Photo by Tim Lesmeister
Lakes, rivers and reservoirs are completely different environments in the fall than they are in the summer.
For anglers, this means a change in tactics, which is difficult for many who are comfortable with their summer go-to presentations and don’t want to shift gears. The fact is that it’s not up to the angler to dictate an approach. It’s up to the conditions they face and the necessary steps required to get a walleye to see their bait and potentially eat it. Anglers who stick to their tried-and-true summer techniques often have a difficult time finding and catching fish.
In reservoirs, those deep midlake humps and reefs that were loaded with walleyes in the summer are not very productive in the fall. The forage has moved. The same can be said for those big suspended schools of walleyes that were chasing shad out in open water. They’re gone. Now the shoreline points and inside turns where there is some boulder cover or still-standing vegetation is pulling in the small fish and minnows, and you can bet those walleyes are right in there with them.
In natural lakes, walleyes move up onto shallow rockpiles or nudge weedlines in search of tullibees or minnows. If you catch the annual frog migration just right as they return to the lakes for the winter — where they bury themselves in the mud until spring — you can work shoreline areas in a foot or two of water with floating crankbaits at night and catch high numbers of big fish.
Current often dictates river walleye location, but now that the water is cool and the backwater oxygen levels have risen, those slackwater shorelines strewn with downed timber are places that can’t be overlooked.
Water temperature is a factor that not only makes the shallower structure more attractive to the walleyes, but the turnover that was caused by the surface cooling increases oxygen levels to the entire body of water. This means if the walleyes want to go deep, they can go as deep as they want. These fish are no longer limited to the oxygen-rich water above the thermocline, because the thermocline no longer exists.
Let’s look at how these factors affect what presentations we use.
Since the walleyes are spread out at every conceivable depth in lakes and reservoirs, sections of these bodies of water that were not a consideration in the hot-weather months become prime spots. Since walleyes can be found shallow, deep and everywhere in between, a technique that allows an angler to cover a potential hotspot more rapidly becomes a good option. The goal here is to find the walleyes. Once located, a change can produce more fish. Let me give some examples.
On a reservoir lake where I fish, the walleyes like to chase minnows up on the shallow rock and sandbars. These pods of minnows aren’t spread out over the entire section of structure, but are concentrated in pockets. To discover the exact location of the fish I’ll drift over the top of the rocks and cast a floating shad-shaped crankbait. When I catch a walleye I might make a few more casts to that spot with the crankbait, but more often I’m dropping an anchor so I can toss out a slip-bobber and minnow.
Fishing a classic natural lake near my home I often find the walleyes in the fall to favor the base of a deep hump. You can often pick these tightly packed schools of walleyes out on the sonar, but I want to key on the group that’s biting. I send down a 1- to 2-ounce bottom-bouncer with a short-spinnered snell on it. This rig gets down quick and lets me move from one school of walleyes to the next to search out the more active fish. When I find a group of biters, I’ll keep the boat right over the top of them and send down a 1/4- or 3/8-ounce jig and minnow, and vertical jig it right in their face. These walleyes can be anywhere from 40 to 60 feet deep on the bottom edge of that hump.
One of my favorite fall river spots is where the current brushes up to the entrance to a backwater area. Walleyes will hang right on the edge of these eddies and pick off the minnows moving into the slack water. Just position the boat in the current and let it drift you downstream while you cast a jig and minnow into the still water and retrieve it out to the current. A bright 1/4-ounce leadhead jig tipped with a fathead minnow works great for this.
Most anglers will move back out to the channel to find walleyes if they aren’t on a backwater eddy. Not me. I often move right into the backwater and work any shoreline cover that’s available. This is often downed timber. You can move the boat right to this cover and pitch a 1/8-ounce jigged tipped with a fathead right into it. Those small walleye jigs with the weedguard work great in this stuff. If you’re working some cover and see a bunch of minnows break the surface by some branches, get over to that spot fast. There are walleyes in there feeding, and that’s what’s spooking those minnows.
On a lot of lakes and reservoirs in the fall you just can’t beat the night bite. Big walleyes will move right up to the shorelines at night and sit in just a foot or two of water herding up minnows, crayfish and frogs to feast on. This is the perfect situation for a floating shallow-diving crankbait like the Rapala. The trick here is to use just enough retrieve speed to elicit a little wobble. You only need to have that lure running just a few inches to a foot below the surface to generate bites.
If you’re not catching walleyes in the shallow zone at night, don’t hesitate to tie on a deeper diver and motor-troll a weedline or the top and edges of a rockpile. Walleyes will move to the tops of the reefs to feed, but their movements also have them on the edges and at the base of this same structure. Sometimes it just takes a faster-moving minnow imitator to wobble by to get them to react.
Luck is an important factor in the fall when it comes to finding walleyes. It’s because they can be here today and gone tomorrow. That information you got from the local bait shop can be old news if it’s older than a day.
Don’t use the same-colored lures in the fall. While those fire-tiger and perch patterns were the ticket a few months ago, come fall this will change to chrome/black, chrome/blue and white/chartreuse. You still want to be flexible and experiment until you discover the best color pattern, but generally I find the fish react to the shinier, more brightly colored lures in the fall.
As far as liv
e bait, I seldom use anything other than minnows. There’s something about minnows that fires up the feeding response in fall walleyes. Some anglers swear by red-tailed chubs, while others won’t leave the dock without a bucket of shiners. I also like to have a couple of scoops of fatheads in a bucket for tipping jigs. Given a choice of nightcrawlers, leeches or minnows in the fall, I’ll only need the minnow bucket.
The one drawback to fall fishing over summer fishing is the duration of the bite. In the summer it’s not uncommon to keep a bite going for hours at a time. That’s unusual in the fall. Walleyes tend to bite in sporadic short periods in the fall, and you might be catching some fish and then it’s like someone threw the switch. You can still see the fish on the sonar. They haven’t moved. They just quit biting. The best thing to do in this situation is go find another school of walleyes that are feeding. They don’t all feed at the same time on a body of water. There are always some feeding somewhere. You just have to get lucky and find them.
Luck is an important factor in the fall when it comes to finding walleyes. It’s because they can be here today and gone tomorrow. That information you got from the local bait shop can be old news if it’s older than a day. That feast your buddies had a couple of days ago can turn quickly into famine. So don’t count on the memories of others when you’re gearing up for fall walleye fishing. Realize that you are going to have to do it all on your own. You need to sleuth out all likely locations. You need to put yourself onto active fish, and you need to fine-tune the presentation to take advantage of what may prove to be a limited bite. It’s just you and the walleyes.
But, the work is worth it. No high sun frying the skin off you. No sweat puddling up in your bunched-up briefs. No personal watercraft buzzing your boat. And no bugs flying into your ears. Just a cool, crisp breeze shaking the leaves off the branches and drifting your boat over a school of those big walleyes that were suspending out of your reach just a few weeks ago. Fall fishing for walleyes is the way fishing was meant to be.