Plugging the Gap

Like a lot of anglers, I’ve got a crankbait for every occasion. Spring calls for one set of baits. Summer brings another group of plugs into play. Come fall, it’s time to pull yet a different box off the shelf in the garage.

In fact, I could probably change cranks 100 times for every time I change my socks. And no, I don’t always wait until my footwear can stand upright before pulling on a fresh pair. The point is, my arsenal of walleye lures is never set in stone. It evolves depending on water clarity, water temperature, fish location, presentation and most of all, forage.

And this time of year, bigger can be better. It’s a season when crankbaits that seldom see the light of day most of the year often shine brighter than the smile of an angler holding a 10-pound walleye.

There are many reasons big crankbaits work so well as the water temperatures begin to cool.

First, big plugs match the available forage in the fall after baitfish species like shad, alewife, chubs and minnows have had a full season of growth. Second, fall walleyes are trying to build reserves for the cold-water months ahead when their metabolism slows and their foraging options are limited. Most of know from experience that it’s easier to fatten up by eating several big meals a day and laying around in between rather than burning the energy it takes to chase snack food all day long.

To some degree, walleye location in October and November makes big baits a more viable option, too. It wasn’t efficient or effective to troll or cast those cranks when the walleyes were cruising the shallows in April or buried in the June weeds, but they become a viable weapon when big-water eyes begin migrating from the open water into bays and areas with shallower water where they will spend the winter and spawn in the spring.

Within those areas, the fish relate to deep-water breaklines, suspend off those breaks and move up onto weedy flats to gorge themselves during low-light periods. All three are prime locations for working big cranks.

In addition, the aggressive nature of fall fish and the fact that they are often scattered as opposed to schooled tightly means covering water will generally result in more success. While a finesse presentation like a slow-trolled crawler or a jigging approach on a specific piece of structure will still take fish, this is one time of year when it pays to keep on the move.

Finally, fall means big walleyes, and big walleyes like big meals. Trophy fish that simply aren’t accessible to anglers most of the year start to turn up in predictable areas in numbers with a serious appetite.

Of course, there has to be a strong population of giant fish present in order to catch them. Fortunately, there are a number of options including big reservoirs and the Great Lakes. Big plug plans are a fall staple on the Bays de Noc, Green Bay, Saginaw Bay and Lake Erie.

Any successful strategy for catching these fish should include a mix of casting and trolling a select group of plugs that range from 6-8 inches in length. My arsenal basically consists of Normark Husky Jerks, large Tail Dancers and No. 9 Shad Raps, along with large Storm Thundersticks.

Tune every plug. It may be the most important thing you do all day, and it only takes a few seconds. We’ve all heard from other anglers or experienced situations ourselves where there are four identical No. 9 Shad Raps at the same depth, but one catches every fish. Chances are, it’s simply tuned better than the rest and is putting off the exact flash and vibration to trigger strikes.

Catching a fish, especially a big one, can often knock a lure out of tune. So, I tune my lures constantly by letting out about eight feet of line, setting them in the water and pulling them sharply forward while watching their action. If they kick out at all in either direction they need an adjustment of the eye ring where the line or swivel attaches to the crank.

Because water clarity tends to be better in the fall than it is most of the year, I usually choose cranks that closely parallel natural forage like perch, shad and shiners rather than gaudy, bright patterns I might have used at other times of the year.

Casting shallow-running versions of these plugs over the tops of receding weed beds in October and November probably produces more 28-inch and larger walleyes than any other pattern at any other time of the year.

However, it’s largely a night bite, and many anglers aren’t comfortable navigating unfamiliar shallow areas in the dark. I’ve resolved that situation by using the mapping and GPS functions of my Lowrance 113HD to chart a route into these areas during daylight hours. Mark the path with waypoints, save the trail and you’ll have no trouble returning when the sun has set.

These areas can also produce fish during the first hour or two of the morning before they slide back to deeper water and at dusk when the most eager walleyes try to get a jump on their nighttime pillaging.

Trolling presentations are all about covering the water column and finding the right style of lure. Use your electronics to map out the contour and set up a trolling route. Then, use deep-diving lures to probe the bottom, suspending baits to cover the middle and shallow-running lures to find walleyes that might be hanging just below the surface.

Lead-core line is a good way to get cranks to just about any depth you will encounter. Even at depths you could touch with conventional mono, lead-core can be an asset because you can fish your lures with less line out behind the boat and reduce the margin for error when battling big fish.

Another key is a stealthy approach. It’s usually not an issue when the fish are holding on deep breaklines, but it does come into play when they’re on edges 20 feet deep or less or suspended nearby. It pays to employ a set of Off-Shore planer boards to get those lines out away from the noise of the boat.

Usually, there will be one or two depths or one or two styles of cranks that produce most of the fish. Once you zero in, adjust accordingly to get more of the right lures into the hot zone.

Your ability to exactly duplicate a successful depth is important, too. You can come close by using rod sweeps or counting how many times the line goes across the spool while you are letting out lures, but close often isn’t good enough. I eliminate any possibility of error by employing a set of Zebco Quantum line-counter reels whenever I’m trolling.

Of course, there are times in spite of all that attention to detail and precision that walleyes will still be finicky.

Sometimes, we can mark fish holding on a contour line that simply aren’t interested in what we’re offering. If you’ve showed them a variety of lure styles and patterns and they still aren’t cooperating, try adjusting your trolling speed.

It may be that the walleyes are feeling lazy on a given day and want a slow-rolling crank that remains in their line of sight long enough to tantalize them. Or, it may be that a faster-moving lure that elicits a reaction is the key for the day.

Dust off that box of big cranks and plug the gap this fall. The big walleyes are ready and willing.

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