What Do Walleye Eat – Favorite Foods in Their Diet & Best Baits

Walleye are one of the most prized freshwater sportfish in North America and they can be tricky to catch. But, if you know what walleye like to eat in their natural habitat and how their feeding habits change, then catching walleye becomes a lot easier.

So, what do walleye eat?

The majority of a walleye’s diet consists of small fish including minnows, shad, yellow perch, small trout, bluegill, small crappies, small bass, and any other small fish they can get their hands on. But, they also love crayfish, worms, insects, leeches and more.

There is a lot more to understand what walleye eat than this though, especially if you want to be a more successful walleye angler. They are by no means fussy eaters but they can be particular, let’s find out how.

What do Walleye Eat – a List of Favorite Foods what Walleye Like to Eat

Before we dive into the details of what walleye eat, when, and why, let’s first make a list of the things they do eat.

  • Minnows
  • Tadpoles
  • Zooplankton
  • Nymphs
  • Flying Insects
  • Crayfish
  • Worms
  • Leeches
  • Yellow Perch
  • Shad
  • Shiners
  • Suckers
  • Small Trout
  • Small Bass
  • Small Walleye
  • Small Bluegill
  • Small Crappies
  • Smelt
  • Cisco
  • Whitefish
  • Redtail Chubb
  • Snails
  • Frogs
  • Salamanders

As you can see, the list of what walleye do eat is very long and working out what they are eating on any given day is key to being able to catch them. But that isn’t so easy.

Generally speaking, walleye and most predatory fish species eat whatever is easiest for them to catch, and this is usually what is most abundant at the time.

This means their diet changes with the seasons as different prey species become more abundant in each one.

walleye being pulled to a fishing boat after being hooked

What do Walleye Eat by the Season

A walleye’s diet changes by the season and understanding how means you will be able to catch them in winter, spring, summer, and fall.

Let’s take a deeper look at each season in regards to walleye behavior and how their feeding choices change.

What do Walleye Eat in the Summer

In the summer, the water temperatures rise and the amount of light entering the water increases dramatically.

Walleye are better hunters in low light conditions and prefer cooler water, therefore in summer they sit in deeper water of close to 40 or 50 feet.

While sitting deep they will be hunting mainly on smelt, cisco, shiners, and whitefish, plus any other bait fish that lurk at these depths like shad.

What do Walleye Eat in the Fall

In the fall, water temperatures cool down from the summer warmth and the walleye rise in the water column to shallower areas. This makes them more active, and they will have sensed the water temperature change and will know winter is coming.

This sparks aggression in the walleye as they know they need to put on a lot of weight to survive the winter.

The walleyes will start chasing and eating all the bait fish they can find from shiners to shad. If it is small enough and they can catch it, they will eat it.

This is also the time of year when small bait fish are in most abundance since they have all just spawned over spring and summer.

What do Walleye Eat in the Winter

In the winter, the walleye have to deal with very cold water temperatures and therefore run to the depths to find warmer waters.

Their metabolism also drops so they don’t need to eat as much, and they are less aggressive since they are using a lot of energy to maintain their body temperatures.

But, walleye still have to eat in winter and will focus on easy meals from the bottom like blood worms. Other preferred prey species like minnows and shiners will be in short supply but they will eat them if they happen to swim close by.

the huge walleye and tackle for fishing on the ice

What do Walleye Eat in the Spring

Walleye spawn in early spring, so they strap on the feedbag just before this happens, and once they are done spawning too. This makes spring one of the best times to fish for walleye as they are very hungry, aggressive, and the water temperature is ideal for them to feed in the shallows.

Walleye will be looking for any bait fish they can fit in their mouths, particularly yellow perch and shiners as these are the most abundant in spring. Crayfish are also very abundant at this time of year and the walleye will be eating a lot of these as well.

The walleye will move into shallow bays with weedy areas and cover to ambush the crayfish and bait fish that take refuge inside them.

