October 02, 2019
By Dan Johnson
In October into November, we typically see light pressure on many A-list fall walleye fisheries, even though some of the year's finest fishing awaits. Their heads filled with visions of whitetails, waterfowl, and dreams of the hardwater season ahead, savvy walleye seekers overlook opportunities to catch numbers of fish, including a shot at fall-fattened giants. Lest you lose focus on the 'eyes of fall, we offer a sampling of happening bites courtesy of stellar sticks scattered across the walleye nation. Whether you're within striking distance of these notable hot spots, or apply the patterns that work on them to your home waters, they can be your guide to your best autumn ever.
At the east end of the Walleye Belt, along the New York-Pennsylvania line, veteran walleye angler Doug Yohe savors the fall season, which he says offers a chance at wind-milling 40 or more hungry 'eyes per trip on Allegheny Reservoir. Now retired, Yohe travels far and wide, tracking down top finishes on tournament trails like the Cabela's Masters Walleye Circuit and National Walleye Tour. He returns to Allegheny each autumn to sample the action. Also known as Kinzua, the impoundment features 92 miles of shoreline ripe for trolling and pitching, but Yohe focuses on offshore spots on the lake's north end, where the Allegheny River flows in and transitions into still water.
"Steep-breaking river channel edges are where it's at," he says. "Walleyes to five pounds are common, and trophies are always a possibility. The lake produced the 17-pound 9-ounce Pennsylvania state record."
Yohe uses his Lowrance HDS electronics to pinpoint prime lies along the channel, commonly in depths of 25 to 30 feet. "Water levels drop up to 20 feet in fall," he says. "So areas that were a bit too deep earlier are perfect habitat."
Yohe's go-to tactic is simple yet deadly. "I flutter a 1/8- to 1/4-ounce white hair jig tipped with a fathead minnow within a foot to 18 inches of bottom," he says. "Most fish hit on the fall, so a braid mainline like Sufix 832 is key to detecting the sharp tick when a walleye inhales the jig." He notes that a 2-foot fluorocarbon leader reduces line visibility, and a 7-foot spinning rod wields the presentation with ease.
A short cast west, Lake Erie's monster magnate Ross Robertson says the fall bite is all about the food. "Erie has millions of walleyes, so they're caught from Michigan waters east," he says. "But the bulk of the biggest fish follow migratory baitfish, and that means keying on gizzard shad, white bass, smelt, and emerald shiners."
As water temperatures drop from summer highs to the low-40°F range, Robertson savors the slice of paradise from the Ohio ports of Sandusky to Vermilion, and centers his crosshairs on the hotbed of activity around Huron. "It's basically a big bowl of water a bit warmer than the rest of the lake, and it attracts all kinds of forage," he says.
Trolling tactics rule, with crawler harnesses giving way to spoons and crankbaits through the fall progression. Likewise, the action moves higher in the water column as winter draws near, from deep in the abyss in early fall to within 20 feet or less of the surface by November. Reef Runner Ripsticks, Ripshads, and Rapala Husky Jerks rank high on Robertson's list, and he notes that suspending baits and slow trolling speeds down to .8 mph excel in the final stages of the open-water season.
Lake Michigan & More
Some of autumn's best bites occur once darkness falls. Noted big-water guide and tournament competitor Jason Muche works the night shift on the fish-rich reefs out of northern Lake Michigan's walleye mecca of Escanaba, catching giants in the 10- to 12-pound class.
"From the time the setting sun hits the trees until midnight, trolling stickbaits like Smithwick's Suspending Rattlin' Rogues at speeds of 1.5 to 1.8 mph is a great way to catch big fish," he says. "Start with divers along reef edges in 16 to 17 feet, then pull shallow runners over the tops in 6 to 9 feet as the night progresses."
Muche's setup includes 10-pound mono mainline, planer boards stoked with glow sticks or reflective tape, and a #2 split shot just ahead of a barrel swivel, positioned about 6 feet from the bait. "Lighted or reflective boards let you track your spread, and allow other anglers to see them as well," he says, explaining that popular night spots can bristle with boats, and wayward boards have led to spirited altercations. "Set your drag so it barely keeps the board from taking line," he says. "This helps prevent trophy walleyes from ripping hooks free and serves as a fish alarm as well."
By day, he recommends trolling crawler harnesses behind 1- to 2-ounce bottom bouncers in depths of up to 30 feet adjacent to reefs. "The day bite is tough unless a strong south wind dirties the water—in which case reefs around tributaries like the Bark River can be hot," he says. "In clear conditions, deep trolling is a good way to catch numbers of 15- to 22-inch fish. I use a Lindy Crawler Harness with a smaller blade, like a #4 Colorado, in Purple Smelt or Tullibee patterns."
