Sullen skies and a chilly north wind portend the coming of winter. Boat landings where anglers formed lines to launch just a few weeks ago now hold two or three rigs. Out on the lake, parka-clad fishermen hunker with backs to the wind, as they lift and lower light graphite rods to the rhythm of the waves. For some, televised football provides enough excitement this time of year. Meanwhile, the die-hard walleye anglers who have unlocked the secrets of fall are glad there are no crowds at the landing when they drain the livewell and fill their coolers with the heaviest fish of the season.
Three Key Variables
Three variables have the greatest influence on walleye behavior in the fall: water temperature, availability of food and weather patterns. Of these three, argues walleye pro Mike McClelland, the most important is food.
Expect the bite to be on after a few consecutive days of stable weather.
"Walleyes will go where the food is," says McClelland. "Despite what weather patterns and water temperatures suggest."
Walleyes follow baitfish any time of year, but this is especially true in the fall when large walleyes are beefing up for winter and the coming spawning season. Baitfish are less available now than they were in summer, and they are more likely to be schooled up. If you can find the predominant baitfish—spottail shiners, young-of-the-year perch, ciscoes or other species—you'll find walleyes at the same time.
Water temperature is probably next in importance. Walleyes are most active at temperatures ranging from 55 to 70 degrees. Water temperatures drop quickly after fall turnover, and for a time the warmest water is found in shallow bays and along shorelines. When the temperature of the main body of the lake drops below 55 degrees, walleyes will usually move into the shallows, seeking water a degree or two warmer than the rest of the lake. These conditions don't last long, however, and once the water temperature drops into the 40s, walleyes head out to deeper water.
Weather patterns also influence walleye behavior, but less than the other two factors. In early fall, walleyes bite best and are easiest to find when the weather has been stable for several days and a steady wind has put a light chop on the surface. Early morning and late afternoon are the best times to catch them then. In late fall, cold fronts often cause walleyes to feed aggressively any time of day.
Let Lake Conditions Dictate Angling Strategy
In early fall, check the shallow bite first, but look for schooling lunkers in deeper water once the water cools down.
Once the fall turnover has occurred (usually by late September or early October in most lakes that stratify in summer), water temperatures are roughly constant throughout a lake. For a time, walleyes move freely, feeding wherever they find food. They may be shallow one day, deep the next, depending on baitfish patterns.
When water temperatures drop below 55 degrees, walleyes often move into bays and along shorelines because the sun warms these shallow areas a few degrees, attracting remaining baitfish. But again, once a lake cools down below 40 degrees, most walleyes head for deep water.
If we have a warm fall, check the surface water temperature in the main lake basin early or late in the day. If it is 50 to 55 degrees, try fishing the shallows before you fish anywhere else. McClelland perfected his shallow-water technique on Big Stone Lake on the Minnesota/South Dakota border, and he has used it to place high in tournaments all across the Midwest.
McClelland patrols as close to shore as he can get away with, maneuvering like a bass fisherman with a bow-mounted trolling motor and casting small fluorescent jigs tipped with a minnow or leech.
"If there's a good breeze blowing onshore, I'll fish the mudline and often pick up some nice fish," he says. "They hide in the dirtier water, where they can easily ambush baitfish."
In late fall, jigs gain preference for deeper fish, though crankbaits can still be presented with downriggers or leadcore line. In any case, slow down the retrieve or trolling speed.
Dirty water lets you sneak closer without spooking fish. In clear water, it is essential to stay as far away from the fish as possible. When the wind permits, McClelland likes to cast Thinfins or floating Rapalas. A slow retrieve is a must in fall, since walleyes won't chase a bait very far. As a rule, they won't strike aggressively now, either. Instead, they slide up behind a bait and flare their gills to suck it in.
By early November, this shallow pattern will be history on most lakes and you'll have to go deep to catch walleyes. Big walleyes often stay deeper now than at any other time of year, sometimes as deep as 25 or 40 feet. Look for the sharpest drop-offs. On natural lakes, these are usually found off steep shorelines or cliffs at the water's edge. On reservoirs, old river channels usually provide the deepest water. If you can find a sharp break near known spawning gravel, you'll almost certainly find big walleyes.
Big walleyes tend to school up in the fall. Sometimes they hang just over the lip of a drop-off, but in deep lakes with free-roaming schools of ciscoes or shad, walleyes often suspend many yards from the nearest structure.
You'll catch more fish now if you sacrifice some fishing time and cruise over likely holding areas with an eye on your locator. Once you find suspended walleyes, you can either jig for them or troll deep-diving crankbaits.
To catch them by trolling you've got to get your lures down to their level. A few long-lipped crankbaits will dive deep enough on monofilament, but it may take lead-core line to reach the fish. Some anglers simply tie a bottom bouncer ahead of a crankbait to help it dive deeper. A more precise way to troll at a given depth is to use a downrigger.
Big fish and no crowds at the launch ramp are two reasons to chase walleyes in fall. You can always catch the game on the radio!
At times, suspended fish simply won't hit a crankbait, no matter how slowly you troll it. In that case, jigging may be the only technique that will produce. Drift over the school, using your electric trolling motor to maintain your boat position and keep your line vertical. Bait a 1/8th-ounce jig with a small minnow and lower it to the proper depth. Jig your bait sharply upward a foot or so, then lower it slowly, keeping an eye on the slack line as the jig drops. If the line stops, hesitates or twitches, set the hook. Most hits will come as the lure drops.
This game plan ought to provide enough incentive to launch your boat at least a time or two this fall. You can always take along a radio to follow the game as you fish. It may take a few outings to locate walleyes and perfect these techniques, but once you do, you'll understand why serious walleye anglers can't wait for the summer crowds to go home and leave the lakes to them.