Meanders with Fall Walleyes
September 05, 2013
I am who I am in part because during my most formative years of fishing, I spent dozens of nights each fall shuffling around in waders at the mouths of current areas, casting for those walleye monsters that move silently through the shallows in search of baitfish. Or I was sitting in a small boat, a longline out the back with a minnow plug running temptingly over shallow shoals. Or I was in the same small boat, anchored on a key spot, casting hair jigs, early-day swimbaits, or plugs and working them just so.
I was there, hoping and scheming, so much alone with my thoughts, until I began to find a way to make the catching happen. Drinking countless cups of coffee by the light of the moon. Some nights dark and threatening — rain, sleet or snow pelting my back. Spending time, too, on those perfect nights, the smell of smoldering leaves in the air, a harvest moon rising in the east. And, in other ways, defining and redefining the process — the rods, the reels, the lines, the lures — until the process was a fine science.
Soon enough, having spent the time, it began to work so well, those senses so finely tuned in the darkness, so abruptly interrupted by a jolt in a dead-slow retrieve or trolling run — and then to be there with one of those monsters at net, flashlight beam reflecting the life in those marble eyes. These days, no more than a smile and a salute send the big ones on their way. Smaller fish, though, still fare well at my table — even a couple smaller fish, the focus of a fine meal.
Much of my life has revolved around this pursuit. Looking back I would not have had it any other way. And it is hopeless to expect change now. Last season there were again many of those nights — and many magic days. Much of the fishing hasn't changed. The fish are still waiting in key areas for boot anglers. And longline trolling shallow flats at night and casting to specific sweet spots with plugs and jigs still work, too. As you know, many waters also have teeming populations of walleyes working over pelagic baitfish in open water at this time. And rivers, well, that fishing is always there. Plenty of opportunities exist for walleyes in various waters across the country. I've been lucky enough to have fished most of the best of them.
One thing that has changed for many anglers is the idea that we often can approach walleyes a lot more aggressively than was the tradition for so long, especially on many waters during the day. I'm not much for dragging livebait around anymore, although I could be talked into it on a few fisheries where the fish are giants that can be seen on electronics and then targeted in short order. Even then, though, I think there usually are better ways to catch those fish. Note that Field Editor Steve Ryan lays out a great search and find strategy for pike in this October issue (livebait in combination with lures), which with a bit of modification would also work great for walleyes.
Article continues after gallery and lure types are further explained.
New Vertical Options
Many anglers know that walleyes use shallow weededges and flats at night. I want to talk about that and also discuss how walleyes use those areas during the day in a moment. During the day on natural lakes and reservoirs, most anglers work deep patterns, which is where the predominant use of livebait or jigs tipped with a minnow plays a role for many anglers. I like one of Field Editor Gord Pyzer's approaches for deep fish a lot better. He uses his electronics to search key deep rock spots on Lake of the Woods and other Canadian Shield waters. Once he finds fish, he hovers over them and drops a swimbait, fishing the swimmers vertically instead of horizontally.
We shot an In-Fisherman TV show segment fishing this way last fall, spotting fish in water 25 to 40 feet deep, along the edges of rock humps and on lips on the humps. Pyzer likes a 3/4-ounce jighead dressed with a Berkley PowerBait Flatback Shad (5 inches long), dropping it to the bottom, reeling down so his rod tip is 6 inches or so above the water with the line tight to the bottom. A braided or fused line is vital because they let you feel everything that's happening below, including the vibration of the lure as he swims it in a large, slow, looping hop about 4 feet above the bottom, then immediately letting the lure drop back on a semi-tight line.
The fish usually eat the lure as it falls, often just before it hits bottom, although fish also pin it right to the bottom. Other times, fish intercept it as it falls. Occasionally, walleyes are so aggressive they give immediate chase as the lure is rising and catch it at the peak of the lift. As is typical when a swimbait is in the presence of walleyes, the lure often is completely inhaled, indicating that the fish has been completely fooled.
My point has long been that presentations must first look good to fish, and, secondarily, it's how the lure feels to them when they get in close that often seals the deal. Fish feel low-frequency vibrations with their sensitive lateral line, which starts with several rows of pores on each side of their face and consolidates into one long line on each side that extend almost to the fish's tail. It's the beautiful realistic vibrations given off by paddletail swimbaits that causes fish to finally be so completely suckered. Swimbaits aren't just a passing fancy; they're a fundamental, vital lure category. They can be as close to magic in getting fish to eat as anything I've seen.
