Do you feel it? It’s that chill in the air combined with the anxiety churning in your belly … the signals that late fall is here and the hunt for big walleyes is on! Sure, we know you’ve got a “pre-winter” to-do list a mile long … who doesn’t. But you can’t let this opportunity pass by. The best big-fish bite of the season is happening now and you’d better make hay or before you know it, you’ll need an ice auger to wet a line.
It’s almost cliché … but it’s true, late fall is trophy walleye time. It seems that no matter what the body of water, if it holds walleyes, this is the time of year that offers one of your best chances of catching the biggest specimens in the system. But when it comes to true trophy opportunities, few venues offer the potential like the waters of The Great Lakes.
History has proven that there are a handful of key areas around the big ponds that offer some real monster walleyes in late fall. Places like Lake Erie near Huron, Ohio, or the upper reaches of Lake Michigan, specifically Little and Big Bay De Noc, and the waters off Sturgeon Bay, are all well known fall walleye meccas. Other all star nominees would include the waters of Bay of Quinte off Lake Ontario and Saginaw Bay of Lake Huron.
All these waters have in common their vast expanses of fishing areas and huge walleyes. They are also areas where walleyes congregate in the fall to put on the feed bag prior to winter’s onset. It’s a seasonal migration that plays out every year; walleyes moving from the open water basins where they’ve spent the summer to more “near-shore” breaks and structures. The reason is food. Walleyes are in pursuit of large schools of baitfish that will sustain them for the upcoming winter months. It’s like an old west cattle drive … the walleyes corralling baitfish, and anglers rustling up walleyes. Time to gitty-up and head for the fall walleye round-up.
Tackle and techniques for the walleye round-up is not much different from the tactics used in summer. Trolling is still the name of the game, just the locations change. While it wasn’t unusual to target walleyes suspended over fifty feet of water or more a few months ago, now the fish are apt to be more bottom oriented with popular depths from as shallow as 6 feet (at night) to 50 feet during the day. That’s not to say there won’t be some fish suspended, but check your graph and we’ll bet that most of the time your odds tend to be better fishing lures near the bottom. You’re looking for fish relating to structure, be that main lake flats, reef systems, or primary shoreline breaks with access to deep water. During the peak of summer, you may have had to run 20 miles or more to locate schools of walleyes in the basin. Now you may only need to travel two or three miles at most from the launch to contact fish (great news for those looking for walleyes that won’t cost them dearly at the gas pumps!).
Tackle choices in this situation lean toward the hard side. Crankbaits rule. What may surprise you however is the style of crank that becomes the top producer this time of year. Conventional thinking would have you looking at the cooling water temperatures and consider lures with a subtle rolling action. But remember what’s first and foremost on the minds of the walleyes this time of year … food. That tends to put these fish in an aggressive mood. Large, deep-diving, high-action baits that match their aggressive attitude and the size of the forage in late fall can often be the ticket. However, in the cooling waters, smaller, more moderate action lures like the Berkley Frenzy Flicker Shad or even subtle action stick-baits like the Berkley Frenzy Minnow can also be better choices if you’re dealing with smaller forage. Just remember that you’ll need some sort of weighting system like Off Shore Tackle Snap Weights or lead core line to get these lures to the desired depth.
Although this is Great Lakes walleye trolling, you need to change your mind-set a bit from the tactics used for covering the openness of the main lake basin in summer.Trolling boards like Off Shore Tackle’s OR-12 Side Planers are still useful if you find the fish in open water flats, but if you’re targeting walleyes relating more to structure (reefs or shoreline), you don’t want to be letting those boards way out away from the boat.
Keep your spreads tighter, or maybe only run one board line out over the open water away from the break to see if there are a few suspended stragglers lurking out there. One word of caution regarding fishing these big bodies of water this late in the season, bundle up and lean toward the side of safety. The winds of November can blow cold and blustery on The Great Lakes. If you’re going to fish effectively you’ve got to hit the water prepared. Insulated clothing, plenty of layers and quality rain gear like the Bass Pro Shops 100 MPH rain suit are a must. It’s a “dressed for success” combination that will keep out the cold, wind and wetness that could quickly put a real damper on an otherwise great day on the water.
Now’s the time all you walleye buckaroos … fall ain’t just for football, raking leaves and deer hunting. This is walleye round-up time. The Great Lakes can offer some dynamite angling opportunities anytime of the season, but fall means trophy time, and after all, much of what’s on that pre-winter to-do list could really wait until spring anyway … but by then the spring bite will hot. Oh well … such is the life of a walleye angler.