Go big and go fast to catch fall walleyes that are targeting the largest baitfish of the season.
The colder the water, the bigger the bait" is the mantra taught by Lance Valentine, a walleye fishing guide and popular speaker on the subject. The Michigan-based angler has caught walleye across the Midwest, and by bait he refers to both the size of the local forage fish and the size of the lures he recommends anglers use.
Valentine's "cold water/big bait" rule is valid at both ends of the fishing season, when he claims the local baitfish are at their largest and are the focus of the attention of walleye.
"That's especially true in the fall," explained Valentine. "The life cycle of most forage fish isn't long. All the baitfish that hatched back in April, May and June have reached maximum growth by autumn, and that's what the walleye are feeding on."
The same is true in spring, as the only remaining forage are full-grown baitfish from the previous season.
By autumn, walleye want to get fat fast because they need to bulk up for the lean winter months. This is when the output versus input factor comes into play more than any other time of the season.
"It makes sense that in the fall the walleye target the biggest baitfish they can find to put on the weight while expending the least amount of effort to do so," Valentine said. "Walleye know that it takes a lot less energy for them to chase down one big meal than it does to chase down several snacks. So, the walleye are targeting the larger forage, which is what anglers need to imitate to catch them this time of year."
According to Valentine, the most common mistake made by anglers in the early and late seasons is they figure the cold water makes fall walleyes lethargic, thinking they need to fish small baits slow. It's actually just the opposite.
To catch fall walleyes consistently, angers need to first determine what species of baitfish on which walleye are feeding.
"Most walleye waters offer one or more of five major forage fish species — yellow perch, shiners, shad, smelt and what we'll call minnows, such as chubs and suckers," said Valentine. "One of the most important things a walleye angler can do is to find out what type of forage is in the water they are fishing. That dictates when, where and how often walleye feed."
Some forage fish frequent open water, while other baitfish species relate more to cover or live closer to the bottom, creating a different type of fishery. Shiners, shad and smelt move more in open water, while yellow perch and minnows typically relate more to cover. After determining the primary bait, anglers need to figure out where that bait will be based on the water and light conditions.
"Fall, winter, spring or summer, the walleye won't be far from the bait," said Valentine. "Walleye don't live in 30 feet of water and swim up to 5 feet where the baitfish are to feed, and then swim back down to 30 feet. If the bait is at 5 feet, that's where the walleye are going to be in the water."
The type of baitfish dictates the locations of walleye, while the position of baitfish dictates mood and activity level. This combination offers anglers the opportunity to determine the best presentation for the day.
For example, if walleyes are feeding on perch in shallow weed growth, anglers need to fish the weedbeds when walleye are going to be active. Walleyes have good low-light vision, but they really excel when there is a change in light from dark to light or light to dark.
This also happens to be when yellow perch vision is most limited. That's why low-light periods, such as early and late in the day, cloudy conditions or when the surface light is broken by wind, are the most productive times to fish for shallow walleye, especially those in waters where the primary forage is perch. When conditions are sunny and bright, both predator and prey can see equally well, so walleye lose advantage and will wait to feed until favorable light conditions.
River walleyes are a little different than those found in lakes and reservoirs because of current, which pushes both game fish and baitfish to live closer to the bottom.
"The current actually sort of forces them down there, and that's why you pretty much eliminate the top and middle water column for locating active walleye in rivers, and concentrate within a couple feet of the bottom," Valentine explained. "There are some exceptions, of course, especially in pools or backwaters or large river systems where current is diminished and the water is more like that you would find in a lake."
However, whether fishing in a lake or a river, there is a transition of walleye to deeper, open water in the autumn. As weed cover dies with the colder water, there's a shift of everything to deeper water. September is typically when the thermocline dissipates, and shallower lakes turn over. This makes forage fish, along with walleye, relate to open water.
Regardless of season or where baitfish are located, anglers need to match the size, profile and action of the forage. And when walleye move into open water, the best combination of lure and method to accomplish this is trolling minnow-imitating crankbaits.
"Trolling allows me to cover lots of water and to present a variety of lures in a variety of depths until I find the combination the walleye want on a particular day," said Valentine.
Lure length and profile are what matter most to Valentine to put fish in the boat, with color also being a critical factor. The lures that best match the fall hatch, according to Valentine, measure 4 to 6 inches and have a thicker profile than standard slender crankbaits.
He likes 800 series Reef Runners, Smithwick Perfect 10s, size 12 and 14 Rapala Deep Husky Jerks, Rapala Taildancers in size 9, 11 and 13, and Walleye Bandits in the size range that matches the local baitfish, keeping in mind that big baits going fast catch fish.
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