As we head into fall, many guys are anxious to get their boats winterized and put up for the season. It’s understandable, I guess. Most of us are hunters, too, and everything is happening by October; grouse and woodcock seasons are in swing, pheasant season will be opening soon, duck season–depending on where you live in the state–is either open or soon to be, and, of course, bow season for deer opens Oct. 1. Lots of guys would be just as happy to spend every day up until the gun opener (Nov. 15) up in a treestand. Fishing is off their minds.
And that’s too bad because fall offers some of the best walleye fishing to be had on the inland lakes across Michigan and excellent fishing in Great Lakes waters as well. I love it, and although I’m a hunter, I always make time to fish in the fall for two reasons. For one, the water is cooling off, and the fish are strapping on the feedbag–walleyes, and other predators, are more active as the water cools down from the summer dog days–in preparation for winter. But just a significant is the fact that walleyes are fairly easy to find and pattern in the fall. Mix a willingness to bite with an ability to find ‘em, and you have a prescription for excellent fishing.
I basically follow two scripts for fall fishing, depending on whether I’m fishing inland or on the Great Lakes. Because I’ve been spending my falls on the Keweenaw Peninsula for the last several years, I pretty much concentrate on the inland lakes of the northern Upper Peninsula, which offer very good walleye fishing if, for no other reason, they haven’t been pounded every day in this sparsely populated portion of the state. It’s not like Saginaw Bay or Lake Erie or even Little Bay de Noc, where there are a lot more people–and the reputation of these fisheries is national in scope.
When fishing in inland lakes, I look for the sharpest-dropping break lines I can find. If you are familiar with the lakes you’re fishing, you probably already know where to start. But if you’re trying a new lake, get your Navionics map out, and that’s all you have to look for – the steepest drops you can find.
The fish have been out in deep water during the summer, so the first place they stop on the way back in towards the shallows is at the drop-off. That’s where they feed–they pin the baitfish up against the drop–and if you keep going from steep break to steep break, eventually, you’re going to find a pot of fish. There will be more than one or two of these break lines, and there will not be fish everywhere you look, but there will be a bunch of them somewhere on one of those break lines. Just keep going until you find them.
The steepest drops that go to the deepest part of the lake is where you want to look first. That gives them access to deep water for escape, and they feed when they push the bait up to the bottom of the break.
You can fish them a variety of ways, but I generally use one of two presentations–I jig them with a minnow trailer, or I use a live bait rig to troll along the break line.
In either case, I like to use large minnows, as big as you can get, four or five inches if you can get them. Always hook them through the top lip. If you hook a big minnow through both lips, you’ll miss a lot of bites because you have to move the hook that much farther to penetrate the walleye’s jaw.
Use a large hook with a large minnow. I like a size 2 hook. I like red ones. And I like Daiichi hooks. They’re sharp as razors and have a little claw that holds the fish. I started using them years ago with leeches when I first discovered them, and once you get the hook set, the fish rarely come off. Those hooks stay where they’re supposed to. Some people think hooks are hooks. They’re not. Hooks are not all created equal. Little details pay off in fishing.
Fishing the Great Lakes is a little different in the fall. In the Great Lakes, the fish are likely to be suspended. So when you’re cruising around, instead of looking for drop-offs, look for pods of bait fish, which will also be suspended. Finding bait pods is easy, but seeing predator fish on the sonar isn’t easy. You’re moving pretty fast, and to see the arcs they make, you have to be moving slowly, two miles per hour or so.
What I see moving at a good clip is a little dot. When you’re moving fast, those fish appear like a pencil point on white paper. And often, you’ll mark them on the bottom. You rarely catch them on the bottom. They’re down there lying around. They’ll come up to get bait, but they’ll go right back down. So fish at the depth that the bait is suspended.
I discovered this by accident on Lake Erie. The first time I figured it out, I was using bottom bouncers and spinners and not doing much when I caught one. But I had to do something in the boat, so I set the rod in the rod holder and let out some line with no board. I went about my business–I doubt my bait was down 20 feet in 30-some feet of water–and I noticed the rod bent like it had something on it that was going to China. I caught it. So I did it again and caught another one. And another one. We just kept doing it, and the next thing you knew, we were culling.
You want to run your bait at the depth the bait is at. Don’t be surprised if you’re fishing 12 feet down in 35 feet of water. You can often tell the fish are deep–they go belly up in the live well. That’s from running up to grab a baitfish. That’s when you know not to fish for the fish on the bottom. Concentrate on the high fish. It took me a long time to figure this out. We all fished the bottom–the fish you could see. The ones you can’t see are up high, and that’s where they’re feeding.
This works in the summer, too, but it works especially well in the fall.
If you see pods of bait fish, troll all around them. I like crankbaits and try to keep it right at the bait’s depth, but keep the boat away from them. This is critical in clear water. You might want to run your planer boards 200 feet off your boat to keep from spooking the bait.