December 13, 2023
Like a merry-go-round, my boat was slowly pulled within the mild current in the river pool. The circling flow, commonly called an eddy by river anglers, was created by a major point that jutted out in the river, diverting its flow. In terms of boat control, it was an ideal situation that allowed me to present my late-fall offering, a bucktail jig, to the walleyes I felt confident were there. And they were. Time after time, my hair jig’s pace was interrupted by an ’eye—a hit telegraphed by a sharp tick.
By the time the carousel ride was over, my partner and I had boated a dozen-and-a-half walleyes in the 18-to-22-inch range—all on bucktail jigs. It’s interesting that bucktail jigs have become a hot “new” presentation. Those of us who have fished them for the past 30-plus years know that, like aviator sunglasses, they’ve never gone out of style.
The hair jig offers a host of attributes applicable to both lake- and river-dwelling walleyes. The hair “breathes” with the slightest movement or current, suggesting life. The bucktail can be fished effectively in shallow or deep water. The material readily accepts scent or attractant—can’t-hurt additions, especially in the cold water of fall. Hair jigs can be fished alone or dressed with natural bait or soft plastics. And while commercial options are readily available, bucktails are easily tied, a much more cost-effective way to procure them, and one that allows tailoring them to your individual needs.
Depending upon the physical characteristics of a lake or reservoir, and the food sources found there, walleyes can occupy a variety of niches. This could be remaining healthy, submergent vegetation or deeper ledges and drop-offs into creek and river channels. The fish could be shallow or deep. Hair jigs are appropriate in many scenarios.
Consider stands of green vegetation like pondweed, coontail and milfoil—cover that holds baitfish and therefore predators like walleyes. Healthy weed growth tends to stand tall, and since it’s had a season to mature, it is readily identifiable on sonar. When found on points and humps, weeds are even more likely to hold ’eyes. These are places that can be picked apart with a bucktail.
When working a stand of late-fall weeds, I like to position the boat a cast’s length off the deep edge of the cover. Initial casts are made right up into the vegetation. This serves two purposes. First, the cast often comes back with a strand of weeds, providing clues as to the type and health of the vegetation. Second, you get a baseline for how far to cast to reach the sparse outer weed edges where feeding walleyes tend to hold.
Jig weight is an important and often overlooked aspect of bucktails. I like to keep things relatively light. For weed edges in the 15-foot range, I prefer a 3/16-ounce jig; if weeds end at around 10 feet or less, 1/8 ounce is often better.
Relatively short casts in the 30-foot range allow you to pick the weed edge apart. If walleyes are especially active, they may hit the jig on the initial fall. If not, work it back along the weed fringe with light upward hops that jump the bait a foot or so off bottom. Don’t be afraid to slather the hair with an attractant like Smelly Jelly, or tip the jig with a live minnow or a Berkely Gulp! Alive! 3-inch minnow. The latter allows you to be a bit more aggressive with your snaps and hops without fear of tearing off the bait.
Walleye bites on bucktails are often felt as a sharp tick. My theory is that since natural fiber compresses underwater, unlike soft-plastic bodies, there is less material to buffer the feel of the take.
Bucktails also excel when fishing along ledges and drop-offs—well-known late-fall walleye haunts, especially on reservoirs. Commonly, these spots can be anywhere from 15 to 30 feet deep, so a vertical approach is often best. Key areas include channel swings close to shore, submerged junctions of secondary/primary creek channels and even deep, submerged wood.
Basically, any place where you might fish a metal blade bait or jigging spoon is a good situation for a hair jig, too. The bait can be yo-yoed like a spoon or snapped like a blade. But another option not to overlook is simply allowing it to hover in place with little to no additional input. This semi-motionless look—currently referred to as “moping” in the bass world—also triggers walleyes. Remember, the hair is breathing without any additional movement.
Being river fish by nature, it’s not surprising that river walleyes often bite well in the cold water of late fall. Also, consider that the fish tend to collect in deeper, slower holes where they are readily accessible rather than scatter widely as they do during the warmer months.
