September 13, 2021
Some of my best walleye fishing of the past season coincided late last fall with the rapid crash in water temperature on several large Brainerd-area, Minnesota, lakes, including 130,000-acre Mille Lacs, which lies 20 miles east of our office. By October 22, water temperature had dropped to 42.5°F, and many shallow rocky-gravelly shoals were being visited by schools of prespawn ciscoes, which spend most of the rest of the year roaming open water. The next week, with the water at 41°F, ciscoes were in full-scale spawning mode. Walleyes—big ones—were right there with them. It’s one of many predator-prey patterns we’ve been toying with for more than 40 years.
The best fishing often transpires at night, when ciscoes push very shallow, often within range of boot anglers. In the 1980s, the late Gary Rosenberg and I spent 20 nights each fall wading key spots in a few area lakes. The fishing predictably peaked near the end of each season. On a calm night, often during one of the nights surrounding the full moon, ciscoes dimpled the surface of the water around us and bumped into our boots. One memorable full-moon night in late October, we caught a dozen walleyes from 8 to 12 pounds.
These days I search for the fish, starting just before sunrise, moving quietly via trolling motor through potential cisco 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.
Swimbaits for River Duty
No surprise, paddletail swimbaits are great options for river walleyes during late season, too. Given usually having to deal with current, Doug Stange likes the lure package to land on bottom and not tip over, so he rigs a 4-inch Berkley PowerBait Ripple Shad flat. This allows it to touch down and lift back off the bottom realistically. Paddletails like the PowerBait Power Swimmer have a slightly flattened belly and also work well in rivers (and in still waters, too).
Bigger is better in low light up to a point, because walleyes can see it better. In this case, too, many of the ciscoes are more than 12 inches long. So, while a #12 Rapala Husky Jerk is standard issue for walleyes in most bodies of water, I usually go with the bigger #14 instead. And, I often employ a bulky swimbait body like the Berkley PowerBait Rib Shad, which measures about 5 inches but pushes more water than, say, a narrow-bodied PowerBait Ripple Shad, although it also fishes well. An even better choice at times is the 6-inch PowerBait Hollow Belly, which has about as much swimming action as any paddletail on the market. It seems crazy gigantic to many walleye anglers. But when a bigger walleye flares its gills and opens its mouth it creates a giant opening that can handle big baitfish. A 28-inch walleye can easily eat a half dozen 6-inch Hollow Belly bodies at the same time.
Opening salvos in the morning usually take place near shore in water 4 to 7 feet deep. As the sun cracks the horizon, ciscoes push out deeper and the walleyes follow. It depends on what kind of structural elements are available in the immediate area, but it’s typical for fish to hold on or around rocky-gravelly flats or humps in 10 to 14 feet of water until mid-morning. The ciscoes don’t always go far and neither do the walleyes. Indeed, during the peak of the cisco spawn, walleyes often roam these shoals and feed on ciscoes all day long.
The best structural layout once the sun is up often are humps 10 to 14 feet or so deep, surrounded by slightly deeper water immediately adjacent to spawning areas (generally within a half mile). Walleyes hold on top of the humps waiting for groups of roaming ciscoes to run into the side of the hump and swim up over top of it—or filter alongside 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, which can be primo in some instances, 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. Generally, 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 don’t always hold high in the water column. And even when they do, walleyes usually hold below them.
Hollow Belly Paddlers
The Berkley PowerBait Hollow Belly swimbait is designed to be used in conjunction with weighted swimbait hooks, but Doug Stange likes them rigged on jigheads, because of their distinctive wobbling-swimming action. They’re versatile, too, available in 4, 5, and 6 inches. They must be rigged correctly in order to work well on a jighead. Stange: “Run the hook just under the top of the back, not so the hook rides in the hollow center of the lure. The hook needs to be solidly anchored in soft material in order for the lure to pivot correctly.” Use a drop of super glue at the head of the softbait and jighead to help keep the lure on the jighead to make long casts and catch multiple fish.
When I first started writing about using paddletails, a lot of anglers thought I was delusional. Twenty years later, they’ve long since proven to be irresistible to walleyes, and it’s a rare fishing company that doesn’t have one (or several) in their lineup. The fish like what they see first of all, then like what they feel with their lateral line once they get in close. Time and again anglers who use these lures are 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- or 7.5-foot medium or medium-light (for lighter jigheads) power and fast-action rod, with a bit bigger reel spooled with 10-pound Berkley FireLine Ultra 8. Ultra 8 is revolutionary 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 a 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, another long-distance caster.
