For many anglers, fishing in the fall is a tough deal. Hunting season gets in the way for many outdoorsmen and women who only have a limited time to enjoy the outdoors. So for those who decided to pass on fall walleye to chase whitetails and ducks, take note… fall walleye fishing isn’t over until it’s over!
While the best of the duck and deer season may be over by December, some of the best walleye fishing of the year is just getting started. The last month of the year is prime time to find world-class walleye fishing opportunities on waters such as Saginaw Bay, Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie. It’s safe to say these fisheries amount to Michigan’s Big Three of walleye destinations.
It seems that the colder the air and the water gets, the more determined a walleye is to put on the feedbag! Despite the ice-cold water, trolling with crankbaits fished in combination with planer boards is the fast track to a limit of hefty fish.
You see, not only do the walleye bite great in cold water, but on average, December produces bigger fish than either October or November. So those outdoor enthusiasts who passed up October walleye to chase ducks and November walleye to target whitetails really haven’t missed out on a thing!
Think of December walleye fishing as a warm-up for ice fishing season! Break out the ice fishing clothing and get after some walleye before ice really does end the open water fun.
LATE SEASON CAUTIONS
Late season walleye trolling on the Great Lakes can offer up outstanding success, but the big ponds are nothing to mess with when the weather gets nasty. The combination of freezing weather and big waves can quickly add up to a life-threatening situation.
Use common sense when heading out for late season walleye. No walleye is worth exposing yourself to life-threatening weather and waves. Remember that hypothermia is real and it only takes a few minutes to lose consciousness should you end up in the water from a capsized or swamped boat.
Wearing a life jacket or flotation clothing is a must when offshore fishing late in the year. Striker Brands is one of the most popular manufacturers of outdoor clothing designed to float an angler that ends up in the water. While these garments are designed for ice fishing, the jackets and bibs contain enough foam flotation material to float an adult until help comes. To learn more, check out StrikerBrands.com.
Freezing conditions can also be challenging when it comes to keeping a fishing boat operational. If the decks become wet, rod lockers and live-well lids routinely freeze shut! At the end of a long day of fishing, prop open these lids to ensure they don’t freeze overnight and derail a fishing trip for the next day.
Drain all water from live-wells and lower the outboard after loading the boat to prevent water from being trapped in the lower unit. Those lucky enough to have a heated garage to store a boat will have no issues. The guy who stores his boat outside needs to take these special precautions.
Late in the year, ice forming on the launch ramps can create all sorts of problems for anglers. One way to keep this problem to a minimum is to stop and let the boat and trailer drain for a few minutes at the bottom of the ramp before pulling out. This keeps the water from completely icing up the ramp like a skating rink.
Carrying a little dry sand in a five-gallon bucket is also good insurance should the ramp become icy. Keeping some rock salt handy as a last resort is also a good investment in late season walleye fishing.
Saginaw Bay is the furthest north of Michigan’s Big Three walleye fisheries. Ice can form in December, but typically the Bay remains fishable until late December or early January when the public and private access sites finally freeze out.
Three crankbaits have dominated the walleye fishing on Saginaw Bay for several years. The Rapala Deep Husky Jerk 12, the Bandit Deep Walleye and the Berkley Flicker Minnow No. 9 are the three lures every walleye needs for fishing Saginaw Bay.
A few other cranks have their days on Saginaw Bay. The Rapala Deep Husky Jerk 14, the Reef Runner 800 series and the Yo-Zuri Deep Crystal Minnow series are all noteworthy cranks. A good selection of these half-dozen baits will ensure success on Saginaw Bay.
LAKE ST. CLAIR
Lake St. Clair is not one of the Great Lakes, but it does qualify as a Great Lakes Connecting Waterway. Sandwiched between Lake Huron and Lake Erie, this fishery has resident walleye and transient fish that come and go in search of emerald shiners, gizzard shad, young of the year perch and other important forage species.
Because water coming out of Lake Huron and the St. Clair River flows through Lake St. Clair, this fishery resists freezing until serious cold weather hits. It’s not uncommon for anglers who fish Lake St. Clair to have good fishing in December and January most years. In those years when we experience mild winter weather, Lake St. Clair continues to produce fish as long as the boat launches remain open.
The three crankbaits that do the most damage on Saginaw Bay, including the Deep Husky Jerk 12, Bandit Deep Walleye and Flicker Minnow 9, are also standards on St. Clair. In addition, many anglers find exceptional success fishing stickbaits such as the Rapala No. 13 Floating Minnow, the Smithwick Perfect 10 and the Rapala Husky Jerk No. 14.
Because jerkbaits do not dive very deep, they are most commonly fished in combination with an Off Shore Tackle Snap Weight to achieve the necessary depth. A trolling system popularized by the Precision Trolling Data phone app known as the 50 Plus 2 method provides accurate Dive Curves for most popular crankbaits fished in combination with a Snap Weight.
