It’s been a long time, decades actually, since I last fished for walleye. Aficionados of the fish, considered by many the best-tasting freshwater species in North America, probably scratch their heads when they consider my confession, but that’s my story.
I’ve really only targeted walleye once, in the 1980s, while in Canada on assignment for a fishing magazine. The trip took us somewhere deep into the Saskatchewan wilderness, where we fished three days for walleye and pike.
It was on that trip that I ate one of the best things I ever put in my mouth: a shore lunch of fried walleye consumed on the banks of the river where they’d been swimming that morning.
Our guide couldn’t have prepped that walleye more simply. Salt, pepper and hot oil was all our lunch chef needed to perform culinary miracles.
I otherwise remember the fishing as somewhat unremarkable. We caught plenty of walleye, with enough two- to three-pounders to keep things interesting. But the fishing technique itself was a little ho-hum. Granted, I was young and stupider then, and I had also recently learned to fly fish. An unfortunate side effect of gaining this new skill was that I’d become a bit of a fishing snob. All techniques other than fly fishing were suspect in the still developing, fevered lump of nerve tissue between my ears.
So I grew a little bored casting my curly-tailed jig and slowly bouncing it along the bottom back to the boat, or worse still, just opening my bail and letting it drop to the bottom. Once it hit I picked up the slack and jigged. The fish moved in schools so there were long interludes where my bait went unnoticed. Then the school would swim through and for five or 10 minutes, our jigs could barely touch bottom before they were intercepted.
I’d like to think in the intervening decades my lump of nerve tissue has developed into something resembling a mature, adult brain. I tested this theory last week on a morning trip to a prairie lake filled with walleye and perch. Coach and I were joined by the Trout Slayer, a friend who never met a fish he didn’t want to eat and who once held the Montana state record for walleye.
Our technique was similar to Saskatchewan only this time we baited our jigs with leeches: the squirmier the better.
With that lively bloodsucker at the end of my line I didn’t have to jig. I just dropped the bait to the bottom, picked up half a crank to clear the muck, and let the undulating leech seduce the fish into a strike.
I caught one on my first drop. It was a little guy, too small for tacos, so it went back. But then I caught a few more, including a keeper or two. The pattern I remembered from Canada held true. We’d have multiple hookups, then it would go silent. A debate ensued in those quiet times as we considered pulling anchor to chase fish. But each time, before we could reach a decision, another school would swim through and render our debate moot.
My medium weight spinning rod served admirably to the task. The tip was sensitive enough that I could feel the subtle takes as a walleye, or occasional perch, slurped my leech. A lighter rod would have made things more interesting with these taco-sized walleye, but that mattered little.
Every fish that grabbed my line that day was a small miracle. A connection — made through 10 feet of murky water — to a bit of the wild. I don’t get to do enough of that these days.
The second walleye expedition of my life turned out to be a real hoot. Maybe there’s hope for that knot of nerves between my ears after all.
Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com.