Curtis Clear and his son, Isaac, were fuzzy images through the rain, hunkered at the edge of the reservoir in weather that drove right-thinking people into houses or cars or to a stool in Daisy’s Lakeside Inn.
“We were here at 5 this morning,” said Curtis Clear, impaling another worm on his hook. They stayed for a few hours, then returned about 4:30 p.m. with a fifth of Yukon Jack for Curtis and a liter of root beer for Isaac.
They were pleased the rain hadn’t let up before the evening bite. “For walleye, bad weather is better.”
A Midwestern fish illegally stocked in the Columbia River some 50 years ago, walleye are all the rage on Lake Roosevelt, the reservoir created by Grand Coulee Dam. Fishermen discovered the bottom-dwellers in the late 1960s when there were few trout in the river.
Now the trout are back, thanks to an aggressive stocking program. But the lust for walleye, which thrive without stocking, hasn’t died.
Mounted walleye hang in most every store, snack bar and tavern between Kettle Falls, Wash., and Fort Spokane. Many stores have bulletin boards decorated with greasy Polaroid pictures of lucky fishermen, the weight of their catch scrawled in smeared ink beneath the image.
Since 1987, when the Spokane Tribe started keeping track, fishermen have pulled 80,000 to 120,000 walleye a year from the reservoir. “There’s no more steelhead or salmon,” said Jim Thompson, explaining why he had come from Richland to fish at Fort Spokane on the Columbia.
Cruising down the Columbia, boaters see anglers congregated in skiffs and $20,000 bass boats at the muddy mouth of the Kettle River and the open bay where the Spokane River ends. They bounce jigs in the reservoir at spots they’ve located with $500 electronic fish finders. Or they stand under bridges and on lonely shores, casting globs of worms and Berkeley’s Power Bait into the depths.
The fish can be temperamental, causing experts in Bass Pro Shop caps to go home with empty stringers. Or they can come easy, even to rookies.
“We got a book that told us to buy all this fancy equipment,” said Julie Meyer of Washougal, Wash., who had come to Fort Spokane for her first crack at walleye. “We went out there with a worm and a hook and caught our limits.”
The most serious fishermen join walleye clubs and compete in walleye tournaments, such as the Governor’s Cup this month at Kettle Falls. They carry a wide variety of graphite rods.
“I’ve got one for crankbaits, one for spinners and two for jigs,” said Tim Brady, a tournament fisherman and board member of the Kettle Falls Walleye Club. “The other one is just for whatever.”
All this for a toothy, bug-eyed fish with greenish skin. Walleye don’t put up much of a fight, most often taking the bait gingerly, making a few halfhearted tugs, then hanging on the line like a beaten dog at the end of a leash. They don’t jump like rainbow trout or strip line like bass.
“It’s like catching a log,” said Bob Uhler, owner of the Fort Spokane Store, who said he would rather catch more athletic species. “You take a 12-ounce smallmouth bass and it’ll (outfight) any walleye.”
The biggest thing going for walleye is their taste. Coated in flour and fried in oil, the flesh is white, flaky and mild. Pop a filet in the microwave, said Uhler, and it tastes like lobster. Boil it, said a fisherman upstream, and it tastes like crab.
The fish has such a reputation as table fare that first-timers may be disappointed.
“It’s better than crappie, which we don’t like, but not as good as bass,” said Art Malfate, part of Meyer’s Washougal group.
“It’s good, but I don’t see what all the fuss is about,” said Meyer.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 color) Map of Lake Roosevelt from Kettle Falls to Hunters
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WALLEYE TOURNAMENT IS JUNE 24-25 Walleye fishermen will gather in Kettle Falls on June 24-25 to compete in the Governor’s Cup fishing tournament. Two-angler teams will compete for $30,000 in cash and prizes, including $7,500 for the team with the heaviest 20-walleye catch. All fish must be released. Cost to enter is $260 per team, with a limit of 150 teams. For information, call the Kettle Falls Area Chamber of Commerce at (509) 738-2300.