How To Fish For Fall Walleyes
November 13, 2012
Fall is trophy time, particularly for hawg walleyes. Cooling water seemingly triggers a prewinter feeding binge. The ramifications, however, reach far beyond simple water temperature and enhanced activity; the changing environment causes fish to behave differently than they do in summer. The better you understand walleye options and efficient ways of contacting and catching them, the greater your cornucopia of trophy action.
In fall, the challenge becomes quickly locating walleyes through a combination of electronic sightseeing and aggressive presentations, coupling what you see with what you catch to determine patterns of preference. The word aggressive is relative, basically meaning using the fastest possible presentation you can get away with while still catching fish. Most walleye anglers tend to fish slowly and meticulously in fall, which may at times be the only path to success, but often is an unnecessarily slow and scenic route to your destination.
Evaluate conditions. If the fish will respond to faster presentations, why take the traditional slow road if the turnpike gets you where you're going with time to spare? The faster dead water is eliminated, the more fishing time is left. Think of this as more quickly sifting through the haystack to find the needle lurking within.
Understanding the changing environment and the resulting shifts in fish location and behavior are your first keys to fall walleye action. Cooling water begins thinning or killing shallow weedgrowth, reducing cover, forcing predators and prey out into open water where they can be seen on electronics. Seeing is believing, and confidence comes from knowing the fish are there.
Cooling water eventually disrupts the summer thermocline, leading to a transitional period of tough fishing, labeled the fall turnover. Fish often are scattered and difficult to pattern during turnover. Once conditions stabilize, however, definite patterns arise. For one, the reoxygenation of deep water, which formerly was below the thermocline, allows fish to drop deeper, setting up location on deep structure, across open basins, or suspending. These deep stable habitats not only are conducive to hosting walleyes and baitfish in fall, but also, because the fish are outside any form of shallow cover, they usually can be seen on electronics, enhancing fishing effectiveness.
As far as activity goes, let's dispel a misconception. Cooling water isn't necessarily detrimental to fish activity, as might be assumed with cold-blooded fish. Walleyes feed at nearly any temperature, though ultracold winter levels may slow their reaction times, forcing slow presentations. In fall, however, typical temperatures fall well within the walleye "comfort" zone, and walleyes may strike baits or lures moving at a variety of speeds, from barely creeping along to several miles per hour. Probably not a zippy 5 miles per hour, as in the heat of summer, but certainly a couple miles per hour, which makes quick-trolling lures like crankbaits and spinners fair game for fall walleyes.
During summer, food is abundant, and walleyes may need only feed for brief periods during the course of the day. Activity often is keyed to short bursts at sunrise or sunset, when walleyes have a distinct vision advantage over most minnow prey. Summer daytime activity can at times be next to nil, greatly frustrating fishing efforts. In fall, however, with the food chain shrinking as temperature drops, and bait more exposed in open water due to reduced cover options, walleyes often feed throughout the day, rather than brief but intense forays during lowlight conditions.
As fish drop deeper into open water, away from cover, they sometimes school more heavily and function more as units, rather than as loose aggregates or groups of individuals spread throughout the same shallow habitat. Thus in fall, often we're hunting for packs, rather than for a few lone wolves. Find the pack, and you find the action. Catch the first one, and hang on, because more 'eyes are nearby.
If you cover enough water quickly, while looking and fishing, you'll find walleyes. You could strictly look with electronics and only stick a bait in the water when you slow down. But if you can keep a lure in the water while scouting at a quick pace, while simultaneously using modest speed (quickness) to trigger strikes, you can accomplish all goals with a single strategy. Then refine it as the pieces of the puzzle begin falling into place.
Quick trolling for walleyes involves faster tactics than traditional livebait rigging and vertical jigging, which are slow, precision, extraction tactics used to tempt biters in a neutral to negative mood. Quick trolling systems are aggressive search engines to quickly cover water, eliminate fishless space, and locate and catch fish.
Once walleyes are found, you have the option to slow down, switch tactics, and saturate limited areas. Or, a better option may be to continue on your way, using a combination of speed and triggering to scarf up an occasional scattered walleye. Thus this trolling approach works as well for catching scattered fish as for reducing the time required to contact distinct schools.
In general, due to the combination of increased depth and modest speed, quick-trolling tactics with spinners or crankbaits require the addition of significant weight to keep the bait or lure down in the fish zone. Weighting systems most commonly associated with quick-trolling include three-way rigs, snap weights, and bottom bouncers.
Quick trolling the edges of large predominant structures typically calls for fairly long, straight trolling passes broken by an occasional quick weave to follow irregularities in the contour. And, of course, it also involves a quick precision turn when a major turn or point is encountered. When fish are tight to structure, generally bottom-oriented, your bait should be right there, too, inches above bottom, smack dab in the fish zone.
