Between fishing and hunting, this expert's time is limited. But if he wants to catch walleyes in autumn, he'll head for these Minnesota lakes.
Lake Edward in Crow Wing County is one of Gary Roach's favorite lakes. Photo by Tim Lesmeister
By Gary Roach
Fall walleye fishing is a time of transition. What causes this transition is the movement of the forage base due to changing water temperatures and certain species of baitfish moving to the shallows to spawn. These factors tend to pull those suspended walleyes up to the shallow structure. And those schools of fish that were relating to deep structure also spread out in the shallow vegetation and over the shallow rock and sand points to ambush food.
The fact that the lakes have turned over and there's no discernible thermocline also triggers transition. Those walleyes that want to go to the bottom in 80 or 90 feet of water can do that because there are now sustainable oxygen levels at that depth.
You can see that in the fall the walleyes can be very deep, very shallow, and if there is forage in the mid-depths, there will be walleyes there, too.
Night-fishing can produce some real trophy walleyes in the fall. This is a great time of year to cast shallow-diving crankbaits over cobblestone regions near shore or over shallow vegetation.
One problem that many anglers have when chasing fall walleyes is they fail to present their bait to the fish. Walleyes can be 2 feet deep on a rockpile on Mille Lacs, but all the boats are still in 19 to 24 feet of water. Instead of dragging a leech around the edge of a midlake flat, they should be suspending the bait on a bobber next to those shallow rockpiles.
Anglers shouldn't fear the depths in the fall. When you see a big school of fish on the sonar at the bottom of the deepest breakline on the lake, you really should set up a live-bait rig with a heavy sinker and go after them. No water is too deep after turnover, so no part of a lake can be ruled out.
When walleyes are in a transition period you can't rely on any consistent pattern. Those fish can be in one place biting on a particular presentation on one day, and the next day those same walleyes have moved a mile and are responding to an entirely different technique. With this in mind, make sure to be open about deciding what to rig after locating fish. I always have a supply of leeches, night crawlers and minnows with me, and I stuff the rod locker with everything from ultralight casting rods to heavy-duty trolling sticks. You have to be prepared for anything when targeting fall walleyes.
While everyone has their favorite lakes to fish when the leaves start changing and the air turns crisp, there are some lakes that are known for a quality fall walleye bite. Mille Lacs is a good example. When the "dog days" end and the fall bite begins, those boat landings that were recently empty start filling up just about the time the sun sinks low enough to hit the horizon line. Boats stack up on the tops of the rockpiles and along the edges of the rubble bars, and in the darkness of night, everyone has one eye glued on the sonar as they try to stay in a depth zone and pick off the walleyes that have moved shallow to feed. Everyone's trolling crankbaits, and the walleyes are crushing them. It's a fun battle with a walleye that's hooked in the shallows on a cool fall night on Mille Lacs.
Let's look at a few other lakes that turn on in the fall for walleyes.
Crow Wing County's Lake Edward is close to home for me, and it's one of my favorite fall walleye lakes.
There are two big bars that run north to south on the west-central and east-central sections of the lake. Just between the northern tips of these reefs is the deep hole. It's a perfect fall walleye lake.
During the daylight hours I circle the deep hole from 20 to 60 feet, watching the sonar to see if there are any schools of fish. When I spot something I drop down the underwater viewing camera to make sure they're walleyes. Carp, suckers, and even bluegills and crappies will school in deep water, and it's walleyes I'm after. The camera allows me to know what's below.
The best setup for deep fall walleyes as far as I'm concerned is a live-bait rig and a minnow. The walleyes have whittled down the forage base by now, and when they see a minnow struggling right in front of them, you're sure to feel the bite.
When you're fishing deep you need weight. Don't hesitate to go to 1 ounce on the walking sinker when you're in 50 to 60 feet of water. The sinkers I designed let you pop them on and off without cutting the line, so when you slip onto a deeper contour you won't hesitate to modify the weight.
When night-fishing on Edward you should drift over the tops of the bars and cast crankbaits. There are three models that work wonders here. The Rebel Minnow, the Rattlin' Rogue and the Bomber Long-A in a perch pattern are the lures of choice in my book. These are all shallow divers, and you want to retrieve them slowly.