This highly refined system requires setting the desired crankbait behind the boat 50 feet and then placing the two-ounce Snap Weight on the line. Next, the angler consults the app to choose the desired target depth. Using the “Feet Down” picker wheel on the app, anglers can pick any depth the fish might be found. When the “Feet Down” number is selected, the app automatically spits out the required “Feet Back” number required to achieve that target depth.
Since the app calculates the total lead length, including the initial 50-foot lead, this trolling system is literally a no-brainer. In addition to providing “Feet Down” and “Feet Back” picker wheels, the 50 Plus 2 method allows anglers to select from a host of popular trolling speeds. Collectively this data is hands down the most accurate means of presenting crankbaits. Available for both Android and Apple phone platforms, to purchase the PTD app, visit the Google Play or Apple App Store and search Precision Trolling Data.
Both the Michigan and Ohio waters of Lake Erie offer world-class walleye trolling action in December and some years deep into January. The sheer size of Lake Erie helps to keep this fishery from freezing until bitter weather.
Fall walleye derbies conducted on Lake Erie in recent years have greatly increased the number of anglers who fish late into the season. These derbies, however, are wrapped up by the first week of December, leaving lots of time for anglers to enjoy some late-season walleye action without fighting crowds at the boat launches.
Anglers on Lake Erie are routinely catching fish on the Bandit Deep Walleye, Rapala Deep Husky Jerk and other popular crankbaits. This fishery, however, is the perfect place to experiment with some newcomers in the crankbait world.
The Bill Lewis Precise Walleye Crank (PWC) is a hybrid crankbait that includes some of the best features of the Husky Jerk, Bandit and Reef Runner. This bait also includes the signature Bill Lewis rattle that made the iconic Rat-L-Trap famous. Armed with premium wide bend and oversized treble hooks, the PWC comes out of the package ready to fish.
Available in 24 different fishy colors, the PWC will soon be a “must-have” walleye crank for anglers who fish Lake Erie and other Great Lakes walleye destinations.
SLOW AS YOU GO
Whether the destination is Saginaw Bay, Lake St. Clair or Lake Erie, the late season crankbait trolling game is best played at slow trolling speeds. Most anglers target an average trolling speed of 1.5 mph for late season walleye. On some days, it may be necessary to slow down to 1.0 mph, and on rare days when the fish are exceptionally active, trolling speeds can be ramped up to 2.0 mph.
Slow speeds are routinely necessary to trigger strikes in icy cold water. As a result, many anglers use their bow-mounted electric motor to handle these trolling chores.
In-line planer boards such as the popular Off Shore Tackle OR12 Side-Planer are invaluable for covering the maximum amount of water. While some complain about the cost of these boards, the truth is, once purchased, a set of Off Shore boards is going to perform flawlessly on the water for decades!
Compared to cheap imports that break or suffer from part failures after a few trips, Off Shore boards are made right in Michigan and represent a genuine bargain for those who are serious about fishing and quality equipment.
A SCENT STRATEGY
The later in the season, the more important it becomes to use natural scent products when targeting walleye with crankbaits. As the water temperature cools, the walleye’s metabolism slows down, and these fish are programmed to spend less energy chasing food.
Creating a scent stream in the water by using concentrated natural scent products, such as Pro Cure Super Gel, not only helps attract walleye but also makes them more likely to strike. These scent products are made by taking real baitfish and dehydrating them. Then the baitfish are ground into a powder and mixed with an emulsion that preserves the bait and forms a sticky gel that is easy to apply to hard baits. The finished gel generates a powerful scent stream in the water for up to 40 minutes between applications.
Walleye are predominately sight feeders, but they depend on their sense of smell to zero in on preferred forages. When a walleye sees a potential meal, it will be interested and investigated by getting closer. Upon getting closer, the fish detects a natural scent stream in the water; scent increases the chances of fooling that fish into striking. In short, if it looks good and smells like food, the chances of catching that fish increase dramatically.
When using scent products, it helps to choose scents made from forage types common to that body of water. For example, on Saginaw Bay, gizzard shad are attracted to the lower Bay and the Saginaw River in the fall, where the water remains a few degrees warmer than Saginaw Bay proper. During this transition, walleye start feeding heavily on these concentrations of gizzard shad. Using Gizzard Shad Super Gel on crankbaits helps fool walleye into thinking they are about to enjoy another meal.
The forage species that walleye favor varies from fishery to fishery. On Lake St. Clair, yellow perch are an important element in the walleye diet, so using a perch scent, such as Trophy Perch Super Gel, a scent made from yellow perch, becomes a powerful strike-triggering element.
Other good natural scent choices for fall walleye fishing include emerald shiner, smelt and Trophy Walleye, a scent created by using a mixture of common forage minnows.
SUMMING IT UP
Walleye fishing here in the Great Lakes State remains good much deeper into the year than many realize. Go ahead and get your licks in on ducks or deer because after those seasons are winding down, the open-water trolling opportunities for walleye will still be going strong.