On inland systems like Wisconsin's storied Winnebago Chain—where Muche also guides—he says a massive fall run of 15- to 18-inch male walleyes floods holes from the mouth of the Wolf River at Lake Poygan up to Fremont and New London, producing an overlooked bonanza. "It's some of the best fishing nobody does," he says. "Walleyes stack up in 20- to 25-foot holes, and the action lasts through ice-up."
Muche's weapon of choice for the river bite is a 1/4-ounce leadhead tipped with a minnow. "I like a standard Lindy Jig with chartreuse mixed with green or orange," he says. "Hook the minnow through the mouth and out one of the gills. Slide the minnow up against the jighead, and then run the point from the bottom alongside the spine and out just behind the dorsal fin. This keeps it on the jig and acts like a modified stinger hook."
Conservative jig strokes are key. "Keep it subtle—no snapping," he advises. "Drop to the bottom, raise it 3 or 4 inches, tap bottom, and raise it again. Slow and steady wins the race." He favors a 20-pound superline mainline capped by an 18-inch fluorocarbon leader affixed with a small barrel swivel to banish twist. To thoroughly fish a hole, he uses his bowmount trolling motor to slip down-current along the break. "If that doesn't work, jig right down the middle," he says.
Big Water Minnesota
On Minnesota's famed 130,000-acre Mille Lacs Lake, veteran guide Jon Thelen highlights a late trolling pattern driven by walleyes moving shallow toward the end of the open-water period. "It's one of the most overlooked bites around," he says. In a typical autumn, water temperatures falling into the high-40ºF range spur a daytime feeding binge along prime rock and gravel shorelines that host ample forage ranging from minnows and juvenile panfish to spawning tullibees.
Since walleyes often are scattered across long stretches of structure, he prefers trolling crankbaits. "Deep-bodied, tight-wobbling baits with a bit of flash are top picks," he says, noting that the Lindy Shadling is his favorite. "Curved, banana-style baits like Lindy's River Rocker also take bank-running walleyes," he says. "They offer a different action and stand out from schools of baitfish."
Thelen deploys cranks on 8- to 10-foot trolling rods spooled with 10-pound mono, tipped with a snap. "Line-counter reels let you duplicate productive letbacks. But in water this shallow, standard spinning outfits are fine, too," he says. After paying out 120 to 150 feet of line until his lure bottoms out, he reels in a few cranks and begins a nonstop series of rips and pauses that add extra action to the lure.
Another of Thelen's favorite fall patterns in many midwestern waters hinges on wind and waves concentrating baitfish and walleyes in shallow water on hard-bottom points with easy access to deep water on both sides of the structure.
"By monitoring wind forecasts, it's possible to plan a run of potential points in advance of a trip," he says. "A lot of people fish only the front face, or upwind side of a structure. But I break points into four zones. And as with walleyes on wing dams in rivers, there are times lake fish prefer holding in one zone over another." He finds the hot zone fast by easing in from upwind, then working the front, tip, top, and downwind side of the point.
He drifts 1/8- to 1/4-ounce jig-and-softbait combos sweetened with a skull-hooked 3-inch rainbow chub or shiner minnow. "The plastic bodies on jigs like a Lindy Watsit or Fuzz-E-Grub add bulk and the tails boost action," he says. Unlike Muche's muted jig strokes, Thelen takes an animated tack, snapping the jig 18 inches off bottom with a sharp rip of the rod tip, then letting it pendulum back down on a semi-tight line. "Too much slack and you won't see or feel strikes," he cautions.
Using a driftsock to slow his pace if need be, and his bowmount to trace specific depths, he drifts point edges with his jig trailing far enough behind the boat so his line extends at a 45-degree angle to the surface of the water. "Many of the points I fish top out around 4 feet deep, so I cover these areas with casts," he adds.
Longtime In-Fisherman friend and walleye fanatic Chip Leer reminds us that the Winnipeg River below the Pine Falls dam ranks high among the continent's top spots to boat a fall behemoth. "Half the people I know have caught the biggest walleye of their lives on this bite," he says. Indeed, greenbacks flooding in from the main lake offer excellent odds at personal bests.
Leer's go-to tactic is anchoring along the river channel in depths of 10 to 25 feet, which can vary from day to day, and vertical jigging a 1/2-ounce Northland RZ Jig or 3/8-ounce Slurp! Jig Head tipped with a salted shiner or softbait such as Northland's 4-inch Impulse Smelt Minnow. Jig strokes are limited to slow lifts of a couple inches, allowing the fish to home in on the bait in the milky water.
"The bite is interesting," he says. "A few fish crack it. But most mouth it. You feel them move the bait around, and when the mouthing stops, set the hook. Sometimes you wait and wait, and they never fully inhale it."
On his home waters of Minnesota's Leech Lake, Leer looks to deep humps topping out 20 to 40 feet beneath the surface in Walker Bay. "The last three to four weeks of open water, the deep bite produces some of the biggest fish of the year," he says.
