Fall is trophy time, particularly for hawg walleyes. Cooling water seemingly triggers a prewinter feeding binge. The ramifications, however, reach far beyond simple water temperature and enhanced activity; the changing environment causes fish to behave differently than they do in summer. The better you understand walleye options and efficient ways of contacting and catching them, the greater your cornucopia of trophy action.
In fall, the challenge becomes quickly locating walleyes through a combination of electronic sightseeing and aggressive presentations, coupling what you see with what you catch to determine patterns of preference. The word aggressive is relative, basically meaning using the fastest possible presentation you can get away with while still catching fish. Most walleye anglers tend to fish slowly and meticulously in fall, which may at times be the only path to success, but often is an unnecessarily slow and scenic route to your destination.
Evaluate conditions. If the fish will respond to faster presentations, why take the traditional slow road if the turnpike gets you where you’re going with time to spare? The faster dead water is eliminated, the more fishing time is left. Think of this as more quickly sifting through the haystack to find the needle lurking within.
Understanding the changing environment and the resulting shifts in fish location and behavior are your first keys to fall walleye action. Cooling water begins thinning or killing shallow weedgrowth, reducing cover, forcing predators and prey out into open water where they can be seen on electronics. Seeing is believing, and confidence comes from knowing the fish are there.
Cooling water eventually disrupts the summer thermocline, leading to a transitional period of tough fishing, labeled the fall turnover. Fish often are scattered and difficult to pattern during turnover. Once conditions stabilize, however, definite patterns arise. For one, the reoxygenation of deep water, which formerly was below the thermocline, allows fish to drop deeper, setting up location on deep structure, across open basins, or suspending. These deep stable habitats not only are conducive to hosting walleyes and baitfish in fall, but also, because the fish are outside any form of shallow cover, they usually can be seen on electronics, enhancing fishing effectiveness.
As far as activity goes, let’s dispel a misconception. Cooling water isn’t necessarily detrimental to fish activity, as might be assumed with cold-blooded fish. Walleyes feed at nearly any temperature, though ultracold winter levels may slow their reaction times, forcing slow presentations. In fall, however, typical temperatures fall well within the walleye “comfort” zone, and walleyes may strike baits or lures moving at a variety of speeds, from barely creeping along to several miles per hour. Probably not a zippy 5 miles per hour, as in the heat of summer, but certainly a couple miles per hour, which makes quick-trolling lures like crankbaits and spinners fair game for fall walleyes.
During summer, food is abundant, and walleyes may need only feed for brief periods during the course of the day. Activity often is keyed to short bursts at sunrise or sunset, when walleyes have a distinct vision advantage over most minnow prey. Summer daytime activity can at times be next to nil, greatly frustrating fishing efforts. In fall, however, with the food chain shrinking as temperature drops, and bait more exposed in open water due to reduced cover options, walleyes often feed throughout the day, rather than brief but intense forays during lowlight conditions.
As fish drop deeper into open water, away from cover, they sometimes school more heavily and function more as units, rather than as loose aggregates or groups of individuals spread throughout the same shallow habitat. Thus in fall, often we’re hunting for packs, rather than for a few lone wolves. Find the pack, and you find the action. Catch the first one, and hang on, because more ‘eyes are nearby.
If you cover enough water quickly, while looking and fishing, you’ll find walleyes. You could strictly look with electronics and only stick a bait in the water when you slow down. But if you can keep a lure in the water while scouting at a quick pace, while simultaneously using modest speed (quickness) to trigger strikes, you can accomplish all goals with a single strategy. Then refine it as the pieces of the puzzle begin falling into place.
Quick trolling for walleyes involves faster tactics than traditional livebait rigging and vertical jigging, which are slow, precision, extraction tactics used to tempt biters in a neutral to negative mood. Quick trolling systems are aggressive search engines to quickly cover water, eliminate fishless space, and locate and catch fish.
Once walleyes are found, you have the option to slow down, switch tactics, and saturate limited areas. Or, a better option may be to continue on your way, using a combination of speed and triggering to scarf up an occasional scattered walleye. Thus this trolling approach works as well for catching scattered fish as for reducing the time required to contact distinct schools.
In general, due to the combination of increased depth and modest speed, quick-trolling tactics with spinners or crankbaits require the addition of significant weight to keep the bait or lure down in the fish zone. Weighting systems most commonly associated with quick-trolling include three-way rigs, snap weights, and bottom bouncers.
Quick trolling the edges of large predominant structures typically calls for fairly long, straight trolling passes broken by an occasional quick weave to follow irregularities in the contour. And, of course, it also involves a quick precision turn when a major turn or point is encountered. When fish are tight to structure, generally bottom-oriented, your bait should be right there, too, inches above bottom, smack dab in the fish zone.
This situation favors quick trolling with three-way rigs, incorporating either a spinner rig or a minnow-imitator crankbait. The heavy weight—from 1 to 3 or 4 ounces to match depth and speed—maintains bottom contact. Varying the length of the dropper positions the lure a desired distance off bottom, ranging from inches to a few feet, depending on fish position. Interpret what your electronics reveal, adjusting dropper length to match the fish’s level.
Leader length varies, though more than 4 or 5 feet is seldom needed with a shallow-running minnow-imitator crankbait. Trolling 1 to 3 mph makes the lure dive perhaps a foot below the three-way swivel. A spinner harness tends to ride truer to the level of the swivel, as long as speed is consistent. Lift-drops, incorporating pauses with bursts of forward speed, however, create a pulsating, fluttering effect, imitating a wounded baitfish and enhancing the triggering mechanism. A similar lift-drop with crankbaits causes the bait to alternately dive and rise, once again varying lure motion to trigger strikes.
Open-water trolling typically involves numerous rods set in rod holders, using turns of the boat to interject changes in lure motion. For trolling structural edges, however, it’s usually more efficient to hold a long-handled casting rod, positioning the butt of the rod under your elbow to take the strain off your wrist. Then alternately lift the weight off bottom and let it fall back to make occasional contact, ensuring that your lure is in the fish zone near bottom.
Adjust line length as necessary to accommodate changes in depth. This creates a semi-vertical, semi-short-line presentation, enhancing the ability to weave along contours at a quick pace while still maintaining bottom position. Use a bowmount electric or kicker outboard to achieve desired speed—generally a bit faster than can be comfortably backtrolled, yet slower than can be effectively trolled forward with a large outboard.
Much the same effect can be achieved with bottom bouncers, though deep fishing requires heavier bouncers (21⁄2- to 3-ounce range). Since bouncers tend to position baits much closer to bottom than three-ways, they typically work best with spinner harnesses, rather than diving crankbaits. Try 3- to 4-foot multi-hook spinner harnesses with crawlers in early fall, progressing to single-hook minnow rigs as the water cools toward late fall.
Otherwise, the tactics are identical with either bait. Troll, lift, drop, repeat. When you get a strike, briefly drop the rod tip back, point it at the fish, and sweepset the rod forward when you feel tension, indicating the removal of slack.
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