The onset of fall is a time when walleye anglers get that twinkle in their eye once again after a long, hot summer. Some of the best fishing of the year can happen in the fall and the chances of catching a big fish are very realistic. Even through September, walleyes tend to stay deeper, even moving deeper yet before shallower with the change in season, but the right tactics can put a lot of fish in the boat for those who are persistent and look for the right clues.
Fall walleyes have one major thing on the brain and that is food, lots of it. The bigger females especially are looking to pack on the forage in preparation for winter and new egg development. Find the forage and the walleyes will not be far away.
The Early Transition
At the end of summer a large chunk of the walleye population will be somewhat deep relating to structure such as rock, deep weed edges and hard bottom contours in depths of 20-35 feet. The water tends to be warm as it was in summer and the forage along with the walleyes are seeking cooler oxygenated locations. As weeds begin to die into early fall the baitfish tend to scatter and move deeper yet. The walleyes follow and start to spread out a little more.
When the water cools and wave action replenishes oxygen in shallower areas, the bait and the walleyes start their transition to shallower habitat. Gravel, sand adjacent to weeds and still-green weed beds can be a real go-to spot. Everything tends to be a little more spread out and you likely won’t find big schools of walleyes in one area.
When searching for fish and structure there is no better tool for the job than a sonar graph. Spend time covering water and look for baitfish with the telltale hooks or blobs indicating walleyes nearby. The graph will help eliminate a lot of empty water and pinpoint the exact depth walleyes are lurking at that given time.
Most of the time the walleyes will be near the bottom but on occasion they may suspend if their forage is suspended. This pattern tends to happen during low light periods in the morning or evening when the fish are more actively feeding. A graph is your best friend when this sort of thing happens.
This is the time of year to pull out the bigger hardware on the walleyes. Fish this time of year are looking to expend little energy for the most reward, which is why you will often see them feeding on larger perch, shiners, and even ciscoes for those venturing out of Iowa and into our northern states. Big fish especially are looking for a big easy meal and baits of five to seven inches are not overkill whatsoever.
This is the perfect time of year to slow troll a chub or redtail on a jig or lindy style rig. Once you find the walleyes with electronics, fish slow and let the big baits do their work. I still like to keep the terminal tackle light and use lines in the 4-6lb class. If you are a braid fan, use 6-10lb braid coupled with a 3-4 foot chunk of 8 or 10lb fluorocarbon leader.
When slow trolling with big live bait I also like to fish closer to the boat and leave my bail open with a finger on the line. You will get strikes in different levels of intensity but when I feel a bite I like to let the line free spool and give the fish a little time before setting the hook. If using a smaller hook with a big minnow the fish generally will not feel anything abnormal and wolf it down without hesitation. The strike may be aggressive but it also may feel like you simply started dragging into vegetation. Be ready for anything in this situation.
Aside from big live bait, big jigs and hard baits shine through as well. Lures like Jigging Raps, Rippin Shads, Husky Jerks, Rattlin Rogues and various other stick style crankbaits can be downright deadly, especially when the fish move in shallower. Jigs like paddle tails and other swimbait style soft plastics can be equally as good and fished a little more precise.
The key as the water starts to cool is to slow down the presentation a bit to suit the attitude of the fish, most of the time. There is an exception to this however and some neutral or semi-active fish need a little coaxing to flip the switch into feeding mode. When fishing lures like Jigging Raps, Rippin Shads or soft plastic swim bait jigs, snap the lure off the bottom and let it flutter back down, rest briefly and repeat. This snapping upward motion can really trigger fish into a strike. You will have sore wrists from it but it can drive walleyes mad.
Trolling at night when the water starts to cool is once again a prime opportunity to cover water and capitalize on aggressively feeding walleyes. This is the perfect time to troll with bigger profile crankbaits like larger Flat Raps, Husky Jerks, and Walleye Divers. Use electronics again to pinpoint the depths and cater the baits to fit this depth. Later into the fall you will find fish quite shallow which is prime for the shallower running lures like the Flat Rap.
When the fish are still a bit deeper, use thinner line or even lead core to help crankbaits reach this depth. Troll slow keeping speeds around 1.6-2 mph at the most. When you find a depth the fish are cruising stick to that and come back over areas you may have caught a fish or located fish a few times throughout the night. Walleyes will be roaming but when they lock on forage they tend to stay in the vicinity of that same depth for some time.
One last tactic to note would be casting crankbaits and swim style jigs over key structure to cover a lot of water and to pull out all the stops so to speak when trolling, drifting, and jigging leave you wanting more. I generally like to cast when I know the walleyes are a little shallower and this often means later in October and into November. One key area a lot of lakes in Iowa have is perfect for this style of fishing would be rocky rip rap banks that fall away into deep water. Often times this area is the face of the dam or jetty points on many of our reservoirs. These areas are equally successful when trolled, but casting causes a little less commotion and presentations are a little finer tuned.
Casting can also be successful over the tops of weeds that are still alive and along their edges where bait tends to be prevalent. In this scenario I like to bomb long casts to cover more water and work the bait in with a jerk-jerk-pause retrieval. This can also be quite effective at night when fish are scattered and conditions allow.
Fall walleye fishing is one of the best times of year to be on the water chasing a big fish. Big baits and heavy use of electronics will pay off for those persistent and patient. Focus on forage and weed growth while avoiding dying weeds, locate deeper gravel or hard bottom structure early. Slow troll big live bait, snap jig around green weed pockets and deeper edges and night troll crankbaits and you will be well on your way to having success this fall. Good luck on the water!