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Walleye 101: how to catch the nonnative species

Mar. 8—John Snaza entered his first walleye fishing derby on the Columbia River in the 1980s.

At the time, neither he nor his wife had any experience with the toothy predator.

"I had never seen a walleye," he said. "We did pretty good. We caught two pretty quick. We got them in the boat and I said, 'Yeah, that looks like a walleye.'"

Fast forward 30 years or so and Snaza is an old walleye hand eager to teach other anglers how to find and catch them. The manager of Lewiston's North 40 Outfitters tackle department has no shortage of students.

"I used to have people coming in wanting to know how to go salmon fishing and I still do, but most people around here know how to go salmon fishing," he said. "Not many of them know how to go walleye fishing. They'll come in and they're very receptive to what I tell them and I love it."

Newcomers

Walleye are not native to the Snake River and fisheries managers from Idaho, Washington and the Nez Perce Tribe are none too pleased at their arrival. They fear walleye will serve as one more threat to struggling native salmon and steelhead.

The fish were illegally introduced to the upper Columbia River about 80 years and are progressively making their way into the Snake River. There are well-established fisheries for them near the Tri-Cities and at Lyons Ferry.

But now anglers are starting to catch them with increasing frequency in the Snake River upstream of Lower Granite Dam. Snaza believes it's only a matter of time before they are a common catch here.

Fisheries managers don't like walleye being present in the same rivers where salmon and steelhead are present, so they allow anglers to catch and keep as many of them as they can. There are no size or bag limits on walleye on the Snake or Columbia rivers.

There is ample incentive to do so.

"It's the best fish you'll eat around here. I think that is one reason they are going to get so popular," said Snaza. "Once people find out how good they are, and once they learn the different ways to catch them, it's a plus, plus thing. Except maybe for the salmon, right?"

Fish school

The trick to catching any fish is figuring out where they are. Water, especially on lakes and reservoirs, can appear uniform to the human eye. Of course, that is not the case. Beneath the surface is an unseen world of structure created by variations in the river bed. There are shallows, flats and deep pools.

Snaza likes to target underwater plateaus — high spots that might be 15 feet deep but surrounded by depths of 30 or more feet. Those are places walleye like to lurk.

"They like to lay down on those ledges on the sides. Then they'll come up on top. Troll around and feed and then go back down over the ledges."

Depth finders and other electronics can give anglers an advantage by providing graphic depictions of the riverbed. But, if you don't have expensive electronics on your boat, you can learn a lot by observing other anglers and good old trial and error. Or ask Snaza. Part of his job is teaching people how to fish and it's one he relishes.

Walleye also prefer some depth.

"They will almost always be near the bottom," he said. "If you're going to fish for walleye, you want to be on the bottom or real close to it."

Snaza said there is a shallow spot in the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers. He describes it as a sunken island where the water is about 15 deep and surrounded by water that is 20 to 30 feet deep.

"That's a perfect place for walleye but nobody is reading fish for them."

Techniques

Trolling and jigging are the most common walleye fishing methods.

"I like to troll the plateaus, because they're mainly one level. So you can troll on those, and then drop down on the edges jigging for them," he said. "Jig from the shallow parts up on top of the plateau down to the deeper parts."

Tackle

Snaza said roundhead and minnow-head jigs work well for walleye. They can be paired with soft baits, hair and spinners and baited with worms.

"I almost always use some kind of trailer system on them," he said. "Just because it covers a hook better and it gives walleye something better to see. They don't focus well but they see really well."

Fish nearly straight up and down, floating with the current.

"You want to be vertical. You want to be straight up and down with your lure," he said.

When trolling, Snaza recommends a bottom bouncer or bottom walker rig to make sure lures are near the bottom. He likes to use a bladed lure with beads and a stinger hook.

"About 99% of the time, you use a nightcrawler with it," he said. "You want to troll really slow. You want the blades just barely turning."

He sells walleye rod-and-reel combos that start at about $70 with line, a jig and a carton of nightcrawlers.

Walleye can range from about 8 to 10 inches on the small end and big fish can top 30 inches.

"They are fun to catch because they are fairly heavy. They'll fight a little bit but they're not like a steelhead," he said. "They put up a little struggle but it's not much of a challenge as far as getting them in. Once you hook them, you usually got them."

One of Snaza's favorite things about walleye fishing is the 247/365 season. There is no need to watch dam counts or wait for fisheries managers to set harvest quotas.

"The only thing that really controls when you can fish for then and when you can't is the wind."

On the Snake River, the best fishing is still going to be downstream at places like Lyons Ferry. But, for better or worse, walleye are becoming increasingly present upstream of Lower Granite Dam. Anglers have reported catching them in Hells Canyon and on the lower Salmon River.

Snaza thinks the local fishery is poised to take off.

"I think it's going to be more of a family thing because it's so close," he said. "You can take the kids out on a Sunday afternoon. Go out there and who knows, you might get some nice walleye."

Barker may be contacted at ebarker@lmtribune.com or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.