By Jason Mitchell
Lots to like about fishing for walleye in the fall. Traditionally some of the very best fishing of the entire season particularly for trophy class fish. Great fishing, big fish and less people… Always amazes us that more people don’t fish in the fall.
Fall fishing can be easy and fall fishing can mean big fish but fall fishing can also be difficult. Conditions can be brutal. Long boat rides can be bone chilling. Ironically, the nastier and tougher the conditions in the fall, the better the fishing can be. Fall fishing patterns however can also be random and frustrating when warm water temperatures push late into the season. There is no one size fits all pattern in the fall but there are some general guidelines and patterns that seem to emerge on a wide range of fisheries each year. The following are some of the most valuable lessons we have learned over the years when trying to target fall walleye.
Warming Trends Seem to Scatter Fish
We can pile on the accolades of fall fishing but there is often that period before these fall patterns set up where the fish can seem really scattered. Unusually warm falls or even a week of warm weather in the fall can really unravel some good fall patterns. When the water temps start to rise for consecutive days or if the water temps are still hanging above sixty degrees, we often find that we must simply cover a lot of water and fish through several spots in a day to keep contacting fish. You might not ever find a big concentration of fish doing one thing. Establish a milk run of good spots and fish through the spots fast and be willing to leave a spot after catching a few fish.
The Power of Current
Could be water moving between islands or an incoming feeder creek. Other good locations can include moving water around bridges and causeways. Current attracts walleye in the fall especially. Many rivers also turn on in the fall. In some situations, fish leave a lake or reservoir to follow a shiner migration. Shiners will often accumulate up into river systems and around current when the water temperatures drop below fifty-five degrees. Sharp ledges or breaks that coincide with current are perennial locations for finding fall walleye.
Boulders and Structure Fishing
Walleyes will relate to boulders and structure through the open water season, but these locations often just get better and more predictable come fall. Deep structure and rock that protrudes out of the primary basin or off the old river channel in a reservoir is classic fall walleye fishing. If the contour is big, trolling crankbaits can work well. If the spots are small, classic live bait rigging with chubs or fishing vertically with jigs or glide baits like the classic Jigging Rap or Salmo Rail Shad can be deadly. Sharp breaking structure is often the key but there must be some character to the break. Small ledges, fingers and shelves located within the sharp break often hold fish. Boulders also seem to hold a lot of walleyes in the fall. Could be the edges of shallow water hazards or deep rock over a basin. The best rocks are often round and range in size from six feet in diameter to the size of a bowling ball. Rock piles are good but big rock piles often show up on everybody’s contour map. What can be just as good is scattered rock or a field of rock that might be as small as half an acre. These rock fields often don’t jump out to anglers on a map chip and can be deadly locations for finding fall walleye especially if they are over deep water or are close to a fast-breaking contour.
Tough Conditions Adjustments
Some of the very best fall fishing often seems to line up with brutal conditions. Expect frost on the gunnel and even snow in the boat. An entire day on the water come late fall can be bone chilling cold. In fact, I would argue that late fall fishing can be much colder and harsher than any ice fishing adventure. We often find ourselves bundled up in ice fishing gear. You will probably have to learn how to fish with gloves or choppers. Wear a life jacket when the conditions get brutal. We often find ourselves using presentations that fish well with a rod holder just so we can stay warm enough to last the duration. When the conditions do get nasty, focus on boat control and put your rods in the rod holder. Great presentations include trolling tactics with crankbaits or simply rigging with heavy bottom bouncers or three-way rigs. There are of course situations where you have to hold onto the rod and jig but frigid temperatures and rough water can make standing up all day in a boat much more difficult.
Big and Slow
When the water temperatures start to plummet in the fall, we often find that we are much more successful if we tone down our speed. What is interesting is that fish are typically much more aggressive in the fall when comparing water temperatures and how fish react to what we see with the same water temperatures in the spring. With that being said, we seldom find situations where we catch more fish by speeding up like what we so often see in July and August. Don’t be afraid to knock your speed down in the fall. You can still jig aggressively and catch fish but we often seem to catch more fish when we are trolling crankbaits if we hang between a mile and two miles per hour. We often find as well that we often catch more fish by trolling up against the current in the fall where there is a period in the summer and sometimes spring when we catch a lot more fish trolling with the current. As a rule of thumb, we might cut our normal boat speed in half as we get late into the fall.
