September Walleye – Transition Time

By Ben Leal

Ask any fresh water angler what is one of the most sought after fish for table fare and you’ll get a resounding response, “walleye”. Sure, crappie and bluegill will come up in that conversation as well, but walleye by far will always be in that list. The common name, “walleye”, comes from the fact that their eyes, like those of lions, reflect white light.

This “eyeshine” is the result of a light-gathering layer in the eyes called the Tapetum Lucidum, which allows the fish to see well in low-light conditions. Just what you wanted right? A lesson in fish biology…ahh, it gets better. This “eyeshine” allows walleye to see its prey in rather adverse water conditions and most times can be caught when other fish are not as willing to bite. Walleye anglers also know that the ability to see in low light means fishing can extend well into the night.

The ability to see in low light conditions and at night makes these fish incredibly efficient predators. So whether we’re looking for walleye in shallow water, deep water, daytime, or nighttime, with a bit of investigating we can explore ways to use that “eyeshine” to our advantage.

Last month we visited Dog Day Fishing and many walleye anglers are well aware that night fishing can be incredibly productive. So what happens as August roles in to September? Honestly the beginning of September isn’t much different than August but as weeks role by, cooling evening temps signal a coming change, walleye know that the hard times of winter are not far off.

Walleyes in transition from summer to fall are generally scattered and found not only in the shallow weeds, but also on deeper main lake structures. Smaller humps that are generally good in early/mid-summer can still hold a few fish, but the larger bars with immediate access into both deep water and easy access to the shoreline flats are prime locations. Remember water temps are still very warm in early September and we need to keep in mind thermocline and oxygen levels, a factor to your success on the water.

As September approaches the lake is like a buffet to schools of walleye. They have a smorgasbord of crawlers, leaches, minnows, shad and other fish species to choose from, so there is no shortage of forage in the lake, much of which has grown to an edible size.

Walleye know their environment…they know where the best buffet lines are and when to hit them. You can use your electronics and lake maps to figure out where these areas most likely areas. You also need to know when to look shallow and when to look deep.

A great time to look for big walleye shallow are on cloudy days with a good chop on the water, turbid water will create oxygen and will also push bait fish up. Flats, sandbars, and wind-blown points adjacent to deep water are prime feeding areas in these types of conditions.

On calm clear days, your best bet is to look for flats and sandbars that have deeper water adjacent to them. If the flat is broken up with some rock-piles here and there, that’s even better. Walleye will stack up along the drop offs and wait for bait fish and other prey to come to them. A creek channel is also a good place to look for active fish, especially where there is a very distinctive bend in the channel. The bend creates a perfect ambush point for hungry walleye.

By now walleye have been pounded by all kinds of presentations, seen their fair share of crank baits and live bait presentations go by. We’ve rigged these baits up in tried and true fashion and trolled them at what anglers call “walleye speed”. Back trolling at times will slow the speed of our presentation even further.

But slower is not always better. We might have a better chance of getting that reaction bite from larger walleye if we change our presentation a bit. Shallow running crankbaits that are trolled at 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 mps about 100-150 feet behind the boat may entice walleye to react. This is a great technique for running shallow flats that have weeds, scattered clumps of cabbage or rock-piles.

Another approach would be to do the “bait and switch”. In depths of 8 to 12 feet, use a deep diving Shad Rap with a bait tipped floater tied 3 to 4 feet behind the rear split ring of the crank bait. If they don’t hit the Shad Rap as it passes by they may be more interested in the real thing that’s coming along directly behind the crank.

One note about trolling crank baits at faster speeds. You need to “tune” your baits to make sure they are running true. Lower the bait and give it a quick swim alongside the boat. If it swims off to one side or the other you’ll need to adjust the front eye where your line is tied until your bait runs perfectly straight at higher speeds.

When the wind blows concentrate on shallow breaklines, paying particular attention to weed beds and areas of rock and gravel. Wind speed and direction are equally important, favor areas where the wind is moving parallel or slightly into the shoreline. Remember that fish will be traveling into the current, facing upstream if you will. If the wind blows from the same direction for an extended period of time you should expect the fish to move slowly ahead into the current to stop and feed.

Really the crucial choices are those that match the lake forage, at least the most predominate one. Remember that walleye have an abundance to choose from by the time September rolls around so don’t be afraid to experiment with your baits.
Crankbaits are great at locating fish. Once you’ve located active fish and can’t seem to get them to consistently hit crankbaits, switch to a vertical presentation with a jig or jig/minnow combination.

Bottom bouncers rigged with crawler harnesses are good choices as well. Perch colored blades and beads give off the illusion of a bait fish swimming, the crawler simply acts as the tail or the meat of the meal that the walleye is getting ready to hit. Lindy Spinners and Crawler Harnesses have done a great job of creating rigs that imitate forage fish in many area lakes.

Another variation and one that we talked about last month is the Slow Death Rig. You can use a small floating bead in line with your leader to help keep the bait up off the bottom since some lakes have quite a bit of moss built up by September. Instead of pinching off the crawler just behind the hook bend, leave the whole crawler attached. The action will not be quite as distinctive with the larger crawler and it creates a larger profile in stained water, but if you’re looking for bigger walleye this is the ticket.

For conditions that requires a deep water presentation a three way walleye rig will work very well. Use a three way swivel with a 2 ounce bell weight tied a 2 foot dropper followed by a 4 to 6 foot leader for your bait of choice. Using a 6.6 foot medium action rod and reel combo with your line preference in about 10 – 12 pound test will do the trick.

No matter what presentation or lure choice you choose, don’t be afraid to experiment and change things around. Walleye have an abundance of choices when it comes to the lake forage this time of year. Making adjustments and changes to bait color and size could mean the difference in having a successful day out on the water…Tight Lines!