By Ben Leal
What’s the most popular freshwater fish for the table? That will vary according to where you live. In the South, crappie and catfish vie for the honors. But throughout the Midwest and Great Plains, the walleye reigns supreme. Chasing after these fish can be a challenge. In the spring, they are very shallow and feed as they prepare for and spawn. Following there’s about a two-week period where they feed and recoup from the spawning period. If you don’t happen to be on them during the post-spawn recuperation period, bologna sandwiches may be on the menu instead of walleye. As summer approaches, walleye move into deeper water in Iowa’s lakes and reservoirs. There’s no doubt that July and August are the hottest months of the year and can make it challenging to find actively feeding fish.
What happens as August rolls into September? Honestly, the beginning of September isn’t much different than August. But as weeks roll 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 in shallow weeds and deeper main lake structures. Smaller humps that are usually good in early/mid-summer can still hold a few fish, but the larger bars with immediate access into deep water and easy access to the shoreline flats are prime locations. Remember, water temperatures are still very warm in early September, so thermocline and oxygen levels can still influence fish location.
Think Like a Predator
Walleye know their environment, where the best buffet lines are, and when to hit them. You can use your electronics and lake maps to determine where these areas will be. With the advent of more sophisticated electronics such as down imaging and side imaging, you can cruise through an area looking for schools of fish or the bait balls the walleye are feeding on. Find them along the outside edge of weed beds, submerged islands, points with drop-offs, flooded creek channels, rip-rapped dam faces, and submerged roadbeds. Walleyes often spread out over open hard-bottomed flats in reservoirs.
As the water cools in September, walleyes move from deep water to shallower areas in lakes and reservoirs, often near rocky shorelines, rock reefs, and islands. River walleyes can be found in shallower riffle areas. Walleyes can be very aggressive during this time as they bulk up for winter. A great time to look for big walleye shallow is on cloudy days with a good chop on the water; turbid water will create oxygen and push bait fish up. Flats, sandbars, and wind-blown points adjacent to deep water are prime feeding areas in these conditions.
On calm, clear days, your best bet is to look for flats and sandbars with 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 an excellent 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.
Having a general idea of the areas that walleye will inhabit is a great place to start. Much of what we’ve discussed can apply to most of the lakes in the Midwest, including Iowa. However, there’s always nuances to what’s considered regular habits.
“In my experience, shore fishing would be the best approach this time of year. At least on natural lakes”, says Iowa DNR Fisheries Biologist Ben Wallace. “We’ve done a lot of creel surveys on Black Hawk Lake and Storm Lake. Almost every creel study shows the peak harvest of walleye occurs in May and the first half of June. However, in September, we almost always see a second peak (not as big as in the spring) of walleye harvest.”
Most of these fish are caught by short anglers. October can be just as good as September, but it will likely depend on the weather. “Artificial lures are typical of shore anglers,” continued the biologist. “I don’t know that they’re any better than natural bait this time of year, but it seems to be what anglers use. As the water cools down, I would go with a slower retrieve if casting a twister or spinner. Using twisters with the skinnier/thinner tails allows you to get more action out of the twister tail when you’re reeling in slowly. Steady weather patterns tend to be an essential factor when chasing walleye in September. Approaching weather changes, especially lows, can bring on an active period of fishing; however, a high-pressure system that follows will typically shut down the fish.
“Black Hawk Lake, Storm Lake, and North Twin Lake would be the best options in the Black Hawk District. Public shore access is not as good at North Twin compared to the other two lakes,” concluded Wallace.
Further South in the State, Lake Rathbun is on the other end of the spectrum. “Walleye fishing on Rathbun is typically a May-mid August bite. Beyond the first cold front in August, things drop off substantially”, noted Iowa DNR Fisheries Biologist Mark Flammang. “Some fish are captured during this time, but our creel surveys indicate that September typically has a meager harvest.” Those that catch fish use crankbaits; live bait doesn’t seem to attract a lot of success.
Change the Pace
By now, walleye have been pounded by all kinds of presentations and seen their fair share of crankbaits and live bait presentations. 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.
However, slower is not always better. If we change our presentation a bit, we might have a better chance of getting that reaction bite from larger walleye. Shallow running crankbaits trolled at 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 m.p.h., about 100-150 feet behind the boat, may entice walleye to react. This is an excellent technique for running shallow flats with weeds, scattered clumps of cabbage, or rock piles.
Play the Wind
Wind speed and direction are equally important and favor areas where the wind moves parallel or slightly into the shoreline. When the wind blows, concentrate on shallow break-lines, particularly on weed beds and rock and gravel areas. 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.
Take a Chance
Walleye fishing in late summer as things begin to transition to fall can be challenging, and it’s always worth the chance and the chase. As we all know, Iowa weather can be unpredictable, where fall comes early, and things cool off quickly, or we have extended summers that go well into October. Whether you’re chasing after these fish in the spring, summer, or fall, it’s worth taking the chance, and who knows…you may end up with a personal best in September. Remember to be selective in your harvest; check the harvest limits and lengths for the lakes you’re fishing as some have changed as of this year and as always…Tight Lines!