Low on the horizon, the sun slips behind a distant cloudbank and dusk’s rosy glow fades to a flat-toned gray. Gentle waves tap a staccato beat on fiberglass hull, as kicker motor chugs quietly, moving the boat along 100 yards or so offshore. Two rods throb in anglers’ hands, tips twitching to the rhythm of baits wiggling over a rock bar a few feet beneath the surface. Suddenly, one rod tip dips sharply.
“There’s one,” says Steve Miljat, as he sets the hook and begins fighting another good fish.
It’s no secret that trolling is one of the most effective ways to catch walleyes — especially big walleyes. Serious anglers have learned how to pattern walleyes in summer, when in most lakes they suspend offshore over deep water and feed on schools of baitfish.
But summer is long gone, and with it, the suspended walleye pattern that can be so predictable. By now, walleye lakes large and small have gone through the fall turnover, and you won’t find walleyes where you did a couple of months ago.
Once you understand the behavior of walleyes in fall, you should be able to catch them with fair consistency right up until the lakes freeze over. Let’s take a look at what walleyes are up to this time of year and see how one angler uses this information to take big walleyes on a regular basis.
In summer, many lakes stratify by water temperature. As the sun warms the lake’s surface, lighter, warmer water rises to the top layer. Just below that uniformly warm layer, which may be just a few or many feet thick, the temperature drops rapidly in a short distance. In this second layer, known as the thermocline, most fish species can find water of ideal temperature and oxygen content to suit them. Below the thermocline lies a dense layer known as the hypolimnion. That layer consists of uniformly cold water, with low oxygen content.
Baitfish, panfish and game fish alike suspend at different depths in the thermocline. To target a particular species, all you need to do is find them with a good locator and then troll or jig with the right bait at that depth.
When the earth cools in fall, so does lake water. As the surface layer cools, it becomes heavier and mixes with the lower layers in a process called fall turnover. After turnover, the water everywhere in a lake is uniform in temperature and oxygen content. No longer restricted to one narrow band of comfortable water, fish move freely and can be found just about anywhere in a lake.
Walleyes may seem to roam aimlessly for a while, but they quickly settle into a pattern of holding near bottom in deeper water during the day and moving into shallower water to feed during low-light periods. That pattern remains consistent from fall until late winter or early spring, when the reproductive urge causes them to seek spawning habitat.
AN APPROACH FOR FALL WALLEYES
This simplistic pattern of “go deep by day, shallow by night” is a good rule of thumb, but there are subtle variations that add just enough uncertainty to make fall fishing a challenge. It took guide and fishing pro Steve Miljat 10 years to figure out these subtleties, but for the past two decades, he has cashed in on this fall pattern and put thousands of big walleyes in his boat. And he’s done it on big lakes, small lakes and rivers alike.
“That’s the beauty of this approach,” says Miljat. “It works anywhere there are walleyes.”
Miljat’s approach is based on finding the walleyes’ holding water, feeding structure and baitfish. Using maps and electronics, Miljat “reads” a lake or river to identify deep holding water, the best bait-holding structure and the likely travel routes from one to the other.
“In fall, the location of walleyes can vary a lot because there is no specific area defined by water temperature and oxygen level,” Miljat says. “So I search points, dropoffs with inside turns and weedbeds, especially where the bottom transitions from hard to soft.”
In a deep lake, walleyes typically spend the day in the main basin adjacent to a dropoff, point, bar or other structure that might hold food. In a shallow lake, there might be only a few feet of difference between deep and shallow water. In a river, walleyes might hold in a deep bend hole or main channel.
Feeding structure is anything that holds baitfish: a rock bar, shoreline boulders, submerged wood, a ledge, weedy flat or reef. The best feeding structure lies in relatively shallow water, where minnows and other small fish feel safe and can avoid predators, at least during daylight hours.
Walleyes usually take the most direct route from deep water to shallow structure. Miljat looks for shallow structure located close to deep water, often with a series of shelves or ledges, where walleyes can move up or down in stages. These ledges hold walleyes in transition from deep water to shallow and give Miljat a route along which to troll.
Walleyes seem to follow that pattern best when there is enough wind to put a chop on the water, Miljat says. On a calm night, they may stay deep and never move up to feed. In that case, he trolls deep water, following the edge of a secondary dropoff, where soft bottom and hard bottom meet.
Weather fronts also affect walleye behavior. The fish seem to feed best just before or just after a front passes.
Good electronics are paramount to successful night trolling. A GPS unit not only facilitates marking structure, baitfish and strikes, it also lets you duplicate a trolling pass precisely so that you can return to a spot where you caught fish earlier.
Miljat uses 7- and 7 1/2-foot Shakespeare Ugly Stik rods because they are durable, yet inexpensive. At night, with several people in the boat, rods can get broken, especially when the action is fast and furious.
“You don’t need a pricey rod for trolling,” he says. “Sensitivity is imparted through the use of no-stretch line.”
On some rods, he runs 14-pound-test “super-braid” line, with a seven-foot leader of 10-pound-test monofilament. On others, he runs 40 feet of 10-pound-test monofilament, three colors (90 feet) of leadcore line and, as backing, enough 10-pound-test mono to fill the reel spool.
Miljat’s leadcore reels are Daiwa Sealines. He spools mono on Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 6500LC reels, which are easier to hold in the hand.
