Going into the final quarter of the calendar year, the running of the Great Lakes fall walleyes is coming full circle. Schools that split from rivers and bays at the end of spring are on the verge of returning to their sources, piling up in a holding pattern at the mouths of bays and rivers, mowing down baitfish in preparation for a restart of the cycle next spring.
What goes around on the Great Lakes, then, does indeed come around.
"The natural migration of the fish is to get back to where they're going to spawn in spring, yet retain access to a lot of high-fat, high-protein food in fall," says In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail pro Keith Kavajecz, Kaukauna, Wisconsin. "They don't have to get back right to where they're going to spawn. Chiefly, they want to return to where there's a lot of food."
The walleyes' homecoming pattern, similar to upstream river migrations elsewhere in fall (on the Mississippi River, for instance), holds true from Superior to Ontario. In between lie quintessential examples, from Lake Michigan's Little Bay de Noc and Huron's Saginaw Bay, to an emerging Erie fishery where walleyes put on the feedbag not all that far from the Western Basin. In all cases, food takes priority over the spawning imperative.
"In late fall, they're on their way back through," says PWT pro Mark Brumbaugh, Arcanum, Ohio, speaking of Erie's big-time autumn fishery around Huron, Ohio, a route attributable to the fishes' staging grounds in their deliverance toward the reefs around the Bass Islands. "The minnows are in there, and that's what brings the fish down the shoreline."
Sure enough, the walleyes are piling up, putting on the feedbag, staking out prime areas of both open water and structure. You should be there, too. It's the last gasp for boating before ice-up, even for shorecasting, a free-for-all with concentrations of big fish tuned in to high-profile minnowbaits -- a rite of spring recurring all over again in fall.
WHAT A DIFFERENCE A BAY MAKES
Late-season Great Lakes hotspots tend to defy easy classification because of the differences among the many bays and river mouths. Take the St. Louis River and the south shore of Lake Superior, for example, where PWT pro Scott Glorvigen, of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, says water flow in the rivers dictates the movements of returning fish after essentially a summer-long disappearance to the big water.
"Once the fish leave the St. Louis in spring, they're left alone," Glorvigen says. "The guys wave goodbye to them in the spring and wait for them to show up again in September. Once walleyes go out in the big lake, there's so much expanse, they dissipate like smoke in the wind."
If anything, their return to the St. Louis and neighboring rivers, including the Brule, is dictated by rains and river flows that concentrate walleyes in spring, as well. High water helps pull fish toward the opening of the St. Louis (the Superior Entry), and to the Brule after the salmon speed in, spawn and die.
But while trolling patterns predominate everywhere else on the Great Lakes, Glorvigen -- ever the Minnesotan -- works big (5- to 7-inch) redtail chubs on livebait rigs and jigs on points and along breakwalls outside the river mouth. Likewise, U. P. walleye pro and guide Nate Provost, Gulliver, Michigan, depends on redtails on Little Bay de Noc during the last gasp of open water, around reefs and points that gather walleyes outside their spring spawning grounds on the inner bay and in the Escanaba River.
Even so, trolling accounts for most of the heavy lifting on fisheries from the Bays de Noc to Saginaw Bay to the Bay of Quinte. Depending on the onset of fall, walleyes sometimes reappear in Little Bay de Noc from Lake Michigan's open water come September; other years, in October and November.
"The walleyes come back every year into Little Bay de Noc," Provost says. "But they're more open-water oriented than structure fish, and are typically caught on stickbaits over deeper water."
Enter the utility of leadcore line to get crankbaits deep -- 35 feet, according to Provost, over 50 to 60 feet of water. The pattern incorporates trolling deeper basins during the daytime for schools that congregate where the bay narrows.
"Little Bay de Noc is absolutely ideal for trolling with three colors (30 yards) of lead," Kavajecz says. "Another thing: Fall dictates a slower presentation, and as you slow down your speed, you don't need massive amounts of line to get your baits down."
Right about now, high-action cranks are out, subtle-action baits in. Among them are Storm Deep Junior ThunderSticks, Rapala Husky Jerks and Smithwick Rattlin' Rogues -- a return, in a way, to patterns that predominate in cool waters in the spring.
In a further distinction from one bay to another, the best depths on Saginaw Bay are far shallower, eliminating the call for leadcore by using straightforward trolling techniques with monofilament. So says PWT pro Mark Gwizdala, Kawkawlin, Michigan, who targets a lightly exploited run of walleyes starting in fall between Hoyle's Marina, on the southwestern reaches of the bay, and in the Saginaw River.
"In fall, the Saginaw gets a tremendous shad run, and walleyes follow them into the river," Gwizdala says. "Fall is a great opportunity to catch big fish in Saginaw Bay. Not a lot of people take advantage of it."
Here, Gwizdala trolls 12 feet of water or less during the daytime and as shallow as 3 or 4 after dark. He opts for sizable stickbaits, including #14 Husky Jerks, #13 Original Rapalas and big ThunderSticks, trolled behind planer boards with frequent S-turns that work the baits up and down the subtle breaks. Shad Raps, such as the large #8s, are additional choices that approximate the growing goby population.
Come nightfall, you have the option of trolling around the river-mouth channel and rockpiles. Or, in the river between Bay City and Saginaw, try casting the same stickbaits from shore near old pilings and docks -- just the way a 14-pounder was pulled from the river last fall.
BACK TO THE BAYS
This back-to-the-bay blueprint extends all the way east to Lake Ontario, where the outer reaches of Canada's Bay of Quinte focus returning fish around the Charity Shoals, about a 15-mile run from Henderson Harbor. That's where PWT pro Todd Frank, Pulaski, New York, trolls cranks, especially Bomber 25As in a trout pattern, in the upper 15 to 25 feet over 40 feet of water.
Even though Frank has explanations for catching them, he has more questions about the source of their outlandish size and their homing instincts.
"Why do we get big fish and nothing else?" Frank asks. "And how do they find their way back? Do they do it by GPS? By smell? By sensing the earth's magnetic fields?"
Meanwhile, if the stomping grounds on Erie are not technically bays, the hot fall areas near Lorain (a lot of rock) and Huron (a lot of sand) offer abundant structure on the southernmost part of Erie -- close to, but not quite, a baylike situation.
It's a place where Brumbaugh trolls all the way into December, weather permitting, with a pattern that has prevailed since he first tried it in the mid-1990s. He suggests trolling Reef Runner Ripsticks 40 to 60 feet back, and Reef Runner Deep Runners 20 to 40 feet back, at 1.5 mph over 20 to 30 feet of water.
Lake Superior, the Bays de Noc, Saginaw, Erie, Quinte -- catch the walleyes chubbing or catch them cranking. Going into the final quarter with the game on the line, it's time to finish what the fish started last spring with a bay-oriented pileup that, year-in and year-out, ends the open-water season with a flourish.
*Dave Scroppo, Traverse City, Michigan, is a PWT pro and freelance outdoor writer.