October 28, 2020
By Dr. Jason Halfen
With fall comes an intense focus on walleye fishing throughout the Midwest. This is a magical time of year for fervent walleye anglers, when many of us covet the biggest chubs we can find at the bait shop, dig deep into our tackle boxes to find that one special stickbait that wiggles "just right" and launch the boat during the dinner hour to fish well into the night, rod tips illuminated by the light of the moon.
Rapidly cooling water temperatures, dying shallow weeds and annual movements of baitfish and perch coalesce to put large numbers of oversized walleyes into a feeding mood. Indeed, walleyes can be tempted to strike by day and by night. Double-check your navigation lights, buckle your life jacket, fill the thermos with coffee and head to your favorite lake armed with these time-tested tips for fall walleye success.
Walleyes By Day
A dazzling array of techniques can be applied in the pursuit of daytime walleyes in the fall. On some lakes, slow trolling crankbaits on lead-core line in deep water can yield outstanding results. On other walleye waters, ripping lipless rattle baits around deep rocks and weeds can turn heads and fill the livewell. Time and again, however, my daytime walleye pursuits include live-bait rigging with supersized chubs and snap-jigging with Rapala Jigging Raps and similar lures.
Throughout the Midwest, fall walleyes can be found concentrated along steep breaklines and around deep humps and sunken islands during the daytime hours. Typical depths will be in the 25- to 35-foot range featuring a relatively hard bottom—sand, gravel or rock. Your traditional 2D sonar is a powerful tool not only for pinpointing these areas, but also the walleyes that swim there. Slowly patrol likely spots; when classic fish “arches” appear on your electronics, typically within a few feet of the bottom, you’ll have found your target.
Liven Things Up
The classic approach for deep-water walleyes in the fall is to present oversized minnows—especially creek chubs or redtails—on a live-bait rig. I begin with a 7-foot 6-inch, medium-light-power, fast-action rod equipped with a 2500-series spinning reel spooled with 20-pound-test Seaguar Smackdown in the Flash Green color pattern. On the business end of the line, I thread on a half-ounce (or larger) egg sinker, followed by a bead and a small swivel. I finish the rig with a 6-foot leader of 8-pound-test Seaguar AbrazX and a 1/0 Gamakatsu Octopus hook.
Select a large bait—6 to 8 inches certainly isn’t out of the question—and hook it carefully through the lips to keep it lively and kicking. Lower the rig to depth and pull it slowly through those arches on your sonar view using your bow-mounted trolling motor. Big minnows often telegraph an impending walleye attack. When you feel the bait quivering and shaking in fear, the fun is about to begin.
A Snappy Presentation
Snap-jigging is a more active, aggressive approach for eliciting reaction bites from these same deep-water walleyes. This presentation originated with the Rapala Jigging Rap (typically No. 7 or No. 9 in the fall). However, it is now applied equally well with similar-sized Northland Puppet Minnows and Shiver Minnows from Moonshine Lures.
Use a shorter rod for snap-jigging these lures and spool up with 8-pound-test monofilament to provide the stretch and shock absorption needed to keep big walleyes pinned to small hooks. A quality swivel linking the mono main line and a 12- to 18-inch fluorocarbon leader is a necessity to prevent the line twist inherent with these lures’ erratic darting actions. Sharply sweep the rod upward and allow the lure to fall back to the bottom on a slack line. Often, when you repeat this snap-jigging motion, you’ll set the hooks into a walleye that struck as the lure fell.
Walleyes By Night
While daytime walleye presentations can vary widely, our toolbox for chasing walleyes at night is more focused. In my experience, the most productive—and fun—way to target walleyes under the autumn stars is to troll shallow-running crankbaits along and adjacent to nearshore structure. This is an exciting bite I eagerly look forward to every year, planning multiple trips to lakes with good water clarity throughout the Midwest.
Where to Prowl
Let’s begin by discussing likely places to find fall walleyes at night. Outside weed edges are usually at the top of my list. Rock-and-gravel flats follow closely as a second choice. Productive depths can extend to 12 feet. However, fish more commonly tend to hang out in the 4- to 8-foot range.
