Where Walleye are King
The Panhandle’s Lake Meredith is known nationwide as one of the South’s best walleye fisheries.
By Paul A. Cañada
A few clouds, backlit by a late moon phase, were scattered across the West Texas sky. A lone boat carrying two anglers carefully navigated its way into the protected water of Bugbee Canyon. Unlike many of the canyons found on the north end of Lake Meredith, Bugbee has plenty of long, well-defined points.
It was mid-March, and guide Hank MacWilliams knew post-spawn walleye are normally found on the canyon’s prominent structural features. More importantly, he knew the bigger females would be aggressively feeding in relatively shallow water.
“My client and I had already caught a couple of 4-pounders, but I believed we could do better,” says MacWilliams. “It was about 8 a.m., and I knew the bigger ones had to be in the shallower water already.”
Relying on a classic post-spawn walleye presentation, MacWilliams cast a Suspending Rogue to the edge of a moss bed, adjacent to a rocky point. The stickbait rocked in its own wake for a brief moment. The veteran fisherman gave the bait one hard pull, paused and waited.
It only took an instant for the leviathan to close the gap between itself and the seemingly vulnerable prey. The lure did its job. The walleye sucked the bait in and moved off.
Above water, MacWilliams spied a twitch in his fishing line and immediately leaned into his rod. The long rod respectfully bowed to the heavy predator on the other end of the line.
“Whoa!” yelled MacWilliams. “Fish on. And I think it’s a big one.”
Almost immediately the double-digit walleye surfaced. Like a 12-foot gator with a death grip on its prey, the fish began a series of barrel rolls. Over and over it went, taking MacWilliams’ 10-pound-test fishing line with it. Although the fight seemed to never end, the walleye eventually reached the side of the boat. After successfully netting the fish, MacWilliams knew he had caught something special.
“I was certain the fish was bigger than my state record walleye,” MacWilliams. “My digital scale was limited to 10 pounds, so I suggested we immediately get the fish to the certified scales.”
Unfortunately, MacWilliams’ customer wanted to keep the location a secret and release the fish.
“What can I say, he was paying and I completely understood his point,” says MacWilliams. “I released the fish.”
Although the customer’s request might seem odd to most anglers, it’s a testimony to how strongly Texas walleye anglers revere this sportfish. In the Lake Meredith area, walleye — not bass or crappie — are king. And between late February and early April, the average angler has the greatest opportunity to better MacWilliams’ sizable catch.
Catching Walleye in Spring
Lake Meredith, a 16,000-acre, canyon-type reservoir located approximately 45 miles northeast of Amarillo, was created when the Canadian River was impounded in 1965. Its maximum depth is listed as 127 feet, and the average depth is 30 feet. The water in the lower section of the reservoir is relatively clear, while the water in the upper end is best described as heavily stained.
Like most canyon-type impoundments, Meredith’s former river basin is silted in. However, anglers can find plenty of structure in the walls, washes and rock slides of the former canyon. Understandably, those species — walleye and smallmouth bass — preferring rocky habitat have done well at Meredith. In fact, both the state record smallmouth, a 7.93 pound bass caught by Timothy Teague in March of 1998, and walleye, an 11.88-pound fish caught by McWilliams in February 1990, both came from this West Texas fishery.
Anglers shouldn’t be surprised that both records occurred in early spring. The largest females of both species — smallmouth and walleye — are most accessible at this time of year. The period between mid-February and early April is when spawning activity draws the largest females into fairly shallow water. In the case of the walleye, it also marks the time when the fish are the most aggressive.
Beginning in mid- to late February, Meredith’s walleye move into a prespawn pattern. The bigger females begin staging just outside of spawning areas. Because Meredith’s walleye spawn in the same rocky areas, year after year, mainly the riprap along the dam, the fish are fairly easy to locate.
“The best pre-spawn structure will be any one of the large flats between mid-lake and the dam,” says McWilliams. “The females will normally suspend in 25 to 30 feet of water. On bright days the sun warms the upper-levels of the water column and the walleye will move up towards the surface in the evening to feed. During this period, the fish feed heavily in preparation for the actual spawn.
“Unfortunately, the big fish are very wary, a bit sluggish and suspended. This means it’s difficult to approach them and even tougher to keep a bait in their strike zone with an appropriate presentation. Because of this, most of us diehard walleye anglers target pre-spawn fish after the sun sets.”
Positioning his boat off the edge of the flat and over deeper water, McWilliams casts either a suspending crankbait or a 5-inch grub on a lead jighead. When the fish are high in the water column, he pulls a crankbait down into the walleye’s strike zone and then pauses. If the fish are deeper in the water column and unwilling to chase a crank bait, McWilliams prefers to work his plastic grub on either a 1/2- or 1/4-ounce jighead.