The Sebile Vibrato
Field Editor Cory Schmidt has been working the "looks-good-then-must-feel-good" requisite with another lure. The Sebile Vibrato has for him the last years been one of the best jigging-vibrating lures he's ever used — for walleyes, as well as for big bass and big lake trout in cold water. Last fall, he caught a 25-plus-pound laker from a Minnesota lake that historically never produces big fish.
In the same fashion as Pyzer, Schmidt searches for walleyes on deep structure with sonar, then stays on them using the spot lock function on his Minn Kota trolling motor. For those that haven't used the spot-lock function, it is remarkable. Push a remote-control button and, using internal GPS, the motor automatically controls it's own direction and speed to anchor the bow of a boat in place over the spot noted when you hit the button. You're usually locked in place within less than a minute. Last season alone, Schmidt stopped over dozens of individual walleye arches, dropping the Vibrato and converting two out of every three marks into hooked fish.
The magic of the Vibrato, he believes, lies in its subtle profile and vibration, which is a product of the lure's design, including the unique line-tie position at the top middle of the spine of the lure. The thin spine transitions into a thicker belly, giving it a tight, subtle wobble on the pull and fall. So it has less water resistance than most blades and lipless lures so it pulls smoothly, yet it's easy to feel the pulsing.
Schmidt says, and I agree, that many of the great spoons he's fished move from a vertical position to an anatomically correct horizontal wobble on the fall. He says the Vibrato does this dance better than any other spoon he's used. Furthermore, it also triggers fish on the up-stroke; so it's working for you all the time — moving up, down, and then at rest. Most spoons don't catch fish on the up-stroke.
Rather than ripping the rod tip hard, the Vibrato excels with shorter strokes. To fish it vertically, let it drop to the bottom, then lift it up a foot or so — or just above a fish mark — then lift it in a steady pull, before letting the bait fall back into place. On the lift, Schmidt says you should feel the bait pulse 3 to 5 times — tink-tink-tink-pause — and so on.
Rippin' and Pullin'
Schmidt notes that the Vibrato also works for casting and jigging in 10 to 20 foot zones over hard bottom lacking vegetation. Which brings us to another technique that's caught on to produce a ton of walleyes since we began experimenting with it about 6 years ago. It would take an entire article to travel through all the experiments in different seasons (including on ice) and with various lures to get at all the different ways to work lipless crankbaits for walleyes. This is the short of it, which often works wonders for walleyes in cold water.
Schmidt uses the Vibrato to flip or short cast to fish in zones close to the boat, because of the unique design of the Vibrato, which isn't necessarily a lipless crank. The lipless cranks work on a long cast and are either ripped aggressively up from the bottom and allowed to fall on a slack line, or they are less-aggressively pulled up from the bottom and allowed to fall on a semi-slack line.
The aggressive tactic tends to work best for smallmouths, largemouths, and pike, but it occasionally also works best for walleyes. The less aggressive maneuver tends to work most often for walleyes.
Working the aggressive tactic — rippin': This tends to work best with a medium-action casting rod 6.5 feet long, with a low-profile reel with about a 7:1 retrieve ratio, filled with 20-pound braid, tag-ended with a 4-foot fluorocarbon leader of 20 pounds. The best lipless baits weight 1/2 or 3/4 ounce and work best in water from about 10 feet deep to 30 feet deep. Make a long cast and let the bait fall on a slack line. When it hits bottom, engage the reel and position the rod tip at about 9 o'clock.
Rip the rod tip to 11 o'clock and immediately drop the rod tip back to 9 o'clock, reeling some line up as you drop back, but not so much as to tighten all the way up to the falling lure. It must fall on a completely slack line. The next rod-rip works best when part of the rip travels through some slack line that hasn't been totally retrieved before the next rip. You get a rhythm going and aren't watching your line for a strike. The fish eat the lure on the fall or pin it to the bottom and are just there on the next rod rip. Rippin' triggers fish best from the point where the lure lands at the end of the cast to between about half and three-quarter way back to the boat. By the time you get the lure too close it's being ripped up too high to be effective.
Working the less-aggressive tactic — pullin': This works great with the same casting tackle but also is effective with spinning tackle, including a 7-foot medium-fast-action rod, with a reel the size of a 35-class Pflueger Supreme, and fused line like 12-pound Berkley NanoFil or 10-pound FireLine, or a smooth braid like 10-pound Sufix 832, again tagged-ended in a fluorocarbon leader testing 15 pounds. Walleyes aren't scrutinizing these kinds of retrieves. There's no need for a light leader.
