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Bit Off More Than She Could Chew

I have a couple of interesting pictures to show you.  This is a 26-inch walleye recently found at Johnson Lake.


Here are a couple of other views:



Obviously that walleye “bit off more than it could chew”.  Walleyes are predator fish, no doubt about it.  I have made the point before that predator fish may try to eat anything that will fit in their mouth.  Unfortunately, they can get something in their mouth that is a little bigger than will fit through the opening of their throat and at times they will literally suffocate when a food item becomes lodged in their throat.  Generally, that does not happen, but they are not smart enough to know exactly what is too big to eat, and they do not bite or chew their food–they engulf and swallow it.

Let me make a couple of other observations:

First of all, most of the year, all predator fish in Nebraska’s large reservoirs like Johnson Lake are consuming gizzard shad.  Gizzard shad are so prolific that once the young-of-the-year (YOY) shad hatch and grow large enough to be seen, all predator fish are eating them and only them.  In most Nebraska reservoirs YOY gizzard shad will begin to show up in abundance near the end of June, first part of July.  Fishing gets tougher during the summer months not because the water is warm, but because there is this super-abundance of natural prey.  Well-fed fish are always tougher to catch.

From the time YOY shad show up on through the summer, fall and even winter, walleyes and other predator fish are eating them.  However, from early spring until that year’s shad hatch, the numbers of natural baitfish are at their annual minimum in most Nebraska reservoirs.  Post-spawn walleyes in Nebraska reservoirs feed on a wide variety of prey until YOY shad become available.  During those times it is not unusual to see walleyes scattered all over our reservoirs feeding on a variety of prey.  We know that until the YOY shad become available, other small fish are usually the most important prey item for walleyes in Nebraska reservoirs.  Those other small fish will include a variety of minnows, as well as small white bass, freshwater drum, crappies, bluegills, and even bullheads and channel catfish.  There is a freshwater drum stuck in the throat of that walleye in the photos, maybe a freshwater drum that was too big to be swallowed, but I am betting that was not the first freshwater drum that predator chomped this spring.

With walleyes preying on a variety of prey after the spawn, you can catch walleyes on a variety of baits and lures fished at a variety of depths.  In fact right after the spawn it is typical to pick up a walleye here on one presentation and then maybe another one or two over there on another presentation.  Covering water and staying versatile is key right after the spawn, but then fish will tend to aggregate and patterns will become established as the season progresses.  A person certainly can catch walleyes in deep water right after the spawn, but keep in mind that water temperatures are relatively cool for quite awhile after the walleyes spawn, and there will tend to be more prey in areas where the water may warm a few degrees.  I believe one mistake many walleye anglers make is fishing too deep for post-spawn walleyes.  Start shallow and then move deeper only if you have to.  Fish in shallow water are generally easier to catch.

I have said many times before that I am a believer in “big baits = big fish” ( Optimal Foraging Theory ).  Research on many of our favorite North American freshwater predator fish has shown that those fish may not only consume, they may actually prefer to consume prey items up to 40%, maybe even 50% of the predator’s total length.  A 26-inch walleye may eat prey items as long as 10.5 inches or even more!  I am betting that fish from Johnson Lake tried to eat a drum that was even more than 13 inches!  I know, I know, we have all heard stories of monstrous fish caught on little crappie minnows, and those stories are true.  Nobody said that big fish will not eat small prey items.  What I am saying that big fish need more energy to maintain and grow, and therefore they will prey on larger prey items if those large prey are available.  One strategy you can use if you want to catch more big fish is to throw bigger baits.  Keep that 40% rule of thumb in mind, fish big baits, baits approaching 40% of the length of the predator fish you hope to catch.

Even as I write that, I know that most of you are too scared to fish baits that large.  I know.  I see what most anglers are throwing.  Most of you are afraid that you will not catch anything on big baits, and it may reduce your overall catch rate.  Then again, the trade-off could scare you when you see the size of fish on the end of your line.

Go big or go home!


Thanks Steve K. for the photos.

About daryl bauer

Daryl is a lifelong resident of Nebraska (except for a couple of years spent going to graduate school in South Dakota). He has been employed as a fisheries biologist for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission for 25 years, and his current tour of duty is as the fisheries outreach program manager. Daryl loves to share his educational knowledge and is an avid multi-species angler. He holds more than 120 Nebraska Master Angler Awards for 14 different species and holds more than 30 In-Fisherman Master Angler Awards for eight different species. He loves to talk fishing and answer questions about fishing in Nebraska, be sure to check out his blog at outdoornebraska.org.

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