An early spring walleye from the White River turned into a delicious dinner.

Getting hooked on fishing might be the most familiar cliché in all outdoor sports, but sometimes the shoe just fits. Last spring I had the opportunity to target a species that I had caught only by accident in the past, and the hook was set deep.

Walleye are prized fish everywhere you find them. A few years ago when I went to Canada to go smallmouth-bass fishing, the locals welcomed us to “catch as many of them as you want, just don’t take any of our walleyes.” We did manage a few keeper walleyes, and they made for a fantastic shore lunch.

Crappie fishermen will tell you that those slabs are the best for frying. I sincerely enjoy catching bluegill and other sunfish to coat in cornmeal before they hit the hot oil. Catfish fillets are extremely popular table fare. I have eaten carp, buffalo, paddlefish, and a handful of other fresh and saltwater species, but the reason walleye are so popular is their place on a plate.

Missouri has a limited opportunity for anglers hoping to catch walleye and their cousins, called sauger. The two species look very similar and are managed together. Statewide there is no closed season on the fish, but anglers are only allowed to catch and keep them from a half-hour before sunrise to a half-hour after sunset from Feb. 20 through April 14 on most streams. The daily limit is four fish, and they must be at least 15 inches long.

In general, sauger are smaller than walleye. The average adult-size sauger only reaches about 15 inches, but walleye adults range from 12 to 28 inches. Special management restrictions on several lakes in Missouri require fish to be at least 18 inches long to keep.

Both walleye and sauger are native to the state in the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and their large tributaries, including the Meramec in northern Jefferson County. While there is natural reproduction in the rivers, the state Department of Conservation conducts supplemental stocking in lakes.

According to the conservation department’s 2023 prospects reports, the best bets for walleye fishing in the state are in the Black River below Clearwater Dam and in the lower sections of the Current River. Lakes listed as attractive include Bull Shoals, Norfork and Stockton. Other lakes that also have an 18-inch minimum length rule are Wappapello and Table Rock.

The fishing trip I took this past spring was on the White River, the stream that was dammed to form Bull Shoals and Table Rock. Norfork Lake also straddles the Missouri/Arkansas border and was created by a dam on the North Fork of the White River.

This time of year walleye are moving upstream looking for spawning opportunities. They are the first fish in the state to begin the spawning process. When dams block their progress, spots downstream become holding areas. In Jefferson County, one such opportunity is on Big River below the old mill dam at Rockford Beach near House Springs.

Because their eyes are designed for low-light situations, walleye usually spend the daylight hours near the bottom and in the deepest holes in the stream. Look for them in water with large rocks on the bottom to provide additional dark hiding spots. Larger walleye feed primarily on smaller fish, so lures, jigs and flies that mimic wounded fry, and live bait including minnows, worms, shiners and leaches are suggested offerings.

Sauger are more prevalent in the turbid waters of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, while walleye seek refuge in the clearer portions of the tributaries. Their coloration, shape, fins, and toothy mouths look similar, but the telltale difference is a bright white spot at the bottom tip of the walleye’s tail.

John Winkelman has been writing about outdoors news and issues in Jefferson County for more than 30 years and is the Associate Editor for Outdoor Guide Magazine. If you have story ideas for the Leader outdoor news page, e-mail ogmjohnw@aol.com, and you can find more outdoor news and updates at johnjwink.com.