September 28, 2023
Autumn is a time of abundance for walleye anglers. As the leaves fall from the trees, cooling water temperatures trigger predictable seasonal movements of walleyes as they follow their preferred baitfish varieties. This is a time when smaller baitfish like shiners and perch move toward shallow structure to feed up for the winter. Like all predators, walleyes are never far from their prey, and the savvy angler can intercept these heavy-bodied fall fish in shallow water during the day or at night.
Walleyes locked into perch or shiner feeding patterns will spend much of the fall in shallow water—and by shallow, I mean 10 to 12 feet deep or less. In stained bodies of water, these fish reliably feed throughout the day, while shallow walleyes in clear lakes often require some cloud cover or the proverbial “walleye chop” to get the dinner bell ringing.
Walleyes will remain in the shallows all day if they have access to two things: food and cover. No shiners, or no perch, means no walleyes. Beyond their favorite snacks, walleyes require something to conceal themselves from their prey—typically remnant fall weeds or rocks—and something to help them feel safe from their own predators like large pike and muskies. A barren sand flat will hold few fish when the sun is high in the sky, whereas the presence of scattered rockpiles or an expansive weed bed can provide reliable daytime action for fall walleyes.
Soft plastics rigged on lead-head jigs are outstanding choices when beginning your daytime walleye hunts. Carry two essential body styles: a 4-inch boot-tail- or paddle-tail-style minnow and a 4- to 5-inch split-tail or fluke-style bait. I strongly prefer natural, subdued color patterns when chasing these fish, with lots of white, gray and purple baits in my usual rotation. You’ll present these soft plastics in one of two basic ways: with a slow-swimming retrieve or by snap-jigging. As with any presentation, the devil is in the details.
Selecting a quality jig embodied with the right features is critical to success when fishing soft plastics. I’m typically using a 1/4-ounce jig in this depth range, and while I don’t feel that jig color plays a decisive role in triggering strikes, I do tend to fish a lot of orange-, green- or chartreuse-colored jigs. More so than color, pay particular attention to the hook style and the presence of a wire plastic keeper. You’ll want to use a long-shank, thin-wire hook for this application. The long shank moves the bend and hook point farther back on the lure’s body and helps ensure a positive hookset, while the thin wire facilitates penetration into a walleye’s bony mouth. A wire keeper that helps pin the soft plastic against the jig head over repeated casts—and catches—is an absolute must.
Start with a long cast, launching the lure as far as possible from the boat to avoid spooking shallow predators. Spooling up with a smooth, high-visibility, 8-carrier braided line in 15- or 20-pound test is ideal. Follow this with a 4-foot leader of 12-pound-test fluorocarbon joined to the braided main line with an Alberto or a double uni knot (both are easy ties and provide reliable braid-to-fluorocarbon unions). A medium-power, fast- or extra-fast-action rod between 6 feet 8 inches and 7 feet 2 inches in length, equipped with a 2500-series spinning reel, is an excellent tackle configuration for casting soft plastics.
A slow-swimming retrieve mimics the regular, rhythmic motion of an unsuspecting baitfish cruising near shallow cover and unaware of the presence of lurking predators. A boot-tail- or paddle-tail-style plastic is the lure of choice here, as the swimming motion will activate the tail—really, the entire bait—providing enticing action and vibration.
Allow the lure to fall to the bottom after the cast, then pick up the slack, give the lure one sharp snap, then slowly retrieve the lure back to the boat with a series of slow lifts and drops. Start with the rod at the 3 o’clock position, lifting the lure by raising it to the 1 o’clock position. Return the rod tip back to its starting position, slowly reeling in line to maintain contact with the lure. While the lure may touch the bottom, I find it most productive to keep the bait swimming just above bottom during the entire retrieve. Expect strikes to occur as the lure falls, signaled by a sharp tap that is easily detected when using no-stretch braid and a high-modulus graphite spinning rod.
Snap-jigging is nearly the exact opposite of the slow-swimming retrieve. Rather than a rhythmic presentation that methodically combs the water, snap-jigging is erratic, fast-paced and an excellent trigger for neutral or even negative fish. A split-tail- or fluke-style minnow is a better choice here, as its slender profile allows the lure to plunge back to the bottom faster than a paddle-tail or boot-tail bait.
At the far end of the cast, allow the lure to contact bottom and pick up your slack. Then, snap the lure sharply off the bottom by quickly popping the rod tip from the 3 o’clock position to the 12 o’clock position. Then, allow the lure to fall to the bottom on a semi-slack line, which gives it an irregular, erratic action during its quick, short descent. Follow the lure back down by returning the rod tip to its starting position, watching the high-vis braid for unexpected jumps or twitches that signal a strike.
When the lure is back on the bottom, pick up your slack and snap that jig again, repeating the process until the retrieve is complete or a fish is brought to hand. Strikes are sometimes detected during the fall. However, often you won’t know that a fish has attacked the lure until you snap the jig again, and your snapping motion evolves quickly into a hookset.