If you want to know more, talk to my buddies up at the Y-Store. Their number is (218) 828-9268.
CUTFOOT SIOUX LAKE
I've never been able to generate a good night bite on Lake Winnibigoshish, but you should definitely take advantage of the outstanding fall walleye bite on the Cutfoot Sioux Lake when the sun is shining. Cutfoot is a basin off of Winnibigoshish that you get to through a narrow opening on the northeast corner. All you need to get in on this fall walleye bonanza is a jigging rod and a bucket full of minnows.
You will be pitching a 1/8-ounce standup jig to the weedline. The walleyes move up to the edge and lay in wait for the easy meal. When a minnow swims by, they gulp it down. If your jig has impaled the minnow, they'll clamp down on your hook, too.
No long casts here. Just a nice easy underhand pitch so the jig lands and drops straight down to the bottom where the sparse weeds end in 12 to 14 feet of water. Let the jig drop with the bail open on the reel so the lure goes straight down. When the jig hits the bottom, close the bail and twitch the jig. Slow-hop the jig a couple of times, and if you don't get a bite, reel it in and pitch it again. This is an extremely productive technique on Cutfoot in the fall.
For more information, call Ben's Bait at (218) 326-8281.
During low-light periods the walleyes on Cass Lake like to move up onto the bulrush beds that are everywhere on this great walleye lake. In the
fall those same walleyes spend all day in the beds, especially when the tullibees, also known as ciscoes, move into the cover to spawn.
Those ciscoes are fall spawners, and the walleyes can't get enough of them when it comes to eating. Why else do you think summertime walleyes love to suspend near a school of tullibees that's way up off the bottom in deep water? It's an easy meal to just bust up the school and pick off a few. When this forage base moves into the shallow vegetation to spawn in the fall, the walleyes follow right along.
A great way to catch the walleyes on top of the bulrush beds is to work the pockets in this vegetation with a bobber setup. Just dangle a minnow below a bobber and pitch it into the openings. It doesn't take long to see if there are fish where you set the bait.
In a shallow situation like this the boat can spook the walleyes off the beds of bulrushes. Don't use a gas motor to position the boat, and make casts long enough to get the bait in position but keep in mind the vegetation between you and the boat. There are places you can position the boat that will let you fight a fish without hanging up in the bulrush stalks.
For more information, call Trees Resort at (218) 335-2471.
POMME DE TERRE LAKE
Here's a shallow Grant County lake with minimal structure that heats up for walleyes in the fall. The reason this lake improves is that the water clears up and the fish get hungry. Your best fishing will be in the daytime hours.
In that northern basin you have two reefs that dump into the deep water. Walleyes will use any of the many nooks and crannies from the top of the humps to the bottom of the hole to station in. It's a great situation to incorporate a jig-and-minnow. On the top of the reef you can pitch the jig, and twitch and pop it to generate bites. When you get into 12 feet and deeper, a vertical approach will let you fish more precisely.
Unlike the summertime where you sit tight on a spot when you hook a fish, in the fall - with the fish spread out all over - don't stay in one place too long. Typically you'll find one fish here and one fish there, especially on Pomme De Terre in the fall.
For more information, call Dahlen's Short Stop at (218) 747-2901.
THE WHITEFISH CHAIN
The Whitefish Chain of lakes in Crow Wing County are all deep and clear, and can be tough to fish in the summer when it comes to walleyes, even though there are plenty of this species there. Come fall when the fish quit suspending, then they get easier to find, which means they are easier to catch.
Now is when those deep humps that look so inviting all summer long actually get productive. Now is when the base of those 90-degree dropoffs have some fish on them. Now is when the structure on this chain of lakes actually holds fish.
The best way to find and catch fall walleyes on the Whitefish Chain is with a 1-ounce bottom-bouncer attached to a Rainbow Spinner Rig tipped with a red-tailed chub. The beauty of this rig is that you can almost immediately put the bait on the bottom whether you're working up the side of a deep sunken island or dropping off the breakline. Use a baitcasting reel, and when you make the transition from one depth to another, just take in or spool out enough line to keep that wire on the bottom-bouncer in contact with the bottom.
