Often, the best opportunities of the year for catching large fish come when the fewest number of anglers are on the water, and that’s in the winter, when it’s cold. Since fish are cold-blooded, they definitely slow down in activity, but the larger fish continue to bite. There are several species of fish that bite well in winter conditions and over the next few weeks, we’ll take a look at some of these cold water possibilities. First up: the walleye.
Quietly, without a lot of fanfare, Virginia has become an excellent place to catch a walleye, perhaps the best-eating fish of all freshwater fish. Walleye, sometimes called “pike,” are not at all related to pike or muskies. They are actually the largest member of the perch family.
Walleye are among the first freshwater species to spawn – usually in late February, so they are definitely active in wintertime. They generally spawn in the rivers over gravel or rocky shoals. They also spawn, or attempt to spawn, in lakes. Again, look for gravel bottoms.
Walleye are not particular about their meals. They enjoy a crawfish or two, as do most freshwater fish, and they eat most any minnow that will fit in their mouths. Their favorite prey, when available, is a yellow perch. They also go for aquatic insects and worms.
An ordinary jig is a good choice for walleye fishing. A three- or five-inch jig worked slowly along the bottom will get strikes. Some anglers use a Lindy Rig, with a nightcrawler trailer, with good success. Crankbaits bounced off the bottom are also good walleye baits. Live bait—minnows, live shad or night crawlers—work just as well. On average, the Virginia Department of Wildlife stocks between 800,000 and 900,000 fingerling walleye. It takes about 2 years for a fingerling to reach the minimum size creel length of 18 inches, but frankly, there is not enough meat on an 18-inch fish to make it worthwhile to keep. A fish in the 21-inch or better class is a decent eating size.
The Shenandoah River is coming into its own as a walleye fishery. Currently, walleye can be found in the Shenandoah River from Warren Dam in Front Royal downstream beyond the Virginia/West Virginia state line. The main source of the population prior to the annual stocking program came from stocking 285,000 fry in 2007.
The Rivanna River in Albemarle county is also a good spot to try for walleye. A good friend of mine caught two 7-pound walleye on successive casts last January while fishing in the Rivanna. Anglers can fish from the banks or use any number of access points to float the Rivanna. In Orange County, Lake Orange has become a very good impoundment for walleye. Owned and managed by the Wildlife Division, Orange has a good population of both shad and yellow perch as bait fish along with gravelly bottoms for cover. The marina at Lake Orange is closed during the winter, but the boat ramp is open year-round.
The upper New River is another good choice. The New has a sustainable population of walleye and lots of 7- to 10-pound fish are landed each spring. The stretch from Buck Dam downstream to Allisonia is a good choice. Most fish on the New are caught from Late January through April, but as in all of our waters, they can also be caught year-round.
So bundle up, rig up a jig and go catch some walleye. They’re biting right now at a river near you.
—Contact Jim Brewer at email@example.com