What blends into its environment, lives in deep or shallow water, and is exciting to catch? If you guessed walleye, you’re correct! Every winter, anglers head to the Saginaw Bay and Saginaw River, hoping to hook this sport fish through the ice and win prizes during the Shiver on the River walleye contest.
Like many fish species, a walleye’s camouflaged body helps it hide from predators and lie in wait for its prey. A walleye is olive colored on top, blending into a golden color on the flanks that is broken up by dark saddle-shaped marks extending to the upper sides. The first dorsal fin has sharp spines; the second is soft-rayed. Look for a large black spot at the end of the spiny fin and at the base of the pectoral fins. The anal fin and the caudal fin show a white bottom tip. The white belly has countershading, so a predator looking up from below cannot see the fish blending in with the sky.
A walleye is named for its opaque eyes that point outward as if it is looking at walls. Their excellent vision enables them to see in dark or murky water because they are adapted with a tapetum lucidum just like nocturnal mammals and owls. Similar to a mirror that reflects images, the tapetum lucidum sends light back through the retina, providing additional light to the photoreceptors. When a light shines on the water, the eyes of the fish reflect the light. Some fishermen take advantage of this when fishing at night.
Walleye congregate in shallow waters, on submerged objects, on sandbars, and in rocky areas. Spawning occurs in rivers as females lay thousands of eggs at once. The eggs then attach to plants or rocks. During daytime and summer, walleye retreat to shaded areas, submerged objects, or deeper water, preferring water temperatures of 55° F to 68° F. They actively feed in winter at various depths, usually less than 50 feet.
In April, walleye follow their food into rivers from Lake Huron. Opening a wide mouth with sharp canine teeth, walleye prey on perch, smelt, or alewife, as well as gobies (an invasive exotic species). Prime feeding times are early morning and evening; they move to shallower water at night.
Walleye compete with similar-sized perch, smallmouth bass, and lake whitefish for food, but they are preyed upon by northern pike and muskellunge. Walleye grow to about 30 inches long, weigh up to 17 pounds, and live about five to six years in heavily fished areas, while others may survive for decades if they evade anglers.
The Michigan DNR started restocking walleye in the Saginaw Bay in 1981, gathering eggs after spawning in April, growing the fry in outdoor ponds until they reached 2 inches long, and then releasing them in June. The annual restocking changed to an alternate year schedule until 2005. This was discontinued because natural reproduction increased to a sustainable level in the Saginaw Bay. However, walleye restocking of inland lakes continues throughout the state.
Walleye provide a year-round sport fishery, with fishermen using live minnows, jigs, or lures. Because of their abundant population in the Saginaw Bay and Saginaw River, new regulations went into effect last October, covering the current season. The walleye daily possession limit increased from five to eight fish, and the minimum size limit was reduced from 15 inches to 13 inches. Also, the yellow perch daily limit was reduced from 50 to 25. This should improve the walleye growth rate by reducing their numbers while increasing the number of juvenile yellow perch surviving to adulthood.