleye rigs and invariably his top producers have three features: They ride off the bottom, employ a lightweight Mylar propeller style
spinner called a “Smile” blade, and have hooks that will hold a nightcrawler. There are several variations of this local lure and all work well. For much of his Basin walleye banging,
Graybill favors a Mack’s rig called a Cha Cha which includes a 6-foot leader, Smile Blade, two buoyant pill-shaped body floats and a tandem pair of nightcrawler hooks. Crawled along the bottom with a Bottom Walker spreader weight, it’s a deadly combination. Larry McClintock calls it, “One of the best spinner blades on the market” because “it can be trolled slower than any other blade, and work very well in the Columbia River as well as in the lakes of eastern Washington.” Spinners, leeches and nightcrawlers aren’t sweeteners-they’re requirements to any walleye rig.
As a backup McClintock also favors crankbaits, “such as Rapalas, Power Dive Minnows, Hot Lips troller model, Kaboom Shiner, Hawg Boss, Reef Runner and there are many more. Do not eliminate a lure because you think it is too big!” he says, noting he’s seen walleye eat foot-long plugs. Guide Ed Iman prefers slow trolling bottom walker sinkers, with 4 feet of 12-pound Fluorocarbon leader tied to 1/8 oz. Road Runner with a trailing nightcrawler, or jigging reefs and rocks with 5/8 oz. blade baits smeared with flavored Smelly Jelly.
There’s never been a walleye lure dropped in Washington waters that isn’t improved with a two-hook harness towing a lively, healthy nightcrawler.
Walleye Limits And Yo-Yo Management
Until the mid-1980s statewide regulations for walleye fishing were simple and generous: a daily limit of 15 and no more than five over 20 inches. As fishing pressure increased though, biologists noticed a drop in the size of fish caught in Roosevelt Lake, the state’s top walleye producer. Average size steadily declined from 18½ inches in 1973 to 13½ inches in 1985 when daily limits were dropped to 8. A minimum size limit of 16 inches was established at Lake Roosevelt, and the following year, limits on other walleye waters were reduced to 5 fish per day, with an 18-inch minimum size limit.
Five years later the regulations for Roosevelt Lake were changed again, after it became apparent that the 16-inch minimum size limit was giving too much protection to walleye below 16 inches which were becoming quite thin, with slow growth that was blamed on a lack of food.
Today’s regulation at Roosevelt Lake is a “slot limit”—allowing only fish less than 16 inches or more than 20 inches to be kept. The daily limit is still eight walleyes, but only one over 20 inches.
The same size and limit rules apply to these Roosevelt Lake tributaries: Kettle River arm from Burlington-Northern Railroad Bridge at Twin Bridges, upstream to Napoleon Bridge; SanPoil River arm upstream from Manila Creek; and Spokane River arm from SR25 Bridge upstream to Seven Mile Bridge. The season is open year-round in Roosevelt Lake, but closes from April 1 to May 31 in the Kettle, SanPoil and Spokane River arms to protect spawners.
This year, in Yakima County, I-82 Ponds 1 and 2 are also closed to walleye fishing, along with Grant County’s Alkali Lake, for a WDFW to walleye study.
WDFW regulations for the rest of the state are five fish daily limit, none smaller than 18 inches and one fish over 24
inches. For updates check the WDFW web site:http://wdfw.wa.gov/