In deeper river holes, say 15-feet-plus, bucktails can be fished vertically as the boat slowly drifts with the current. In this case, a heavier jig—typically 1/4 ounce—helps maintain a vertical line and makes it easy to remain in contact with bottom. The key here is to hover the jig within inches of the bottom, taking in or paying out line as the depth changes.
Be willing to experiment with color. I’m a fan of jigs in olive green or straight black that include a few strands of Krystal Flash and a couple hackle feathers for contrast and added attraction. In your waters things could be different. If the water temperature is on the warmer side of 40 degrees, walleyes will commonly take an untipped bucktail. If it’s below 40, the addition of a Gulp! Alive! minnow or medium fathead often conjures more bites.
In shallower river pools—ones in the 8- to 15-foot range—it’s often better to make short pitch casts, such as in the outing described in the intro. This allows you to cover the water a bit quicker and gets you away from the boat and potentially spooked fish. At these depths I prefer bucktails in the 3/16-ounce range. This is not a mainstream size, though, which is another reason to tie your own jigs.
Pitch casts should be followed up with the same jigging/hopping retrieve described for working weed edges. Experiment with cadence and aggressiveness. Some days the fish might respond better to a livelier snap that shoots the jig off bottom a foot or so. Other days, it might take a slow crawl along the bottom to get a response. I like to start off on the aggressive side and tone down from there until I get a feel for what the fish want.
It’s no secret that walleyes often bite better during low-light periods. This can be during cloudy days, but more commonly it’s during the evening twilight period. The fish are programed to feed when they have a sight advantage over their prey.
As such, the fish commonly move to shallower areas as the sun sets. This could be up on a main-river point or shoal, or into the mouth of an incoming creek. In my experience these areas run from 5 to 8 feet in depth. This is when I’ll switch to a lighter, 1/8-ounce bucktail. Walleyes are feeding now, and the lighter weight results in a slower initial drop, which is when many hits occur. The evening bite also means that tipping the jig is not necessary, even in water barely above freezing. This equates to more time with the jig in the water and more walleyes on the hook.
Like any other bait or lure, bucktail jigs are not magic. Some days other options might perform better. But they are perhaps the most consistent and versatile offering available for late-fall walleyes on inland lakes and rivers—one that you don’t want to be without.
- Bust out the bucktails on these prime fall walleye waters.
- SUMMERSVILLE LAKE, WV: Summersville Lake, a federal flood control impoundment on the Gauley River, boasts an excellent self-supporting walleye population. Fall/winter drawdowns lower the level by as much as 60 feet in this deep, riverine reservoir, concentrating fish.
- KINZUA DAM, NY/PA: Kinzua Dam impounds the Allegheny River, creating a 25-mile-long pool that stretches from Pennsylvania up into New York. Natural reproduction is bolstered by fish from the Seneca Nation of Indians’ hatchery in Salamanca. A fishing license from the SNI is required to fish nearly all of the New York water.
- ALLEGHENY RIVER, PA: Walleyes populate the Allegheny from the tailwaters of Kinzua Dam all the way to Pittsburgh—well over 200 miles. The lower 70 miles are navigable, impounded waters courtesy of eight locks and dams, with the rest being natural, free-flowing river. Look to deeper river holes at this time of year.
- ONEIDA LAKE, NY: Likely New York’s most prolific walleye lake, Oneida is a great year-round destination for these fish. During the fall, look to steep, rocky drop-offs near Shackleton Shoals and other humps and shoals in the western part of the lake.
- CONNECTICUT RIVER, NH/VT: The New England states are not overly blessed with walleye waters, but there are some options for chasing marble eyes, including the Connecticut River. Find fish and good walleye habitat between Monroe and Hinsdale, N.H.
- PYMATUNING LAKE, PA: Found in northwestern Pennsylvania, Pymatuning is likely the state’s best all-around walleye lake. During late fall, fish concentrate in the lower end of the 16,000-acre impoundment near the Jamestown access as they key on dying/stressed shad and alewives.
- CHAUTAUQUA LAKE, NY: Walleyes are known to stack up in the deep waters of the northern section of the lake now. Deep basins near Long Point collect fish.