As we gear toward hard-water season, the walleyes of Lake Winnipeg are on the move. You can already find a higher concentration of Greenbacks in the Red River. They’re migrating, and they’re on a mission. From now through winter, they’ll be feeding and preparing to spawn.
Last year, I wrote an article explaining the process of walleye re-production. If you’re a novice angler, this might be brand new information. If not it’s likely still a fun read that can offer some perspective on where to find Greenbacks in the winter/early spring months.
Give the article a read, and download the .pdf below if you’d like to take this information with you!
Explaining the Walleye Spawn
By Riley Hastings
It’s late winter on Lake Winnipeg. Many fishermen stay tight-lipped to protect their favourite spots, but the word is out. “March Madness” has begun. Ice fishers cram together on four-foot-thick ice over less than three feet of water. The walleye bite is on. The fish are gathering for a month of species-sustaining sex.
Where do walleye spawn?
Walleye have a homing instinct. They have a sense of direction like migratory birds who fly south every year. A 2009 study by Fisheries and Oceans Canada measured this instinct by putting radio trackers on walleye and tracking their movements—kind of like a find-your-fish app. The walleye returned to the same areas annually to mate.
The study says walleye choose mating grounds based on two factors: Water temperature and bottom type. Walleye seek warmer water for spawning. Since heat rises, the warmest water is in the shallows. Bottom type refers to the material of the lake floor. When walleye mate over gravel or rocky bottoms, their eggs stick to the coarse ground. This prevents the eggs from washing away. When the temperature and ground texture are right, the spawn will be more successful.
Last March, I caught several walleyes in less than 2 feet of water on Lake Winnipeg. These shallow areas had gravel or rock bottoms. The fish were getting ready to mate. Manitoba’s fishing season closes for a month in April, so walleye populations can spawn without human interference.
How do walleye spawn?
There isn’t much art to walleye seduction. According to a 1975 Environment Canada study, which observed walleye spawning behaviour, walleye lack the vibrant colours some fish use to attract mates. Walleye simply raise and lower their dorsal fin—the spiny fin on their back— to express interest. This tip-of-the hat kicks off the mating process.
Walleye spawn nocturnally. Come nightfall, they huddle together in groups. There are multiple males to one female. The huddled fish rush upwards towards the surface.
Walleye are broadcast spawners. Males and females release their respective sperm and eggs externally. Females can release 300 to 500 eggs at a time. They stick to the bottom and combine with the sperm. Walleye sperm dies in about 2 minutes, eggs die in about 6 minutes, so time is of the essence for successful fertilization.
How do walleye develop?
The choice of breeding ground affects how quickly the fertilized walleye eggs develop. Kazimierz Machniak reported that fertilized eggs develop and hatch in as quick as 12 days in warmer water. If the water is too cold, the process can take up to 18 days or not happen at all.
Machniak also noted that newly hatched walleye eat the yolk of their eggs, then they move onto eating microscopic animals. Once they grow to about 30mm, they begin eating fish. The bigger they grow, the more menu options they have. In 2-3 years, male walleye will be ready to spawn. Females won’t be mature for 6-8 years.
In January, CBC reported that Lake Winnipeg has some of the best walleye fishing in the world. The article credited ideal conditions in 1997 and 2000 for successful spawning seasons that created big fish. These 18-to-21-year-old walleye are huge. They can exceed 30 inches in length. I’ve hooked into a couple of these monsters myself. It’s quite a thrill.