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BRAD DOKKEN: The day I caught a 'blue walleye'

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I’d heard of “blue walleyes” but had never seen one of the remarkably colored fish until last week. …

When I caught one.

I was fishing with Andy Datko of Gilbert, Minn.; Jon Penheiter of Rosemount, Minn.; and Bob Lessard of St. Paul on a small, remote lake north of Fort Frances, Ont., when I caught the bluish-colored walleye.

A retired Minnesota state senator known for his efforts to protect and promote outdoors causes, Lessard owns a camp on nearby Trout Lake, and the lake we were fishing is accessible by portage.

It’s also known for producing a few of the uniquely blue-colored walleyes, and we were hoping to see one during a short excursion.

We’d boated about 40 walleyes, all the traditional blackish-gold color, when I hooked the fish. It bit just like any other walleye and fought just like any other walleye. It just looked different, with striking blue fins, swatches of blue on the cheeks and even a hint of blue in the eyes.

I later did some searching online and came across a plethora of information about blue walleyes, including a website called

According to the website, the true genetic strain of blue walleye once thrived in the Great Lakes Region, especially Lake Erie, Lake Ontario and the Niagara River, but began dwindling in abundance with the introduction of rainbow smelt to the region.

Coupled with overfishing, the website said, the blue walleye subspecies was considered extinct by the 1980s.

Despite that claim, walleyes such as the bluish-colored specimen I caught last week in Ontario are found in numerous lakes in Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba, the website said, and also have been caught in northern Michigan and Minnesota.

Citing research by Wayne Schaefer, a biologist at the University of Wisconsin, the website explained the blue color of more recent walleye catches as caused by “a lack of yellow pigment in the skin of the fish and the presence of blue pigment in the skin mucous.”

Schaefer’s research also found a protein called “sandercyanin” in the pigment of the blue fish.

Walleyes vary in color from one body of water to the next. Walleyes from the Red River, for example, tend to be pale, a coloring I attribute to the turbid water. Walleyes from Devils Lake and Lake of the Woods, by comparison, are yellowish-gold, while walleyes from Rainy Lake are blackish-gold with yellow bellies, a striking contrast to Lake of the Woods fish, even though they swim in the same watershed.

Lower reaches of the Red River and Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba are famous for their “greenback” walleyes, a coloration I’ve heard explained as being caused by Lake Winnipeg’s limestone base.

Whether the fish I caught last week on a tiny lake in northwestern Ontario was a genuine “blue walleye” or just a regular walleye lacking the traditional yellow pigment is impossible to determine without genetic testing. And since I released the fish after a couple of photos, testing wasn’t an option.

The skeptic in me leans toward the lack of yellow pigment explanation, but either way, the bluish-colored fish I caught last week was unlike any walleye I’ve ever seen and ranks among my more memorable catches.

That’s good enough for me. I’ll leave the debate to the scientists.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1148; or send email to

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is editor of the Herald's Northland Outdoors section and also works as a copy editor and page designer. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998. He also writes a blog called Compass Points. A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

(701) 780-1148