Finally, because FireLine doesn’t stretch you’re totally in contact with the lure, even at a distance. No need for a powerful hook-set; 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 add an 8-inch section of tieable wire, my favorite being American Wire Surflon Micro Supreme (20-pound breakstrength) to the end of the fluorocarbon. Walleyes have good vision but they don’t see 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.
Longer casts aren’t just about stealth, although that’s a factor at times. At long distance, presentations stay in the strike zone longer during the retrieve. At the end of a 100-foot cast the trajectory of the lure as you retrieve it along the bottom doesn’t change much vertically. As your retrieve nears the boat, you need to pause more often to let the lure fall to maintain close contact with bottom. That can be a trigger at times, but overall most of what a paddletail does best is done best farther from the boat or shore. (Of course, there are times to make short accurate casts to specific spots, as opposed to long casts.)
That is but one example of the forage-factoring game we play with walleyes throughout the season, on ice or on open water, depending on the portion of the season and the forage species, from bluegills, ciscoes, and perch, to gobies and gizzard shad.
There are stories connected to fishing with paddletail swimbaits to go with each and every species, and, as I mentioned, the stories (situations) change with the changing fall weather and water temperature.
One favorite boot-fishing pattern on weedy lakes with a lot of panfish is to look for rocky-gravelly points projecting into the mainlake where shoals get packed with weedgrowth during summer. Smaller panfish hold tight in the weeds to elude walleyes and other predators. It’s impossible to fish spots like this until decreasing daily sunlight makes the weeds recede, exposing the panfish.
It usually took until about the second week of October on a spot like Eagle Point on West Okoboji in Northwest Iowa, the region where I spent so much time boot fishing so many years ago. I used a 4-inch Sassy Shad body on a wedgehead jig weighing 1/4-ounce to work over and through these areas, a much more efficient choice than a crankbait in dealing with weedgrowth. The Sassy Shad is the original paddletail option (along with the Blue Fox Vibrotail) introduced, I believe, in 1978 or 1979. It’s still a good one, today.
Of course, these days, boot-fishing logistics have changed. I doubt it’s possible to wade Eagle Point today, unless you get there by boat. But there still are plenty of public areas to wade.
Weedy-rocky points and shoals aren’t efficient spots to connect with big fish, though. The best areas are those like the Foot-Bridge area at the north end of Big Spirit Lake, where current flows through a necked-down area into the main lake. The current helps to focus fish activity, making contact with bigger fish more likely.
When I fished there, from September into mid- to late October, bullheads and various minnow species, plus smaller perch were the main forage. In late October into early November, those species disappeared and the fishing usually went dead for a week or so until another pattern developed. For about a week it was common to catch bigger walleyes that were targeting 10- to 12-inch walleyes. Those were days when we still often ate big fish. Meanwhile, it was common to continue catching fish on spots like Eagle Point until past Thanksgiving, weather depending.
I always preferred fishing with the wind at my back. Not only was it warmer, with your head covered by a hood, casts traveled much farther. There’s an eerie whining sound that monofilament line makes stretched tight by a big walleye out in the distance, with sustained wind of about 15 mph at your back.
Baitfish patterns beyond (or in conjunction with) ciscoes play forth on mesotrophic lakes like Mille Lacs and other lakes in our region like Gull, Pelican, and lakes in the Whitefish Chain; plus hundreds of other natural lakes and reservoirs across North America, where receding weedgrowth exposes baitfish and makes them vulnerable to walleyes.
Get on a weedline in the main lake and start casting. Early on during fall the best fishing usually is after dark or during the twilight periods. The fishing just gets better as the season rolls on. By the end of it all in late fall, the sun is so low in the sky that the fish often bite all day long, especially with a bit of a chop. At the end, bright days often fish better than dark days.
Instead of holding deeper and casting shallower, it often pays to get right on the edge and make long casts down the edge. Make one cast a bit deeper than the edge, another right down the edge, and another a bit up onto the edge, before moving a bit farther down the edge. If you get into fish, hold your position until the fishing slows.
One memorable day of fishing like this again transpired on Mille Lacs. It was later in November and I had planned to shoot TV, fishing for basin-holding crappies in a smaller lake near Mille Lacs, but the night before temperatures dropped into the teens and all the smaller lakes iced over. So, I drove to Mille Lacs, found the Garrison access still open and dropped in. That year the deep edge of the flat in Garrison Bay had extensive weedgrowth (broadleaf pondweed and coontail), with a ragged deep edge in about 11 feet of water, running for at least 500 yards. With the wind out of the west-northwest, it was easy to make a controlled drift down the edge, making long casts with a 3/4-ounce Owner Saltwater Bullet Head dressed with a PowerBait Flatback Shad (now discontinued). For two hours it was either a pike or a walleye on almost every cast, with the pike running 3 to 12 pounds, and the walleyes mostly 22 to 27 inches.