He trolls slim-profile stick baits that imitate baitfish: Smithwick Suspending Rogues and Rapala Husky Jerks, which dive when retrieved and suspend at rest; and No. 18 Rapala Floating Minnows. The two suspending baits, both measuring about 5 1/2 inches long, often trigger strikes as they stop or slow down when the guide makes a turn. Miljat prefers the larger profile of a No. 18 Rapala when working through larger schools of baitfish.
Dark purple baits work best in clear water, Miljat says, while gold/black baits work better in dark water. When the moon is bright, he opts for silver cisco or smelt patterns.
When Miljat sets them in rod holders at night, he zip-ties small light sticks to his rod tips, which helps him detect a strike. You can feel a strike on a hand-held rod, he says.
Planer boards round out Miljat’s arsenal. Attached to the line, these angle out either to port or starboard to carry a bait away from the boat. This way, Miljat and his clients can troll several lines without risk of getting them tangled.
TROLLING TACTICS THAT REALLY WORK
Anglers who have never trolled using Miljat’s sophisticated approach might disdain the idea of dragging crankbaits around in hopes of catching a walleye. He might seem to be motoring about at random, but in fact he is following a strict regimen. Miljat typically begins fishing before dusk, primarily so that his clients can become familiar with the rods and boat.
On his first pass over structure or along a contour, Miljat watches his locator for marks that indicate individual game fish and schools of baitfish — shiners, suckers, ciscoes or young-of-the year perch or crappies. Baitfish show up well in fall, Mijat says, because weed cover is deteriorating, leaving them more exposed. He usually finds them just off the edges of any remaining weeds. If baitfish appear in a tight ball, it usually means predators are harassing them.
If no big fish or bait show up on the locator, Miljat trolls parallel to structure over deep water and moves closer to the structure with each pass.
“I usually start trolling over deep water with planer boards and leadcore line, looking for neutral-mood walleyes before they start to move up to shallow water. You want your baits above the fish at night because they (the baits) will be silhouetted against the water’s surface, making them easier to see. It’s better to troll your baits 5 feet above walleyes than a foot below them.”
As darkness falls, Miljat shifts to his super-braid rods and moves up the contour to catch walleyes on the way to feeding structure. When trolling a ledge or the deep edge of structure like a rock bar or weedline, he may run his baits 40 to 100 feet behind the planer boards.
Once he is trolling over shallow structure, Miljat shortens his leads to 5 to 10 feet behind his boards. At that point, he may remove the planer boards and switch his approach to “longlining” or “flatlining” 60 to 100 feet directly behind the boat.
Miljat varies his trolling pattern according to the speed and direction of the wind. A steady wind that creates a 1- to 2-foot chop is ideal, he says, especially if the wind is blowing parallel to a weed edge, dropoff or other structure. “I like to troll with the wind when I can,” he says, “And I try to keep my speed between 1 and 2 miles per hour.”
A good chop imparts an erratic movement to baits, as the boat pitches and rolls while planer boards dip in and out of the waves. That often triggers strikes from walleyes. During low-wind periods, suspending baits tend to get more hits than other types, especially when the boat is turning and the bait hesitates or stops.
If there is a crosswind, Miljat trolls at an angle that lets him maintain his speed and follow the structure. If there is no wind, the guide may stick with leadcore line and troll deep water without a planer board, pumping his rod now and then to give his bait more action.
Miljat might begin at dusk and troll for a few hours or he may troll all night. Then again, he might begin in the middle of the night and quit at dawn or shortly thereafter. The time of night is less important than the moon phase and whether the moon is rising or setting.
“Walleyes can see better in the dark than other fish,” Miljat explains, “so they can feed easily at night, when baitfish can’t see as well to escape.”
A walleye’s vision also adjusts more quickly to changes in ambient light, which gives the fish an advantage over other fish at transition times, including sunrise, sunset, moonrise, moonset and the sudden arrival or disappearance of cloud cover.
“During a full-moon period, moonrise or moonset can really make walleyes feed aggressively for a short period when baitfish are still adjusting to the change in light,” Miljat says. “You can be trolling on a bright night or dark night and get a hit once in a while, but as the moon sets or rises, walleyes really turn on. There may be some gravitational effect, but it’s definitely about the change in brightness.”
Miljat recalls seeing a phenomenon that drove home this advantage walleyes have over other fish. On several occasions, while landing a walleye on a dark night, Miljat happened to shine a powerful light on a school of smelt hovering near the surface. The smelt seemed paralyzed by the strong light, as walleyes tore into them.
I joined Miljat for a nighttime outing on one of his favorite waters. We launched about an hour before sunset and began trolling along a shoreline dropoff where, recently, he had caught several walleyes, including one of more than 10 pounds. We started off slowly, with just one fish — a 3-pounder — before it got too dark to see. In the next two hours, we caught six more walleyes on a variety of stick baits, all on hand-held longline rods.
At one point we tied into a double, and then caught a third fish before the action slowed. We did not see any double-digit fish, but two of our fish were legitimate 6-pounders. We released them all to fight another day. I was impressed that we caught those big walleyes directly behind the boat.
“A lot of people think a motor spooks walleyes,” Miljat says. “I used to think so, too. They may slide off to the side when you go over them, but if they’re in a feeding mood, they won’t spook.
“It took me 10 years to figure out this pattern. Some nights i
t can be frustrating, but if you put in your time in the right place and stick with the pattern, you’ll catch fish.”
Take Miljat’s advice to heart and give nighttime trolling a try this fall. You may find a good excuse to keep your boat out of storage for another month or so, and that’s not a bad way to shorten winter!