Another overall trend worth noting is how effective bigger body baits and lures seem to work in the fall. If you are rigging chubs, get the biggest chubs you can find that range between six and ten inches. If you are jigging, bulk up your jig with soft plastics or use two minnows to bulk up your jig. Bigger crankbaits like the Salmo Freediver 12 are money in the fall. Use the bigger profile.
Take Advantage of the Last Full Moon Cycles
Some of the very biggest walleyes caught each fall are caught after dark during full moon cycles. Trolling shallow running stick baits or jerk baits like an original floating Rapala, Husky Jerk or Salmo Rattling Sting are deadly after dark on clear lakes over rock or around current. There are also great opportunities that emerge on some lakes where you can either cast from shore or wear waders to fish breaker walls at the mouths of rivers or around current areas. If somebody were to put a gun to my head and told me to go out and catch a ten pound plus walleye and I got to pick the day… or night, this pattern would be it.
The Last Green Weeds
Many weeds begin to break down around the end of summer and turn brown. Brown weeds still standing can still hold fish more than what some anglers would imagine if there is good water circulating in these dying weeds but what can hold a tremendous amount of fish especially early in the fall before some of the primary fall patterns really take hold are still green weeds. Could be tufts of cabbage or deeper weeds like coontail. Weeds that are next to rock are often better but if you can find a few areas that still have green weeds come late summer and fall, they almost always have some fish present. For numbers of fish come fall, particularly larger schools of eater class fish, it might be tougher to find a better overall pattern than the last green weeds left on a fishery.
Cold and Nasty Community Spots
By the time deer season rolls around, you will find most parking lots next to boat ramps void of other anglers and many people just give up fishing for the year. As fall progresses, don’t overthink the obvious as there is usually some tremendous fishing on very well-known community spots. These spots get so good because nobody is left fishing them. Most community spots are big, obvious and are good but the number of boats that fish these locations the rest of the year can make these locations deterring. Some of the best fishing on so many fisheries however happen on many of these locations late in the fall after all the boats leave. Could be the most obvious reef or point on a lake that has dozens of boats on it all summer. Might be a mouth to a tributary or feeder creek. Perhaps a flooded roadbed. Big community spots are often at their very best come fall.
Ciscoe Curtain Call
One of the very last big fish patterns on many lakes particularly in northern Minnesota, Fort Peck Reservoir and parts of the Canadian Shield coincides with the tullibee or ciscoe spawn. Like other members of the whitefish family, ciscoe spawn late in the fall over shallow rock and boulders. The ciscoe often spawn well into November when conditions are difficult, but this activity often attracts big predators like big walleye and musky. One of our favorite ways to fish these locations is to cast a big soft plastic or swim bait up onto the rocks. Trolling shallow running stick baits is another option if the spots are big enough. Shallow rocks that have some wind blowing in are often the best. The peak of the spawn will often happen right before ice up so the conditions can be brutal, but these baitfish will often move up and stage near these shallow rocks through the fall. There will be big walleyes wherever there are staging and spawning ciscoe.
Fall fishing can so closely resemble spring fishing with some of the locations and presentations and as the temperatures drop during the fall, we so often find that we can struggle during the morning and see the bite pick up as the water temps climb a few degrees during the day when the sun comes out. Typically, each consecutive morning water temp will be a little bit colder as the fall progresses and many solid traditional patterns form. Each day however, you will see the morning water temps rise a few degrees through the day. On many shallow weed and rock patterns especially, we often catch way more fish after lunch. Because we often must wait for these fish to turn on, our fishing is often methodical and we often find that we must be patient with some locations. Our best fishing is often in the afternoon and late in the day.
There are exceptions to every rule of thumb and some patterns and generalities contradict each other. Each ecosystem is entirely unique and figuring out fish on different bodies of water is what makes fishing so fascinating and fun. These ten tips or guidelines are just observations from our own experiences. Fall fishing is a personal favorite and there is plenty of room!
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