December 17, 2022
"Seek ye first forage to find ice walleyes," is one of the Walleye In-Sider staff's guiding principles. Never is this mantra so justified as in the fall, when baitfish migrations, often into shallow, current-washed areas, draw schools of hungry and aggressive 'eyes to feast on autumn's bounty.
Species such as shad, alewives, ciscoes, yellow perch, and smelt, along with various minnows and shiners, are often the main course in classic systems. Savvy walleye fans are aware of many such predator-prey interactions, yet one relationship that holds water on a surprising number of lakes—the bluegill connection—is largely overlooked.
Walleyes eat bluegills and other members of the sunfish family throughout the year, but under the right conditions in late fall they target them to the near-exclusion of other baitfish.
The pattern is most prevalent in bass-panfish type lakes, typically late-mesotrophic or eutrophic in classification, that hold viable walleye fisheries thanks to stocking, natural reproduction, or some combination thereof. It also occurs in more classic walleye waters where large shallow bays, arms, or interconnected basins nurture healthy numbers of bluegills and other sunfish. Wherever you find it, the bluegill bite can provide some of the hottest big-fish action of the year.
Food for Thought
In many types of natural lakes, walleyes patrol weededges and weedflats throughout summer and early fall, picking off panfish and minnows. When the vegetation begins to die off, the reduction in baitfish hiding places triggers a full-blown feeding frenzy, which often peaks at twilight and after dark.
This binge typically takes place around the second or third week of October on my home waters in northcentral Minnesota, and occurs somewhat later as one travels further east, west, or south. Water temperatures around the 50°F mark are a good clue it may be happening.
Actually, my first hints of this pattern came years ago in extreme southern Minnesota on Lura Lake, a shallow prairie pothole that routinely produced walleyes pushing the 9-pound mark. Local fishery personnel said these big 'eyes fed almost exclusively on young bullheads. This extreme selectiveness made them difficult to catch—with the exception of about a two-week window of opportunity in the fall.
Shorefishing with "light-pike" sucker minnows about 4 inches in length was the ticket. We would rig the bait below a slipsinker, cast it out, and sit in the car to stay warm until a strike indicator tied just off the rod tip took off for the lake. To our surprise, these fish would regurgitate young bluegills. Some seasonal pattern must have made the bullheads less available to the walleyes—or the bluegills easier prey.
Fast-forward a decade to northern Minnesota and the Boy River Chain of lakes in the mid to late '80s. During duck-hunting season, friends and I found good-sized walleyes easy pickings around late October in many of the river areas or outflows during low-light periods. When the fish emptied their engorged bellies into our livewells, out came bluegills ranging from age-0 through age-2.
Once the light bulb went off in our heads that this was a seasonal pattern, we used it to routinely catch walleyes in the 3- to 6-pound range. A few smaller fish and a few biggies are thrown in, but the vast majority of the walleyes are above-average adult fish. One of the keys to capitalizing on the bluegill connection is realizing that walleyes pursuing panfish position themselves from the lower reaches of the water column up through mid-range depths, in current areas or deep weedlines, especially.
Inflows and slightly deeper current areas between lakes on river systems can be walleye magnets this time of year. Other regions frequented by bluegills (and thus walleyes) include the sides of points and bars, and deeper pockets in backs of bays.
Wherever the heaviest concentrations of bluegills are located is where you find the most walleyes, especially if the bluegills are situated in a slightly suspended fashion—hanging just off the deep cabbage line or somewhat suspended in and around a current inflow. Keep in mind that low-light situations are frequently best in all these areas at this time of year.
The primary exception to this pattern pertains to lakes with a strong population of ciscoes. In this case the bluegill bite is still possible, but far less consistent. The spawning ciscoes must offer a more readily accessible forage base in such systems.
Several presentations shine during the bluegill binge. Casting crankbaits is a solid option, especially with deep-bodied shad-style baits. Years ago, Cotton Cordell's Big O was my bait of choice when anchored and casting current areas. It still produces today, but Rapala's DT Series also fits the ticket perfectly, allowing me to use several different baits to ply various depths in one area.
