There is a migration of epic proportions in the fall that savvy walleye anglers need to stay in tune with if they plan on making big catches of trophy walleyes. A host of minnows, panfish and other potential baitfish migrate from deep water and the security of weeds to the shallows in the fall.
Hungry walleyes are right on their heels. Walleyes know it's a bounty they need to take advantage of in order to bulk up for the winter. Anglers should take note, too.
"When it comes to walleyes, late fall is one of the best times to catch a trophy of a lifetime," said guide Brian Brosdahl. "Walleyes are in a heightened level of activity then and they're really putting on the feedbag. They're much easier to catch if you know where to look."
Usually, the place to look is shallow.
Emerald shiners are pelagic fish schooling over deeper water during most of the year, feeding on microscopic organisms and zooplankton. In the fall, they head shallow along with spottail shiners. Bait dealers know that. It's when they collect their minnow supply for the year. Both species spawn in late spring or early summer, so it's not a spawning run. Spottails likely move shallow because they are forced from the weeds they usually reside in. Emerald shiners move shallow to find more hospitable conditions. The same migration beckons to ravenous walleyes and other game fish.
"I have seen unbelievable swarms of emerald shiners in the fall where you find a current seam or break or weed edge between deep water and a shallow bay," offered Brosdahl. "Sometimes you find them schooled near a river channel just on the edge."
Spottail shiners spend most of their time in the relatively shallow water near weedbeds. As the shallow weeds die, schools of spottail shiners, as well as panfish, are forced to migrate to the remaining green weedbeds.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
"Look for the greenest weeds you can find at the outside edge of bays that face deeper water," said Brosdahl. Eventually, those weeds die too and baitfish and panfish have to either slip off the first dropoff and huddle in terrified schools, or they migrate to the safety of the shallows.
During this transition period, there are a lot of options as far as prime locations and it may take a little searching before you find the fish. Walleyes can be more difficult to find at this time of year because they're concentrated, on the move and transitioning from deeper to shallow water. You can count on the last green weeds to attract baitfish and walleyes. Once found, you know the walleys are going to eat.
"Key is locating the outside and inside edge of the weeds, either using your eyes and polarized glasses or your electronics," advised Brosdahl. "Make note of the depth of water where the weeds end because that is likely to be the depth weeds disappear all around the lake. Key is to locate still-green stands of cabbage, coontail and aquatic vegetation. Avoid anything that is beginning to brown. Walleyes may make daily migrations to the weeds at this stage or they might just take up residence."
Baitfish flushed from the weeds often will slip over the first dropoff to bide their time, especially early in the fall. A great way to target fall walleyes then is to stealth-troll after dark. Walleyes will position at different locations along the dropoff depending on conditions. They might be right on top, along the slope, or right along the base of the dropoff poised to intercept minnow schools traveling the lip, along the base or pouring over the upper edge. Most times the walleyes will be at a very specific depth, but will move up and down the contour throughout the night.
Using a bow-mounted trolling motor allows you to trace the contour quietly and in complete obscurity under the cover of darkness. Lines are let out using line-counter reels to very specific lengths to hug the contour. The idea is to cover a multitude of depths until you discover a hot pattern.
Lures hugging the lip can be fished clean, whereas a few strategically placed No. 7 split shot crimped on 3 or 4 feet above the lure will help it trace the contour, keeping it in contact with the bottom, but allow it to ride slightly higher. Lines are let out at very specific lengths. Work up and down the contour, trolling slowly and quietly at 1.0 to 1.2 mph. Big Husky Jerk Rapalas, ThunderSticks and Rattlin' Rogues interest the biggest fish. Be sure to keep noise to a minimum and lights off the water because the walleyes there are on edge, but you've got a chance of catching a pig.
Anglers have options other than trolling. "Just pitching an Impulse Smelt Minnow on a jig and ripping it through the weeds is a hoot," advised Brosdahl, and is the perfect way to trigger aggressive fish. "Rigging with live bait is a proven fall tactic, too."
Brosdahl said that big chubs, golden shiners or even jumbo suckers are perfect for targeting the biggest fall walleyes. Brosdahl advised using 3- to 4-foot clear leaders in clear water and shorter leaders when the water is colored up, or if you're fishing where there's a lot of wood and obstructions. Pin the bait to a big Gamakatsu Kahle-style or salmon egg hook.
"Use a big hook," advised Brosdahl. "A No. 2 hook would be a minimum, and don't be afraid to go even bigger." Anchor the bait with a heavy enough weight to keep it in place. You can use an egg sinker, pencil lead or a snagless sinker like a Northland (northlandtackle.com) Rock-Runner Slip Bouncer or Roach Walker Sinker. Rig the weight to slip.
"When using a big bait like this you want to give the fish plenty of time to eat," he said. "Treat it like you would a pike. Feed line, give the walleye time to turn the bait and swallow it, reel up until you feel the fish and use a sweeping hookset."
Use tough braid for a mainline and a fluorocarbon leader. Use a shorter leader in heavy cover and rocks.
After a month or more, the migration reverses. The shallows begin to chill and fall winds and wave action mixes and re-oxygenates the water. Walleyes can now go wherever they want. Baitfish move back to the extreme shallows, and walleyes will be right on their heels. Using a boat may not be the best option then. You'll hear walleyes slashing baitfish in water so shallow you can't access it with a boat. Wading and casting from shore, breakwalls and jetties is the ticket then.
Fall-spawning species such as whitefish, tullibee, menominee or round-whitefish, ciscoes and others move to the shallows in the fall, too. The majority of those species are too big for your average walleye to swallow, but not for a double-digit pig.
"A 10- or 12-pound walleye is not going to have any problem swallowing a 10-inch tulibee or menominee," said Brosdahl. "In fact, that's exactly what the biggest walleyes are looking for in the fall — big baits. You hear about how well big 4- to 8-inch chubs work in the fall for trophy walleyes. That's because those fish are looking for a big meal. A sizable, smooth-scaled chub is like a candy bar to a big walleye."
Bear those words of wisdom in mind as you follow the food to more walleyes this month.
MATCHING THE HATCH
Although fall walleyes are not particular about what they eat as long as it's a mouthful, it's always better to use bait that matches the particular type of morsels that can be found in the body of water you're fishing. Because baitfish are concentrating in the shallows in the fall, it's easy to secure a supply of baitfish on your own.
If you plan ahead, and where legal, you can set a minnow trap baited with cracker or bread crumbs in the shallows and secure a supply of bait overnight. Another option is to use a cast net or seine.
Once you secure a supply of bait, it's important to keep it alive and kicking. An aerated bait bucket can extend bait life, even for multi-day fishing trips.