September 21, 2021
Fall is a season of change: Green leaves turn brilliant shades of amber and crimson, waterfowl feel a primal urge to gather in large numbers and fly south and many outdoors enthusiasts contemplate trading boat seats for deer stands.
Yet, across the Midwest, stark changes beneath the water's surface trigger walleye feeding frenzies. Walleye become determined to pack on the pounds ahead of winter's icy grip. Indeed, the next two months represent the best window on the entire calendar to tangle with a toothy trophy of epic proportions.
Whether you prefer to chase walleyes with a jigging rod in hand or by combing the water with a squadron of planer boards, there's likely a great fall walleye bite near you. Here are four.
LAKE OF THE WOODS | Baudette, Minn.
Sprawling Lake of the Woods, straddling the border separating Minnesota and Ontario, Canada, is a season-long destination for both American and Canadian anglers. The action really heats up as summer turns to fall, with the two tactics mentioned above—jigging and trolling—potentially yielding fish after fish.
A prime Lake of the Woods summer pattern that accelerates in early fall is trolling crankbaits on the deep flats of expansive Big Traverse Bay. Here, walleye and sauger are typically bottom-oriented in water that is 30 to 35 feet deep, requiring anglers to use leadcore line to deliver smaller crankbaits to these depths.
The braided exterior of leadcore line changes color every 10 yards, and at a typical walleye-trolling speed of 2 miles per hour, each color of leadcore will provide 5 feet of depth to the lure. So, to deliver a crankbait 30 feet below the surface, anglers will need to troll with approximately 6 colors of leadcore in the water. Separate the leadcore line from the lure using a 3-foot leader of 10- to 12-pound-test monofilament or fluorocarbon to maintain a stealthy presentation and allow for free movement of the lure. As is typical of the stained waters of Lake of the Woods, high-visibility crankbaits in firetiger, gold, red or even hot pink will frequently outproduce more natural color patterns.
As temperatures continue to cool throughout the fall, the annual emerald shiner run into the flowing waters of the Rainy River triggers an excellent jigging bite near the river’s mouth. Anglers will frequently anchor or Spot-Lock in the lake or the river itself, presenting live or frozen shiners on 3/8- or 1/2-ounce jigs. Use a sensitive rod to detect sometimes subtle bites and add a stinger hook to your jig to help put more fish in the boat. A selection of chartreuse, gold, pink and red Northland Tackle jigs will trigger Lake of the Woods walleyes.
LAKE OAHE | Pierre, S.D.
Vast Lake Oahe, an impoundment of the Missouri River that pulses through North and South Dakota, is a clear-water reservoir where walleyes, as well as pike, crappies and even salmon, thrive. Outdoors enthusiasts spring to life as summer fades to fall, as abundant prairie pheasants and reservoir walleyes present a unique cast-and-blast opportunity that lasts until the snow starts to fly.
With more than 2,000 miles of shoreline and depths that reach 200 feet, Lake Oahe easily qualifies as big water. One productive fall pattern that will reduce your search time is to focus on main-lake points that project into deep water. Electronics play a crucial role here, as not every point will hold fish. It’s useful to make quick passes over candidate points at a couple of depths with side-imaging sonar. If you spot groups of fish holding within 2 to 3 feet of the bottom on a rocky point, chances are excellent that those fish are walleyes.
With so many points available, it makes sense to adopt an active, mobile approach to triggering bites. Indeed, Lake Oahe is a great place to pull spinners on bottom bouncers in the fall. The general rule of thumb when choosing a bottom bouncer is to use 1 ounce of weight for every 10 feet of water depth; strong wind, waves or current require more lead-per-depth than you might otherwise use. A 2 1/2- or 3-ounce bouncer is generally a good place to start in the fall, giving you easy access to fish in the productive 25- to 35-foot-depth range.
A trolling speed of 1.2 to 1.4 mph works well in early fall and should get slower as the water cools. A hammered silver or copper Colorado spinner blade throws a lot of flash and vibration in these clear waters. Nightcrawlers are effective in early fall, with minnows provoking more bites later in the season. Rig up with a moderate-action trolling rod to absorb powerful walleye headshakes. A line-counter reel, like the Shimano Tekota 300, will help you present the bouncer-and-spinner combo at the proper depth and avoid snags caused by having too much line in the water.