This time position the rod tip at 10 o'clock after the lure hits bottom and distinctly pull the rod tip to 11 o'clock. You feel the pulsing of the lure — zzzzzzzt. And then you just stop and drop the rod tip just enough to let the lure fall on a semi-tight line. In this case you're concentrating on feeling everything that's happening down below. Hits usually are a distinct "thump" just after the lure stops or as it falls. Occasionally fish pin the lure to the bottom, but even then you typically feel the bite. Pullin' works well at long distance, but can also be effectively closer to the boat.
The best lipless cranks: I haven't cycled through them all, but experience suggests that some work really well and others don't. I had modest success, for example, trying to work this technique with the Clackin' Rap when it was first introduced about 6 years ago. It was when the Rippin' Rap was introduced three years ago that I really started doing damage with rippin' and pullin'. There's something special about Rippin' Rap.
Since this spring I've had a chance to work with several other lures. Schmidt has had his success with the Sebile Vibrato; mine has been with the Sebile Flatt Shad, which works just as well as the Rippin' Rap. The LiveTarget lipless lures also work in this role; so, too, the Yo-Zuri Rattlin' Vibe, which has on of the best "swims" on the fall.
What you get with the Rippin' Rap, Flatt Shad, and Vibrato, compared to the Yo-Zuri Rattlin' Vibe and lipless LiveTarget options like the Golden Shiner and Gizzard Shad, is a sleeker, more compact design with a subtler wobble. Lures from both categories work really well in rippin' mode, but the subtle lures work best pullin'.
Grinding Shallow Walleyes at Night
Most anglers think deeper in fall, but where weeds continue to grow on shallow flats and along edges near deeper water, walleyes often push into and near them, even during the day. The shallow night bite, especially on rocks, but also near weeds, usually doesn't go unnoticed, although by November there typically aren't many folks on the water after dark. The shallow weed bite during the day is an almost completely overlooked opportunity. But let's first note the opportunities for fishing shallow weeds at night.
We have often discussed before trolling the edge with crankbaits like the Rapala Husky Jerk or a Smithwick Rattlin' Rogue on a long line behind the boat. It's still highly effective, especially for finding areas where even more fish may be pushed up shallow and hard to get at with crankbaits. Lipped cranks can be good too, but overall tend to get fouled with weeds too often.
When I think I've found a pocket of scattered fish, I stop trolling and start casting, often starting with one of the same suspending cranks that I was trolling. You quickly learn whether there are so many standing weeds that every cast is a weed-fouled disaster, or the plugs work efficiently to help you catch fish. Slow and steady is the rule with plugs after dark. Walleyes need to see your presentation, begin tracking it, which is when they feel it, which is again what seals the deal.
Two other lures can be terrific after dark. One is a bass-style spinnerbait. The one I was so successful with last fall is the Terminator Short-Armed Thumper, in either 5/8 or 7/8 ounce. It's vital to dress this lure with a 5-inch Berkley Havoc Grass Pig, an elongated, modified swimbait with a paddletail. Adding this thumper-tailed option really makes a difference in getting fish to bite. It can be ground along dead slow, tickling through weeds in water as deep as 12 feet. Bump into a weed and keep right on slow grinding and often as not the lure plows through without fouling. With low-profile reels you can do this effectively with a 7:1 gear ratio, although a slower reel with a 6.4:1 ratio might be smoother overall.
The other cool grinder-spinner-combination I put together myself because there's nothing quite like it on the market. I take a Terminator In-Line Spinner with a #4 blade, remove the hook it comes with and replace it with a Lazer Sharp #L111 weighted swimbait hook in #4/0 and weighting 1/4 ounce. Add a 5-inch Grass Pig and rig it texposed and you can work the combination through heavy stuff without constantly fouling. Another fine lure option is the 5-inch Berkley PowerBait Hollow Belly swimbait rigged flat. I prefer working both options with the same casting combination that I use for rippin', although I prefer a 7-foot rod in order to make longer casts.
Night fishing for walleyes on most bodies of water is most productive when the moon's up. Even a sliver helps and often is the difference between a good bite and no bite at all. I often fish the moon bite from 2 or 3 in the morning, through sunrise, and then see how the bite progresses as the sun rises higher.
Many times nightfishing is most productive when you've already found which weedbeds walleyes are working by fishing during the day. Daylight fishing also helps to more quickly determine the layout of a big bed — where the pockets are, and where the shallow growth projects out farthest into deeper water. Drop in icons on your GPS, marking the thickest portion of beds (fish over them and through the edges), the outside edge of the bed, and other prominent features you think might be gathering spots for fish at night.
