November 14, 2021
This feature was published in the 2006 edition of Walleye Insider. Since that time, much has been uncovered and learned about barotrauma--the effects of catching fish, particularly walleyes, from deep water. At In-Fisherman, we also believe in and promote Selective Harvest, therefore the information in this feature still holds true if you intend to keep a limit of fall walleyes. However, conservation must be considered at this time--releasing a short walleye that was caught from deep water will likely kill it. Consider a common-sense approach when pursuing deep-water walleyes, catch your limit and call it a day, or seek another pattern or species that swims in shallower waters.
There is a feature In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Quinn wrote last year that sheds some light on the subject. While this story offers a lot of evidence to support the long-term effects barotrauma has on fisheries and how barotrauma does impact individual fish, much is still unknown on the subject. We continue to seek new and relevant information on barotrauma, and we'll produce new work as additional information becomes available in the future. You can read the feature Barotrauma: Major Challenge for Catch-and-Release here.
Fall is big-fish time, particularly for walleyes. Gone are the uncomfortably warm surface temperatures and fussy feeding attitudes of summer. Cooling water triggers walleyes to instinctually chow down in earnest in preparation for a long cold winter and an arduous spring spawn. Gone too are the summer angling and boating crowds. Quiet and solitude above the surface contrast with feeding ferocity below. It's a great time to be on the water.
Fall walleyes follow another instinctual calling, and often are drawn to areas of a lake or reservoir where feeding structures plummet chasmlike into the main basin. Contrast this with summer, where walleyes hunt along the drop-offs bordering extensive flats of relatively shallow and consistent depth. Or where walleyes tend to suspend at uniform levels above the thermocline, which basically limits how deep they can go. In essence, walleyes generally behave somewhat horizontally in summer. Establish a depth preference, and have at them.
But in fall, the playing field tilts drastically. Rapid drops to deep water become focal points of walleye activity, and you must think vertically in order to catch fish.
Why the difference? After fall turnover, the thermocline has dissipated, returning oxygen to the depths. A lake or reservoir is of relatively uniform temperature from top to bottom. No barriers prevent up-down fish movement, other than the time it takes fish to adjust to pressure changes. As a result, the fish show more of a tendency to move rapidly up and down along steep structures, rather than patrolling consistent depths along their perimeters. Structures breaking quickly into deep water typically become key to fall trophy success.
This simple premise can steer you toward an area of a reservoir, or from one side of a lake to the other. Where are the steep-breaking structures? If one side of a lake is relatively shallow and sloping, while the other side features shorter structures that drop quickly into the basin, that's your answer. Think steep and deep.
In a reservoir, the lower and deeper end of the impoundment often hosts the most fish in winter. This is particularly true if the reservoir is shallow -- little or no basin area exceeding 40 feet in depth. Everything is relative, however. In a gigantic plateau reservoir with an abundance of deep (100-foot-plus) water, perhaps the deep major creek arms are sufficiently deep to draw fish.
Look at the terrain or examine the lake map. Is one shoreline of the creek arm or impoundment steeper than the other? If so, focus your initial attempts on structures along the visibly steeper side. Oddswise, that's where most of the walleyes should be. Do deep, submerged river or creek channels swing up against short and steep shoreline points? Dynamite places to start. Take the plunge.
How about midlake structures like humps, reefs, and sunken islands? Once again, do they adjoin deep water? Do at least portions of their edges plummet into the basin or adjoin a deep river channel? If so, concentrate your efforts along those sections, pretty much ignoring portions that taper more slowly into the depths. Percentagewise, sharper drop-offs draw more fish in fall.
SPECIFIC AREAS -- BREAKS ON THE BREAK
Once walleyes are attracted to general areas of a lake or reservoir, they tend to relate to specific structures meeting their seasonal needs. As they gather on such spots, irregularities along their edges tend to concentrate fish, particularly in deep water. Short points extending off a hump are excellent. Often missed by anglers, however, are the inside corners or cups formed at the intersection of a point and the main structure, where the point first swings out toward deep water. These corners often are the steepest-dropping sections of a structure, and they intercept and hold walleyes along their wall-like sides.
While moving walleyes can traverse long, straight sections of a drop-off, they more likely hold for extended periods along any twists and turns along the edge. These may be formed by an actual physical change in the shape of the bar, point, or hump, such as a section where the drop-off is more precipitous. Or perhaps by a change in bottom type, like a rock deposit, indicated on electronics by a stronger return of the transducer signal. Some feature usually tends to concentrate fish somewhere along the edge.
Often, you can simply cruise along the drop-off, weaving your boat slightly deeper and shallower than the primary fish zone, using electronics to spot fish, or at least areas of higher potential. It's quicker and easier to look for them than to actually fish every bit of potential deep water. Once you determine a high-percentage area, go back to the spot and fish it thoroughly.
It seems an apparent contradiction: trophy fishing becomes better in fall even though the fish are able to use more lake areas and greater depths compared to summer. In fall, however, walleyes typically school heavier and concentrate more in classic spots. As weedcover diminishes, fish are less able to hide from electronics. Once you find 'em, catching multiple trophies is common. Yet location is more than just finding good spots. Establishing productive depths is paramount to success.
