The walleye is an incredibly popular target species for anglers in regions where they are abundant. Everyone wants to catch that trophy 10-pound walleye, but not many anglers are familiar with the actual life cycle of the walleye.
In this post, we will look at the walleye from the time it hatches, the changes that occur to the fish as it ages, and the overall lifespan of the fish.
Walleye will begin their spawning migrations not long after the lakes and rivers in the northern reaches of the United States and Canada lose the sheets of ice that cover them.
Author Note: When the water temperature reaches the range of 38-44 degrees Fahrenheit, they get to preferred spawning areas, and when these temperatures increase to around 42-50 degrees, spawning will occur.
As with many other predatory freshwater species, once the female walleye broadcast their eggs and the males fertilize them, there is no further parental care from the parent fish.
This parenting behavior is similar to fish like northern pike and muskies and differs from other fish’s bedding and parenting behavior like bass and panfish.
A baby walleye goes through multiple stages after hatching.
1. Fry Stage
Once the walleye eggs hatch and the baby walleye, “also known as fry,” entire the aquatic world for the first time, they do so without having mouths.
Walleye fry instead has a yolk sack when they hatch, and the fry feeds off of this yolk sack while its mouth develops.
Once the mouth of the baby walleye develops, it begins eating on plankton; after 30 to 40 days, these tiny fry have grown to 1-2 inches in length and are now approaching the fingerling stage.
2. Fingerling Stage
Once the walleye gets into the fingerling stage of development, its’ diet changes, and small aquatic insects make up its diet, and during this time of the walleyes’ life-cycle, it will grow at an incredibly rapid pace.
From the time they hatch in the early spring to the end of summer, a baby walleye will have grown to be 4 to 6 inches in length, and at this point of their lives, they will still be eating insects predominantly but may start to feed on tiny minnows.
3. Growth Spurt
Our now 4-6 inch baby walleyes have grown rapidly in only a few months, but the rapid growth doesn’t stop there.
A baby walleye will continue growing at this rate for the next four years! After the first four years of its life, the growth spurt is over, and they grow at a much slower rate.
Author Note: Once a walleye gets to 6-10 inches in length, it will start to target minnows as their main food source but will still eat aquatic insects, including leeches and other prey like the odd crayfish, and even frogs on rare occasions.
Now that we have discussed the very early life of a walleye, we can move on to other information like habitat, distribution, and other facts about the species.
Let’s Talk About Those Eyes
The eyes of a walleye are something special, and many people know them simply because of these very interesting eyes.
Walleye eyes feature a prominent reflective layer of pigment called the tapetum lucidum. The tapetum lucidum is not unique among animals, and many animals have them, like tuna, other species of fish, and land mammals like cows and deer.
This reflective pigment layer reflects light in low-light conditions like after dusk, stained water conditions, or when in deep water. It allows them to see well and feed in these conditions where other species would struggle.
The disadvantage of having eyes like this is that they are very sensitive to mid-day sunlight, and while anglers can catch walleye throughout the day, you will struggle to find them in shallow water on a sunny day.
Walleye have a bright golden yellow coloration, but the coloration of a walleye can vary by region or from one body of water to the next, and in some areas, walleye can appear very light and pale in coloration or much darker in others, and some can have an almost olive green appearance.
Top Tip: Walleye have a very distinct white spot on the tip of the lower tail fork, and this spot is a great way to distinguish them from other fish.
Walleye have a cousin that lives beside them in some regions, and this fish is the sauger. There are many ways to tell the sauger apart from a walleye, and we have an article on Finns Fishing tips on the topic, which you can find here!
The walleye has a pretty broad range. While many anglers think they are localized to lower Canada and the Midwest, they can be found as far north as the Arctic circle and in some bodies of water as far south Alabama, including tributaries that lead into the Gulf of Mexico.
Walleye can be found in a wide variety of habitats such as various types of lakes, flowages, and reservoirs, along with rivers that are typically moderate and large in size.
They can also be found in shallower lakes if a sufficient amount of turbidity is present, like lakes with inlets and outlets. They may even be found in brackish water, where freshwater and saltwater meet in very rare cases.
Walleye can be caught in a variety of ways, but the most popular lures to use are jigs with artificial or live bait and crankbaits.
Catching walleye by trolling is very popular and is typically done on large lakes with a large amount of area to cover.
Author Note: During the spring, fishing can be very action-packed, particularly when the walleyes in rivers head upstream to spawn. This means that huge numbers of fish are confined to the narrow stretches of a river, and anglers take advantage of it.
- The Walleye sees the world around it in shades of red and green, and this is due to a lack of blue and yellow pigments in the tapetum lucidum of its’ eye.
- Like most predatory fish, the Walleye has a lateral line that runs the length of its body, and this lateral line helps it detect even the subtlest of vibrations in the water, which aid in hunting prey.
- The walleye has thousands of taste buds located on their lips, with conical-shaped teeth, and while they are sharp enough to puncture your skin and cause harm, they are not nearly as razor-sharp as the dagger-like teeth found on pike and muskies.
- Walleye typically feed during sunset, after-dark, or sunrise and travel some serious distances in search of food, up to 50 miles in a single night!
- Juvenile walleyes typically spend their lives in the deepest parts of a lake to avoid predators. It isn’t until they reach sexual maturity at the age of 3 for males and 5 for females that they migrate to shallower environments.
- A walleye can reach 20 years of age, and female walleyes will typically outlive the males.
- Walleye can reach pretty large sizes, and although it’s very rare to see one, walleye can grow to 31 inches in length and weigh up to 20 pounds.
- The walleye has a cousin in Europe called the zander, and they look very similar, except for the zander lacking the eyes of a North American Walleye. The zander also grows to a much larger size on average.
There you have it, the life of a baby walleye and all you could ever want to know about the species.
They are an awesome fish to pursue on the water and are a very interesting fish.