Patterns for Great Lakes Fall Walleyes
July 31, 2011
As water temperatures cool, Great Lakes fall walleyes exhibit distinct inshore movements, following migratory baitfish like shad, ciscoes, and smelt into bays, harbors, rivers and connected lakes. This seasonal migration brings millions of the largest walleyes on Earth within easy reach of millions of anglers. Surprisingly few fishermen take advantage of this late-fall bounty, despite fishing locations being accessible by small boat, and in many cases, to anglers walking piers and breakwaters, casting from shore at night.
Cold, wind, rain, snow, and sleet can, however, make this fishing an endurance contest. It's enough to scare off the timid, even though anglers suffering from cabin fever likely will launch their boats in similar or worse conditions the following spring.
Nice thing about these patterns, however, is that they occur in confined sections of big water, such as large bays, and in relatively sheltered areas adjacent to the big lake, greatly reducing exposure to the whims of nature. Weather can still be nasty, however, so be prepared. Yet also prepare for some of the biggest bites of your life, because the odds are high for catching big walleyes running a fall gauntlet. When preparation meets such a wealth of opportunity, all you need is a little cooperation from the weather.
This article highlights primary locational patterns for Great Lakes walleyes, paying particular attention to untapped weed patterns in large bays and connected lakes. Depending on local circumstances, one or more trophy patterns may exist near you.
Basin Patterns -- As walleyes migrate toward bay areas, schools filter into and collect within the basins of large bays, following the movements of suspended forage. The best areas typically range between about 30 and 50 feet deep -- sufficiently deep to hold walleyes during the day, even in clear water. Schools continually are on the move, though generalized areas may tend to be productive.
Weave across the basins of bays, searching with electronics for the presence of suspended baitfish or large gamefish. Once the fish are located, troll open-water sections with minnow-imitating crankbaits, attaching snap weights to the lines ahead of the lures to reach the target depth level. Run multiple lines, using planer boards to spread lines and lures to the sides of the boat to minimize spooking.
Most basin fishing is done during the day, with walleyes ranging anywhere from on or near bottom, to suspended at midlevels. Fewer anglers troll open water at night, though it can be quite productive. In general, walleyes tend to move closer to shore and suspend higher at night, often near river mouths.
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Structure Patterns -- Classic structure patterns apply whenever schools of walleyes encounter midbay humps, long rock points, or other prominent features that intercept and hold fish. Note on your electronics the presence of suspended baitfish along steep breaks adjacent to primary structures -- a tipoff that walleyes may be in the area.
During the day in fall, walleyes often lie along the deep edges of drop-offs, where the hard bottom of the drop-off adjoins the soft basin. Livebait rigging with large chubs or shiners, vertically jigging jig and minnow combos, and vertically ripping and fluttering bladebaits or jigging spoons are top prospects. At night, walleyes may move shallower, up to the top lip of the primary drop-off, perhaps penetrating weedbeds, moving to shoreline structures, or moving up into shallow current areas.
Weed Patterns -- The least known and most underused Great Lakes fall walleye patterns incorporate longline trolling above weedbeds at night. Under cover of darkness, walleyes may switch from a suspended or structural-edge lifestyle to one of penetrating shallow weedbeds, cruising along or above the weedtops in search of forage. This commonly occurs along the shores of inner bays or connected lakes, where expansive shoreline flats host tall standing cabbage weedgrowth.
Weedbeds may run for hundreds of yards, then dissipate, sprouting up again in earnest a half mile farther downshore. On a lake map, note expanses of 6- to 15-foot shoreline shelves which can indicate the potential for substantial weedgrowth. The only sure way to tell if weeds are present, however, is to go out and look for them, either visually or by casting or trolling likely depths.
In fall, big pike often relate to turns and projections in outside weedlines during the day, particularly where the healthiest remaining stands of green weedgrowth abut steep drop-offs to deep water, and where an inside turn in the weedline occurs. Pike may be active along the weedline rim all day. Walleyes most likely will prowl deep weededges in late evening and early morning, following suspended baitfish in toward the edge before moving atop weedbeds at night.
While walleyes and pike may be found together, they're more likely separated somewhat along the edge, even if only by 50 yards. If pike are relating to a weedy inside corner, for example, walleyes might be on the next adjacent minor point, perhaps relating to an area of harder bottom projecting outward from the weedbed -- a good smallmouth spot, too. Both species are there due to the presence of forage, just relating to it slightly differently. Particularly good are weedlines and structures along the windy side of the lake, where suspended baitfish tend to be pushed or drawn closer to shoreline drop-offs.
When walleyes are using the outer edges of weedbeds, try livebait rigging a large 4- to 8-inch chub along the edge, slithering it in and out of the sparse outer rim. Hover and rework sections where you spot large fish on electronics, either lying along bottom, or where you see schools of suspended baitfish hovering just outside the weededge. For pike, toss standup jigheads tipped with large chubs into the outer rim, letting them fall to rest on stalks before imparting a wrist flick to rip and scoot the jig back out to the outer edge, before plummeting down the weededge. Add a thin wire leader if significant numbers of pike are present.
