November 11, 2020
Some of my best walleye fishing of the year often coincides with the rapid crash in water temperature on large Brainerd, Minnesota, area lakes near our In-Fisherman office, including famous 130,000 acre Mille Lacs, which lies 20 miles to the east. By the time the water temperature drops to about to 42.5°F, shallow rocky-gravelly shoals will be visited by schools of prespawn ciscoes, which spend most of the rest of the year roaming open water. Soon enough, as the water temperature drops another degree, ciscoes go into full-scale spawning mode. Of course, walleyes—big ones—move right in there with them. This pattern typically unfolds in our area during late October and into November.
Some of the best fishing transpires at night, when ciscoes often push very shallow, within range of boot anglers or anglers long-line trolling. Over the years, I spent more than 20 nights each fall doing both. The fishing predictably peaked near the end of each season. On a calm night, especially during one of the nights surrounding the full moon, ciscoes often dimple the surface of the water right around you. Wading anglers often have them bump into your boots.
The last few seasons I stay with the fish, starting just before sunrise, moving quietly via trolling motor through ciscoe spawning areas, often rocky mainlake points, making long casts with suspending stickbaits or paddletail swimbaits on jigheads weighing 3/8, 1/2, or 3/4 ounce.
Bigger is better in low light up to a point, because walleyes can find it better. Too, many of the ciscoes are more than 12 inches long. So, while a #12 Rapala Husky Jerk is standard issue for walleyes, I often go with the bigger #14 instead. And, I often employ a bulky swimbait body like the Berkley PowerBait Rib Shad, which measures just about 5 inches but pushes a lot more water than, say, a Berklely PowerBait Ripple Shad, although it too fishes well. An even better choice is the 6-inch PowerBait Hollow Belly, which seems gigantic to many walleye anglers. But when bigger walleyes flare their gills and open their mouth it creates a giant opening that can handle big baitfish. A 28-inch walleye could easily eat a half dozen 6-inch Hollow Belly bodies at the same time.
Opening salvos in the morning often take place in water 4 to 6 feet deep. As the sun rises a bit, ciscoes and walleyes push out deeper. It depends on what kind of structural elements are available in the immediate area, but it’s typical for fish to hold on rocky-gravelly flats or humps in 10 to 14 feet of water for the rest of the morning. The ciscoes don’t always go far and neither do the walleyes. Indeed, during the peak of the spawn, a with a bit of wind or darker weather, walleyes often roam these shoals and feed on ciscoes all day long.
Probably the best structural layout once the sun comes up are humps 10 to 14 feet or so deep, surrounded by slightly deeper water immediately adjacent to spawning areas. Walleyes position around or on top of a hump, waiting for groups of roaming ciscoes to run into the side of the hump and swim up over top of it or around it.
After the early shallow fishing, the jighead and paddletail is by far the best presentation. It allows you to make gigantic casts to search large areas. And, whereas crankbaits dive to and hold at a constant depth throughout a retrieve, the paddletail is more depth versatile, allowing you to maintain contact with bottom by letting it fall, to search areas with a variety of depths all on the same retrieve. Just grind the combo along like it’s a crankbait, adding occasional rod-tip nods (keep your rod tip high) and, occasionally, pausing to let the bait fall in order to re-establish contact with bottom. Once ciscoes vacate the shallows during the spawn, they typically suspend in the bottom half of the water column.
Paddletails have long since proven to be irresistible to walleyes. They like what they see first of all, then like what they feel with their lateral line once they get in close. Time and again anyone who uses these lures is amazed at how totally fooled walleyes are, evidenced by how deeply they take them. Six-inch lures often are completely gone, swallowed down close to the gullet.
To facilitate long casts, I use a 7-foot medium or medium-light power and fast-action rod, with a bit bigger reel spooled with 8- or 10-pound Berkley FireLine Ultra 8. Ultra 8 is unbelievable stuff. Tremendously strong, yet ultrathin. Smooth and quiet. Fairly abrasion resistant. And, knots tie up and hold superbly, especially the coupling of the main FireLine to fluorocarbon leader (about 5 feet of it) testing 12 or 15 pounds, with back -to-back uni-knots. No need to double the end of the FireLine to get it to hold the fluorocarbon, which is necessary with Berkley NanoFil.
Finally, because FireLine doesn’t stretch you’re totally in contact with the lure, even at a distance. No need for a powerful hookset; just tighten up when the fish hits and keep the rod bent during the battle.
Because big pike and occasionally muskies also follow the ciscoes, I also add an 8-inch section of tieable wire, my favorite being American Wire Surflon Micro Supreme (in either 13- or 20-pound breakstrength) to the end of the fluorocarbon. Walleyes have great vision but they don’t scrutinize fine details well, so the wire doesn’t bother them. And the presence of the wire has at times allowed me to land giant incidental toothy critters. Such serendipitous events often are memorable, indeed.
Of course, this is but one example of the forage-factoring game we play with walleyes throughout the season. Other common prey species include shiner species, especially spottail shiners; shad, both threadfin and, particularly, gizzard shad; and perch and other smaller panfish like bluegills, crappies, and bullheads. Crayfish are a factor at times. In some water drum play a role. In other waters burbot.
Walleyes do particularly well, though, on oily, high-protein, soft-finned forage like ciscoes. Smelt and small whitefish at times. Occasionally trout. Sometimes leopard frogs. And these days on the Great Lakes, especially round gobies. Walleyes also are cannibalistic. During late fall I occasionally found 12-inch walleyes in the stomachs of big walleyes when I bootfished Spirit Lake, Iowa, back in the 1970s, when we still killed and cleaned bigger fish.
Thus, understanding the basic nature of the forage species in play and how they function in the various bodies of water where they live, how their location changes based on seasonal change, is as fundamental to fishing for walleyes as is picking the right lure or bait presentation. Each situation becomes an intricate case study. All stories for another day.