Winter walleye catches in the Gorge have been very good so far this year, and prospects for the coming months are also very good.
The fish are in a pre-spawn bite, fueling up for the coming efforts of the spawning season, and the hefty females the Gorge fishery are so famous for have been biting as well.
This is the time of year when the big trophy females are the most vulnerable, as they stage ahead of the spawn and mingle with the more numerous, and smaller, males.
Lonnie Handsaker, the president of the Lower Columbia Walleye Club, has yet to hit the water, but he has been encouraged by reports of good fishing, and a number of big females have been among the fish caught.
“This time of year is when they catch some big ones,” Handsaker said. “I have heard of a couple 10-pounders being caught already.”
Walleye in the Columbia are known for growing large, with some even hitting the upper teens. These are considered trophies anywhere that anglers target walleye.
The smaller walleye often end up on the table. They are considered one of the best tasting freshwater fish in the United States.
Handsaker is a fan of trolling worm harnesses downstream for the fish, which is the most popular method of fishing for walleye in the Columbia River. The method involves trolling downstream along reefs and drop-offs where the fish hold and feed.
Worm harnesses are made up of bottom-walking lead weights followed by a leader with a few beads, and possibly a spinner, ahead of a double-hook setup with a full night crawler. The rig makes it possible to keep the bait bouncing right along the bottom, where the walleye lay.
He looks for reefs or drop-offs in the 25-to-60-foot depth for these pre-spawn fish, and he often targets the Maryhill area in The Dalles Pool. This reach, below the John Day Dam, is one of the most popular areas for Columbia Gorge walleye. This stretch includes the famous Preachers Eddy, the Cottonwoods, and other well-known early walleye spots.
Shane Magnuson of the Upper Columbia Guide Service is also prepping his boat for the walleye fishing, and he likes to target the areas near Boardman and Umatilla in the John Day Pool.
“I’ve been finding better numbers upstream,” said Magnuson, “so I don’t fish below John Day a lot.”
“I will start fishing in February and see if I can get some of those big fish before they spawn,” Magnuson said. “Those big females, they will start to get really snappy until right before they spawn. February is always a good time to get out there and target those big fish, because they are getting hungry.”
Magnuson once landed a 16-pound walleye in the Columbia.
He explained that the spawn is triggered by water temperatures, and usually starts sometime in late March.
Once the spawn actually begins the fish stop feeding actively. After the spawn, they will spend a month or more recovering. The second round of this fishery will develop in May and June, when the fish go on a feeding spree after having recovered from the spawn.
The second round sees less of the big trophy fish, which seem to disappear. Anglers catch mostly the smaller males, which can run on average from 11/2 pounds up to 5 pounds. These smaller fish are the best eating walleye.
But right now, anglers are focusing on those big females.
Magnuson prefers jigging to trolling worm harnesses. Anglers jig for walleye by drifting with the current over the areas where the fish collect, and jig blade baits or jigs, sometimes tipped with worms.
“We’re using a lot of one-half to three quarter ounce walleye jigs,” Magnuson said, “something that has a spinner or prop on it, and I will tip that sometimes with a bit of night crawler.”
He also anoints his baits with Grabill’s Walleye Scent.
He will be targeting areas in the 40-to-60-foot depth, but he said that once the fish actually start to spawn, they will be looking to shallower water, from eight to 12 feet. The fish will stay on those shallow reefs after the spawn, feeding on bait fish.
However, he warns anglers who are unfamiliar with these areas to use caution when fishing shallow. The reefs often push rocks up to just under the surface, and inattentive anglers can breach their boats on those rocks.
Anglers also need to fish with a boat that can handle the extreme winds of the Gorge, which can come up quickly and without warning.
Magnuson and Handsaker are both looking forward to a good season.
“It looks like we are going to have a great runoff this spring and there should be great conditions,” Magnuson said.
Walleye are a non-native fish in the Columbia, and there are no limits on size or numbers that anglers can keep. However, most anglers will release the big females, since they are important spawners, and do not eat as well as the smaller walleye.
For anglers new to the fisheries, it might be a good idea to hire a guide for a day or two, and learn the ins and outs of this fishery, and how to fish it safely.
Guide Trips: Upper Columbia Guide Service: 509-630-5433, https://www.uppercolumbiaguide.com/about-us