This situation favors quick trolling with three-way rigs, incorporating either a spinner rig or a minnow-imitator crankbait. The heavy weight — from 1 to 3 or 4 ounces to match depth and speed — maintains bottom contact. Varying the length of the dropper positions the lure a desired distance off bottom, ranging from inches to a few feet, depending on fish position. Interpret what your electronics reveal, adjusting dropper length to match the fish's level.
Leader length varies, though more than 4 or 5 feet is seldom needed with a shallow-running minnow-imitator crankbait. Trolling 1 to 3 mph makes the lure dive perhaps a foot below the three-way swivel. A spinner harness tends to ride truer to the level of the swivel, as long as speed is consistent. Lift-drops, incorporating pauses with bursts of forward speed, however, create a pulsating, fluttering effect, imitating a wounded baitfish and enhancing the triggering mechanism. A similar lift-drop with crankbaits causes the bait to alternately dive and rise, once again varying lure motion to trigger strikes.
Open-water trolling typically involves numerous rods set in rod holders, using turns of the boat to interject changes in lure motion. For trolling structural edges, however, it's usually more efficient to hold a long-handled casting rod, positioning the butt of the rod under your elbow to take the strain off your wrist. Then alternately lift the weight off bottom and let it fall back to make occasional contact, ensuring that your lure is in the fish zone near bottom.
Adjust line length as necessary to accommodate changes in depth. This creates a semi-vertical, semi-short-line presentation, enhancing the ability to weave along contours at a quick pace while still maintaining bottom position. Use a bowmount electric or kicker outboard to achieve desired speed — generally a bit faster than can be comfortably backtrolled, yet slower than can be effectively trolled forward with a large outboard.
Much the same effect can be achieved with bottom bouncers, though deep fishing requires heavier bouncers (21â„2- to 3-ounce range). Since bouncers tend to position baits much closer to bottom than three-ways, they typically work best with spinner harnesses, rather than diving crankbaits. Try 3- to 4-foot multi-hook spinner harnesses with crawlers in early fall, progressing to single-hook minnow rigs as the water cools toward late fall.
Otherwise, the tactics are identical with either bait. Troll, lift, drop, repeat. When you get a strike, briefly drop the rod tip back, point it at the fish, and sweepset the rod forward when you feel tension, indicating the removal of slack.
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Water beyond 40 feet deep, or current situations in the necked-down portions of reservoirs, favor heavy three-ways to maintain bottom contact. You can, in fact, switch from monofilament to either superlines or wire lines to minimize stretch, maximize feel, and reduce the amount of line required to reach bottom, due to the minimal water resistance of either superlines or wire.
Retain the monofilament leader — generally about 10-pound-test with cranks and 14- to 17-pound-test with spinners — to reduce line visibility at modest trolling speeds. Once again, long-handled trolling rods from 61â„2 to 71â„2 feet long feature the best combination of attributes for these conditions.
Are fish on the edge, but refusing to strike your quick presentations? Revert to traditional slow-down options. Move slowly and meticulously, attempting to elicit strikes with livebait rigs or vertical jigs tipped withminnows. For a slightly more aggressive yet still vertical and
precise approach, try jigging spoons or bladebaits to add a bit of triggering speed with a precise vertical presentation. Let the fish tell you what they prefer.
Shallow to Mid-depth Flats
Relatively shallow areas (less than 20 feet deep) — such as the tops of large reefs or major shoreline flats — can be rapidly and effectively fished with similar presentations as long as weed or wood cover is absent. Add scattered wood, and the odds go to the snag resistance of bottom bouncers. Add weeds, and quick trolling methods require unweighted or lightly weighted lines to ride above the cover.
Longline trolling with minnow imitators, shad crankbaits, or spinner harnesses is en vogue for trolling above weed tops or brush. Let out just enough line behind the boat for lures or baits to occasionally tick the tops of cover without frequent snags — in the zone, not plowing cover.
Diving baits achieve their own characteristic depth ranges based on lip size and lure design. Spinners run only a foot or so below the surface unless weight is added ahead of the lure. In all cases, adding anything — from a small split shot or two, to a 1/4-ounce Rubbercor sinker — onto the line three or four feet ahead of the lure will achieve increased depth. Then fine-tune line length for the desired result.
Daytime fishing often calls for multiple lines spread to either side of the boat, incorporating on-line planer boards, trolling rods, and rod holders to present an array of lures. Lines run far to either side present baits to fish pushed aside by the boat's overhead passage, minimizing spooking. At night, try lighted planer boards in similar fashion, though most anglers prefer to hand hold a spinning rod spooled with 8 to 10-pound-test mono, to retain control and feel. Occasionally sweep the rod forward, then point it back, to introduce surges to lure action. Changes in speed trigger strikes.
Need to slow down or rework a select area where you've had strikes? Consider casting crankbaits. Fancast around the boat, using the rod tip and retrieve speed to mimic productive lure actions achieved on the troll. Once again, pause occasionally. Floating cranks rise at rest, great for tickling above cover; neutrally buoyant models suspend at rest, remaining in the fish zone where open water prevails.
