October 20, 2022
By Dan Johnson
October and November are magical months for diehard walleye anglers, especially on rivers. Flowing water concentrates hungry ’eyes in predictable places across the Walleye Belt. Yet these sweet spots remain largely overlooked and underfished by the masses, particularly as winter closes in. Opportunities for fine fishing arise on rivers of all types and sizes, from large, channelized waterways flush with locks and dams to river-run reservoirs and small, meandering, natural rivers. Tributary mouths, too, are flowing-water hotspots not to be forgotten on lakes large and small.
Over the years, I watched many of these patterns play out while working tournament trails including the In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail (PWT) and Masters Walleye Circuit (MWC). Fall qualifiers and championships often centered on or included riverine environments, and savvy competitors fished these systems with every possible presentation to get the most bites possible. Destinations included the Rainy River, the Mississippi at both Hudson and Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, the Fox River on Green Bay, and the Huron River on Erie, to name just a few.
Veteran walleye tournament competitors Don Olson and Randy Carroll were often in the thick of things. They’ve tapped the fall bite on rivers across the Midwest, both for fun and while competing as a team on the MWC—where they’ve taken Team of the Year honors and finished strong numerous times. “Rivers are great places to fish walleyes come October, and wing dams are one of the best spots of all,” says Carroll, of Oswego, Illinois. Not all are created equal, however. He says the hottest dams are covered by about 4 feet of water and brushed by at least moderate current.
This fall, with low water and slack flows likely on many rivers, such prime lies could be tricky to find. But not impossible. If you’re fishing a series of wing dams, Carroll recommends fishing the first and second dams upstream, where current is apt to be strongest. On the flip side, in high water when the river’s really rocking, start at the other end of the string. Or look to areas off the main river, where walleyes can escape raging current.
A variety of tactics take wing-dam walleyes, but Carroll favors casting shad-style crankbaits to cover water in search of fish. “Even when you find a dam with all the right characteristics, it’s most likely not going to have walleyes on it all the time,” he cautions. “A group of fish may move up to feed for 15 minutes and then leave, and you could sit there for hours without getting bit. When Don and I approach a wing dam, we move in and fish it for 15 minutes and move on if we don’t catch anything.”
In light to modest current, Carroll and Olson attack a wing dam from the tip first, positioning their boat slightly upstream over deeper water. “We cast semi-parallel to the wing dam, so the bait lands on the tip, then retrieve down the edge,” he says. On succeeding casts, they work their way toward the bank, casting to the top of the wing dam and retrieving down the front face, picking it apart until their boat is about halfway to shore. “Then we turn the boat around and fish our way back out,” he says. “Walleyes often like the bait presented at a certain angle to the structure. Fishing both directions covers a lot of angles.”
The retrieve is straightforward. On splashdown, Carroll cranks the lure down to bottom, then ticks it along the structure, “grinding bottom the whole way.” It works best with a diving crankbait, and Carroll’s favorite is the 7/16-ounce Strike King Pro Model 3XD, in shad or perchy patterns.
Olson, who hails from Andover, Minnesota, also sings the praises of wing dams, giving a nod to jigs as a deadly weapon as well. “Crankbaits are great but casting wing dams with a 1/8- to 3/8-ounce leadhead like a Hutch’s Tackle Bucktail Jig tipped with a skull-hooked minnow is another top tactic,” he says. He finds that in clear water, tequila-colored heads work well, while shades of black, brown, and chartreuse shine in stained conditions. Experiment with your jig strokes, because sometimes walleyes crush a slow-dragging cadence, while other times hopping and popping prevails.
Other presentations work wonders on wing dams, in fall and at other times. Three-way rigs, for example, are a fine option for probing the tips and various contours in search of fish. Dubuque-style rigs with two lures, such as a heavy jig and lighter jighead or floater setup.
Along with wing dams, Olson adds that back channels can be dynamite for October walleyes. “As cooling water temperatures and dropping water levels flush baitfish and predators out of backwaters, the side channels and cuts connecting these areas to the main river can be goldmines,” he says. “The key is forage. If there are baitfish, there will be walleyes.” While any side channel with a bit of current could hold fish, cover such as tangles of timber sweeten the pot. Don’t be afraid to cast or vertically jig ultra-shallow water in the wood, because hungry ’eyes slide into surprisingly skinny water in such conditions.
