Master of Dark Waters

Jeff, a relatively novice fisherman, had caught the most walleye that evening.  In those cold waters of central Quebec we let the wind push our small boat over the edge of a narrow channel within a finger of the lake.  The moving air provided just enough energy to power our boat parallel to the shore for a distance of about three eighths of a mile.  At the end of each run we would start up the outboard, motor to the other end of the channel, stop the motor, and begin our drift again.  With dusk present, and the darkness of this new moon night rapidly approaching, we had nearly perfect conditions for walleye feeding.  We trolled along letting our jigs, baited with half a night crawler, bounce along the edge of the deep channel.  On this evening, Jeff was catching one or two fish each time we drifted through our fishing territory.  Smitty and I, by far the more experienced fisherman, had to settle for less than half the number of fish Jeff was catching.  We tried mimicking his jig, the way he put the worm on the hook even though his method was never consistent and varied greatly each time he rebaited his hook, and even his haphazard jigging of the pole which seemed altogether random and unprofessional.  We tried fishing on the same side of the boat as Jeff.  We tried not paying attention to anything fishing related as Jeff often does when he is angling.  Nothing seemed to work for us, but Jeff kept catching walleye.  It was the last night of  a week long trip. Smitty and I had caught many, many walleye that week but on this particular night Jeff was the one to hold all of the bragging rights.

“Oh, I’ve got another one!”  He would quip looking at our flaccid lines.

“Any luck up there?”  He’d ask as our poles showed no action.

“This one seems like the biggest of the night”, he declared, “even bigger than the last one!”

We all knew he had caught the last one.

Smitty and I occasionally reeled in a walleye, usually not a keeper, or one that was just over 12 inches long and legal, but not worth hanging onto.

“Nice fish!”   Jeff would shout as I peered at an eight inch fish clutched in my hand.   This was definitely his night to brag, and ours to marvel at his luck.

As dark over ran the boat Smitty suggested it was time to quit.

“Why”, said Jeff, “I’m just getting started?”

“The kid can’t see in the dark and he wants to keep fishing.” Smitty observed commenting on Jeff’s notoriously bad night vision.  He said this while holding a flashlight between his teeth as he tried to untangle his bait caster.

“Let’s see who catches the last fish, and then we’ll head back to the camp” said Jeff as his line went taught.  He set the hook and reeled in yet another large walleye.

“Looks like the last fish of the night is mine!” laughed Jeff.

Smitty and I did not mind all of this good natured kidding.  Truth be known we were glad Jeff was pulling more than his share of the load on this night.  This might peak his interest and make a fisherman out of him yet!

Smitty started the outboard motor and the small boat started moving into the wind along the dark shore line.

Jeff said “One last cast!” and damned if he didn’t catch yet another fat walleye as we turned the boat towards the camp.

On the surface, of the water that is, Walleye are a magnificent but challenging sport fish that can bring joy or tears to the avid fisherman depending upon the mood of the day.  This fish is considered the finest eating fresh water fish by many, and certainly in the top two or three by almost all who angle for this fine delicacy.  The great effort that it may take to harvest a few of these wonderful fish is worth it. As the old saying goes, “Once a walleye fisherman, always a walleye fisherman”.

When fishing for walleye the words “feast or famine” come to mind.  On many days it is either non-stop action or no action at all.  So why the great mystery around walleye fishing success and failures?

These curious fish are near the top of the predator chain.  In most of their native habitats only northern pike are capable of predating the mature walleye.  I must admit that I have caught lake trout that had bellies full of small walleye, but this is the exception rather than the rule.

Like most animals, and many plants for that matter, walleye have adapted to filling a niche.  In this case the niche is a water logged environment.  This fish likes cool, but not cold water.  It prefers darkness over light.  And it can tolerate waters clouded with algae which make hunting difficult for most other predators.  What is the walleye’s secret?  The walleye has a protective area of pigment in its eye called the tapedum lucidum. This makes the walleye’s vision capable of seeing prey in cloudy waters and at night.  The distinct disadvantage is that this fish will avoid daylight at almost any cost.  This sound example of evolution has helped the walleye adapt to become a successful night and turbid water hunter.  These are conditions where most other fish fail.  During the day the walleye will hunt from dark waters under a sunken tree, in the shadow of a large boulder, adjacent to thick weeds where light is dim, and underneath overhangs along steep banks of rivers and lakes.  This master of predation will venture into open waters in the evening and at night time, often hanging out in large schools of fish that are of a similar age.  Lakes that have dark waters due to heavy algae growth often support large walleye populations.  In these dark waters, walleye will often bite during the light of day.  Biting in daylight is such an unusual behavior for this fish that it often goes overlooked by anglers not familiar with the cloudy water or the habits of the fish.

Adult walleyes have no nesting instincts and do not guard a nest to protect the eggs or the young.  Instead a female lays an enormous number of eggs, often more than 100,000, in shallow rocky shoals and cobble bottoms.  The waters are usually between 42 and 50 degrees when the eggs are laid, and must be well oxygenated for the eggs to survive.  The fry eat algae until they can consume microfauna and then move on to larger food as they mature.  Only 5% to 20% of the eggs hatch and far fewer reach adulthood.  Each walleye that reaches one year old is a testimony to survival and has beaten nearly insurmountable odds to reach this critical age.  It is not unusual for a cold snap to nearly wipe out an entire age class of fish.  Walleye eggs are very sensitive to temperature.

The walleye species ranges over much of the United States and central Canada.  This predatory fish is considered a prize game fish in the central Canadian provinces and can reach weights up to 18 pounds.  In these northern waters walleye, which keep growing through their entire life, can live to 20 years old.  The older fish seem capable of distinguishing bait from food, and are difficult to harvest.  Catching a trophy size walleye is an accomplishment that testifies to the skills of the angler.  Many expert anglers release their captured walleye after taking a photograph out of pure respect for this wily predator.  You have to admire those who return this wonderful fish to the wild.

For those that enjoy dining on walleye the 1.5 to 3 pounders are the best tasting.  Fishery biologists warn fisherman that walleye consumption should be limited given their high position on the food chain and the likelihood that they will bioaccumulate heavy metals, especially mercury.  This is a sad statement about how humans have been negligent in caring for our planet.  Heavy metals released from burning coal and trash still contaminate even the most remote regions of the boreal forest.  We can stop this by recycling thermometers, batteries, and electronics that contain mercury and insist that coal fired plants be retrofitted with scrubbers and other technology that will abate mercury pollution.

Walleye are particularly sensitive to atmospheric pressure changes and are hesitant to eat during weather fronts that create these changes in pressure.  They seem to be able to go through long periods without eating but will return to their predatory habits when atmospheric pressure is stabilized.  That is not to say that all walleye go hungry through major weather changes.  Some of the best fish have been caught when they were not supposed to be biting.  This is just another example of the unpredictable nature of this challenging fish.

While cleaning fish that night for a late dinner of walleye on our last night of fishing in this Quebec wilderness Jeff was humming a tune.  The tune seemed cheery and full of life.  As I cut the last walleye filet Smitty was heating up the oil in the cast iron pan.   Jeff had a thought.

“If you guys want to know how I caught all those fish I’ll be glad to show you next year when we come back!”

Smitty and I laughed and then Smitty dipped the first walleye filet in the milk and egg mixture and rolled it in corn flake crumbs. The powdery filet hissed and spit as soon as it hit the hot oil.  A delicious aroma filled the camp.

Written for in July 2010.

  • Ratty

    It looks like you have another fishing partner for a long time. I sometimes wish I had somebody around to help me learn to enjoy fishing. My hiking is good enough for me though.

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