LAKE ERIE | Port Clinton, Ohio
Lake Erie's western basin houses an extraordinary walleye fishery, with year-round chances to hoist a double-digit trophy. In fall, large schools of walleyes roam near the Bass Islands, where they feast on shad ahead of winter. This is the time to perfect your open-water trolling presentation, leveraging planer boards and snap weights to deliver wobbling lures to the marauding walleyes below.
Experienced anglers present an array of lures at depths throughout the water column, ensuring that some baits run deep while others cover the mid-depths and even the waters within 5 feet of the surface. Efficient depth coverage can be achieved using a combination of long-bodied, deep-diving baits like the Bomber Long A and Rapala Down Deep Husky Jerk, as well as shallower-diving baits presented in conjunction with snap weights. A convenient way to use snap weights is with the "50-50" method: Send a shallow-diving bait 50 feet behind the boat with help from a line-counter reel. Then, add a snap weight and let out another 50 feet of line before adding a planer board to pull the lure to the left or right side of the boat.
At a trolling speed of 1.5 mph, a 1-ounce snap weight will help deliver the bait to depths of 12 to 16 feet, while a 2-ounce snap weight will reach depths closer to 20 feet. Faster trolling speeds will help the lures run shallower, while slower speeds will drop the lures deeper. Use your electronics to help inform your decisions about lure depth; present crankbaits at or above the depth at which you see most walleyes swimming on your fishfinder's 2D sonar view.
As fall progresses, shore-bound anglers can also tap into Lake Erie's bounty by patrolling the breakwaters and piers along primary inlets like the Maumee, Portage and Sandusky Rivers. Falling water temperatures trigger fish to move nearshore, with the best bite frequently occurring after dark. Casting Rapala Husky Jerks and Smithwick Rogues is the preferred presentation for most walleye anglers. A long rod rigged with a smooth 3000-series spinning reel like the Shimano Ultegra will help support the long casts needed to reach fish patrolling far from shore.
IOWA GREAT LAKES | Okoboji, Iowa
In northwestern Iowa, a chain of three deep, clear-water lakes brim with walleyes, smallmouth and largemouth bass and yellow perch. Referred to as the Iowa Great Lakes, or sometimes the Okoboji Chain of lakes, these waters represent an excellent spot for September ’eyes. Unlike some of the other big-water destinations that dominate fall walleye fishing in the Midwest, the Okoboji Chain is comparatively small, covering approximately 13,000 surface acres and reaching a maximum depth of 135 feet in West Okoboji Lake. The Okoboji Chain is the perfect place for anglers who like to methodically work their way around classic pieces of main-lake structure—humps, breaklines and reefs—with walleyes responding well to both live bait and artificial presentations.
An active, aggressive approach to finding fall walleyes on the Okoboji Chain is to fish reaction baits. The classic No. 7 or No. 9 Rapala Jigging Rap or Moonshine Lures Shiver Minnows, or even lipless rattle baits like the No. 6 Rapala Rippin' Rap or the Northland Rippin' Shad are all good options. Present these lures with a 7-foot, medium-power, fast-action rod and a 2500-series spinning reel filled with 10-pound-test monofilament line.
Mono is often preferred over braid for these presentations as it provides the right amount of shock absorption needed to keep small hooks pinned in bony walleye mouths. Add a small swivel 18 inches above the lure to prevent line twist and attach your lure to the line using a cross-lock snap.
Aggressively snap the lure off the bottom and let it fall back to the bottom on a semi-slack line. Bites generally occur as the lure falls or as it sits on the bottom between hops. While you may not feel the initial strike, the next upward snap of the lure will often drive the hooks home.
As the water cools later in the fall, patrol main-lake structures with a classic live bait rig, presenting a large creek chub dressed on a 1/0 octopus hook.
Use a 4-foot leader of 8-pound-test fluorocarbon, and a 3/4- to 1-ounce egg sinker to provide enhanced depth control as you work the rig over hard-bottom points and humps in 20 to 40 feet of water.