Hot colors are often the ticket with this bite. Think gaudy combinations of yellow, red, purple, and green. The best shades often vary from lake to lake, so it pays to experiment. Start with patterns that imitate the resident bluegill population and go from there.
Anchoring and working pockets of activity are the rule on smaller lakes, whether you're snooping in a suspected walleye hideout or straining proven water. Fancast the area well, and lob a few casts parallel to and just outside it for good measure. A steady retrieve is rarely as productive as a simple "reel and stop reeling" cadence. Extremely erratic retrieves are a bust.
Tipping the front hook on a crankbait seems to improve success here just as it does in open-water trolling. A small chunk of Berkley Gulp!, in a bright and contrasting color to the crankbait, stays on the hook better while casting than a chunk of nightcrawler, and is thus a more efficient option.
Livebait techniques are also viable. This is one of the few situations where suckers are an excellent choice; redtails, river chubs, and shiners work, too. Four-inch suckers are my first choice in this situation, whether I'm fishing below a slipfloat, or slipsinker-rigging the lower reaches of the water column. It's possible that the length of the suckers at this time of year is similar to bite-sized bluegills. Or it could be that juvenile suckers are also still somewhat shallow and available to walleyes at this time of year.
Suspending livebait below a float is an efficient way of fishing deeper cabbage pockets and weededges, as well as open water just off the weedline or near current areas, when walleyes are more "up" than "down." Getting bit by walleyes 5 to 8 feet down in 12 feet of water is a common scenario.
In search mode, swim a lightly hooked redtail or sucker, trailing a split shot or bullet sinker, along weedlines. Controlled drifts work when the wind cooperates, but slow-trolling with an electric motor usually allows for more pinpoint presentations in regards to speed and depth control.
Considering its potential to produce big numbers of 3- to 6-pound walleyes, the bluegill connection is best enjoyed with a selective harvest approach, especially on lakes sustained by natural reproduction. But what better way to spend the day than reeling in fish with a pattern few anglers even know exists?
Under The Ice, Too
The bluegill pattern isn't just for open water. Just ask Roger Hugill, the Hinckley, Minnesota, area fishery manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. An avid walleye hunter—both competitively and at leisure—as well as a longtime SCUBA diver, Hugill has observed the predator-prey relationship between 'eyes and 'gills for years. He also notes that this relationship extends into winter on many bodies of water.
"Bluegills may not be the best food source for walleyes, yet adult walleyes, being opportunistic feeders, frequently take advantage of the bluegill's poor visual acuity during low-light situations, and target them as a food source," he says. "Most of the bluegills ingested by walleyes are one- or two-year-olds (following their second and third summer of growth). I have even observed dead or dying walleyes with bluegills too large to swallow lodged in their gills and gullet. We know walleyes target bluegills.
"Spring and especially fall are the times to target the larger walleyes in many of our smaller lakes," he continues. "The predator-prey relationship discussed here is important in understanding walleye behavior. "
Some fisheries experts suggest that adult walleyes actually prey on bluegills more efficiently than do smaller pike, thanks to greater visual acuity, and are beginning to consider walleyes to be a more efficient predator for keeping bluegill populations under control—and thus increasing average bluegill size.
Larry Damman, a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources fishery biologist based in Spooner, notes, "There is definitely a walleye-bluegill connection in my judgment, though only adult walleyes seem to prefer and thrive on them. Bluegills are most vulnerable to predators at night, thus night feeders such as walleyes can catch them more efficiently than can other predators."
Hugill says shallow flats (in the 6- to 12-foot range) with aquatic vegetation are key areas to target bluegill-pattern walleyes anytime from early fall through early-ice. "Shallow water is less of a deterrent to walleyes than most people think," he says.
"Through electrofishing we frequently find walleyes in shallow water, as long as there's some aquatic vegetation to break up the direct sunlight. And remember, the darker it becomes, the greater the advantage the walleye has over the bluegill; so low-light periods tend to be the best angling times. Four-inch-long sucker minnows, redtails (cast in open water or suspended under tip-ups), and similar-sized stickbaits (open water, cast, or trolled) are good choices at this time of year."
*Dan Craven lives in northern Minnesota and is a longtime contributor to In-Fisherman publications.