Spring serves walleye on the rocks

KANSAS CITY Mo -- A toothy fish with glassy eyes is about to tempt anglers who don’t mind hopping from rock to rock in the dark.

Walleye spawn at night in rocky areas during early spring, primarily during the first two weeks of April in the Kansas City region. For lakes without major stream inflows, walleye move from deep water into the shallows where lots of rock is present, such as the rip rap on the face of dams.

The fish often ignore anglers’ lures because they’re intent on spawning and they are not actively feeding. But sometimes they do strike a lure or bait and the catch is often a mature, trophy-sized fish.

That’s why from now into mid-April you’ll see anglers making their way along the sometimes challenging footing on rip rap at places such as the Smithville Lake dam. On some nights you’ll also see a boat with Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) fishery biologists who are conducting walleye population studies while the fish are in the shallows.

“Last year our highest catch rate was during the first and second week of April,” said Scott Ryan, the fishery biologist for Smithville Lake. “Our catch rates averaged 400 fish per hour.”

There are also similar walleye spawning runs on dams in the Kansas City area at Lake Jacomo and Longview Lake. In northwest Missouri, walleye runs occur on Mozingo Lake and Bilby Ranch Lake in the Maryville area. While the walleye make spawning runs, their presence in good numbers in the lakes are due to ongoing stocking by MDC.

Male walleye arrive first in the shallows and watch for the arrival of females to spawn with. But even though there are large numbers of fish in an area, tempting one to strike a lure can be challenging, said Jake Allman, a fishery biologist.

“There might be 4,000 fish along the dam,” Allman said. “But a productive night is when you can catch two keepers out of five or six hours of fishing.”

But it’s the chance to catch a big walleye that keeps anglers trying no matter the weather, darkness and footing.

“There’s 10-pound walleye in all of these lakes,” he said. “The largest that I’ve personally handled weighed 13 and a half pounds.”

Walleye less than 15 inches in length must be released. The limit is four. Anglers should be aware that with fish in the shallows that snagging one is possible. But all fish snagged, or not hooked in the mouth, must be released immediately regardless of size.

Some walleye at Mozingo Lake and Bilby Ranch Lake also have tags worth $25 for anglers that report them.

Anglers often use shallow running or suspending crankbaits to catch walleye, Allman said, and the smaller sized lures often work best.

The boats that biologists use for sampling walleye populations are outfitted with electroshocking equipment that temporarily stuns fish. The fish are netted, weighed and measured. Then they are released.

Sampling is only a temporary disturbance for fishing, Allman said. Once the boat has passed, walleye continue to move in and out of the shallows.

Walleye don’t defend nests like some fish, he said, and usually four or five males will pursue one female. Day length triggers the spawning run at about the same time each year, with water temperatures perhaps varying the peak by four or five days.

“It usually peaks around the first of April and they’re pretty well done by April 10,” Allman said.