Targeting Trophy Walleyes in the Fall
By Steve Weisman
There is an old fishing adage that fall is prime time to catch trophy walleyes! For Shane Akin, full time guide in northwest Iowa and owner of Great Lakes Guide Service, that old adage is the truth. “There is no doubt that all gamefish put on the feedbag in the fall, and walleyes are no different. Over 30 years of guiding, I’ve found when the surface water temperatures drop into the 50-60 degree range, this is the perfect time to go after trophy walleyes.”
As a guide, Akin finds northwest Iowa and southern Minnesota lakes to offer some great walleye fishing opportunities. “I will target West and East Okoboji, Big Spirit Lake, Silver Lake (Lake Park), Little Spirit, Storm Lake, Lost Island and Tuttle Lake in Iowa, along with lakes like Loon, Sarah, Chetek, Huron and Clear Lake in southern Minnesota.” In this group of lakes, there is a wide range of depths and contours. Yet, they all have one thing in common: great fall fishing for trophy walleyes. “When I talk trophy walleyes, I’m looking for 25-inch fish for sure with a shot of taking walleyes 28 inches or larger. For me, these are fish that I will release. To me, if I can return them safely to the water, I am giving another angler the chance to have the same experience. If a client wants to mount a big fish, I’m all for that, but I encourage catching and releasing these big females.”
Before you tackle these fisheries, do your homework. Check out local baitshops to get a feel for how the walleyes have been biting. Go on area guides’ websites and see if they have been targeting walleyes and if they are biting. If you are lucky, you might know anglers that have been out and can share their success. The final option? Hire a local guide for a few hours. That can save a lot of time.
Akin notes that this is the time of year when “you can troll crankbaits during the day and then turn around and wader fish casting stick baits at night. That’s what makes this such a great time of the year. Plus, the pleasure boaters and jet skiers are pretty much gone.” Here are some tips for tipping the scales your way as you look to catch a trophy walleye.
Akin says with a chuckle, “Trolling crankbaits is not rocket science, but at the same time there is a science to it. We all have to start somewhere, but it takes time to learn how these baits work, what speed does to them, how deep to run the baits. There is a learning curve, but it is fun to learn the process. Read up on how the presentation works, watch videos and then practice yourself. Give it a try and work at it. It won’t take long before you will feel comfortable with this type of fishing. It’s a great way to catch a trophy fish!”
As fall weather begins, the weeds are declining, the schools of baitfish are moving out into the basin and the walleyes are right behind. This holds true whether it’s a shallow lake or deeper lake. “With the electronics we have today, before I begin fishing, I will motor around until I find schools of baitfish. This helps eliminate a lot of water. My Humminbird has side imaging so I can cover water more quickly.”
Some anglers consider slowing down this time of year, but Akin likes to run 2.2 to 3 mph. “It becomes more of a reactionary bite, and I will set the crankbaits to run 2-3 feet off the bottom.” Using linecounter reels helps Aikin know exactly how far back the crankbaits are from the boat and what depth they will be running. Utilizing Off Shore planer boards to get the lines away from the boat, Akin finds he can pull up to six crankbaits at once with two planer boards out each side of the boat and then two lines directly behind the boat. Akin’s favorite crankbaits include #5 and #6 Berkley Flicker Shads and Shad Raps, along with #11 Berkley Flicker Minnow or bigger profile baits like the Reef Runners. To begin the day, each line will have a different color. “You never know what color the walleyes might want. This can even change several times on-say-an eight-hour trip. My go to colors are hot steel, purple, flashy perch, chartreuse and darker crawdad color.”
The next trick is how to know how much line to let out. Akin keeps his own diary, so after 30 years, he has his own trolling plan. However, for someone just starting out, choosing a good trolling chart or something like the Troller’s Bible will speed up the learning curve. “In addition to starting the day with different colors, I like to also let out the crankbaits at different lengths from the boat. This helps me cover the water column. Once a pattern emerges or I get a couple of hits on the same lure, the same color and the same depth, I will then adjust the other lines to put them into this strike zone.”
Throughout the trolling run, it’s important to keep an eye on the electronics. Keep in touch with the baitfish, because if they move or drop down or come up the water column, the feeding walleyes will adjust to the baitfish movement. “Don’t stay fishing yesterday’s memories if the walleyes aren’t biting. Most likely the baitfish moved and so will the walleyes. It might be just a hundred yards or it might be a half a mile. That’s why it is so important to stay alert and trust your electronics.”
When a walleye hits a bait, you will definitely know it! A word of caution. Do not set the hook. The speed of the boat, the movement of the bait and the backbone of the rod will take care of the hookset. Setting the hook means you might pull the bait right out of the lip of the walleye. Just keep pressure, keep the rod up and keep the rod steady. If it’s a trophy fish, there will be a lot of head shaking and strong pulling. Let the rod work, and when the fish lets up, then reel. That’s the best way to increase your odds of catching that trophy.
Sometimes, if a fish seems spent, Akin will already have his live well full and running and put the walleye in the livewell for a short time. “Sometimes after the fight and a picture, the fish becomes worn out and disoriented. This seems to help rejuvenate them and make it easier to safely release the fish.”
After dark, shore or wader fishing can be outstanding. “At dark, the baitfish move in and so do the walleyes, often times as shallow as a foot or two of water. Look for current like bridges or where a stream is dumping into the lake. Current is a magnet for both baitfish and walleyes. Some truly huge walleyes come after dark right off of shore. Add a sandy, gravely bottom, and you have a great walleye spot.”
A word of caution. Wader fishing can be dangerous. “I encourage anglers to fish with a float tube and a partner. You never know when you might stumble or trip over a rock or step into a dropoff. With a float tube, you can just sit down and you are safe. A partner can mean the difference between having a fun night and a disaster.”
Although Akin has used plastics and swim baits, he prefers using stick baits like a #9 or #11 floating Rapala. “The new Berkley Cutter Jerkbait is a real game changer. It’s easy to accurately cast, and I like to bring it back with a twitch, a reel, a twitch and a pause.”
All the way to ice up
That’s what makes fall fishing so great. Whether it’s from a boat or in the waders, targeting trophy walleyes will last all the way to ice up. “Certainly, the later you go, the colder it gets, but that also eliminates a lot of the competition. With the chance of catching a 28 incher or even larger, I can take a little cold weather!”