This is the year of the walleye in Eastern Washington.
The fish that only transplanted midwest fishermen could identify 40 years ago is now one of the top game fish in the region.
This spring, anglers have been hooking almost unbelievable numbers at Roosevelt, Sprague, Soda, Moses and Long lakes, the Potholes Reservoir and the Columbia River all the way down to The Dalles area.
Sprague Lake and the Potholes Reservoir are the latest spots where there are enough walleyes 18 inches or longer for some proficient anglers to take home limits. Until this year, “keepers” were somewhat rare at Sprague and the reservoir.
A delighted Mike Mielke, Sprague Lake Resort owner, said some anglers have been bringing five-fish limits of 18- to 24-inch walleyes to his resort. Last year he saw only a few keepers - walleyes 18 inches long or longer. He hardly mentions bluegills, the tasty fish that attracted hundreds of fishermen in past years.
Rod Meseberg, authority on fishing at the Potholes Reservoir, described the walleye fishing as “unbelievable.” He marvels at the size of the walleyes fishermen have bringing to his Mar-Don Resort.
The trout is still king of fishes in Washington, but the popularity of walleyes can’t be denied. Scores of fishermen have spent thousands of dollars on boats, motors, sonars and fishing tackle just to pursue them.
A member of the perch family, the walleye is one of the finest table fish. Sensitive walleye anglers will disagree, but it fights like an animated perch. A 15-inch rainbow will fight harder than a 5-pound walleye.
Because its eyes are light-sensitive, it feeds most actively at dusk and dawn, at night and on cloudy days.
The walleye is so popular that anglers are proud to display hat and jacket patches proclaiming they’re members of walleye clubs. Their Bible is the “Walleye In-Sider,” a magazine dedicated to walleye fishing.
Walleyes help feed the families of a few Eastern Washington guides.
Walleye fishermen compete with one another periodically at several lakes and the lower Columbia River for big bucks. Many will take part in the second annual Washington Governor’s Cup Walleye Tournament Saturday and Sunday at Lake Roosevelt. If enough two-person teams enter, the top team could pocket more than $8,000.
The walleye has come a long way since it first showed up in Lake Roosevelt about 1955.
When fish biologists, all oriented to trout management, saw the first walleyes, they were horrified. One prominent biologist predicted the voracious fish would decimate trout populations. Another allowed angling for walleyes was the “next best thing to fishing.”
The walleye wasn’t even classified as a game fish in those days and biologists encouraged anglers to fill their boats with the, ugh, “worthless” fish. Greedy anglers did so and soon caught most of the trophy-size walleyes. A few bragged of killing up to 50 walleyes a day.
Eventually, the fish and wildlife agency’s brass realized they couldn’t defeat the walleye and recommended it be designated a game fish. As the popularity of the fish rose, limits were established. Finally, even the department got into the walleye-planting business.
In some ways, the walleye is a finicky fish. It likes to choose its habitat and is a great traveler. That’s why many moved to the lower Columbia River.
It takes walleyes several years to become established. For example, the state started releasing walleyes into Sprague immediately after the lake was treated with rotenone several years ago. Until this year, anglers wondered whether there ever would be enough keepers to warrant spending time at Sprague. Now they’re catching lots of walleyes more than 18 inches long.
Last year, anglers began catching fair numbers of keeper walleyes at the Potholes Reservoir. This year, it’s now apparent, there are lots of keeper-sized walleyes in the huge reservoir. So many, in fact, the lake may become as popular as Lake Roosevelt.
Will the walleye continue to thrive? You can bet on it. Will the bucket brigade plant walleyes in lakes managed for trout? They’re already doing it.
The following fields overflowed: SUPCAT = COLUMN - Fishing & Hunting Report CREDIT = Fenton Roskelley The Spokesman-Review