Frequently, key areas will be quite close to shore, where cabin and dock lights can concentrate large numbers of aggressive walleyes. Current-influenced areas near inlets or outlets are also fairly important spots to key on this time of year. This is particularly true later in the fall as lake shiners run into rivers and streams.
Make some targeted investments in the right equipment for night trolling to make the experience more productive and enjoyable. Start with quality, dedicated trolling rods with medium power and a soft, moderate action. Add line-counter reels to precisely monitor the length of line separating rod tip and lure. Spool up with a smooth, eight-strand braided line like 30-pound-test Seaguar Smackdown in the Stealth Gray color pattern. Add a cross-lock snap with a Palomar knot and connect directly to your lure. A leader is generally not needed when trolling beneath the moonlight.
Limit your crankbait selection to lures that run relatively shallow. I carry two basic body shapes: shad-style lures, which tend to be more effective during early fall when water temperatures are in the 60s and 50s, and long, minnow-style lures, which are typically preferred as lakes cool into the 40s. Rapala Shallow Shad Raps (No. 7) and Husky Jerks (No. 12) can serve as the nucleus of your night-trolling arsenal. Add some Rapala Scatter Rap Minnows, Smithwick Rattlin’ Suspending Rogues and LiveTarget Rainbow Smelt jerkbaits to round out your collection. Carry a variety of colors, including bright, dark, natural and metallic patterns, and be willing to experiment from night to night—and even hour to hour—to pin down the most productive lure profile, color and action.
Set a Speed
Boat speed is a critical piece of the night-trolling puzzle. Resist the temptation to just drop the kicker in and go. Your trolling speed should be closely correlated with water temperature.
A good starting speed for night trolling, assuming water temperatures are in the low- to mid-50s, is 1.6 to 1.8 miles per hour. If your favorite waters are warmer, then a speed closer to 2 mph might be appropriate. Likewise, if a mid-week cold front has knocked the water temperature down a bunch, be prepared to go slower.
Rod selection tips for night trolling.
Quality trolling rods need to be sensitive to easily detect the presence of debris that might impact lure action, so select rods with full-graphite construction. Medium-power rods won’t overpower smaller fish, and a moderate action will provide a measure of shock absorption when dealing with a big fish on braided line.
Rod length is key to preventing baits from getting tangled. If I’m pulling a total of 4 lures, I’ll position two long rods—10- to 12-footers—perpendicular to the gunwales. These are my “outside” rods. The other anglers in my boat will use shorter rods, typically in the 7-foot range, and they’ll present their lures just outside the back corners of the boat. These serve as the “inside” rods.
Eyecon trolling rods from St. Croix are an excellent choice for night trolling. I use 10-foot outside rods and 7-foot inside rods. ($140–$160; stcroixrods.com)
Three fantastic fall walleye bites in the upper Midwest.
Excellent October walleye fishing can be found throughout the region. Here are three prime destinations that each offer something a little different from the others.
1. LAKE OF THE WOODS | Baudette, Minn.
The vast expanse of Lake of the Woods, straddling the Minnesota-Ontario border, is a year-round walleye factory, with the fall months providing both excellent numbers and truly impressive sizes. Some of the biggest walleyes are taken by trolling crankbaits on lead-core line in the deep basin of Big Traverse Bay. For numbers, many anglers anchor up and jig with frozen shiners near the inlet of the Rainy River.
2. Leech Lake | Walker, Minn.
Leech Lake is a personal favorite. It offers everything that a walleye angler could want, including a tremendous daytime bite on big chubs and jigging Raps along the humps in Walker Bay, as well as hundreds of miles of shoreline that host an excellent night-trolling bite. Community trolling runs in Walker Narrows and near Pine and Stony Points attract a lot of attention—and fish.
3. Chippewa Flowage | Hayward, Wis.
The “Big Chip” doesn’t receive the fanfare that other places do, but its walleye bite can truly be sensational. Stained water means you’ll be fishing during the day, following the movement of the lake’s walleye population toward deep-basin areas as the reservoir’s water level is drawn down in preparation for winter. Classic jig-and-minnow presentations will put big numbers in the boat, while soft plastics fished slowly around the periphery of the basin’s yield.