The late spring that the Adirondacks has experienced this year delayed the “ice-out” time on our lakes and ponds by several weeks. This pushed back some of the events in the lives of the numerous aquatic animals that reside in these bodies of water. Among the largest creatures to occur in many of our sizeable lakes, noted for spawning shortly after the ice breaks up, is a meaty fish sought after by anglers for its flavorful taste.
The walleye is a cold-tolerant creature common to various lakes across the Park, and a fish that attracts those sportsmen that enjoy the challenge of fishing at a time when the water is only a few degrees above freezing, the wind can be bone chilling, and heavy overcast skies can completely obscure the scenery and create a mood of gloom and foreboding to the surroundings.
The walleye is a large member of the perch family, as it is characterized by having two separate dorsal fins. The first dorsal fin is supported by sharp-pointed spines, while the back one contains softer, and more flexible “rays”. Its dark green back, which transitions to a yellowish-olive color on its lower sides, and then to a white belly are other features useful in its identification. The walleye also has a large mouth that contains numerous sharp teeth. Like most other fish, the walleye preys heavily on smaller fish, and its teeth enable it to grab and force into its mouth some fair size prey. The yellow perch is known to be a primary target of the walleye, and this predator, with the aid of its pointed teeth, can effectively tear into a fish with a covering of tough, plate-like scales.
Another physical trait of the walleye is its eyes, that are exceptionally well adapted for functioning in dim light. Like a cat or deer, the eyes of this fish exhibit “nighttime eyeshine”. This is when light repeatedly reflects off a special layer within the eye, thereby amplifying its intensity, as it reacts with the retina. With this ultra light-sensitive vision, the walleye is able to prowl for prey in deep waters where little light is able to penetrate, in bodies of water in which the turbidity, or lack of clarity is somewhat elevated, and at night, even when natural illumination from the moon is low.
Unlike a cat or deer, which also exhibit eyeshine, the walleye’s sight is sensitive enough to light that it refrains from activities during days when the skies are clear and the surface is smooth, allowing maximum light transmission into the water. Because numerous lakes in the Adirondacks have exceptionally clear water, light penetration to the bottom can be high enough to put the walleye under a fair amount of optical stress on bright, cloudless days. This can eventually impact their overall state of health, and is believed by some fishery biologists to be the main factor that limits the distribution of this fish throughout the Park.
Anglers wanting to catch a walleye typically fish on gray, overcast days, especially early in the morning and just before dusk. Also, a stiff breeze that creates a chop on the surface can diffuse or scatter a significant amount of light striking the surface, which can make lighting conditions tolerable enough for this fish to cause it to become active.
Shortly after the ice goes out on the lakes supporting a population of walleyes, these fish begin to migrate toward a suitable spawning ground to commence with the process of laying eggs. Like a salmon, the walleye needs a section of shallow water where the bottom is covered with gravel. Certain stretches of large rivers that flow into a lake, where the current is strong enough to wash away most of the sand, and other fine sediment, downriver are the favored spawning grounds for the walleye. A gravel covered shoal in a lake is another site that the walleye may use for spawning.
The Adirondacks supports many different types of lakes. While some are exceptionally clear and clean, like Lake Placid, others contain varying amounts of particulate matter that interfere with light transmission. Nearly all of the bodies of water created by a dam, or that have been expanded by a dam, contain substantial amounts of tiny, organic debris suspended in the water from the gradual break down of vegetation that once covered the present lake bottom. It is these lakes, such as Tupper Lake or the lake at Union Falls, that offer the walleye the best habitat within the Park.
Fishing for walleye takes some serious understanding of the habits of the fish, and a detailed knowledge of its feeding and resting areas in the waterway in which it resides. However, the rewards of a successful outing are worth all the effort, as the taste of a meal of properly prepared walleye is priceless.
Illustration: Walleye (Sander vitreus) from the USFWS. Artwork by Timothy Knepp.