They Can Be Found Doing The Same Things In The Same Spots…
The more things are different, the more they are the same. Both smallmouth bass and walleye are unique species, but during the fall it’s amazing how often both species can be found doing the same things in the same spots.
When the lakes and rivers start to cool off in October, it’s a safe bet that fishing will heat up for both of these popular species. It’s also a safe bet that big minnows or baits that imitate minnows will end up producing the best action.
The big bait phenomenon is a fishing pattern I discovered more than two decades ago while fishing walleye. Today, I cash in on this tidbit of fall fishing knowledge not only with walleye, but also with a host of other species.
About the time the surface water cools to 50 degrees, predatory species the likes of walleye and smallmouth begin to target larger forage species and also to feed recklessly. If that sounds like a recipe for fishing success, it is.
How Are Walleye And Smallmouth The Same?
Walleye and smallmouth are similar in that each of these popular fish are often found near the bottom. Both smallmouth and walleye feed on similar forage species that are also bottom orientated. Walleye and smallmouth are both well adapted to living in clear or murky waters. It’s also true that both species are just as much at home on rock or gravel bottoms as they are in weed cover.
The ideal haunt for fall walleye and smallmouth are waters that combine these features. Lakes that have an abundant population of bottom living forage species like spottail shiners, gobies, crayfish or yellow perch tend to be the best fishing lakes.
How Are Smallmouth And Walleye Different?
Smallmouth on average tend to favor deeper water than walleye. How deep a smallmouth lives is in part determined by forage availability, but given the chance to live in deep water these fish are likely to turn up in 20-40 feet of water commonly, while walleye tend to favor water in the 10-30 foot range.
Because walleye favor shallow water, weed growth becomes a very important cover for this species all year long. Smallmouth are more likely to visit these weed beds early and late in the season. When the water cools in October, hungry smallmouth and walleye collide on the best weed beds.
A Word On Weed Beds
Not every weed bed is a fish magnet. Both smallmouth and walleye favor weed growth that’s rather sparse compared to largemouth bass. Thick carpets of weed growth provide forage fish too many places to hide. Instead, smallmouth and walleye favor weed beds that have some open water in the mix.
The ideal formula is about a 50/50 mix of weeds and open water. This provides adequate cover for minnows and other forage species, without hampering the hunting ability of smallmouth or walleye.
Some of the best aquatic weeds include common pond weed, smart weed and coontail. Depending on water clarity, these weeds grow commonly in water from about six to 15 feet deep. The deeper the weed growth occurs, the more smallmouth and walleye favor the spot.
Weed fishing in the fall can be red hot so long as anglers concentrate on the right weeds and at the right times. Unfortunately, fall weed fishing is a rather short lived experience. Walleye and smallies invade the weeds as soon as the water begins to cool in September. As daylight levels decrease weed growth slowly comes to an end. By the time a few hard killing frosts have occurred, aquatic weed growth is done and the leaves and stems start to die and turn brown.
This natural process starts the cycle of decomposition in motion. As plants begin to decay, they actually rob oxygen from the water. Also, dying plants reduce the amount of cover available for forage fish and game fish alike.
Usually by the mid November, a significant percentage of the rich green plant growth that attracts fish has been replaced with dead and dying plants fish tend to avoid. The end of September, all of October and early November are the best times to target weed fishing in the fall.
Live Bait Or Crankbaits?
The ever popular question about fishing is always the same. Should I use live bait or artificial lures? For fall fishing the answer is both. Live bait, particularly large minnows are very hard to beat for tempting both species. A spottail or emerald shiner in the 3-4 inch range is ideal. Suckers, chubs or dace minnows in the same size range can also be a good choice.
Expect to pay a premium for these larger minnows. Bait shops that carry them know the fish catching powers of larger minnows.
Jigs are a great way to work these minnows near bottom. My personal jig choice for fishing in weed cover is the Bait Rigs Slo-Poke. This unique jig features a modified stand up design and eye tie that comes out the nose of the jig. When the minnow is lip hooked, the bait can be casted into the weeds and worked back to the boat with amazingly few hang ups.
Technically, the Slo-Poke isn’t a weedless jig because it doesn’t have a weed guard, but it works so well in weed cover that I rarely fish anything else. The Slo-Poke has an oversized hook that is also handy when fishing larger minnow sizes.
A second option is to fish minnows on a slip sinker rig like the famous Lindy Rig. I recommend using a three foot leader of 10 pound test fluorocarbon line and a No. 1 beak style hook for fishing bigger minnows. A 3/8 to 1/2 ounce walking sinker is usually adequate for fishing in most weed beds.
Next to live minnows, a crankbait is without question the next best choice for targeting fall walleye and smallmouth. In weed cover using braided line is important when fishing crankbaits. When the bait contacts weed growth, snap the rod tip sharply and most of the time the crankbait will slice right through the weeds and keep fishing. Braid is thin and has next to no stretch, making it the ideal choice for this aggressive fishing style. A seven foot medium or medium heavy action spinning combination with 15-20 pound test braided line is a good choice for casting crankbaits in the weeds.
The crankbaits anglers typically throw for smallmouth are somewhat different than those used to tempt walleye. A few crankbaits have cross over powers that do a good job of catching both species.
The Salmo Hornet has become my go to bait for targeting smallmouth and walleye. This tear drop shaped bait has an aggressive wide wobble that excels best in warm to cool water.
When the water gets down right cold, more subtle action minnow baits like the classic Rapala Husky Jerk, Rebel, Fastrac, Salmo Sting and Reef Runner Ripstick are important lures. These floating lures have a modest diving depth. To increase the depth, pinch one, two or three split shot onto the line about 18 inches in front of the lure. This little trick can add another five feet to the lure’s running depth without changing the action.
No matter if you’re using a jig, live bait rig or a crankbait, weed fishing is contact fishing. It’s important to fish in and among the weed cover. If your lures or baits aren’t making frequent contact with the weeds, you’re not fishing where the fish are.
A good starting point is to position the boat along the deep water edge of the weeds and cast into the cover. If the weed growth is scattered, move the boat right up into the weeds and try to spot pockets among the weeds to throw at. This spot and stalk fishing tactic requires good sunglasses to help spot the weed cover below the water surface.
Summing It Up
Weed fishing is most commonly thought of as a spring and summer phenomena. The fact is, weeds are fish magnets well into the fall as well. The secret is to monitor the weeds and abandon them when they start to look more dead than alive.
The rule of thumb is simple, green is good when it comes to fishing weeds in the fall. The other good thing is that both smallmouth and walleye are likely to be using the same weed beds. A mixed bag of these two popular species is reason enough to extend your fishing this fall.