"It's basically ice fishing in a boat. Set up early to hit a 30- to 45-minute period during sunset when the fish go crazy. You can use a ball-head jig tipped with a minnow, but I like swimming jigs like Northland's Puppet Minnow and jigging spoons like the Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon or Minnow-Head Hook. I never use meat, just small soft-plastic heads." Unlike the slow strokes of the Winnipeg River, he favors a vigorous snapjigging cadence to call fish from a distance.
On the Shield
In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange has fished most of the walleye waters we've mentioned here and then some, including Canadian Shield waters like Rainy Lake. Big waters like Rainy have giant shallow-backwater areas that hold numerous baitfish species for most of the season. As the water temperature drops from the 50°F range into the upper-40°F range, those baitfish exit the shallows and move toward the main lake.
"Most of these areas are not directly connected to the main lake, but they're close. Look for necked-down areas formed by rock points and islands, typically with water 10 to 20 feet deep, at or near the mouth of those shallow backwaters," he says. "Those are ambush points for predators, both big pike and big walleyes and sometimes smallmouth bass. But this can be a tentative pattern, especially when cold weather sets in early and harshly and baitfish exit quickly, usually by mid-October."
"If the pattern's workable, you always see baitfish in these areas, suspended in the water column, with your electronics. No baitfish, no predators. I like paddletail swimbaits like the Berkley's 5-inch Hollow Belly or 5-inch Flatback Shad on a 1/2- or 3/4-ounce Saltwater Bullet Head from Kalin's or Owner. Another terrific option is the Berkley Rib Shad (5 inches), which has been a killer for big walleyes since they introduced it."
A more predictable pattern for big fish develops once water temperatures are in the 40°F range, when some big walleyes hold on rocky points, shoals, and humps in main-lake areas. "I know some big fish are always working deep structure, too," he says, "but I focus on structural elements in 6 to 15 feet of water, adjacent to deeper water. There's enough of this water to keep you busy for days without having to slow down to work deep.
"On rocky shallow shoals I sometimes toss lipped cranks like the Rapala Minnow Rap or the Sebile Koolie Minnow. Cranks are consistent producers, but most of the big fish fall for the same swimbaits mentioned earlier. This pattern lasts until the landings freeze up. Same on parts of Lake of the Woods and other surrounding waters. Also on Lac Seul."
After spending most of summer tickling treetops and treelines with spinnerbaits and small cranks, guide and decorated tournament angler Rob Rowland taps a deep fall bite on Nebraska's Lake McConaughy. "From August on, you gotta knock 'em on the head with a slab spoon," he says. "It's a great big-fish bite, too. Last fall, clients took fish up to 14 pounds on this deep-water pattern."
"The fish move out of flooded timber and onto sand ledges in 35 to 55 feet of water," he says. Stellar slabs include the iconic C.C. Spoon, along with a number of supersize options up to 1 ounce in weight. Beefy bladebaits also take fish, he notes. With either lure style, he performs a steady, aggressive ripping repertoire featuring 2-foot lifts and slack-line drops. Riggings rest on 20-pound braid mainline and an 18- to 24-inch fluoro, leader joined with a barrel swivel. "The leader keeps the bait from fouling the mainline," he says.
A bit higher on the High Plains, longtime guide and In-Fisherman contributor Jason Mitchell enjoys the change of seasons on Devils Lake, North Dakota. He's quick to troll a bottom bouncer and spinner rig along the edge of still-green weedlines. "In October, healthy weededges hold walleyes," he says. "Deep structure and bottlenecks present additional options.
"Shallow bays with an 8- to 15-foot hole that drew walleyes early in the season become hot spots once again, and the holes can fill up with fish." Casting light jigs is a great tactic, though Mitchell says pulling splitshot rigs with small flicker blades, like the #0 on the Micro-Blade Spinner he helped Northland develop, work wonders as well.
No roundup of fall hotspots would hold water without mention of the mighty Columbia River. "It's a terrific time to fish walleyes out here," says Washington's District 4 fishery biologist Paul Hoffarth. Witness John Grubenhoff's 20.32-pound giant that broke the state record last March. Hoffarth says sows topping 10 to 15 pounds are possible on any given trolling pass.
"They feed heavily before winter," he says, noting that the night bite below McNary Dam is as good as it gets. "Pulling deep-running crankbaits like Luhr-Jensen's Hot Lips Troller over humps in 18 to 24 feet of water is a hot tactic," he says. Grubenhoff's favorite tactic during fall is vertically jigging 1/2-ounce bladebaits like the Heddon Sonar. He also advises anglers trolling crankbaits to think big. "I've had 9-pound walleyes throw up 11-inch walleyes, so when I troll cranks, they're big ones," he says.
"A little caution is in order, however," Hoffarth adds. "You'll have company out there, and need to watch out for tribal gill nets and commercial vessels."
Things that go bump in the night are no deterrent for the walleye faithful, and neither is a little cold weather. Join them this season in tapping the late bite and make this your best fall yet.