March 1 trout park opener may be the first fishing event of the year that grabs media attention, but as winter fades into spring, many area anglers are focused on another popular sportfish.

Larry McQuatter fishes for walleye at Bull Shoals Lake.

Larry McQuatter fishes at Bull Shoals Lake.

For many Ozarks fishing folks, early March is time to get excited about walleye fishing. This popular member of the perch family, which many anglers say is the finest eating of freshwater gamefish, begins to spawn in early March.

This spawning period, which usually runs into April, sends many anglers to local lakes in search of this prized catch.

Walleye, sometimes referred to as “jack salmon” or “walleyed pike” are native to Missouri. In pre-settlement times, walleye were found in the state’s big rivers and their tributaries. Today, walleye are thriving in several of the state’s reservoirs and larger streams.

Through MDC’s Walleye Management Plan, scheduled walleye stockings occur annually around the state. These walleye are spawned and raised in warm-water hatcheries and supplement the reproduction that occurs naturally across the state.

The walleye gets its name from its large, opaque eyes. Though walleye can reach nearly three feet in length and weigh in excess of 20 pounds, their closest relatives in this area are the small darters that can be found among the gravel in Ozarks streams.

Walleye generally occur in loose aggregations that can vary in number. Rather than restricting their activities to a definite home range, these fish range over wide areas. They are primarily nocturnal, moving to shoal areas to feed in late evening and returning to deeper water before daybreak.

The walleye’s large eyes are efficient at gathering available light. It’s thought that the retreat of walleyes to deeper and darker water during daylight is in response to the dazzling effect of direct sunlight.

Walleyes are early spawners in Missouri. Their spawning period begins in March and extends into April. Spawning is commonly preceded by movements to the shallower areas of lakes and larger rivers or into smaller tributaries. Spawning occurs at night shallow water – sometimes so shallow that the backs of the spawning fish are exposed.

The presence of a firm, silt-free substrate and a strong circulation of water are the principal conditions for walleye spawning. The eggs are scattered at random by the female – there is no nest preparation or parental care. The adhesive eggs stick to the substrate. Hatching occurs in about seven days.

By Francis Skalicky

(Francis Skalicky is the media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Southwest Region. He can be reached at 417-895-6880.)

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