On Lake Meredith, most of the spawning occurs on the impoundment’s riprap dam. Normally, anglers can catch limits of 4- to 6-pound walleye from the riprap while fishing from the shore. However, during periods of extreme low water, the dam’s riprap may be above the water line. During these extreme conditions, walleye seek out alternative areas with plenty of broken rock and gravel. Whether spawning occurs over the dam’s riprap or nearby rocky points, walleyes begin spawning at night when water temperatures consistently reach the low 40s.
“The female will look for a male and then move over the riprap or broken rock to spawn,” explains McWilliams. “After releasing their spawn, the females move off and begin moving up lake. Thankfully, the fish spawn in waves, so there are fish spawning for about a month.”
As promising as fishing during pre-spawn and spawning periods is, post spawn is arguably the best time to pursue Meredith’s walleyes. Large females feed heavily and aggressively during this period. Between mid-March and the end of May, Meredith’s walleyes can be caught in fairly shallow water, between 1 and 16 feet, at night.
“During the post-spawn period,” says McWilliams, “the fish are hungry, shallow and willing to chase anything. You can catch them on spoons, blades, bottom-bouncers, plastics and crankbaits. I prefer to fish for them at night with jerkbaits, but you can successfully fish for them during the day.
“In the evening the fish may be less than a foot off the bank,” adds McWilliams. “We’ll cast stickbaits and jerkbaits just inches from the bank, twitch them once or twice and Bam! Fish on!”
Where Walleye Rule
According to Charles Munger, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department District 1A Fishery Biologist, Lake Meredith was one of 70 Texas lakes stocked with walleye. The reservoir received its first of three stockings while it was beginning to fill. Subsequent stockings were added the following two years after impoundment.
“I am not sure who the proponents of the stocking program were, or what the strategy was behind it,” says Munger. “However, unlike the great majority of lakes stocked, the stockings succeeded in establishing a self-sustaining population in this reservoir.”
Understandably, many anglers, unfamiliar with walleye, may wonder what makes this West Texas reservoir such a good walleye fishery. Munger believes the reasons for Lake Meredith’s success are many.
First and foremost, the impoundment is far enough north to experience the cold weather necessary for successful reproduction. Secondly, the reservoir has an excellent food source, mainly gizzard shad, and plenty of the fish’s preferred habitats. And finally, the low angling pressure placed on the fish during most of the year has resulted in a tremendous population of walleye. In fact, the number of walleye in the lake has been a concern of fishery biologists as of late.
“A number of years ago,” explains Munger, “we placed a 16-inch-minimum regulation on walleye at Meredith in order to increase the average size of the fish. The new regulation was very successful. Based on our surveys, the walleye population tripled in size.
“And then we started seeing a slowing of growth in the more abundant, younger fish. To counter that, we changed the regulations to allow for two fish less than 16 inches to be kept. We’re hoping the new regulation will encourage some harvesting of the smaller walleye.”
Many local anglers believe the number of sizable fish coming out of Meredith has declined over the years. They argue that although the impoundment’s walleye population has ample numbers of fish, it doesn’t produce the big trophy-sized fish found in northern walleye fisheries. Fishery biologists believe this lack of larger fish is due mainly to the impoundment’s extended growth period.
“I don’t believe we will ever have a fishery like those found in the upper Midwest,” notes Munger. “Because of Meredith’s water temperatures, the younger fish grow really fast. But the tradeoff is the fish don’t live long enough to reach the larger sizes. The 18- to 20-pound fish caught in northern lakes are about 20 years old. Our fish just don’t live long enough to reach that size.”
Although McWilliams agrees with Munger, he’s quick to place some of the blame on walleye specialists like himself for the reduction in Meredith’s big fish population. Because walleye is arguably one of America’s better tasting freshwater sportfish, harvesting of any legal-sized fish, including large females, has been widely accepted in the past. However, today’s walleye anglers are a bit savvier about resource management. According to McWilliams, it’s critically important to keep the smaller fish and release the bigger females.
“We have all been guilty of taking out too many big fish over the years, but we have learned from our wrong ways,” says McWilliams. “If I catch anything of size, I immediately release the fish. I try to promote selective harvest and the release of big females.”
Whether you’re looking for a trophy-sized female or a limit of smaller walleye for the fryer, spring is the right time to try this West Texas reservoir. Walleye lifted Lake Meredith into the national spotlight and gave the impoundment its identity. The reservoir will always be known as Texas’ best walleye fishery.