Soft plastics, bucktail jigs and even old reliable jig-and-minnow presentations are all part of my shallow-water walleye rotation during the day. Admittedly, soft plastics get the lion’s share of my attention due to their effectiveness, as well as their versatility and multi-species appeal. Indeed, catches of sumo perch, excellent largemouths and bonus pike and muskies are the norm rather than the exception.
THE NIGHT SHIFT
Plan to Move
When the sun sinks low and the stars begin to twinkle, shallow-water walleyes frequently leave the cover where they lurk during the day and begin roaming adjacent flats and well-defined inside and outside weed edges. Here, walleyes pick off perch and shiners that lack our favorite perciform’s exceptional low-light vision. Because walleyes are frequently more scattered under the cover of darkness, a mobile, trolling-based approach is favored over more methodical cast-and-retrieve options.
Boat organization and attention to safety details are important when embarking on an after-hours walleye adventure. Stow unneeded equipment and tackle trays, and provide ready access to the landing net and fish-handling tools. Also, ensure that everyone in the boat wears an approved personal floatation device and has access to a headlamp. Above all else, ensure that your navigation lights are in good working order. Accidents can happen after dark—perhaps more frequently than during the day—and an ounce of prevention before the sun sets can help provide for a safe and successful nighttime trolling session.
Peak bite periods for fall’s after-dark trolling are often associated with the days surrounding the September and October full moons due to the visibility they enable. Fall full moons provide plenty of light for shallow walleyes to locate prey—and for walleye anglers to target them successfully.
Spread ’Em Out
Night trolling for walleyes is a relatively simple flat-lining technique that does not require the use of planer boards. Rather, run lines straight out the back and off to the sides of the boat using rods of different lengths and taking advantage of baits with different dive curves. For example, when running four lines, I’ll use two 7-foot 6-inch trolling rods directed straight back off the corners of the transom, and a pair of 12-foot rods directed at 90-degree angles off the sides of the boat. Factoring in the 8-foot beam of my Lund 1975 Pro-V walleye boat, that gives me more than 30 feet of separation between my outside lines and about 10 feet separating each adjacent pair of baits. Always be cognizant of local regulations regarding how many individual lines you can fish, as not all states are the same.
Steer a straight-line course and reel in the two inside lines when it’s time to turn around to keep tangles to a minimum. Equip each rod with a line-counter level-wind reel spooled with low-visibility 20-pound-test braided line. Use a Palomar knot to tie on a cross-lock snap, and you’re ready to fish. Fluorocarbon leaders are generally not needed when fishing under the cover of darkness.
To keep my bait selection simple I run two general styles of lures: shallow-diving, shad-profile crankbaits and slender, minnow-profile crankbaits or jerkbaits. Frequently, shad-profile baits, with their tighter action, will be strong performers in the early fall; slow-wobbling minnow baits shine as waters cool into the 40s. However, that’s just a general rule. Perch and fire tiger color patterns are good choices, as are flashy metallic finishes, when the moon is shining bright. Opt for darker colors when skies are dark or overcast. Internal rattles can be your best friend in the middle of a pitch-black night.
Trolling speeds generally correlate with water temperatures. Pull lures at 2 to 2.3 mph early in the fall when waters remain in the 60s or upper 50s. As surface temperatures fall through the 50s into the 40s, slow your troll down toward 1 1/2 mph or even slower when it starts getting wintry or during extreme fall cold fronts.
Run out enough line to get the baits to within a foot of the bottom. That means either getting to know your baits’ dive curves or simply letting out enough line to tick bottom occasionally, then reeling in three or four cranks of line. Braided line and a quality graphite or graphite-composite rod will help telegraph bait action back to the angler’s hand. Check baits for free-wiggling action frequently to prevent a small piece of vegetation from fouling the lure’s action.
While you may elect to simply put the rod in a holder, I enjoy hand-holding my trolling rod when fishing after dark. There’s nothing quite like the feel of a trophy-caliber walleye crushing a trolled lure while you share the light of the October moon with a good friend.
- Gear to make the most of your daytime fishing this autumn.
For fall’s shallow daytime walleyes, begin with a well-balanced, high-quality graphite rod with medium power and a fast or extra-fast action that is around 7 feet in length. St. Croix’s 6-foot-8-inch, medium-power, extra-fast-action Legend Tournament Walleye Spinning Rod is a personal favorite. This rod is also an excellent choice for ripping lipless rattle baits in the spring and summer months, as well as many other aggressive, reaction-bite presentations. Add a 2500-series Daiwa BG reel spooled with 20-pound-test Seaguar Smackdown in the Flash Green color, and finish with a 4-foot leader of Seaguar InvizX fluorocarbon.
The VMC Sleek Jig and the Northland MVP jig, each in the 1/4-ounce size, have long-shank 2/0 hooks and wire plastic keepers and are excellent choices for slow-swimming and snap-jigging applications. My soft-plastic collection is fairly diverse but is weighted heavily toward Z-Man 5-inch Scented Jerk ShadZ for split-tail minnows and Keitech 4-inch Easy Shiners for boot-tail lures.
- This article was featured in the September 2023 issue of Game & Fish Magazine. Subscribe now.