Walleye fillets are waiting. The trick is knowing how to catch this sometimes-elusive fish.
Our area is well stocked with walleye, but most don’t know how to catch them. The trick is knowing their habits.
Walleyes lurk in deep water all summer following baitfish, but the start of cooler weather brings baitfish back to spawn in shallow water. Walleyes and other predator fish follow, making flipping and pitching a jig in shallow water a good possibility for boating a big limit.
Sadly, walleye in Midwestern lakes are ignored. Most fish for crappie without knowledge of how to catch the tasty walleye.
“Baitfish come out of open water to spawn in fall,” said tournament pro Jon Thelen. “That’s why walleyes run shallow when water temperatures start cooling off. I begin looking at the same spots I fished in spring, when other species were spawning. Prime locations are rock piles and anywhere the bottom gets harder beyond a weed edge.”
Fall walleye are structure-oriented and often hungry. Look for angled bottom structure that eventually meets a drop off. I especially like rocky shelves or huge boulders, then drift across these areas with minnows – or salted minnows where live bait is not permitted. Walleye suspend in these areas in search of baitfish.
For fall shallow jigging, Thelen goes to a Lindy Watsit or Fuzz-E Grub, but there’s no long-line trolling or long-distance casting in his bag of tricks for fall walleyes.
“When walleyes are feeding this time of year, they will take a jig passing several feet over their head, so I often pitch and swim the jig back to the boat,” he said. “You can get away with vertical jigging and moving the boat around when fish are staging out on deeper transitions between the basin and the structures these baitfish spawn on, but when you’re seeing shad dimpling the surface over depths of 10 to 17 feet, I like to make little flips of about 30 feet. With a short cast, the retrieve stays close to vertical, but you add a little horizontal to the package as you bring it back.”
Tipping jigs with a 3-inch shad is the way to go in fall. Nightcrawlers, leeches and plastics also may be effective.
“The boat is moving slowly and I’m flicking the jig out with soft casts to keep the bait secured on the hook,” Thelen said. “Sometimes I hop it aggressively, but I generally start slow.”
Thelen may simply swim the jig slowly just off the bottom, making short flips and allowing the jig to sink. The short flips allow him to cover every depth more precisely than by a long cast. A short flip gives him better accuracy in knowing the depth a fish came from, allowing him to refine his pattern for the day, as well as more precisely re-target that depth. During daytime hours, Thelen looks for spots on the deep side of rock piles, reefs and gravel bars.
“Baitfish spawn around the end of September in most areas,” he said. “They begin to come in during the first full moon in September. By the full moon in October, action is phenomenal. Good fishing continues in shallow water right through November.”
Thelen prefers color combos of blue-white, black with gold flake, metallic gold and green pumpkin – natural colors that represent the shiners and ciscoes walleyes expect to see in shallow water.
“Crayfish are always a backup option, so brown-orange works, too,” he said. “Fish can decipher colors really well in water less than 15 feet deep, however, a bright gold, bright orange or flashy metal-flake pattern can be natural, especially in the evening, under heavy cloud cover and on windy days.”
Thelen determines jig weight and size depending on the body of water he’s fishing, but most of the time he sticks to 1/8- to 1/4-ounce jigs. A 3/16-ounce Watsit can be an important size this time of year, too.
“Drop speed is critical,” he said. “Aggressive walleyes will accept faster drop speeds, but wary, finicky fish won’t. Try to match the depth to jig weight so the jig swims just above a walleye’s head, right in his wheelhouse, you don’t want the jig to fall out of that zone very quickly.”
Thelen uses a medium-action, 6-foot, 6-inch spinning rod with 10-pound braid and a short, 2- to 3-foot leader of Silver Thread Fluorocarbon. He prefers a braid that’s easy to see and sensitive. Walleyes bite on the drop a lot during fall and it’s generally an aggressive “thunk,” and he sets the hook the moment he feels the second bite.
“Minnows are bigger in fall, and bulked-up jigs with plastic bodies like the Fuzz-E Grub and Watsit match those sizes better and slow the drop of the jig but can interfere with hooksets unless you make sure the fish have a firm grip on the whole package.”
You, too, may try vertical jigging. Start by moving to likely spots around rocks or weed beds and vertical fish. Minnows or nightcrawlers are dropped straight down and either suspended or brought up a reel turn every five minutes. The idea is to let that walleye study your bait or to hang it in front of its nose.
Try using bright gold or blood red hook for added attraction. We like to add a tiny piece of Christmas tree tinsel for more shine. Some even glue glitter to their hook or bait. Keep in mind that walleye can detect strange odors, so use glue with the least odor.
– Kenneth Kieser, a veteran outdoors writer and member of the Waterfowlers Hall of Fame and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, writes a weekly outdoors column for The Examiner. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.