On the main river, a variety of subtle points can be fall hotspots. Elmwood, Wisconsin, pro Nick Johnson reminded the walleye world of that fact during a historic run in October of 2009 on the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers. Johnson schooled his fellow competitors in the final PWT pro-am of all time. With water temperatures falling from just above 60ºF during prefishing into the high-50ºF range as the tournament progressed, he found main-river walleyes moving onto shallow structure ahead of structure. Key areas were small, steep shoreline rock points, graced by modest current. As he explained it, small “diversions of current, like a long, riprap bank with one little section sticking out that deflected the flow.” On calm days, you can often spot such areas by a section of slack water or a small eddy, often with leaves or other items circulating within.
Johnson threw a 3/16-ounce blue-and-white hair jig downstream to the front face of the rocks on the upstream side of the eddy, “right where the current turned out.” He fished the jig at a 45-degree angle down the break in short, snapping strokes that covered every inch of the drop-off. Most strikes came from depths of 2 to 6 feet, he reported.
The Hole Shebang
Longtime guide and In-Fisherman confidante Tom Neustrom taps the river bite on a variety of waters, though the lower Rainy and upper Mississippi rank high among his top fall walleye fisheries. “In the Rainy River, big numbers of Lake of the Woods walleyes pop up into the river in the fall in response to the shiner run, mainly in the first 5 miles from the confluence,” he says. “On the Mississippi, you’re targeting resident walleye populations that stay in the river year-round.”
In both scenarios, Neustrom looks for specific fish-holding locations and tackles them with tried-and-true tactics. “Holes in outside bends are pretty common in smaller natural rivers, and dominant holes before and after a long flat are pretty common in larger systems,” he says. “Holes can hold fish all season long, but they become more of a factor in fall, when walleyes move toward deeper water in response to falling water temperatures and sometimes water levels as well.”
Depth varies depending on the river and water level, but depth changes of 2 to 6 feet qualify as holes in Neustrom’s book. He focuses on edges at the upstream and downstream ends of the hole. “Walleyes often rest in the middle of a hole and move to the edges to feed because they know that’s where most of the feeding opportunities are,” he says. “To get the lay of the land, I typically use my side-scanning Humminbird sonar to check for cover or structure such as logs or rocks that can play a role in fish location. You’re not looking for fish, just anything they might relate to.”
Boat positioning relies either on traditional anchoring or his trolling motor. “Given the modification of many rivers and the way water levels are in the fall, you usually don’t have to deal with major current,” he says. “So, most of the time I can use the Spot-Lock feature on my Minn Kota Ulterra to hang up- or downriver, or off to the side if that’s the case. This is the easiest way to hold position and you can quickly free it up if you want to move around or make a drift and look for more fish. When you find them, just move upriver, spot-lock the new position and start casting to them. When the current is stronger, anchors come into play.”
Jigs are Neustrom’s weapon of choice for fall river walleyes. “I’m a jigging fanatic,” he says. “VMC Moon Eye Jigs are my favorites. The pill or aspirin design drops faster and cuts through current better than round heads, so you can get away with lighter jig weights. For example, I can downsize from a 1/4- to 1/8-ounce head or a quarter instead of a 3/8-ounce head and still maintain bottom contact and control.”
He’s not fussy about tippings. “The tail doesn’t matter as much as the jig or what you do with it,” he says. “Plastics are fine. Z-Man makes some great ones but so do lots of companies. Still, sometimes it’s hard to beat a 2½- to 3-inch minnow. Silvery fatheads and shiners are top options. Small suckers are good, too. Hook them in the mouth and out through the top of the head. Moon Eyes have a wire catcher on the hook shank that keeps plastics in place, but it also helps with minnows.”
Neustrom fancasts high-percentage areas, keeping casts short to quickly cover as much water as possible. “If a customer wants to cast from here to St. Louis, I tell them, ‘that’s fine, but I’ll make four casts to your one and get my jig in front of four times as many walleyes.’” On the cast, he lets the jig fall to bottom, then begins a relatively erratic retrieve. “I swim it, pop it, stop it, and start it—changing the cadence to mimic a small baitfish darting along the bottom,” he says. “Tumbling the jig along bottom with the current is another option that often catches fish when other tactics don’t. Cast to the side or slightly upstream of your position, let the current carry the jig downstream, then begin your retrieve at the end of the drift.”
Tributary mouths can be hotbeds of fish walleye activity in fall. I recall a lesson learned at the 2011 MWC Championship on the Mississippi River at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. Walleye warriors Dan Zwick and Tony Kobriger routed the competition by tapping a tributary bite their rivals missed. Among the field that Kobriger and Zwick toppled was a cadre of competitors gathered below dams—another classic fall hotspot. As walleyes migrate upstream in fall, they often stage near dams until after they spawn in spring. Structure along the main current creates current breaks that provide resting and ambush spots. Inflows, points, wing dams, riprap, culverts, bridges, logjams, backwater bays, and deep holes near shore all offer walleyes a place to rest and feed.
