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By Britton Ransford
With all due respect to spring, summer and winter — all marginal times of the year with debatable qualities — none of fraud seasons holds a candle to fall, the clear heavyweight in the ring when it comes to all things that actually matter, including football, hunting, campfires and delicious, warm cocktails.
And walleye fishing, of course.
Ask any proficient walleye angler when their favorite time to target these predator fish is and nearly all of them will tell you it's fall. It's a transitional time for walleye and, as the temperatures get cooler, they begin to put on the feed bag to prepare for the winter ahead. Thus, like you and I, the more they eat, the bigger they get.
However, while walleye fishing is never easy, fall changes make targeting these fish an extra challenging task. So, as an expert walleye angler with over six years of experience — and having single-handedly brought a few dozen walleye over the rails — I'm here to walk you through how to effectively master this tricky, yet rewarding, time of year.
The first thing you need to know when attempting to land walleye this fall is how the changing environment and, more specifically, lake turnover impacts walleye behavior. Don't worry, understanding lake turnover is pretty simple.
In a way, it's a lot like the air in the atmosphere — hot air rises and cold air sinks. In late summer, the water at the top of the lake is much warmer than the water at the bottom, but as we head into fall, the colder air temperatures begin to cool the top of the water column, which leads it to sink. And, as it sinks, it pushes the water at the bottom of the lake towards the top. Boom, turnover.
But now, due to the decomposition of organic material (which uses up oxygen) in the previously deeper water, we're now dealing with a lack of oxygen in typical walleye hotspots, including shallower shelves and weed beds where prey take cover. So, while wind and other factors re-oxygenate the water, walleye begin to scatter into deeper water (with more oxygen) and, for a brief time, may become very lethargic, leading to difficult fishing.
At the same time, however, vegetation in shallow water is also beginning to erode and baitfish are forced out of their typical cover into deeper open water, which just so happens to now be walleye territory.
Once water conditions stabilize, the walleye, now in feed mode with winter on the horizon, become aggressive and begin covering vast areas of water chasing a dwindling source of baitfish. Because these fish are constantly on the move, they become more difficult to find. Lucky — or hopefully, rather — you have electronics to help you pinpoint certain areas.
For this time of the year in most Northwest lakes and reservoirs, it's good practice to begin surveying for fish in 20- to 30-feet of water, then working your way deeper to 50- to 60-feet, seeking out drastic drop-offs, but also wide-open basins. They may also be suspended, but because the walleye and baitfish are exposed in open water, they'll be easier to spot on your electronics.
Don't be afraid to troll with lures in the water while you look for fish. Because they're aggressive this time of the year, you can get away with trolling up to 2 to 2.5 mph while searching. This allows you to cover more ground to locate schools, while still being able to trigger an enticed fish.
The beauty of fishing in the fall is that once you find walleye, you're likely to find a pile of them as, more often than not, they tend to school up and hunt for prey in groups. Be sure to mark that spot on your electronics and fish it over and over again.
So, you've found what looks like walleye — now, to get them to bite. There's a number of ways to trigger a school of walleye this time of year. Early in the fall, bottom bounce with 1- to 3-oz. lead bouncers (depending on your depth) in front of spinners and crawler harnesses. Use a longer leader than usual — up to 60 inches at times — to give your lure as natural of a presentation as possible.
This setup works especially well with lures that have some type of buoyancy, such as a Smile Blade SpinDrift Walleye, which features a Cha Cha Pill Float. The Silver/Blue option, trolled at 1.2 to 1.4 mph, works tremendously well if the lake or reservoir holds an abundance of trout. If your body of water doesn't hold many trout, try a Wally Pop Crawler in Green/Chartreuse, which is another buoyant option with a larger profile that draws fish in from further distances when trolled a bit slower — generally 1 to 1.2 mph.
Another go-to presentation in the early fall is to bottom bounce a Smile Blade Super Slow Death Rig in a perch pattern (Glow White/Chartreuse/Orange) with a slightly tighter leader — closer to 48-inches — at 1.2 to 1.4 mph. The walleye have likely been feeding on perch all summer, so it's a familiar pattern that they'll gravitate towards. Similarly, the Double Whammy Walleye in Gold/Black or Orange/Black will emulate a number of common baitfish in the 2- to 3-inch range.
If the walleye are really stacked up, try to jig them up! Stop your troll and drop a Sonic BaitFish in Silver/Blue or Glow White, attached to the back or nose, and tipped with the bait of your choice. Start with the smallest sized Sonic BaitFish that will reach your depth (1/6 oz. to 1/2 oz. is a safe bet) and start jigging one crank off the bottom.
Better yet, utilize the very new and very fun Smile Blade SD Drift Jig, featuring the Smile Blade SD Hitch. During its testing last fall, we couldn't keep the walleye from inhaling this deadly hybrid jig-spinner. Available in four colors and dozens of combinations thanks to the SD Hitch, you're bound to find a dialed-in color combination to jig up your fair share of 'eyes.
This is an incredibly effective and fun method of targeting walleye in the early fall.
Those are just a few of the techniques and presentations at your disposal to target walleye during this tricky, yet highly rewarding time of the year. To hunt a hunter, however, you need to be aggressive and willing to try new tactics. What worked one day may not work the next, but the fish will always tell you what they want. You simply have to present them with the right combination of speed, color, size and technique. Easier said than done, I know.
At the end of the day, always be versatile this time of year. Be quick to change when something is clearly not working and, sooner or later, they'll be unable to refuse your offering.