Though the calendar doesn’t say so yet, weather forecasters count the time around Labor Day as the start of autumn. Walleye fishermen can attest to the truth of that. Fish are no longer scattered in their summer haunts. Trolling structure or fishing shallow weedlines produce fewer and fewer walleyes. Days are shorter. Nights are cooler. The transition has come. “All of a sudden, walleyes aren’t where they were. They’re gone,” says Wisconsin guide and tackle designer Greg Bohn of the Lindy Little Joe Pro Staff.
As early as mid-August, subtle changes that often go unnoticed signal the start of the fall transition. Weeds begin dying, whether from colder nights, fewer hours of sunlight or just because, as Bohn believes, they’ve reached the end of their life cycle.
“Dying weeds,” he says. “That pushes it and starts the process. What a lot of people don’t understand is that baitfish will only stay in those weeds as long as they are very green. Once weeds start to die, it seems as though baitfish and walleyes start to leave those shallow-water weed areas.”
Shallower, dark-water lakes enter the transition period first. Deeper, clear-water lakes experience transition later in fall. Some lakes have green weeds all the way to ice-up.
Walleyes on the move can be hard to intercept, so the transition can be frustrating at first. But, fish migrate to predictable areas and gather in big schools, generally according to size. Once the big ones are located, action can be incredible.
“In fall,” says Bohn, “we (anglers) have the edge over the walleyes. The fish are not spread all over the lake. They are in the key spots, in the deepest part of the lake. You can literally ignore most of the lake, as you look for fish.”
Finding Fall Walleyes
Where do fall walleyes go?
“At first, they start to move out to more open-water areas,” Bohn said. “Sand is a really critical thing. They slide out to areas around deep water, like sand bars that come out from shore and drop to deeper water; flats, sand points, sand humps, places like that. The real sleeper is sand, especially in early fall. If you are fishing your summer spots and they aren’t there, start fishing the sand.”
But, Bohn stresses, don’t look for them in deep water during the early fall. Walleyes will be on structure in 15 feet or less. At those depths, a good quality sonar unit can be a big help. Walleyes at the deeper end of that range may be so tight to the bottom, they’re difficult to see, but not impossible. Humminbird has sonar units with excellent resolution and an ability to pick up fish on the bottom. Combine that with bottom tracking and the zoom feature, and you can pick up on walleyes belly to the bottom. Likewise, they might be on the very top of the structure. In that case, spooking fish can become an issue.
The bottom-line is this: if an area has the characteristics that should hold fish, fish it.
Early Fall Tactics
The best way to check the shallows is to keep the boat in deeper water, cast to the top of the structure and work back down.
Use live bait. Early in the transition, try half a nightcrawler on a small Fuzz-E-Grub jig. Drag it along the bottom, unlike in summer when a more-aggressive ‘hop’ did the trick.
For fishing deeper or snag-infested areas, drift or use an electric trolling motor to slow-troll a NO-SNAGG Rig with a 5-foot snell. In 18-feet or less, Bohn likes to use the small 1/8- or 1/4 -ounce NO-SNAGG sinkers, to make sure he must move slowly to maintain bottom contact. (Bait is half a crawler or minnow.)
Late Fall Tactics
Walleyes begin to move deeper as water temperatures drop toward turnover, which begins at 62 degrees F or so. Instead of finding fish on the top of structures, look deeper. They will be in places like the sharper breaks or on mid-lake humps that top out at 20 feet rather than 15, or in holes in mud flats where depth drops from 15 feet to 20 and then returns to 15.
At the same time, walleyes become more selective about where they stage. They generally locate on a spot-on-a-spot. For example, if they are on a mid-lake hump with scattered boulders, they will be on the boulders. If all rock, look for the patch of sand. If all sand, look for the rock pile. Think about fishing that ‘something different’ and you should do well.
Precision with regard to location becomes important. Since more and more walleyes show up on those few spots as time passes, more and more of the lake holds no fish. It’s easy to be skunked if you don’t pay attention to subtle differences on the structure. On the other hand, it can be a bonanza if you do.
“Once you find one walleye, you’ll often find more,” Bohn says.
As water continues to cool down through the 50s to the 40s F, fish locate on structure that leads to the deepest water in the lake. Check points or bars that extend out into the deep basin.
“That’s the last stronghold before freeze-up,” Bohn said.
When water reaches the 30s, fish that were in 15 feet of water in mid-August are now down in 45 feet or more. They tend to seek out places where mud and hard bottom meets, in the deepest water in the lake. Deep boulders are fish magnets at this time.
The deeper water is warmer and holds food now. In shallow, dark-water lakes that have a perch forage base, walleyes will dig up mayflies from the deep mud. In deeper, clear lakes, they may be at 70 feet and deeper, looking for smelt, ciscoes and whitefish that are deep at that time of year. Bohn caught a 6-pounder at 73 feet last October while filming a television show.
Bohn prefers to reach deep fish with a 1/4- or 1/2-ounce sinker and he moves slow so he can maintain bottom contact and detect subtle bites. But, NO-SNAGG inventor, Ron Lindner, likes the larger sizes. Take your pick. Dress your rig with a big redtail chub up to 5 inches long or more. That may sound huge, but 30-inch walleyes are gobbling 10-inch whitefish at this time of year.
For deep jigging or rigging, Bohn uses a 6-foot, 6-inch casting rod and a casting reel spooled with 10-pound (breaking strength) braided line to feel the bottom and the bites better. Keep the drag tight until the fish is hooked. Then loosen it, and take your time reeling it to the surface to prevent damage to the fish’s swim bladder. Fish are on the move as fall turns to winter. Move with them and you’ll turn cold-weather fishing into a hot time on the water.