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At night, slowly longline troll a minnow-imitating crankbait back and forth across the tops of expansive weedbeds, noting which sections, depth levels, or other features tend to cluster walleyes in limited areas. A difference in weed type, depth, or density; the presence of a creek mouth; rocky shoreline structure; or some other factor may congregate fish in limited areas. If potential areas are small enough, fancast lures across weed tops, using you electric motor to silently creep across the weedbed, casting ahead of the boat.
Some large bays, such as Little Bay de Noc and Saginaw Bay, Michigan, feature significant daytime weed walleye fisheries in addition to other major patterns. Other bays are too large and deep to support many weeds. Small lakes connected to the big water by rivers host seasonal visitors that penetrate the weeds at times, particularly at night.
Shallow Manmade or Natural Structures -- Slab piles, riprap, concrete or rock breakwaters, wood pilings, and numerous other manmade objects provide cover options, in addition to natural fish attractors like rock shorelines. Such areas tend to be too shallow to attract fish during the day due to clear water, but under cover of darkness, walleyes may penetrate the shallows and relate to prominent shoreline features, providing they don't have to cross expansive, shallow, featureless flats to reach them. Proximity to deep water generally enhances the productivity of shoreline cover.
Cruise along shore, using your electric motor to position the boat within casting distance of fish-attracting cover. Cast either crankbaits or jigs tipped with plastic tails, bouncing your lures off cover. Use fairly steady retrieves with cranks; lift-drops with jigs.
Breakwaters and Piers -- Concrete and riprap structures projecting into the lake are natural collection points for walleyes at night. Walk out to the ends of piers after sundown and cast a large diving crankbait out into the darkness. Most piers reach fairly deep water, so use lures that dive substantially -- perhaps 10 feet -- rather than a shallow-diving minnow imitator that runs only a foot or two beneath the surface.
Cast a few minutes in one location, then move on to other sections. Key spots occur anywhere a bend or irregularity in pier construction occurs. Particularly good are areas where wind pounds into the wall, or where river current enters the lake, drawing fish through a narrow channel and up into the river.
Piers, breakwalls, and river mouth entrances offer ideal conditions for longline trolling minnow imitators at night, providing other anglers aren't already casting from shore into the same water. Make your initial passes tight to walls or rocks, pointing your rod tip right at the wall and trolling just fast enough to wiggle a shallow-running lure. On subsequent trolling passes, use deeper-diving lures.
Rivers -- Walleyes moving up into rivers at night run a narrow gauntlet past shorecasters and trollers clustered near river mouths. Harbor entrances are particularly good ambush points for intercepting waves of large fish. When you're longline trolling, moving into the current tends to be best. While current normally flows out into the lake, strong onshore winds can temporarily reverse current flow at the mouth. Adjust your presentation to current speed and direction.
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Should walleyes move farther upcurrent, either into a fairly large and deep river or traverse a smaller river to reach a connected lake, they at least temporarily display classic river patterns. They hold in deep holes at river bends or along current breaks formed by natural or manmade structures. Vertically jig a jig and minnow combo, slowly slipping downstream as you bounce the jig on and off bottom.
Connected Waters -- Small lakes connected to the Great Lakes via a river often host seasonal migrations of walleyes, with peak fishing opportunities in spring and fall. Fish them as you'd fish an inland body of water, with a few key subtleties in mind: (1) Walleyes can be much larger and more numerous than in inland waters, so gear up with bigger lures and livebaits. (2) Expect a variety of patterns to occur simultaneously, due to the numbers of fish present. (3) If the water is clear, which many such areas are, expect significant suspension in the basin during the day, favoring open-water trolling as a primary pattern, plus secondary structural-edge and weedline patterns. These are big fish accustomed to suspending in clear water. They're reluctant to move shallow unless conditions are opportune. (4) At night, when walleyes penetrate the shallows, try longline trolling or fancasting with large minnow-imitating crankbaits like #13 or #18 Rapalas, Storm ThunderSticks, and Super Rogues. (5) If the water is dingy or discolored by river runoff or natural stain, expect shallower patterns to predominate during the day.
Early fall trips to Great Lakes bays often produce good mixed species fishing for walleyes, pike, and smallmouth bass, with the accent on catching summer resident fish, which generally are of good size but not necessarily monsters. Somewhere around midfall to late fall, however, suspended fish begin appearing in the adjacent basin, larger-than-usual walleyes begin appearing along shoreline drop-offs and weedbeds, and bleary-eyed nighttime shorecasters begin telling tall tales at the office water cooler of the previous night's activities. Bingo -- trophy time -- the leading edge of waves of huge fish making seasonal inshore migrations.
Snow flies. Temperatures dip below freezing at night. Frost-slickened boat launches greet you at sunrise. By the latter stages, skim ice may extend a short distance offshore, easily crunchable with your boat hull to create a path through shoreline rim ice that melts by midmorning. Prime time for monster walleyes.
When autumn fishing on smaller inland waters is winding down, perhaps even moving into ice season, fall big-water patterns on the Great Lakes are just kicking in. Best of all, instead of fishing way out there for fish in expansive open water, it's fishing way in here for big fish migrating to you, with more arriving every day. It's trolling confined sections of open water, plus traditional structure, weed, river, and shorefishing patterns most walleye anglers already apply on inland waters. And perhaps as simple as a short cast off a long pier at midnight. Walleyes ripe for the catching, day and night.