Fall's Feedbag Walleyes

If you thought the walleyes of spring were fat pigs, you just have to try catching them after the leaves turn color! It's a beautiful thing. (September 2006)

Photo by: Ron Sinfelt

Seasonal change is in the air -- and in the water. The second serious cold front of autumn will pass any day now. When the squeeze on walleyes' air bladders begins to ease about 36 hours later as the high pressure system following the cold front tracks away, the feeding window is thrown wide open in a bite that lasts 10 days to maybe two weeks.

Warm September afternoons are trumped by chilly September nights. It's a slow leak in an allegorical atmospheric tire that won't return to balance until water temperatures dip into the low 50s and the lake shakes out of turnover. Bait is plentiful and nervous as weedbeds begin to die off, thus concentrating the walleye forage base. Baitfish angst eases with the setting sun, when it's time to cruise out a short distance into open water and stretch the fins a bit. Ignorance is bliss. Native cunning didn't make it this far down the food chain. The baitfish school tightly in a herd mentality, not realizing that tonight it will suck to be a shad. Apache attack helicopters aren't the only predators that are green with night-vision capability. The walleye attack is swift and deadly. Flight is futile. Shallows are the anvil, walleyes are the hammer.

This is the end game in the natural scheme of things far too often. Predators farther up the food chain can eat cheeseburgers instead of walleyes. They are probably eating a cheeseburger while blaming the "tough bite" on too much bait in the water from a philosophic stool at a watering hole on the way home, oblivious to the drama that is unfolding just offshore as the sun goes down. The September bite can be tough as water temperatures plummet through the 60s into the high 50s. Too much bait in the water is a viable explanation after several frosty glasses of insight. "Those walleyes should be more active instead of lock-jawed," you tell cronies who nod in agreement.

This intuition about fish metabolism is absolutely correct. Walleyes are feeding heavily, but as is the case with many life-changing events, timing is everything. Walleyes aren't interested in your simmering crock-pot presentation when they sense that darkness brings the opportunity to swim right up to an all-you-can-eat buffet. On some stained waters and off-colored rivers, this dinner bell may ring during daylight. It's all about advantage, finding the easiest meal with the least amount of effort. If you can see the tip of a rod stuck in the lake when the sun is shining, smart money says the bite is at night.

We're at that time of year when stick baits are becoming more productive than big-bladed spinners in a trolling pattern. Deep-diving Rapala Husky Jerks, Rogues and Ripsticks may provide just enough action during daylight hours to convince you the fish are simply off their feed. But until you've spent an honest amount of time dragging the shallow-running counterparts of these lures from sundown until maybe 10 p.m. over the course of several nights, don't offer up some lame excuse like "too much bait in the water" or "the walleyes must have lost their teeth."

Locating walleyes is the first step in any fish-catching equation. If your electronics indicate the fish are present and you're doing little more than running gas through the kicker, it is time to tweak your presentation and time spent on the water. Daytime reconnaissance is a critical component in successful nighttime walleye operations. Show me an angler who launches on unfamiliar water at night and I'll introduce you to the next customer at Joe's Prop Shop. Even if daytime fishing is tough, you can use this time on the water to check landmarks and plug structural changes in as waypoints on your GPS. Those lock-jawed fish that are sulking over an offshore basin during daylight hours are likely to migrate onto that rocky hump that tops out at 6 feet when the sun goes down, doing the hammer/anvil thing with baitfish.

On generally shallow lakes with distinct weed edges, you can use the daylight hours to create a route in your GPS for planer-board distance away from the weed edge, then replicating the route under cover of darkness. Be ready to tap in a "fish" icon every time you hook up.

There is one "fish finder" that is close to infallible -- a hand-held spotlight. Those opaque eyes reflect like diamonds when walleye schools are cruising in shallow water. Locate a school, back off and tie on shallow stick baits, then sneak back a few minutes later and drag that stick bait behind a lighted planer board.

A small light on your planer boards is far superior to slapping on some reflective tape and checking the boards frequently with a spotlight. I've drilled and glued small, lighted bobbers to the tops of four of my Off Shore boards, simply inverting the little lithium batteries when using the boards during daylight hours. A cyalume light stick affixed to the board's flag with a small zip-tie works just as well.

Some states allow up to three lines per angler. At night, this is just asking for trouble. In the final analysis, one line per angler will catch you just as many fish by the end of the trip. Experience teaches that the best way to get two lines tangled is to get them within 10 feet of each other.

Tangling up is inevitable. Having another rod rigged and ready to go -- but secured in the boat's rod locker out of harm's way -- is a sound strategy. All my trolling reels are spooled with high-visibility line. This doesn't seem to bother the fish, even in the clearest of lakes. Hi-vis is easier for anglers to see under any light conditions. But when you're trolling at night and have a black light fastened to the gunnel, the hi-vis line looks like 3/4-inch mooring line.

Depending on the structure you're fishing, it can be more efficient to run most or all of the lines off one side of the boat, with the starboard side generally better because the steering wheel of most console boats is on that side, allowing better boat control as you ease along a dark shoreline.

Besides functional navigation lights, a spotlight, black light and lights for the planer boards, having a headlamp or one of those Cat's Eye lights that clips to the bill of a cap is a good idea, as is taping a flashlight to the landing net.

Keeping any gear not being used stowed away is a standard operating procedure for any night-fishing mission. Leave a couple of unused rods on the deck "out of the way" and you'll be thinking about my adage "the surest way to get two lines tangled is to get them within 10 feet of each other" before your night on the water is over.

Trolling reels with line-counter capability will greatly enhance your fish-catching talents because they allow replication of a successful fish-catching patte

rn. The science of trolling has made quantum advances since those September nights 30 years ago, fishing No. 18 silver/blue Rapalas seven rod sweeps back behind the boat in a long-line presentation. This technique will still work, and could be the most effective way to fish if you're out there alone in the dark. But three anglers in the boat is a team rather than a crowd when offering up a trolling pattern during low light.

Walleyes can move up into as little as 1 foot of water when on a nighttime feeding binge. If you have a rocky point or similar structure where these fish foregather on a regular basis, donning waders or casting from the shoreline is usually a better way to go than trolling.

Removing the front treble hook and holding the rod tip high will minimize hangups on everything but fish. A steady retrieve works better because it allows the walleyes to home in on your lure with less difficulty.

When trolling, lures that run down about 6 feet seem to work best. Bait profile, trolling speed and distance the lures are pegged behind the planer boards are all variables that need to be dialed in as you tweak the presentation. At 1.8 mph, setting Rapala Husky Jerks back 27 feet, Reef Runner Ripsticks at 20 feet and Smithwick Rogues at 35 feet behind the planer boards will put these lures in the strike zone of night-bite walleyes relating to the shoreline or shallow structure. Color isn't as important as bait profile when trolling at night. But chrome/blue, chrome/black, clown and glass patterns tend to work better in clear lakes.

Bring along spare flashlights and batteries, and two landing nets with extendable handles. I have two Beckman nets with rubberized bags to minimize snagging, and I tape a flashlight to the handles of both nets. Multiple hookups are common when you drag your lures over a school of September walleyes at night. Experience teaches that if you have one net and hit a double, the first fish to the boat will be smaller, tangle in the net and take the whole shebang into at least two other lines. The flashlight taped to the landing net's handle will then reveal a walleye doing a headshake on the surface -- just barely hooked and inches out of net range.

Such an encounter is the rite of passage for night-stick walleye anglers, who all have one more trait in common: They have never lost a little fish.

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