Diehard walleye anglers know October offers some of the year’s finest fishing on lakes, rivers and impoundments large and small. As oxygen levels change, fall walleyes are on the move. Here’s how to find them.
FIND FISH FAST
Putting together a successful October walleye pattern starts with finding the fish. Fortunately, walleyes are creatures of habit. So, unless unusual weather conditions or extreme fishing pressure throw them a curve, you can expect to locate your quarry in predictable areas.
Capt. Randall Gaines chases fall walleyes on fisheries across the Midwest, from western Lake Erie to Minnesota’s Cass Lake. He hauls numbers of trophy fish over the rail each year, and in October 2016 won the Cabela’s Master’s Walleye Circuit World Championship on Green Bay and the lower Fox River while fishing the team-format event with partner Mike Rhoades.
Not surprisingly, Gaines has a system for quickly finding walleyes in any fishery.
“Multiple factors come into play,” he says. “I typically look for big female walleyes congregating close to where they will spawn the following spring, but baitfish location is also extremely important. Walleyes have the feedbag on and don’t like to swim far to eat.”
Gaines admits that pinpointing the forage can take some serious sleuthing. “It’s tempting to go offer cliché advice, like ‘find the deepest pool, a major point or other classic structure,’ but that doesn’t always hold water,” he says. “Baitfish may be along the bank, up a river or out in the abyss. It’s your job to track them down. Once you do, you can bet the big walleyes won’t be far away.”
Depending on the fishery, October’s underwater buffet line can include fall-spawning ciscoes and tullibees, plus various shiners and other minnow species, shad and juvenile panfish such as yellow perch, sunfish and crappies.
On the Great Lakes, where Gaines says walleyes follow migratory baitfish including gizzard shad, white bass, smelt, shiners, and white perch, he often trolls large minnow- and banana-style crankbaits in deep water by day. Once darkness falls, he pulls shallow runners like a Rapala F18 around shorelines and tributaries adjacent to deeper water, favoring rocks, riprap, pilings or other structure.
If tempted to fish at night, Gaines reports that the nastiest nights, with sleet, snow and wind, generally produce the most walleyes. When Gaines and Rhoades captured the MWC title on Green Bay, different patterns won the day that are worth revisiting for tough-bite conditions on a variety of large and small Midwestern waters.
During the week leading up to the event, weather changes of near-apocalyptic proportions threw the fish in a funk. Water temperatures fell a full 10 degrees and an epidemic of empty live wells struck the entire region, not just Green Bay.
Gaines and Rhoades adjusted by targeting a current-washed offshore hump that topped out around 12 feet below the surface. While using their bow mount to zigzag across the hump, they cast 1 3/16-ounce Rapala Flat Jigs and retrieved them tight to bottom.
“The Flat Jig’s design made it a natural for this presentation as it has such a big back end and glides well on a subtle lift. Fishing it low and slow, with short hops, kept it in the strike zone longer.”
The pair’s other top program worked wonders over hard bottom in up to 70 feet of water at the base of a sharp drop-off. Here, they found a cluster of gobies gathered around an unusual object marked on sonar, which Gaines suspects was an abandoned commercial gill net. “It was as big as a mid-sized car and rose a foot off bottom,” he notes. Gobies were so thick near the object, the anglers snagged two or three of the exotic baitfish at a time on their jigs. “So, we backed off a little, looking for walleyes resting nearby,” he said.
When sonar revealed large arcs tight to bottom, Gaines and Rhoades dropped the same Flat Rap jigs they’d used in shallow water and soon hooked into super-sized Green Bay walleyes. “We used 6- to 10-inch lifts that subtly moved the jig upward, then followed it down to bottom and held it there,” says Gaines. “The fish always hit on the drop or at rest.”
Longtime Northwoods walleye guide Jeff Sundin says Lindy Rigs tipped with super-sized minnows are one of his top choices for connecting clients with fat fall walleyes.
His favorite rigging grounds are rock piles on gradually tapering points, but he says steep breaks can hold their share of fish as well. Depths typically run less than 35 feet, but you’ll find fish at 70 feet or more, especially after the fall turnover mixes oxygen throughout the water column.
“The right bait is key,” he says. “I prefer lively redtail chubs (also known as hornyhead chubs) from 6 to 9 inches long. Creek chubs work in some lakes but walleyes don’t like them in others. Sucker minnows can be okay, but a large night crawler on an Original Lindy Rig will do just as well as a sucker. Ultimately, for rigging large minnows, you can’t beat a redtail.”
The single-hook large-minnow version of the 50th Anniversary Lindy Rig excels for this presentation. Sundin typically trims the fluorocarbon snell to 5 feet and hooks up to size 3/0 in size may be needed for extra-large baits. If the minnow is digging into bottom or otherwise not performing properly, he adds a Lindy Snell Float just ahead of the hook.Sundin weights the rig with a 3/4-ounce Lindy No-Snagg Slip Sinker, separated from the leader by a size 10 Lindy Swivel.
“The best fishing locations often have rocks,” he says. “No-Snaggs fish through rocks better than anything.” If the sinker happens to find a foothold, he immediately lets the line go slack, repositions his boat on the other side of the offending rubble, and jiggles the rod tip. “Most times, if you’re patient, it will pop right out,” he offers.
To fish a potential hotspot, Sundin drops the rig to the bottom and, keeping the line nearly vertical, hovers along at about .5 to .7 mph. “Take it slow and keep the minnow in front of the fish as long as possible,” he says. “And keep your reel’s bail open, with one finger on the line.” When a walleye takes the bait, Sundin drops the line and gives the fish time to eat.
Longtime walleye fanatic Chip Leer reminds us not to forget the river bite.
“Half the people I know have caught the biggest walleyes of their lives on rivers in the fall,” he says. One of his top picks is the Winnipeg River in Manitoba, but excellent alternatives exist across the Midwest.
Leer’s go-to tactics include anchoring along the river channel in depths of 10 to 25 feet and vertical jigging a 1/2-ounce Northland RZ Jig or 3/8-ounce Slurp! jig tipped with a salted shiner or softbait, such as Northland’s 4-inch Impulse Smelt Minnow. “Jig strokes are limited to slow lifts of a couple inches, allowing the fish to home in on the bait in the milky water,” he says.
On still waters such as Minnesota’s Leech Lake, Leer looks to deep humps 20 to 40 feet beneath the surface. “The last three to four weeks of open water, the deep bite produces some of the biggest fish of the year,” he says.
“It’s basically ice fishing in a boat,” he continues. “You set up early to hit a 30- to 45-minute period during sunset when the fish go crazy. You can use a ball-head jig tipped with a minnow, but I like swimming jigs like Northland’s Puppet Minnow and jigging spoons, like the Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon or Minnow-Head Hook.”
Unlike the slow strokes of river fishing, he favors a vigorous snap-jigging cadence to attract fish from a distance.
WARM WEATHER WALLEYES
Unseasonably warm water temperatures can throw the fall bite off schedule. Walleyes can still be caught — provided you adjust strategies accordingly.
“Daytime temps of 60 degrees or more, with relatively no nighttime cooling, can keep early fall patterns alive well into October,” says veteran guide Jon Thelen, who currently crisscrosses the Walleye Belt filming Fish ED television for Lindy Fishing Tackle.
“The walleyes are hungry,” he continues. “But they’re not shallow yet. Instead, troll crankbaits or Lindy Rigs along the first break dropping into deeper water. When the water temperature finally falls into the 50s, expect walleyes to move shallower.”