For more about this great chain of lakes, call the Pine Terrace Resort at (218) 543-4606.
BIG SANDY LAKE
As beautiful as the fall blooms are on Big Sandy Lake in Aitkin County, I'm always surprised I don't see more anglers there chasing walleyes. Islands and bays full of bulrushes and wild rice, and the shoreline on fire with red and yellow leaves - it's a shame my best fishing there is at night.
On Big Sandy I use a Grappler Shad crankbait in a fire-tiger pattern, which runs about 10 to 12 feet when trolled out 100 feet behind the boat.
Yes, the bottom contour can be erratic in most spots, but there are a few areas that are straight enough at that 15-foot depth range to give you an easy trolling run. I get out on the lake when the sun is shining and set up some plot lines and icons on the GPS so I can get back after dark to catch some fish. And I get to enjoy the beautiful fall colors.
Keep your boat speed to about 1 to 1.5 mph, and even if you have a few buddies in the boat with you, keep it to two lines straight out the back.
For more about Big Sandy, talk to the folks at Willie's Sport Shop at (218) 426-3382.
THE FAIRMONT CHAIN
The Fairmont Chain of lakes in Martin County are my favorite southern pothole waters for great fall walleye fishing. A couple of fishing buddies of mine live in southern Minnesota and they tend to shy away from the lakes in the summer months, but come fall when the water clears up and the water temperatures trigger that walleye bite, I get the call to come down for some great fishing.
We spend a lot of time on Hall Lake in the middle of the day, pulling 3/4-ounce bottom-bouncers and spinner rigs with fathead minnows. The trick here is to use a No. 4 Baitfish Image blade in a silver/shiner pattern. Sometimes I even move up to a No. 5 blade. That flashy big blade catches the attention of the walleyes that are spread out all over that lake. They tend to hang about a foot off the bottom and meander all over, looking for something to eat. Put a few extra beads between the hook and the blade. I even slip on a couple of rattle beads and then tie on a No. 2 super-glow attractor hook. Even in the fall the water isn't real clear on these lakes, but the walleye bite gets good, and if you provide a target with some meat, they'll hit it.
For more information call Master Sport at (507) 235-5225.
One of the benefits of my early years crisscrossing the state doing seminars and fishing demonstrations is that I've made a lot of contacts. I can count on getting a few calls a week from old friends letting me in on a good bite that's going on somewhere in Minnesota. Last fall season I got a call to get down to Lake Washington near Mankato.
The water clarity was marginal, but the vegetation was in a perfect state. All the cabbage, milfoil and coontail had settled enough so that you could run a shallow-diving crankbait right over the top.
It was an evening bite. We set up drifts, using the bow-mounted electric motor to stay positioned right on the edge of the vegetation, allowing us to cast over the tops of those weeds. We caught a bunch of bass, too, but the walleyes were in there and they were hitting the baits. Just use a slow retrieve. You only need to have that lure slowly wobbling about a foot or two under the surface.
For more information, call The Bob
ber Shop at (507) 625-8228.
Another fellow Minnesota Sportsman contributor, Tim Lesmeister, has shown me the virtues of the fall night bite on Minnetonka for walleyes.
We take his big Lund Baron and motor out of Carson's Bay about 8 p.m. and pull up into 10 feet of water on the edge of the long point that extends from the Excelsior beach. Lesmeister runs the bow-mounted electric motor to allow us to cast crankbaits right up on top of the reef. By now the milfoil has settled, and a slow retrieve lets the lure run right over the top.
When we wear that spot out it's over to the big sandflat on the west side of Big Island. We cast crankbaits there, too. The third spot will be Bracket's Point, and we've never done real well on this structure, but Lesmeister caught a big one there 10 years ago and he won't quit fishing that memory. The last stop will be the big horseshoe-shaped reef in Browns Bay where we continue to cast crankbaits over the top.
For more information, call Ron Nelson at Shoreline Bait and Tackle at (952) 471-7876.
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