Patterns on many lakes change over the years. On Mille Lacs, invasive curlyleaf pondweed now chokes many areas where once grew attractive stands of broadleaf pondweed and coontail. Even though curlyleaf mostly dies down in midsummer, the other weedgrowth never gets a start. In other bodies of water, invasive rusty crayfish have reduced weedgrowth so that it no longer attracts walleyes. As is always the case, every day on the water is an experiment in action. You have to react to what you find when you get there.
In most situations with walleyes roaming in open water the best approach is to troll, spreading crankbaits at known depths and maintaining those depths as one covers a lot of water, looking for groups of walleyes. We’ve spent a lot of time over the years during late November and early December on the Bay of Quinte, at Picton, Ontario, just off Lake Ontario. Shad and other baitfish push into the bay and run suspended over deeper water during the daytime. It remains one of the best spots in North America to catch a 12-pound walleye.
At times, walleyes go for deep-diving crankbaits running 20 to 30 feet down. At other times the fish suspend much higher and can’t be seen on electronics. Then it pays to spread suspending cranks like the Rapala Husky Jerk, fishing them 10 feet down a 120 feet behind boards or directly behind the boat.
Ripple Shad Versatility & the Rib Shad
The Berkley PowerBait Ripple Shad is available in 2-, 3-, 3.5-, 4-, and 5-inch sizes, making them a versatile option in environments with different sized walleyes. These softbaits are one of the most durable paddletails on the market. The 3.5-, 4-, and 5-inch softbaits are pictured here, along with the Rib Shad (bottom), which is only available in 4.5 inches. Note the two 4-inch Ripple Shads, one unrigged, the other rigged. Stange removes the eyes and then trims back the nose of the lure to flatten it slightly before inserting a jighead. Meanwhile, the bulky design of the Rib Shad (bottom lure) pushes a lot of water and delivers a wide-wobbling swimming action, making it a top option for big fish, especially on Great Lakes waters where round gobies are a common forage.
It doesn’t work well to try trolling a spread of paddletail swimbaits on jigheads, but one can catch additional fish, by working with a handheld rod and a paddletail directly in back of the boat while running a spread of crankbaits. At times, just let the jig and paddletail grind along in back of the boat. Other times, work the rod tip, pulling the lure forward 4 or 5 feet, before letting it gradually fall back. Other times, grind the lure along and then completely switch things up by ripping the rod tip and making the lure dance erratically before letting it grind along again.
Completely off the charts at this point is casting paddletails to walleyes suspended in open water. It’s not particularly efficient to search for suspended fish like that, but I’ve been successful casting once we’ve marked pods of walleyes in general areas while first trolling. Twice, fishing on the Bay of Quinte, after we’ve had a string of waypoints marking the general location of groups of roaming walleyes, we’ve drifted with the wind back through those waypoints, making long casts with paddletails, catching enough big fish to do TV segments.
Experiment with running depth just as you would running a set of crankbaits. Those two encounters were farther up the bay closer to Picton, where the water is mostly 30 to 40 feet deep. On one trip the key was a 10-count drop before beginning retrieves. The other trip the fish were holding a bit deeper and a 15-count produced more fish. For each TV segment we boated walleyes surpassing 10 pounds.
So forage remains a consistent factor. Only during spawning season does that urge play a more important role in where walleyes will be than the forage they depend on the rest of the year to survive and thrive.
Prey species vary, with common options being 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 waters drum play a role. In other waters burbot. Walleyes do particularly well on oily, fatty, soft-finned forage like ciscoes and small whitefish. Smelt at times. Occasionally trout. Sometimes leopard frogs. And these days on the Great Lakes, especially round gobies. Walleyes also are cannibalistic.
Thus, understanding the basic nature of the forage species and how they function in the various bodies of water where they live and how their location changes based on seasonal change, is as fundamental to fishing for walleyes as is picking the right lure or bait presentation. Indeed, one affects the other. Paddletail swimbaits have had a major effect on choice of presentation method, because, walleyes can’t resist them in most instances. They are one of the most efficient options yet devised to catch walleyes, including during late season.