One of the things that attract me to walleye fishing is the year-round season we enjoy on Great Lakes waters. I’m also pleased to report that the number of anglers chasing open water walleye into November and December has never been higher in Michigan.
When I first started chasing fall walleye over 30 years ago, it was rare to see fishing boat trailers in public access sites. This past fall on one particularly glorious day I estimated there were more than 100 rigs fishing the region of Saginaw Bay between the mouth of the Saginaw River and Linwood Beach Marina! My how times have changed.
Anglers might imagine that all that fishing pressure has hurt the fall fishery. Actually, I find the fishing better because there are more anglers on the water hunting for fish and ultimately sharing more information in the process.
Great Lakes walleye fishing is a little like trying to find a needle in a haystack. With so much water to explore, the only practical way to stay on fish is to communicate with groups of other anglers. The process of locating fish is a constant battle, but for open water trollers that’s also half the fun.
The Cold Water Mindset
To be consistently effective targeting walleye in the late fall an angler must adapt what I call the “cold water mindset.” In cold water the walleye lures of choice are crankbaits and this statement should not surprise anyone who spends much time walleye trolling.
The problem is that not all crankbaits are effective cold water fish catchers. When surface water temperatures dip below 50 degrees, the baits and trolling speeds these fish find appealing narrows considerably.
Cold water trolling favors two specific types of crankbaits commonly categorized as minnow divers and stickbaits. In the minnow diving category there are dozens of baits to choose from, but routinely the list of baits that produce fish consistently becomes an amazingly short list.
The minnow divers I find productive on cold water walleye include the Rapala Deep Husky Jerk 12, the Rebel Spoonbill D20, which unfortunately is discontinued, the Reef Runner 800 and 600 series lures, the original Storm Deep Jr. ThunderStick and Yo-Zuri’s Crystal Minnow Deep Diver. Newcomers to this category that are showing promise include the Smithwick Top 20, Bagley Bang-O-Lure, Bay Rat Lures and Berkley Flicker Minnows.
In the stickbait category my “go to” baits include the Rapala Husky Jerk 14, Rapala No. 18 Floating Minnow, Yo-Zuri 5.5 Crystal Minnow, Smithwick Perfect 10 and Storm ThunderStick.
Other stickbaits worth owning include the Strike King KVD J300, Salmo Sting 11 and Reef Runner Ripstick 700 series.
All of these lures have in common a subtle action at slower trolling speeds. In cold water conditions, trolling speeds ranging from 1.5 to about 1.0 MPH are the norm. Lots of lures simply have little or no action at these speeds, while the above list have what is best described as a subtle “top to bottom” rolling style action. These lures rock back and forth giving off subdued flashes of light from the lure flanks. This same group of lures has a less pronounced “side to side” tail wobble.
The minnow divers have a subtle action, but it’s the stickbaits that really slow things down. The bite is usually very good on minnow divers right up until the water temperature dips below 40 degrees. Late in the season when the water is brutal cold, it’s the stickbait and that ultra-subtle action that tends to produce best day in and day out.
Getting To Depth
Minnow divers have a pronounced “dive curve” and most of these baits easily achieve depths ranging from 15 to about 30 feet using normal trolling leads. The Android and iPhone apps produced by Precision Trolling Data, LLC are considered the landmark guide for determining the diving depths of all popular crankbaits. This data is available for sale at both the Google Play and iTunes app stores respectively.
Stickbaits on the other hand have less ability to dive naturally and must be fished with various weighted lines and trolling weights to get these lures to target depths. Two common trolling tactics are used to get stickbaits to depth including lead core line and snap weights.
Lead core line is a sinking line that is most commonly rigged as a segment of lead core sandwiched between a monofilament backing and fluorocarbon leader. The Precision Trolling Data apps offer invaluable lead core/crankbait diving data for 18-pound test lead core in combination with some of the most popular walleye baits including the Smithwick Perfect 10, Rapala Husky Jerk 14, Rapala Deep Husky Jerk 12, Berkley Flicker Minnow 11 and Reef Runner 800 series baits.
Snap Weights, a clip-on weight system produced by Off Shore Tackle Company, is another common way anglers get extra depth from stickbaits. The most typical way anglers fish Snap Weights is by letting out a desired crankbait 50 feet and then placing a Snap Weight on the line and playing out another 50 feet of lead. By varying the sinker size attached to the Snap Weight clip, anglers can easily fish stickbaits down 15 to 40 feet.
Off Shore Tackle sells a kit of Snap Weights called the Pro Weight System that comes with four clips and an assortment of “guppy weights” ranging in size from 1/2 ounce to three ounces. The clips and guppy weights are also sold separately.
Boards Complete The Deal
Open water walleye trolling with crankbaits is a game played using planer boards. Late in the season when trolling speeds are typically slow, slower and slowest, the in-line planer board is the clear choice for spreading out lines and gaining extra lure coverage.
Again, it’s Off Shore Tackle that leads the charge here with their Side-Planer Board. This board comes factory equipped with a heavy tension OR19 release on the tow arm and an OR16 Snap Weight Clip on the back of the board. This configuration allows anglers to release the line from the tow arm when a fish strikes, tripping the board while at the same time keeping the board firmly attached to the line via the OR16 Snap Weight
Tripping the board in this manner stops the board from planing to the side and allows a fish hooked on an outside line to be fought and landed without having to clear any other lines in the trolling pattern. The ability to trip the board is also handy when it’s time to switch out a crankbait for a different lure or to change lead lengths.
Simply trip the board, then let the board slide back to the back of the boat before reeling it up. It only takes a few seconds for a tripped board to slip past other lines, making it easy to switch out lures without having to clear a bunch of lines in the process.
More Reasons To Trip Boards
Another less understood reason why savvy anglers prefer to trip their in-line boards plays to keeping hooked fish buttoned up. When a fish bites and the board is not rigged to release, the angler must reel in the board and fish together. The board continues to try and plane out to the side so there is considerable resistance being felt by both the angler and the fish. A hooked fish can use this resistance to put significant leverage on the lure and potentially tear loose.
When the board is rigged to release, yet stay on the line, a hooked fish experiences far less resistance, the reel drag functions normally and it’s far more difficult for that fish to shake the hook.
A standard set up for trolling crankbaits on Saginaw Bay or Lake Erie late in the season involves running three board lines per side of the boat. Establishing a six rod spread only requires two anglers in Michigan waters and three anglers when fishing in Ohio waters.
Summing It Up
The late season crankbait bite for walleye gets heated up by late October and lasts right up until ice puts an end to the fun. For places like Saginaw Bay that means anglers can typically fish right up into early December. A little further south on Lake Erie, late season walleye trollers are often boating fish right up to Christmas. Now that’s a pretty cool Christmas gift.