THE FALL BITE
Fall is a transitional time for walleyes. In September, lake waters are still relatively tepid, nudging almost summer-like temperatures especially early in the month and walleyes in many places are still deep gorging on clouds of shad or shadowing schools of smelt. Come October, when nights begin to cool, days get shorter and precipitation puts a chill in the air, walleyes sense a change and go on the move. They feed with more intensity, with more purpose, and in predictable locations. From November until ice up, the water temperatures are pretty uniform and walleyes will take advantage to roam and hunt. Much of their stalking is done in the skinny water often under the cover of darkness.
A fall walleye angler needs to keep an open mind. Pet tactics that worked all summer long may work for a while in the fall, but eventually you’re going to have to adapt. A jig will catch a walleye just about any month of the year, but how you use it and what you put on it will change come autumn.
Aggressive fish demand more aggressive tactics, but you can count on the fact that as fall progresses and things slow down your presentation should, too. In order to continually catch walleyes throughout the fall you need to be versatile. Early, it might be slabbin’ with spoons; later, live bait rigs, jigs or casting cranks may be the ticket and you may end up trolling to take advantage of the hottest bite. One of the secrets to taking advantage of the fall walleye bite is to keep an open mind and don’t be afraid to experiment.
A good slab spoon bite is in direct contrast to the more subtle, finesse techniques you’ll be required to use later in the fall, but when it’s hot, it can be one of the most exciting ways to catch Indian summer walleyes. “In September, I’d say were generally fishing 35 to 55 feet down,” shared Rob Rowland of Top Dog Guide
lakemactopdog.com). “When the walleyes are hot, you’ll find that they’ll feed three times a day-early, late and again at midday.” Rowland said that while slabbing is generally thought of as a late summer technique, you can catch walleyes on spoons right through November. And while slabbing is considered mainly a technique used on big reservoirs, the tactic is equally at home on deeper, larger natural lakes. Spoons, like a Crippled Herring, Fle Fly and Fergie Spoon aren’t the only baits that will work using a vertical technique. Rowland said that Cicadas and Sonics blade baits call fall walleyes from afar, especially in slightly shallower water. Super line is advised when slabbing for the increased sense of feel and lack of stretch and a med-heavy rod will help drive the hooks home. While many anglers see slabbing as a summer tactic, Rowland claims it will work right until ice-up.
Walleyes that have taken up residence in thick, vertical weeds throughout the summer have to move as fall arrives. Weeds begin to die as winter approaches, depleting the oxygen in the water and fish are forced to deeper water-temporarily. Baitfish flushed from the weeds relocate to the first available structure be it drop-offs, stumps, wind-swept points, gravel bars or reefs. For a time, this presents a bonanza for fall walleyes. Walleyes sense the migration and will position themselves to partake in the buffet. You can drift with live bait rigs, pitch or vertical jig or back troll when you find ‘eyes lying in wait. Look for spines and fingers that act as roadways leading to rock piles, humps, gravel bars or boulders in 10 to 15 feet of water in the main lake that baitfish will follow on their journey from shallow to deeper water when vacating the shallows and in reverse later in the fall when the shallows cool and become re-oxygenated.
During this transition period, if there’s a lot so of options as far as locations, it may take a little searching before you find the fish. Walleyes can be more difficult to find at this time of year because they’re concentrated, but once found can produce the best fishing of the year. A great tool for keeping track of the fall walleye bite is to keep a log. No two years are the same obviously. Weather patterns differ, water levels change, but being able to refer back to a log for locations, water temperature, dates, weather conditions, moon phase etc… can cut into the scouting time and help you put together a pattern.
Many times baitfish flushed from the weeds will just slip over the first drop-off to bide their time. A great way to target fall walleyes then is to stealth troll after dark. ‘Eyes will position at different locations along the drop-off depending on conditions. They might be right on top, along the slope or right along the base of the drop-off poised to intercept minnow schools traveling the lip, along the base or bait slipping over the edge. Most times the walleyes will be at a very specific depth, but will move up and down the contour throughout the night.