How do Seasons Affect Walleye Feeding Habits?

As you can see, walleye change their feeding behaviors with the season and this is down to three different things: water temperature, spawning, and what is most abundant at the time.

When the water gets too warm or too cold, the walleye slow down their feeding in order to conserve energy to maintain their body temperatures. They also move to deeper water to find more comfortable water temperatures.

Before and after spawning, the walleye are hungry and aggressive. This is to ensure they have eaten enough food to spawn successfully and to replace the spent energy post-spawn.

With all the different seasons, comes different abundant prey species. This changes from spring where crayfish and bait fish are most abundant, to summer and fall where bait fish reign, and winter when blood worms are most abundant.

Walleye caught on summer day with fishing lure from boat

What do Walleye Like to Eat the Most?

What walleye like to eat the most depends on their age. Small walleye have to eat what is most abundant at the time as they are not skilled enough to eat anything else yet.

What is abundant, like shiners and perch, may not be what they prefer overall, but it is better to eat them to survive than die.

Once walleye grow to larger sizes they begin to target what they prefer to eat instead of eating what is most abundant. Their preferred food is usually soft-rayed fish like smelt and herring.

What are the Best Baits for Walleye?

Live bait and dead bait are very effective ways of catching walleye. The best live baits are whatever is most abundant in the system at the time and this is usually small fish.

Be sure to catch your live baits or dead baits in the water you intend to fish, as the most abundant fish will be the easiest baits to catch. Think yellow perch, shiners, small suckers, chub and crayfish.

Other excellent live baits are worms and leeches. When wriggling on a hook and fished at the right depth, a walleye simply can’t resist them.

All these baits can be fished on the drift, under a bobber, or on weight when fishing deeper to amazing effect!

walleye fishing with lure at sunset

What are the Best Lures for Walleye Fishing?

There are lots of different lures, hundreds and hundreds, that will work well for walleye. It would be too much to list each individual one, so instead we are going to focus on the categories of lures that walleye like best.

Soft Plastics

Soft plastics are bendy rubber molds of fish, worms, and grubs that you slide onto a hook. They look incredibly life-like, and you can find them in a range of colors from natural to bright and dark.

Soft plastics can also be fished on jig head hooks that come in a range of weights. This adds weight to the lure allowing you to fish them at various different depths.

The jig head also creates an excellent action with a pause and stop retrieve as the lure changes depths and looks like an injured fish! Walleye can’t resist this action and will attack the lure almost every time.


Jigs are the hard version of soft plastics. In a nutshell, jigs are a jig head hook with a skirt around them. The weighted jig heads allow you to fish different depths, create the deadly pause action, and the skirt pulses on the retrieve all of which walleye love.

The key with jigs is matching the size to what the walleye are feeding on and getting the right weight for the depth you want to fish at.


Ah, spinners, they have been around for decades and they are still very effective. They have a spinning blade attached to a shiny metal shaft. As you wind the lure in, the blade spins making noise in the water and reflecting light, both of which attract walleye from afar.

You can also use spinner blades in conjunction with dead nightcrawlers (worms). Attach the spinner blade to the top of a double hook rig and add your nightcrawler. The combination of the spinning blade, scent, look, and action makes this a deadly walleye rig.

Jerkbaits & Crankbaits

If you are wondering what jerkbaits and crankbaits are, they are just rapala style lures. They are made from painted plastic, mimic fish, and come with a clear plastic lip.

The lip catches the water causing the crankbait or jerkbait to dive to a particular depth and wiggle when you reel it in. This creates a fantastic action that looks like a fleeing bait fish and walleye love to attack them.

You can cast them from a boat or use them as trolling lures.

Jerkbaits are more suited to fishing in shallow areas while crankbaits dive deeper and suit deep water better. You should also buy these lures in a range of colors and different diving depths so you have one for every occasion.

Sizes, Colors, and Weights of Lures

When buying lures for your walleye tackle box you need to have a range of different sizes, colors, and weights of lures.

