While most outdoorsman have ducks and deer on their minds during the fall, a growing group of Great Lakes anglers look to grab a boxful of crankbaits when the sun goes down with dreams of catching the largest walleyes in the system. This is accomplished by wading, casting from shore, and both trolling and casting from a boat. A select group of anglers have found that the small details mean the difference between success and a no fish night.
This fall night bite typically starts as the water temperatures drop below fifty, with the bite really taking off when the water hits the forty degree range. In many places the peak bite of giant fish actually takes place in the upper to mid thirty degree temperature range, where ice begins to form on almost everything but the open water areas.
This transformation only takes a few weeks in some parts of the country, to as much as a few months in milder climates. This occurs when fish are migrating back from the open water basins or summering grounds to areas close to their wintering areas. The prime areas are often close enough to shore that wading, fishing from shore, or from a small boat is all that is needed.
The nature of cool water fall fishing typically means that a slow approach will often produce best, which in tune means not much real estate will be covered. Wading and fishing from shore also make it very difficult to cover water, making it even more important to start out in areas that are high percentage. This is very similar to deer hunters choosing the best place to set a tree stand.
The two biggest factors to consider are baitfish location and baitfish location. Walleyes at this time of year are putting on fat for winter and want to eat. The best line ever told to me by legendary angler Dave Hanson is, “fish don’t go far from the grocery store”.
In addition to food, water clarity also plays a role. Super dirty water makes it difficult for walleyes to get a good look at what they are chasing. It was just this reason that caused me to head to Cleveland Ohio and the Central Basin of Lake Erie last fall. Typically I spend many fall nights on the extreme Western Basin of Lake Erie in both Ohio and Michigan waters, with no reason to head anywhere else. Consistent blows made waters a muddy mess, making the 150 mile drive east necessary to find cleaner water. A few phone calls and looking at overhead satellite pictures showed this to be the place to be, or at least the most fishable.
Once on new water a few simple visual clues will help you quickly narrow down the best areas on your given body of water. While these are areas that excel on the Great Lakes, they are a good rule of thumb on just about every walleye waterway.
Things to Look for
Current Breaks- Current breaks on everything from rivers to the Great Lakes will hold walleyes, as they act as both a resting area and a collection area for their next meal. Pier heads, break walls, main lake points, channels, and near shore islands should all be considered.
Water Discharges or Intakes- The flow of water and temperature change will cause both baitfish and walleyes to be nearby. When water hasn’t been pulled or discharged in a few days these areas aren’t nearly as productive as when they are being used on a regular basis.
Power Plants- Along the same lines as water intakes or discharges these areas will cause baitfish and walleyes to congregate. Make sure to look at local regulations as many of these areas have off limit boundaries areas after 9/11.
Lights- Something as simple as a long line of bright lights on the shore will cause bait to congregate. Often it is best to not fish in the lighted areas, but just outside in the shadowed areas.
Drastic Depth Change– Drastic depth changes, particularly near shore, act as a natural funnel and often create a shallow flat that walleyes move onto to chase bait, only to slide back off into the deeper water when done feeding.
The cooler the water gets the more the presentation seems to matter when fishing in general. One day they’ll only hit a RipStick, only touching a Husky Jerk the next. Go a couple of tenths of a mph too fast and go fishless, slow it down a touch and murder them. This is a time of year that paying close attention to what was taking place when a strike occurred will make all the difference in the world. This is not a time of year that you will get tons of strikes, but a few high quality ones.
In these areas paying close attention to boat speed is critical. Current that sweeps around a breakwall or island will quickly remind you of fishing in a large river. A slow lazy S pattern will allow to you determine how fast you can go and still get bit. While not gospel, the following chart is a good place to start.
(53-48 degrees) 1.8-1.4mph
(48-40 degrees) 1.5-1mph
(40-32 degrees) .7-1.2mph
Any night fisherman worth his salt needs to act like a ninja, not heard or seen. Quiet is the key, keep noise and additional boat lights to a minimum. I have seen where a light flashed in the water completely killed a good bite more than once. Use headlamps and other lights only when absolutely necessary. Using products like a Minn-Kota Terrova will allow for precision boat and speed control, yet little to no noise. This is a huge advantage of a much noisier and speed sensitive kicker engine. The use of planer boards will not only get more lines out where allowed by law, but also to keep lines farther from the boat. This can be very beneficial when paralleling a break wall in only a few feet of water.
Lure size is a very critical part of the equation. In most circumstances smaller size lures should be used earlier in the season, mid-forties and up. This means lures such as the HJ 10 and 12 Husky Jerk or a 4 ½’’ Rattlin Rogue, Reef Runner RipStick, or other 4 to 4 ½’’ shallow stickbaits. In some bodies of water even smaller lures may be more productive. As the water cools giant walleyes begin to hit larger length and profile lures. At this time larger lures such as the HJ-14 Husky jerk and #18 Rapala excel.
Paying attention to what size and type of bait is present is very crucial. When smaller shiners or shad are the primary forage, look to use smaller lures regardless of time of year. When larger shiners, smelt or gizzard shad are present, larger lures are the go to.
Under water currents and above water waves will determine which way you should fish. When in doubt always go with the wind. Sometimes this is difficult when trying to parallel a break wall that has wind blowing directly onto it. Circumstances like this will cause the walleye to pin baitfish up against the rock wall and cause you to trough waves along the wall in order to be most efficient. This is when tools such as the autopilot feature in the Minn-Kota Terrova makes an almost impossible job easy.
Why so High
The key to fishing the aforementioned areas is to fish high, like really high. Last year, in a matter of a few hours we watched a walleye hit a planer board and another hit a lure with only a few feet of line out above the water, right at the boat, no lie. These giant walleyes patrol the upper levels of the water column like wolves looking for the weak link. Since baitfish often congregate in large pods at certain depth levels, likely for temperature purposes, you don’t want your lure in a place that has literally a million other more lively competition. Instead run your lures above the pods and let the walleyes come up to hit them. In 2011 we trolled leads with #18’s as short as five feet behind a planer board. When fish slid out off of the break walls and pier heads into water as deep as fifty feet, we swung out with the same shallow leads and continued to catch fish after fish, only one to two feet down over nearly fifty feet of water. As they say walleyes will come up to hit a lure, but never go down.
The #18– Just Plain Good
When it comes to night baits you better have a #18 Rapala in your box. They seem to work everywhere on the Great Lakes when targeting giant walleye, Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, Lake Ontario, Erie, and while I haven’t done it personally, probably even on Superior. The subtle and unique roll that the balsa delivers is likely the key to its success. At 7’’ this stickbait is somewhat broad, perfectly mimicking the smelt and larger shad that walleyes are chasing at this time of year.
A few modifications can drastically improve its success. First swap the stock hooks with #2 Gamakatsu round bend trebles. The slow speeds used in the fall can make solid hookups difficult and having a large thin wire hook that is razor sharp makes a big difference. The use of a small snap, or better yet, a loop knot will impart the perfect action.