Back to the tributary angle: Kobriger and Zwick’s red-hot strike zone centered on a current-brushed sandbar lying in a fish-rich intersection of seams where the incoming Wisconsin River joins the Mississippi. Low flows and falling water levels had reduced the tributary to a trickle—except where the current cut a small channel through the sandy bottom on the downstream side of the confluence. Here, the Wisconsin sent a wispy current seam into the main river, and where it met a seam from the Mississippi, an eddy formed. Directly below that fortuitous intersection of seams—and just outside the mouth of the cut—lay a sandbar formed by sediments washed in from the Wisconsin during high flows. To make the situation even better, the Mississippi was running remarkably clear (Kobriger reported clarity to 7 feet), but there was just enough tint at the eddy to color the water.
Where this stained water washed across the main-river side of the sandbar in the seams, a variety of fish species gathered for the feast. Pike, large- and smallmouth bass, white bass, and bluegills patrolled the shallows, while walleyes and saugers occupied the 9- to 11-foot zone. Catfish and sturgeon stalked a bit deeper. Vertical jigging was a key presentation on the double-seam sandbar. Hair jigs were hot, as were 3/8-ounce standups, tipped with a 3-inch Berkley Gulp! Minnow topped “piggyback”-style with a live minnow. Blues, yellows, and oranges were good softbait patterns, but white produced as well. Jig strokes ranged from 6-inch lifts early in the day, when the fish were aggressive, to dragging and subtle, ultra-slow raises.
The standup heads held the bait up in the current, producing a slight twitch that mimicked a dying shad, Kobriger explained at the time. Side-scanning sonar helped them assess the hotspot, but the way they first noticed it was definitely old-school. A burst of current hit their boat as they idled parallel to the rivermouth, pushing them a bit farther out in the main river. If that happens to you this fall, pay attention.
River-on-river tributaries aren’t the only hot confluences come fall. Rivermouths are hot zones on lakes large and small. Not just directly at the junction, either. Incoming current can be a fish-focusing factor farther into the lake that many anglers think. “It’s really misunderstood,” says big-water ace Captain Ross Robertson, who makes a living on the world-class waters of Lake Erie. “A lot of anglers are content to fish the rivermouth. But that’s generally a mistake due to boat traffic and fishing pressure. I focus on key contours up to two or three miles or more outside the mouth, where pressure is light to nonexistent and lake-run walleyes line up like diners in a restaurant to feed on baitfish flushing out of the river in response to water temperature changes. Tight contours and bottom composition changes from soft to hard are ideal.”
Robertson says that the temperature swings driving baitfish into the lake can be rising or falling, depending on the baitfish and predominant conditions. “Incoming winds blowing warmer or colder water into the tributary can both affect baitfish location,” he says. “You know they made a move when your sonar is chock-full of bait one day and a blank slate the next. When that happens, fish areas at or just outside the rivermouth. But not where you mark gobs of baitfish. Your lures have too much competition there. Focus on open pockets and edges, where your odds of triggering strikes improve.”
To find fish fast on large expanses of water, Robertson runs 20 to 30 mph, scanning in two-dimensional sonar with his Humminbird Helix. “It’s a great way to find baitfish,” he says. “Then I can slow down and add side-imaging to the mix to look for bait and walleyes higher in the water column. A lot of guys fish deep in fall, but higher fish are more aggressive. Be forewarned, a lot of the higher fish, particularly in the top 10 feet of the water column, spook outside sonar range, so you won’t see them. I’ve had banner days catching high-flying walleyes and haven’t marked any of them.”
Robertson trolls spoons or small, shallow-diving crankbaits on Dipsy Divers for deep fish and 4½- to 5½-inch-long diving crankbaits behind planer boards for ‘eyes riding higher. “Speed is critical,” he says. “A couple of tenths can make all the difference. And you can’t go by boat speed when current is a factor, which is often. I watch my Fish Hawk to tell exactly how fast my lures are running and adjust boat speed accordingly.
“One caveat to it all is that some of the bigger rivers on the Great Lakes, like the Detroit River, act like their own system, often replaying the spring run, only with the fish a bit deeper in fall. Here, jig deep flats, deep eddies, and tight contours with heavy jigs tipped with plastics like the Northland Impulse Smelt Minnow, Jig Crawler, and Paddle Minnow.” Just another tantalizing, ’eye-catching angle to add to your play list for tapping the magical autumn walleye bite.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Dan Johnson is a longtime magazine contributor and marketing manager of LVC Companies. Guide contacts: Tom Neustrom, 218/259-2628; Capt. Ross Robertson, 419/283-7069.