Different weighted lures are very important as they allow you to fish at different depths, matching where the walleye are holding. This allows you to fish through the seasons very successfully.

A range of sizes is very important too so that you can match the size of the most abundant prey at each time of year. Some big lures are also handy for when you want to target some great trophy walleye.

When buying your lures, be sure to buy some natural, bright, and dark-colored lures. Natural lures are excellent for when the water is clear as they look like the prey the walleye are after.

Dark colors are great on dark days as their silhouette stands out more. Bright and dark lures are also very effective when the water is muddy as it makes your lures easier to see.

big walleye in hands of fisherman


What do walleye eat at night?

Walleye eat the same things at night that they do in the day. But, at night their vision isn’t so great so they are not as effective at feeding.

Live bait is the best bait choice for walleye night fishing as the smell and movement combine to make your bait easier for the walleye to find.

Also, walleye tend to feed in shallow water at night so be sure to be throwing your bait close to the shore and in shallow bays.

Are walleye top or bottom feeders?

Walleye are generally bottom feeders but they do change their depths from shallow to deeper areas depending on the season and the conditions.

But, walleye do not spend all their time feeding on the bottom, as they will actively feed in the middle of the water column too. Walleye love to sit suspended over a drop off and eat the bait fish that swim past.

How much do walleye eat?

Walleye do not have a mechanism that tells them to stop eating because they are full, which means they simply continue to eat so long as there is food around.

This is handy, as walleye never actually stop growing meaning their food is always used and they don’t get too fat.

How often does a walleye eat?

Considering that walleye don’t ever get full, they never stop eating. They will feed at all hours of the day or night, so long as there is something to feed on.

Do walleye eat bluegill?

Yes, walleye love to eat bluegill and will eat them all year round. In fall, they will eat bluegill almost exclusively as they try to put on weight for winter. Bluegill are the most abundant prey in the water.

Do walleye eat worms?

Yes, walleye love to eat worms. Considering they are bottom feeders, worms are high on their menu and they are a very effective bait for catching walleye in every season.

What do baby walleye eat?

Baby walleye start out their lives eating tiny zooplankton as this is all they can fit in their mouths at this stage. They then move on to small nymphs, insects, and small worms.

Once they are large enough, tiny minnows come on the menu and eventually all bait fish, worms, leeches, and crustaceans.

Do walleye eat other smaller walleye?

Yes, walleye will happily eat smaller walleye. They do not differentiate from one small fish in front of them to another, they simply eat them so long as they fit in their mouths.

How big of a fish can walleye eat?

A walleye can manage to eat a fish up to ⅓ of its size and they seem to prefer to go for larger prey items rather than small ones. This means that when fishing for walleye, using bigger baits is going to catch bigger fish.

What time of day do walleye prefer to hunt?

Walleye have excellent eyesight in low-light conditions and they use this to their advantage as their prey depends on bright light to see well.

This means that cloudy days and the hours around sunset and sunrise are the best times of day to fish for walleye as this is when they will be most actively feeding.

How do walleye hunt?

Walleye are ambush predators and therefore they like to hang around drop-offs, weed beds, overhangs, rock piles, and sunken trees. They lurk here until their prey swims past and aggressively ambush and inhale them out of nowhere.

But, they don’t behave like ambush predators all the time. Sometimes they will also sit in suspended water chasing schools of small bait fish.

Winding Up

There you have it, everything you need to know about what walleye eat, when, and why. You can use all this knowledge to your advantage to fish with the right lures, at the right depth, at the right time of year and catch more walleye than ever, hopefully.

If you have any questions or want to share any walleye stories of your own, please leave us a comment in the box below. We would love to hear from you!

Bob Hoffmann

The author of this post is Bob Hoffmann. Bob has spend most of his childhood fishing with his father and now share all his knowledge with other anglers. Feel free to leave a comment below.

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