It’s time to catch a big walleye

Mike Bleech Outdoors Columnist

During most of the year, a person would not see any indication that huge walleye are hidden beneath the surface of the Allegheny River in Warren County. Fortunately, that time of the year is over for a while. Now is the time when you might actually get up close and personal with these old gals.

We can guess why the big, old female walleye are ‘catch-able’ during late winter. Their food supply is at an annual low, so they probably are not too picky about taking a bite to eat. Their metabolism is relatively slow in cold water so they do not need a lot of food. But a baited hook is easier to catch than real wild food.

Walleye, like several other of our game fish, make upstream movements leading up to a spring spawning period. But they can not get any farther upstream than the Kinzua Dam, clustering them in Warren County. Some of the largest walleye caught in North America over the past half-century was caught in Warren County.

More specifically, they were caught from the Kinzua Dam Tailwaters. As were several musky that weighed more than 40 pounds, most of the largest pike caught in Pennsylvania, and some of the largest brown trout in the state. But our subject, for now, is the walleye fishery.

I would suggest getting some meat on the hook for most walleye fishing situations. This is the main exception. Through the years since the Kinzua Dam started blocking fish movement on the Allegheny River, I have had opportunities to talk with anglers who caught huge walleye. Before it was disallowed, I did some SCUBA diving in the tailwaters and got very close to absolutely huge walleye.

I will even tell you exactly where I saw the huge walleye. They were at the base of the gravel bar extending from the hatchery side out to the small island in the tailwaters. This area had a clay bottom mixed with rocks. The clay contained what appeared like oversize mole tunnels. I expect they were made by the hellbenders or mudpuppies that were the only other critters visible in the calm pocket.

Very swift current swept over this area. Getting into this calm pocket was a bit difficult. Every weight had to be on my weight belt. I hugged bottom and pulled myself upstream. Once in the calm pocket with the six or eight huge walleye, I could remain there effortlessly. If I kept my arms at my sides I could get my face mask within about 18 inches of those fish.

I will bet they all weighed more than 20 pounds. And I have held a 20-pound walleye so I do know what they look like.

The problem is that it would be just about impossible to get a bait or lure within striking distance of these huge walleye.

For whatever reason, mid-size stick baits may be the most effective lures for huge walleye in late winter, even better than live minnows. My personal favorite was the MAG 13 Rapala, which is no longer made. I still have a few and am always on the lookout for more. Balsa stick baits seem to be more effective than plastic stick baits. They appear to have a ‘lighter’, more lifelike action. But then, a lot more Rapalas than all other stick baits combined are used at the tailwaters. And I have not tried most other stick baits at the tailwaters.

The major shortcoming of stick baits, of all crankbaits for that matter, is that any single lure can only run at a specific depth range that is not very big. It so happens that the mid-size stick baits run at the right depth for a few of the better places to try to catch huge walleye in late winter. This often is the reason certain lures stand out at various lakes, running depth.

Retrieve speed may be important. Keep it quite slow, just enough speed to get it to the desired depth

Also, a steady retrieve is probably the best most of the time. But this does not mean to stick strictly with a steady retrieve. Give the lure a twitch not more than a couple of feet long every now and again, just to get the attention of walleye but not enough to make it difficult to catch the lure.

Last fall and this winter the mixed up weather, coupled with so many ups and downs of river flow, good walleye fishing has been short. Get to the tailwaters if outflow from the dam is consistent for at least two days. Walleye settle into a rhythm when river outflow from the dam is consistent.