Need a more aggressive tactic in a casting format? Try casting and ripping jigging spoons back to the boat. Hold your rod tip high, retrieve, pop the rod tip up, then drop it, causing the lure to surge forward, then flutter. Snap weed tops. If weeds are too thick to effectively fish spoons, switch to a weight-forward spinner dressed witha nightcrawler. They're surprisingly weed resistant, cast a mile on spinning or casting gear, and flash and wobble on fairly consistent retrieves while slithering between weed stalks. They're not as precise as fishing more slowly with a jig, probing down into cover, but they cover water quickly while using modest speed as a trigger to garner strikes.
Open Water, Basins and Suspension
Schooled walleyes roaming open water, either suspending or lying over open basins, are the province of trolling with planer boards, snap weights, and either cranks or spinners. It's a classic presentation we've written about many times before. The idea is to set up a spread of lines and lures to effectively saturate and sift through the fish zone, checking various depths and experimenting with different baits and speeds to determine productive presentations.
Walleyes within 25 feet of the surface typically can be reached with unweighted crankbaits or lightly weighted spinner-crawler harnesses. From 25 to about 40 feet, adding 1- to 3-ounce snap weightsto the line 50 feet ahead of the lure takes baits down into the desired depth. Simply run the bait out 50 feet behind a slowly moving boat, pinch the weighted release onto the line, let out sufficient line to reach the target trolling depth, add a side planer, let out enough additional line to take the line and board out to the side, then engage the reel and place the rod in a holder.
Repeat with additional lines and rods, setting up a trolling spread. Troll downwind at 1 to 3 mph, using S-turns or alternate shifts in and out of gear to introduce speed changes, which flutters or raises lures or baits to trigger strikes. When you hook a walleye, reel in slowly, pinching and detaching the planer and weight before netting the fish off the transom.
This presentation is effective for eliminating unproductive water and zeroing in on walleyes, particularly at the 1 to 3 mph quick trolling range, which is productive in cool to cold water, and during summeras well. It's simple in principle, complex in execution, in order to minimize tangles, maximize catches, and achieve desired results. But a properly run set of lines proceeds through open water like a shrimp trawler, showing lures to fish suspended at the target depth.
At depths beyond 40 feet, excess weight often is necessary. Alternative systems — diving planers, downriggers, wire line — may be required to effectively work deep open water. Such systems seldom are necessary, except on the open basins of the Great Lakes, where huge schools of big walleyes prowl deep basins. Inland waters typically don't require such excessive adaptations.
When walleyes lie tight to the bottom across middepth basins, say from 25 to 40 or 50 feet deep, cranks or spinners can be run just above their heads with carefully presented planer-board and snap-weightapplications. But switching to heavy bottom bouncers, spinners, and crawlers to cruise baited harnesses just above bottom is easier. The wire leg of the bottom bouncer skips across bottom, over rocks or zebra-mussel-encrusted structures and presents a bait on target for bottom-hugging walleyes. A great option when they're right on bottom. When walleyes become a bit more active and begin suspending, switch to cranks or spinners with planers and snap weights for a more effective presentation.
Pulling the Wool Over Your 'Eyes
On any given day, you never know what technique will work best until you experiment. One day, three-ways and minnow imitators may mow 'em down, like sheep straddled along the drop-off, waiting to be sheared. Next time out, baa! — spinners may outproduce cranks. And it might be that neither system works well, forcing you back into a slower extraction routine, hovering above schools of fish marked on electronics, tempting bites with big lively minnows inched along on livebait rigs. The fish will tell you what they prefer, providing you show them the menu. Like passing the dessert tray, they'll respond to the technique du jour, according to their current preference.
In fall, when walleyes tend to be deeper, more tightly schooled, and more exposed to electronic detection than in summer, experiment by speeding up slightly with more aggressive tactics, rather than simply pulling the traditional table fare around at a slowpoke pace. If you simultaneously switch tactics, modify presentations, and show the fish a fair representation of your repertoire, no way can they resist. Sooner or later, you'll cruise through the mother lode with the right presentation.
Rig up several casting rods with different aggressive systems, easily accessible so you have no excuse for getting stuck in a rut: a three-way rig and minnow imitator; a heavy bottom bouncer and spinner harness; a trolling rod for open-water fishing with planer boards, snap weights, and either cranks or spinners. Three deadly systems for covering water quickly, using speed as a trigger, for exposed walleyes.
And to play it safe, also prepare a couple medium-weight spinning rods spooled with light line and rigged with traditional livebait rigs and jigs for slow, vertical saturation in key spots. No sense ignoring a good thing, especially on those days when slow and steady outproduces quick and deadly. Five rods rigged and ready for anything. Five fingers of a winning hand, a quick hand, with the deck stacked in your favor.