Backwards Walleye Movements

February 23, 2009 by  

By Jason Mitchell

Walleyes arent always as predictable in their patterns as fisherman expect, often its quite the opposite.

Walleyes aren't always as predictable in their patterns as fisherman expect, often it's quite the opposite.

For years, anglers have had this preconceived notion pounded into their heads. This notion is that walleye will lounge or rest in deeper water and feed in shallow water. Many anglers imagine fish resting in deeper water relating to the break, moving up the break and feeding in the shallow water. This movement is universal across the land. This is what walleyes do. During the winter when targeting walleye under the ice, this pattern is so obvious at sunrise and sunset when fish make their push up on top of structure (which is shallower). This movement almost seems preprogrammed like the instinct for birds to migrate.

There are many variables however that throw a serious wrench into this idea of walleye movements on structure. Walleyes really don’t move blindly to shallow water to eat. They move to where ever the food is. Often when we do find fish in shallow water, those fish aren’t necessarily eating. There are many times when fish actually move deeper to eat and move shallow to rest or digest. This movement is the exact opposite of what many anglers envision when putting together the pattern. Let me explain.

Come summer, walleyes are eating machines. There quest in life is really simple, eat. From what I have noticed, walleyes will patrol outside their own comfort zone for the sake of a meal. Walleyes like any other fish have a comfort zone of their own but they will move into water that is warmer or colder than what they prefer to appease their stomach. These adaptable fish can be found in three feet of water in the middle of August when the surface temperatures are eighty degrees. These same fish can be found suspended above the thermocline chasing cold water baitfish in water that would be too cold to swim in.

One example shines in my mind. Several years ago while fishing on an expansive flat on the Van Hook Arm located on Lake Sakakawea, the realization set in that these fish weren’t on top of the flat eating. The flat was a typical piece of structure. Seven feet of water on top that dropped quickly into much deeper water. On the break next to the flat, the sonar revealed balls of smelt anywhere from twenty four to twenty eight feet of water. The top of this flat was covered with walleye. The fish we had in the livewell were of course coughing up smelt. I would have bet anything that the smelt that were getting regurgitated in the livewell weren’t eaten on top of the flat that we were fishing. The fish seemed to be on top of the flat merely to digest their meal. I can only imagine that a seven-foot mud flat warms up nice and the water temperature speeds up the metabolism. Once the meal is digested, the fish move deep and pin down more smelt. This movement is the exact opposite of what many anglers have in their heads. The idea that fish rest in shallow water and move deep to eat needs to be understood for anglers to really get dialed into some patterns. Depending on the forage, there are many situations where fish don’t move shallow to eat, they move shallow to digest.

There have been cases where we have found fish either high in the water column suspended or in shallow water for no other reason than to speed up their metabolisms. This push high or shallow had nothing to do with their next meal but rather their last meal. As a general rule, we have often found fish holding in depths that were about twice the distance of what you can see in the water. If you could see down to about four feet of water, eight feet seemed like a good starting point as an example. There have also been times however where we found fish in extremely clear and shallow water. Big Stone on the South Dakota/ Minnesota border is an example where we caught fish right under the surface in the middle of the day. The water clarity was around ten feet. You could see the bottom on most of the lake. From what I could find, the fishing was much better obviously right at dark. In fact the walleyes seemed to get most of their consuming done after dark or right at sunrise or sunset. So you would think that during the day, these fish would be in as deep of water that you could find right next to the bottom resting. Wrong. We tried that and came up empty.

We ended up catching most of the fish we caught trolling crankbaits on planer boards, running lures down about three to four feet over twelve feet of water. The highest lures caught the biggest fish. I cut up a few fish each day to try and get a feel for what and when the fish were eating. By midday, the small perch and drum the fish had been eating were already mushy, white pieces of fish meat that were hard to distinguish. Even by the morning, the stomach acids already dissolved the scales and fins of these baitfish. I could only assume these small perch were probably gunned down the night before. I really didn’t have any idea where these fish were actually finding their meal. I could only assume that they moved into the shorelines at night.

So why were these fish so shallow right in the middle of the day if they weren’t consumed with eating? I can only imagine that if fish aren’t focusing on their next meal, they are focusing on their last.

Many anglers fish shallow or high in the water column because they believe these fish are aggressive and eating. Yes and no. There are times when the exact opposite of what we often think is actually occurring. The reality is that a walleye that is doing nothing more than resting and digesting will hit a crankbait just the same. Many of the patterns walleye anglers put together aren’t as revolved around the actual location of prey as often imagined. Many daytime movements that occur on top of structure or into shallow water are the mere result of the digestive process after the fact.

Editors Note: The author, Jason Mitchell is a highly respected and legendary guide on North Dakota’s Devils Lake. Mitchell has also designed a premium high performance line of walleye fishing rods that bear his name. More information on the Jason Mitchell Elite Series Walleye Rods can be found at


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