Have you ever imagined the pressure a football quarterback feels during the two minute warning in the 4th quarter of the game when his team is down by four points and it’s up to him to take his squad down the field for the winning touchdown? It’s a “now or never” situation. Well obviously there’s not that kind of pressure in walleye fishing, but for many anglers this time of the year means there isn’t much time left in the open-water season and it won’t be long before the snow will flies and ice covers the lakes marking a new winter season. So now’s the time for that final drive down the field to some of the best walleye fishing of the year, not only for numbers, but also for some of the biggest walleyes of the season.
The biggest factor for successfully catching late season walleyes is to know their seasonal migrations on your particular body of water. That will tell you where to find the fish, and in turn, give clues as to what the best presentation will be to catch them. In rivers for instance, walleyes begin to migrate up river toward spring spawning areas. While they won’t necessarily set up in the same spots you’ll find them come spring, they will be close. Deep, main river holes just down river from spawning flats are good places to start the search. Vertical jigging the head and tail end of the holes should yield some fish and indicate whether or not you’re on the right pattern.
There are a couple of things to keep in mind that may increase the odds when jigging this time of year. While it’s true that the walleyes are feeding to bulk up for the upcoming cold water period, it doesn’t mean that they’ll be smashing your offering with reckless abandon. Bites can be subtle in the cool water of fall, so paying attention to details in your presentation is important. Anytime you’re vertical jigging, sensitivity is critical. You’ve got to feel what’s going on with the jig at all times. A quality, high-modulus graphite rod like the Walleye Angler Signature Series WX60ML-HM85 (available from Bass Pro Shops), coupled with a small diameter, no-stretch line like 6 pound test Berkley Nanofil will insure you’re rigged right for the task. Using the right rod and line cannot be stressed enough!
Finding walleyes on the Great Lakes in the fall is a matter of knowing migration patterns too. On Lake Erie for example, walleyes move from the eastern and central basins toward the western waters. Open water trolling tactics are still effective this time of year, but you’ll do better to concentrate your efforts more “in-shore”, than out over the main basin. Look for the majority of fish to relate closer to breaks, where the basin transitions to shallower water. The same principal holds true on Lake Michigan, be it the northern reaches near Bay De Noc, or the waters around Door County Wisconsin. Walleyes will move from the main lake toward the bays and shoreline breaks where they’ll spawn come spring.
Day time fishing can be productive, but in these gin-clear waters, trolling after dark is often prime-time for big fish. Subtle action “stick-bait” style lures that have the slow, rolling action will trigger cool water walleyes like nothing else. Since this style of small-lipped minnow bait typically only dives a few feet below the surface, it’s often necessary to use some sort of weighting system to get them down to the fish. Off Shore Tackle’s OR20 Pro Weight System, lead core line and in-line weights like Bass Pro’s XPS Keel “Fish” Weights are just a few options. A little experimentation will get you dialed in on the set-up that will trigger more biters. This is still “big water” territory, and covering water is the name of the game. That means the use of planer boards like Off Shore’s OR-12 Side Planers will absolutely increase your odds of catching fish.
Smaller lakes and reservoirs have their own set of fall patterns that require some unique approaches. From their summer hang-outs on flats and feeding shelves, walleyes in these waters like to move to such locales as main-lake points and shorelines that feature sharp breaks and access to deep water. These types of structures harbor the most baitfish this time of year, and walleyes will always be where their food source is. The fish will be loosely concentrated in spots, which makes hunting them down with your electronics efficient. Cruise likely structure searching out signs of life such as clouds of bait, and those tell-tale “arcs” indicating larger predators. With the locator/GPS technology available to anglers today, searching for and spotting fish is easier than ever. Where once we’d have to cruise a spot at 5 mph to effectively mark fish, units like the Lowrance HDS 12 Touch, have the power and resolution to allow us to search at speeds closer to 20 mph. That saves a lot of precious fishing time over the course of a day.
Once a school is located, a slow and deliberate presentation will get the most bites. It’s tough to beat a big minnow put right in the fish’s face this late in the season. Creek Chubs are a favorite bait preference, but Red Tails, Dace and Suckers will work too. Keep the bait selection on the large side … if a six to seven inch minnow looks too big, then it’s probably just right. Remember, fall on many of these waters is trophy time, and a big minnow offers a walleye the most meal for the least amount of effort.
Using bait that big means you’ll need to choose a hook with enough “gap” to get the job done too. A Mustad Double Wide Fine Wire Livebait Hook in size 1 or 1/0 (to match the size of the bait being used) is a great choice. This hook features Mustad’s Ultra Point technology (meaning its super sharp right out of the package and will stay that way in the toughest fishing conditions), a wide gap for better hooking and it’s a super fine-wire hook giving it superior penetration.
It’s nearing the end of the season … its big game time now. Late fall to a walleye angler is like the Super Bowl, because this is trophy season. This is not the time to be putting away the rods and reels and storing the boat for winter. The best part of the game is at hand. The Two-Minute Warning has sounded, so call your play, and take a shot at the end zone … this could be your year to score the winning “Next Bite” on late season walleyes.