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Fishing
Walleye: Georgia’s Best Kept Secret
Locals may be tight-lipped, but north Georgia has fishable walleye populations. The best time to catch them is during the spring run.
 
By Joe DiPietro
Originally published in the March 2011 issue of GON
 
Terry Nunn, of Jefferson, caught this big walleye while fishing Lake Rabun with Capt. Wes Carlton. Wes said he catches the walleye year-round on the mountain lakes while fishing live bait for other species, but the best time to target them is in March, during the spring runs.
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For many Georgia anglers walleye might seem like some obscure gamefish that’s only found up North. Contrary to that notion, north Georgia is dotted with lakes that have fishable walleye populations. There aren’t many folks fishing for them, and those who are aren’t likely to talk about it. You see, these tasty fish are one of the best kept secrets the state has to offer.

DNR stocks about 700,000 walleye each year in reservoirs on the north end of the state. The current stocking program started in the 1990s to help reduce populations of invasive blueback herring, said WRD Senior Fisheries Biologist Anthony Rabern. Not only did the walleye take to the herring as a main source of food, it made them thrive.

According to a recent DNR study, “We have the fastest growing walleye in America,” Anthony said.

Walleye are stocked at about 1 1/2 inches long and reach approximately 12 inches in their first year of life in Georgia lakes. The state record walleye, caught by Neal Watson out of Lake Russell in 1995, weighed 11-lbs., 6-ozs. Interestingly, Russell is not one of the lakes that receives stockings. Anthony said that record could be broken any day.

“Without a doubt, every lake in our state with walleye in it has a state record fish in it,” he said. “There’s at least a 12-lb. walleye in every one of them. We’ve found them in our surveys.”

Because most anglers in the state know little about how to target the finicky walleye, they’re most often caught by accident by folks fishing for stripers or spotted bass. However, if the right techniques are applied in the right locations at the right times, anglers can count on not only consistent catches of walleye, but on catching some good-sized fish, too.

By far, walleye are the most vulnerable to anglers during their annual spawn, which typically peaks around the last week in March, according to Capt. Wes Carlton, of Gainesville. The prespawn and spawning period is generally spread out from the end of February through April, when it tapers off and the fish move on to deep-water summertime locations. Water temperature is the key to where the fish will be and what they’ll be doing.

“When the water gets to right around 52 degrees, it tells the fish to head upstream into the shallows of the lake’s rivers and creeks,” Wes said.

The male fish will regularly move in and out of the spawning grounds in a lakes’ tributary rivers, while females tend to only move into the spawning grounds for short periods of time at night until they’ve dropped all their eggs, Anthony said.

As a result, Anthony said most anglers will find themselves catching primarily male fish of good eating size between 2 and 4 pounds. While most fish caught will be males, the females often run as heavy as 8 to 10 pounds.

Since walleye are primarily nocturnal, dawn and dusk are great times to target them, as is night fishing.

“Some anglers report there is a ‘golden hour’ right before nightfall when walleye bite best,” Anthony said.

Wes backed that statement, “As the sun sets, they’ll move into 16 to 24 inches of water to feed before they run into the river to spawn. That’s a good time to catch them on shallow-running crankbaits in brilliant colors. I don’t care what color it is, as long as it’s bright.”

If you’re starting out early in the morning, it’s best to start cranking the shallows and move deeper as the sun rises. Crank that bait down, and bump it on the bottom. The commotion will often draw a strike.

Another bait widely used up North that hasn’t caught on here yet is a two-hook in-line spinner that serves as a harness for your nightcrawler. Rig a nightcrawler on the hooks. Clamp on enough split-shot a couple feet in front of the spinner to get it to the bottom, depending on the depth of the fish, and drag the rig across the bottom just fast enough to keep the blade spinning.

“As the sun comes up, those fish will pull down into 6 to 9 feet of water into rocks and brushpiles,” Wes said.

As the daylight comes on strong, dropping live bait like blueback herring and medium minnows right over fish is one of the best ways to entice a bite. Fishing nightcrawlers just off the bottom is another good technique. In order to fish live bait successfully, though, you must have a decent depthfinder to help you locate fish.

Trolling plugs both with or without downriggers can also work to locate fish during the day. Concentrate on points, brushpiles, rockpiles and rocky outcroppings, preferably in the shade.

“If there’s a brushpile, they’re going to be in it,” Wes said. “The most difficult thing is getting those fish out of the brush.”

Look for the fish to hang out in areas with 20 to 40 feet of water near the top end of the lake, where those depths may be found closest to spawning grounds.

“Walleye are light sensitive, so when you’re fishing a point or brush, they’re going to be on the north, or shaded, side of the structure,” Wes said.

When they’re deep and tight to brush and structure, a drop-shot rig — just like you’d use to hoist spotted bass out of brush — can be a good choice.

Fishing along light-inhibiting mudlines, which offer passing morsels of food and a good ambush site, can be another effective method, Anthony added.

Once you’ve found walleye, it’s important to stay on them. They tend to run in packs. While an increased current from generation on a lake usually improves the fishing, it also makes it tough to stay put in a boat. Wes suggests using a trolling motor or anchoring over located fish.

Another tactic Wes employs is to drop several blueback herring and then cast spoons and plugs around them.

“The bluebacks work like a teaser in that situation,” he said. “They’re just so shiny and lively that the fish sometimes come up just to check them out. They get bit from time to time, too.”

If fishing after dark, Wes recommends using Hydro-Glo sticks, which can be dropped directly in the water alongside the boat. The green light draws baitfish, which draw the walleye, and they can be caught with plugs or on live bait.

Along with the challenge of finding walleye, hooking them can be just as tricky.

“They don’t bite very hard,” Wes said. “They just kind of mouth the bait and take it down slowly.”

As a result, a gentle hookset is best.

Wes, who mainly guides on mountain lakes including Burton, Seed, Rabun, Yonah and Tugalo, as well as Lake Lanier, is optimistic about the future of Georgia’s walleye fishery.

“I look in the next three to five years for these lakes to really improve due to the numbers of fish the DNR is putting in,” Wes said. “There’s already good populations of walleye in these lakes, so it can only get better.”

Perhaps one of the greatest rewards of pursuing walleye is at the dinner table. They have a reputation as superior table fare. Many anglers list walleye as their favorite fish to eat. They’re easy to fillet, and they’re good just about any way you can think to cook them, too.

“They’re a great tasting fish,” Wes said. “It’s a very light, flaky meat. It is definitely not a fishy fish.”

Whether you are looking for a new angling challenge, a great meal or you are already a seasoned walleye angler, the lakes in north Georgia offer just what you’re looking for. Don’t let the locals tell you any differently.

To book a guided walleye trip, give Wes a call at (770) 318-9777 or visit his website <www.GeorgiaLakeFishing.com>.
 
 
 
 
 
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