Since no temperature or oxygen barrier deters fish movement, walleyes can be at almost any depth, including quite deep. The transition to soft basin at the base of a structure is particularly attractive, even if it's as deep as 40 to 70 feet (if available) -- and in some cases, even more. Every lake tends to establish a productive depth range based on water clarity, forage, available depth, and other local conditions.
Example: walleye behavior on large, clear plateau reservoirs of the Missouri River in the Northern Plains states. During bright, calm midday conditions, walleyes might lie at the 35- to 70-foot level at the tips of points, in perfect position for vertical jigging jigs or spoons, or precision livebait rigging. Spot fish on your electronics, hover above them, and drop a lure or bait right on their noses.
Add a sudden strong wind, however, and wind-generated mudlines along shore might draw aggressively feeding fish up into as little as 3 or 4 feet of water. Switch to casting or longline trolling jigs or crankbaits in the shallows. In essence, the steepness of the structure enables fish to move only a short distance vertically without covering much distance laterally. Hence, the importance of steep structures in fall.
Take another example: a deep, clear northern natural lake. During calm conditions, walleyes might lie at the 35- to 55-foot levels, often along the transition from hard to soft bottom at the base of the drop-off rimming a point or hump. When they're deep, it's rigging and jigging territory. But at night, walleyes might rise up to cruise an adjacent sand and gravel flat, where fall-spawning ciscoes spawn in the shallows once water temperatures dip below 40F. After nightfall, longline trolling minnow-imitating crankbaits or casting neutrally buoyant minnowbaits might tear 'em up in less than 10 feet of water. Once again, the steepness of the structures permits quick vertical depth change with little horizontal movement -- a classic fall condition.
PROXIMITY VERSUS PRODUCTIVITY
A less classic but nevertheless dependable pattern occurs in shallow prairie lakes with little structure. In these fertile waters, an influx of forage into the lake in fall occurs as salamanders (morphing into waterdogs) and frogs desert swamps and reenter shallow soft-bottomed bays. Walleyes sense this and intercept the new-found food opportunity at the mouths of shallow bays, perhaps penetrating the bays themselves to feed under cover of darkness. Casting minnow imitators is deadly.
The question arises, however: Are all such areas good? Oddswise, swamp or bay areas adjoining a fast drop to deep water have the highest potential, while those that lie a longer distance from the main basin typically have a reduced attraction. Yet "deep" is also relative; in such waters, 20 to 25 feet may be the deepest water in the lake. As always, take the local environment into account to determine likely fishing patterns and areas.
And finally, the traditional river or creek mouth pattern, or the flowing narrows area between two lakes, where walleyes move shallow into the current to feed on minnows at night. It applies on nearly any body of water containing walleyes, from the Great Lakes to the Great Plains. Once again, such spots can be deadly, providing walleyes need move only a vertical distance from adjoining deep daytime haunts. Current constrictions lying significantly farther from such basin areas simply tend to draw few fish in fall; walleyes typically won't move long distances across shallow flats to enter such areas.
Up against the wall, 'eye. Steep vertical structures meeting the main basin of a lake or reservoir become the focal points of walleye activity in fall. Fish location can range from shallow at night to exceedingly deep during the day. Good spots often allow them to do both within the same limited area. Find those spots, and you have the fish cornered.
In fall, steeper structures on the west half of the lake are more attractive to walleyes than the sloping structures on the east half. Expect walleyes to concentrate along portions of the western points or humps that plunge into deep water.
Area A has potential along its eastern edge; Area B has better potential along its western side. Probe along the edges, particularly at the tips of points or inside corners as the contour turns outward to form the point. The deep hump in Area E has a faster drop-off on its northern side. Fish it.
On all fast-breaking structures, pay special attention to the transition from hard to soft bottom at the base of the drop-off, where the slope bottoms out into the basin. When walleyes are deep, such areas are fish magnets.
Current Area C has more potential than Current Area D due to its close proximity to deep water. During the day, walleyes likely suspend or inhabit the adjacent deep-water points to either side of the river mouth. At night, they move a short distance up into the current to feed.
The north side of this reservoir has obvious fall walleye potential; the shoreline structures are short and steep, plunging into deep water. In reservoirs with shallow to moderate depth, deep-water swing-ins where the river channel brushes up against shoreline structures (Areas A and C) are excellent. The hump adjoining the channel in Area B also has great potential.
Note irregularities and subtleties on individual structures than may concentrate fish. The hump has a small bump along the side dropping into the channel -- an obvious concentration spot. The point in Area C not only has an obvious tip, but a sharp inside corner (actually two). The corner adjoining or nearest deep water likely collects and holds fish.
The opposite (south) side of the reservoir has sloping structures and probably better potential to attract walleyes in summer. This is particularly true in shallower reservoirs with weedcover or flooded timber and brush that tend to hold fish for long periods, such as days or weeks. Even so, those deep-water swing-ins to structures on the north side likely attract fish periodically throughout most of the year. Why? Walleyes in deep reservoirs (as shown here) are notorious movers, and such structures intercept fish as they swim up or down the impoundment, holding them for brief periods as long as the spots aren't too deep for summer use (below the thermocline).