By Jason Mitchell
Fall walleye fishing is often heralded by anglers as one of the best times of the year for good fishing. Plenty of big fish potential as females begin to put on egg mass. Fall patterns are often drawn out and consistent. Compared to the spring, there are way fewer boats to compete against compared to the same fisheries after ice out. Compared to spring, I would also dare say that the patterns and locations also hold out longer. Yes, fall is a prime time if you love to walleye fish and target big fish.
Many of the best bites however happen later in the fall. Depending on where you live, the prime fall patterns might set up in mid to late October with some of the absolute best fishing happening in November or even December. The best fishing often coincides with brutal weather conditions. I have joked that the coldest I have ever been in my life is in a boat in November.
Where does that leave September? September is considered fall fishing but how fish set up in September is completely different than November. I would dare argue that early fall sees a lot more transition and change. Fish can be much more scattered especially before the turnover. There will be fish shallow and deep. Early fall fish can also move a lot where you can have a more difficult time putting consecutive days together in a row.
September walleye fishing can be about locations but also about the process. Early fall seems more conductive for milk running good spots and simply covering water. Either by dunking into several spots through the day or big trolling passes. Grinding out one key location seems to burn us more because the fish are simply moving too much. Time management is crucial any time of the year but becomes magnified in the early fall when you simply must keep looking for fish. Even after you catch a few fish, you often have to keep looking as we often find that we don’t find the magic spots that hold a lot of fish rather a lot of spots that hold a few fish. This is a time of transition and your watch (time management) is as crucial of a piece of equipment as your sonar or map chip. Typically, you can put together a good day if you can average a fish per hour. Cover enough water, hit enough spots so that you can average a fish an hour. If you can average a fish per hour and then hit a window or spot where you crack two to four fish in an hour at least once or twice per day… the fish can add up to a good day. When fish are scattered all over which they often can be early in the fall, you simply must keep moving and grooving.
Reading and understanding locations is crucial in the fall and this knowledge will help you catch more fish throughout the year…. Get as good as possible at quickly finding the spot on the spot. They key ten-yard piece of structure on a bigger piece of structure. Some anglers call this the money spot. When you are combing water, hit as many money spots as quickly as possible. Don’t worry about turning over every rock or fishing an entire piece of structure. Hit the key locations on each spot as this is a much faster way of hitting as many spots as possible. Will you sometimes miss fish with this aggressive approach? Sometimes but what I find is that if there are big fish or aggressive fish on a location, the big fish or aggressive fish will often occupy the premium real estate. In water deeper than twelve feet, we often won’t fish unless we see the right fish on our electronics. We truthfully spend more time driving around and looking versus fishing when running and gunning deeper structure. Use ever tool at your disposal. Traditional 2D sonar is still excellent for marking fish below the boat on classic structure and I find that I can better determine the size of the fish. Down view is excellent over deep mud or rocks where it is difficult to get separation. Side imaging is great for finding clutter over open water or showing fish over large flats that are made up of small rock or sand. Fish on weeds however can be much more difficult if not impossible to mark with electronics unless the weeds are sporadic and the fish are laying in the open.
What does a spot on the spot look like? That is a question we hear a lot and usually that premium X on the map is some irregularity. Might be a finger and inside cup on a point where there is a change in contour that coincides with a bottom change from sand to rock. Could be a patch of rock on a large sand flat that has scattered clumps of weed. Might be a trough or channel edge that has some irregular feature. Look at the big picture and then dissect the overall spot to find the high percentage spots. Usually, the bigger spots simply hold more fish so the spot on the spot that is part of a much bigger spot is a high batting average location.
If there is one standby in September however that I keep falling back on, that standby would be shallow weed walleyes. If you can still find good lush stands of green weeds like cabbage or coontail, there are typically walleye around. I like weeds because weed patterns seem to stay consistent through early fall when everything else in that ecosystem is undergoing drastic change. Broad leaf pond weed or cabbage varieties are top of the list but dollar weed, pencil reeds, wild rice, coontail and dollar weed all hold walleye at times. I also believe weeds hold in heat as well when the lake starts to cool in the fall. There is just something surprisingly consistent about weed patterns during early fall that make shallow weed patterns somewhat reliable.
Weeds however can be difficult to fish and you just don’t roll into a weed location and figure out the intricacies of a weed spot in five minutes. Weeds take time to figure out come late summer and fall. You might have to map out the outside edge of the weed line. You might have to experiment with angles and lures to fish the top of the weed bed. Typically, with weeds and walleyes, we aren’t going into the weeds after fish like you would if you are bass fishing. We typically either fish the outside edge or the top edge. The open water on the edge is typically where we find walleye. Walleyes seem to cruise through these open lanes and move through these locations as they hunt. Walleyes seem to like gaps and lanes in weeds. Look for the gaps and lanes.
Large soft plastic swimbaits are an overall favorite for catching big fall walleyes in weeds because of the versatility. You can fish a swimbait over the top of the weeds. You can clip the outside edge and fish through some sporadic weed growth. Big profiles often seem to work best in the fall. There is an adage with fall walleye fishing to use larger baits and that does ring true. Typically, there is not as much forage but the forage has grown larger come fall so walleyes are used to keying into larger profiles. What you will also find especially when fishing the narrow slot of open water over the top of a weed bed is that fish that come up to hit a bait are typically aggressive. Violent strikes. The open water above a weed bed come early summer might be just a few feet or less and that can be difficult for some walleye anglers to wrap their heads around. You might be casting over ten or twelve feet of water and fishing the top couple of feet of the water column because the weeds grow up seven to eight feet off the bottom.
The month of September is also a time when many of these weeds start to break down and die but find standing green weeds with good water circulation come late summer to early fall and there is a very high probability of walleyes. What makes this pattern a favorite is that these fish don’t move as much and are just more consistent.
Manage your time this fall. Have a good milk run of locations to cycle through and dabble with some green weeds when many fish are transitioning. September walleye fishing can be inconsistent and sporadic. No doubt that the absolute best fall fishing is yet to come but there are some enjoyable opportunities to take advantage of as we wait. The best strategy I have found is taking a big picture view of time management with a micro view of analyzing key locations on a spot while falling back on weed fish when the pattern seems like there is no pattern. We often must approach the time period before the fall turnover with a completely different mindset but the fish can add up through the day to create good fishing opportunities.
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