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Learn More About the Pacific Northwest’s Sleeper Walleye Fisheries

Walleye caught by Sue Heldman Forsythe on the Osprey Guide Adventures boat

While the Great Lakes and the Midwest are the most popular spots for walleye, the Pacific Northwest’s sleeper walleye fisheries are rapidly growing in popularity, and for good reason.

Salmon and steelhead come to mind first for most anglers at the mention of the Columbia River; however, a select few guides are decoding and dialing in this fishery as it grows in popularity with their clientele.

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Dan & Tanner Sullivan with a trophy Walleye caught on board the Hester’s Sportfishing boat

Cameron Black of Gone Catchin’ Guide Service has had his eye on the lower Columbia River walleye fishery, taking knowledge from upriver guide T.J. Hester of Hester’s Sportfishing in an effort to better understand the fishery as a whole.

“I didn’t find any guides that were actively fishing below Bonneville. Most go at least to Rufus. I’m interested in the fishery because with how successful the fisheries are close to Tri-Cities I just figure that has to be something going on here. The fish are around for sure but no one really targets them till late spring summer much. With the lack of winter fisheries, (No sturgeon, no kokanee, no early cowlitz steel) there’s some opportunity to seek these fish out. And this time of year (February) you’re most likely going to catch your trophies.”

Bill Taylor of Osprey Guide Service runs trips on the lower river and is equally experienced with the upriver fishery. He cites one of the main differences between the lower and upper river walleye fisheries is that the average size is larger due to Oregon’s Department of Fish & Wildlife recommending against consumption of walleye below Bonneville Dam where resident fish are downstream from a majority of contaminates. The walleye further upriver are much more quality eater fish, and the selective harvest of males tends to affect the average size of the population.

“The techniques are the same…where you find them is all very similar. Generally, pre-spawn bite for big females is best. Post spawn bite for males is best. With lots of smelt in the river in February, that is going to check off the female pre spawn bite from Bonneville on down. Also, one of the reasons we don’t have great success in December and January is the flush out of shad smolts and I would say that goes from upriver on down.”

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Osprey Guide Adventures Bill Taylor holds a Columbia River Walleye

Taylor goes on to explain that the while the best opportunities for trophy females in the upper river are in Feb, March and April, the best chances on the lower river are further into spring around March and April below Bonneville. The best opportunities for food grade fish (eater-size males) are in May, June, and July upriver. Downstream, there are too many targets for them to feed on with the abundance of smelt and shad.

Selective harvest plays a role in the average size of the walleye population, with them mostly being resident fish that move to different types of structure only to feed and spawn. More recently, the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife deregulated warm-water fisheries on the Columbia River to show the Bonneville Power Administration that the department is taking steps towards protecting fish listed by the Endangered Species Act.

Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Stacie Kelsey says,

“We do not believe that this is going to affect the populations in any way. We did a study on Roosevelt lake that showed that there would have to be double plus effort in order to effect the current population.”

Upriver, Tri-Cities Washington area guide T.J. Hester runs regular trips for chinook, steelhead and sockeye, but takes time to search for the big girls while providing his clients with their fair share of eater-sized males. His local vicinity of the upper Columbia River holds some trophies that could even rival the next world record. The last 2 state records came from the Tri-Cities area, and one before that was caught just below McNary dam, all 3 coming within recent years, the most recent being caught in 2014.

Teddy Schmidt holds a walleye that fell for a Whistle Pig on board the Hester's Sportfishing Boat
Teddy Schmidt holds a walleye that fell for a Whistle Pig on board the Hester’s Sportfishing Boat

When asked what sparked his interest to set time aside from his productive salmon and steelhead guiding to target walleye, Hester replied,

“That it’s really hard! And people come from all over to fish this and it’s right in my backyard!”

Hester explains that walleye prefer baitfish that are roughly one third of their body size, so the “big bait = big fish” rule generally applies.

“Big fish will also lay in slower current and sometimes shallower.”

Hester targets trophy walleye with plastics on jigs, or jumbo worms and eater sized males in current breaks just to the softer side of main current edges where they stage to spawn, predominantly targeting them with Spectrum Lures Whistle Pigs and Kits Tackle Glass Minnows.

When tipping his presentations with live bait, Hester will dye his worms with Pautzke Fire Dye in chartreuse, white, blue, and green.

Walleye are some of the most desirable table fare as far as inland warmwater fisheries are concerned. Hester encourages people to catch and release the trophy females, not just for spawning potential, but in the hopes that the next Washington state record will be brought on board the Hester’s Sportfishing boat. You can contact T.J. Hester to learn the fishery from the man himself at Hesters Sportfishing.

NEXT: An Oregonian Angler’s Dream Book: Winter Steelhead Fishing by Scott Pence

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Learn More About the Pacific Northwest’s Sleeper Walleye Fisheries