Grinding Shallow Walleyes in Daylight
My best walleye catch of last season occurred unexpectedly on November 16. I planned to shoot an In-Fisherman TV show segment on basin crappies, but the night before was very cold and windless. When I got to the local lake that I wanted to fish, it and all the smaller surrounding lakes had 2 inches of ice.
The week before I shot a walleye show segment on a large lake nearby, fishing at night, using the spinnerbait tactics outlined here. So I knew that some fish should still be using a very large weedflat with a non-distinct edge in 12 feet of water. The edge runs for about a half mile. Some fish should also still be up scattered on the large flat. In three hours of fishing the count pushed past 25, with several fish topping out at 26 inches — and that wasn't counting all the nice pike that were also feeding heavily along and just outside that weededge.
Rarely is shallow fall fishing that productive, but the point is that fishing shallow during the day remains a top option, even when almost everyone else is thinking deep. On Canadian Shield lakes that option also applies to fishing shallow rocks, but let's stick with the weed options on natural lakes and reservoirs this time.
One great thing about fishing shallow weeds is that you can do it relatively quickly in your search to see if anything's happening. Crankbaits are an option, but often just gather too many weeds to be efficient. I use both the spinner options mentioned earlier at times, especially when the weedgrowth is heavy. Mostly, though, I use the same approach that I've outlined many times with a 3/4-ounce jighead and a swimbait body like the PowerBait Flatback Shad. Make long casts when you can and swim the lure along a foot or so above bottom, pausing every so often to allow it to settle back just a bit, before you move it along again. Fish it more like you're working a crankbait than you're putt-putting along a jig-and-minnow combo.
If the weeds are a soft and mushy mass swimbaiting doesn't work, but in that case there's rarely any fish in the weeds anyway. You're still looking for healthy green cabbage and coontail. Move along quickly if it's your first time down a weededge; get a feeling for what's happening. How are the weeds laid out? Still green? Pockets or solid line down the edge? Can you make casts up shallower and fish back toward deeper water? Or is the edge still so solid that you must make casts mostly down the edge?
Most of the time if there are numbers of fish on a weedflat and edge, some of them seem to be feeding most of the day. So if they're there, you soon contact some of them. If they're not, you can search another bed, or decide to move out to explore deeper water.
Other swimbaits work better than the Flatback Shad at times. Overall, the 4- and 5-inch Berkley PowerBait Hollow Bellys are perhaps the finest of all the paddletail swimbaits I've used. They give off a different vibration pattern than the Flatback Shad and most other paddlers. The 4-inch lure works best rigged flat, while the 5-inch lure works well either way. I don't fish the 4-inch lure much except during early season and in rivers. I've also tried the similarly shaped and less expensive Hollow Belly Split Bellys, but they don't work as well.
The key to rigging the Hollow Belly is that you do not want the hook shank running through the hollow part of the lure. You must carefully insert the hook point through the head of the lure, then run the point shallow through the skin either on the side (rigging flat), or through the skin on the back (rigged regular). The lure needs a solid anchor point to work against in order to swim well.
The Berkley Havoc Grass Pig works great at times. The Havoc Sick Fish also works well and is the most durable of the swimmers I've fished. You might get 4 or 5 fish out of a Flatback Shad, but you're likely to get more than 10 out of a Sick Fish, which are offered in 4- and 5.5-inch models. The Sick Fish is the swimmer I slide on a jighead when I know I'm fishing for pike. I fish Berkley products so much because they're a TV sponsor, so that's what I'm generally working with. But I know that the Yum Money Minnow is a great product. And so is the Big Hammer. I've also caught lots of big walleyes on the pre-rigged Storm WildEye Swim Shad, but it doesn't fish well in weedgrowth.
Arriving home late one night this past season, another timeless event unfolded, as a couple of strips of bacon hit the pan. Bacon finished, a little butter added to season the bacon oil, then the fillets dusted in flour and cornmeal, plus salt, cayenne, and black pepper. Three minutes passing, turn those fillets, and add a couple of eggs to fry alongside. Won't be long now, so pour a glass of wine, tear off a hunk of bread — relive another good time passing. My fishing life has not been defined so much by select moments, as by a lifetime of special moments along the way — having had the opportunity to travel and fish and explore, finding so many things that work so well and being able to share via TV, magazine, and online.
The last decade those midnight trips to catch fall walleyes became a little less frequent. Still, I feel each full moon rising in these bones. I still lie sleepless on many nights, wondering how busyness can interrupt such essence in anyone's life. But we fish too, if only for a moment and at some distance, when we have hard-won experiences to remember and the hope of more to come.