Using a bow-mounted trolling motor allows you to trace the contour in complete obscurity. Lines are let out using line-counter reels to very specific lengths to hug the contour. The idea is to cover all the bases until you hit on a hot depth. Lures hugging the lip can be fished clean, whereas a few strategically placed No. 7 split shot crimped on three or four feet above the lure will help it trace the contour, shadow bottom and allow it to ride slightly higher. Lines are let out different lengths depending on the depth you’re covering. Work up and down the contour, trolling slowly and quietly at 1.0 -1.2 mph. Big Husky Jerk Rapalas, Thundersticks and Rattlin’ Rogues interest the biggest fish. Be sure to keep noise to a minimum and lights off the water because the walleyes here are on edge, but you’ve got a chance of catching a pig.
After a few weeks, the migration reverses. The shallows begin to chill and fall winds and wave action mix and re-oxygenates the water, so walleyes can now go wherever they want, either shallow or deep. Baitfish though typically choose shallow, and walleyes will be right on their heels. Key is to locate still-green stands of cabbage, coontail and aquatic vegetation. Avoid anything that is beginning to brown. Walleyes may make daily migrations to the weeds at this stage or they might just take up residence. Key is locating the outside and inside edge of the weeds either using your eyes and polarized glasses or your electronics. Make note of the depth of water where the weeds end because that is likely to be the depth weeds disappear all around the lake. The weeds will host schools of perch, shiners and other baitfish and aquatic insects that will attract them.
Several techniques will work when fishing the weed edge. During the daylight hours, working the deepest edge at the base of the weeds can pay dividends. Slow trolling with a live bait or three-way rig can be tedious work, but can be productive when walleyes are semi-active during mid-day. Fall walleyes are looking for the most bang for their buck so larger suckers and chubs tend to get the most interest from trophy fish. If you’re looking for dinner, conventional-sized leeches, crawlers and minnows will catch walleyes, but this is definitely one time when the “big bait, big fish” theory applies if you’re looking for a wallhanger.
Jigs can be goods tools for probing the weed line, too. Casting parallel to the edge and using a swimming jig to glide or swim the bait along the edge can coax walleyes hiding in the weeds to dart out and intercept it. Schools of semi-active walleyes may take up residence in subtle nuisances in the weeds while waiting for darkness and better hunting conditions. Walleyes positioned in cups, inside bends and irregularities in the vegetation may not be actively hunting, but they’re not going to pass up an easy meal either. A great way for probing these more defined hotspots is with a slip bobber and a light jig that you can suspend, pull and hop in these concentration zones.
Walleyes may suspend above the weeds during the daylight hours when inclement weather and low light conditions prevail, when wave action riles waters or stained conditions restrict visibility. In clear water, walleyes will wait until after dark to stage at the dinner table above the weeds or move to the inside edge to herd schools of bait trapped between the shoreline and the weed line. Casting a body bait, like a floating Rapala or Rattlin’ Rogue, is a great way to tempt walleyes suspended above weeds. The idea is to work the lure with plenty of twitches, pauses and jerks to help walleyes locate your bait and eat. You may hear loud splashes from walleyes in water so shallow it barely covers their backs. Getting a boat into such skinny water without spooking edgy ‘eyes maybe next to impossible. A better option might be to don waders and use a stealthy approach to stalk the inside edge.
Shore-bound anglers have the edge when walleye move into patrol break walls, jetties and piers in the fall, too. The rocks and riprap along break walls are a big attraction for baitfish and fall spawning tulibee, menominee and whitefish. Jumbo ‘eyes will move in to take advantage of the bounty and anglers who have the patience and perseverance to endure cold conditions, long nights and monotonous spans of mindless casting can score big on trophy walleyes until ice up.
Current and moving water is always a big attraction for fall walleyes. Locations where streams and rivers enter lakes attract baitfish and can be a huge draw for autumn walleyes. Larger rivers are another place anglers can count on for consistent fall walleye action. River walleyes seem to feed all year long, but they become especially aggressive in the fall. Autumn also signals a slow, but steady progression by walleyes upstream. They’ll move upstream to places where dams or locks stop their movement and then drop down to winter in deeper pools and slack water areas. Key is to find edges that mark current breaks where walleye can rest out of the current, but be next to moving water that brings them food. You can drift, cast or vertical jig depending on the water depth. Fall participation usually triggers major runs of fish and runs of shad that will run into the swollen rivers.
As the water chills, a walleye’s metabolism slows and anglers need to fish slowly and deliberately to score. Whether using jigs and jumbo chubs, live bait rigs or when slow trolling big stick baits, a methodical, systematic approach works best when targeting autumn ‘eyes. You also have to be willing to brave fall’s worst conditions to have a chance of catching the biggest walleyes of the year.