Fair-weather fishermen may stay warm at home this time of year, but that doesn’t apply to Eric Olson. Cold breezes or not, more likely than not, you’ll find the professional walleye angler on the Mississippi River somewhere near his home in Red Wing, Minn.
“The walleyes can be big, and they are putting on the feedbag,” said Olson, 43, a Land O’ Lakes pro team staff member and a member of the pro staff at Lindy Fishing Tackle. “And whether it’s walleyes or sauger, the fish can be very aggressive at this time of the year.”
Olson recalled one autumn day when he filmed a television show. They put fish in the boat up to 9 pounds and had one break off at the boat that would have gone 12 pounds!
“It was unbelievable,” he said.
Locating Fish In Autumn
Locating fish in autumn is a matter of understanding how they’ve evolved and the combined effects of current and temperature, he said.
The fall bite gets underway officially when the water cools and the days shorten. Originally a river species, walleyes know instinctively the time has come to migrate upstream until their progress is stopped, usually by a dam. They’ll set up house for the winter near the open water the dam provides, and the hard-bottomed areas they’ll use to spawn in spring.
The sun warms the water and the solar effect draws baitfish, which draws the predators. No need to rush to the water. The best fall and winter fishing on the river permits anglers to sleep in. Let the sun do its work, Olson said.
“Nine or 10 o’clock in the morning — that works for me,” he said.
Water warms most when rocky riprap is present. That’s especially true on the east or north side of the river that receives direct sun for the longest period of the day.
Find Current Breaks
Deep water nearby gives fish a safety zone, and as in any river situation, fish take advantage of current breaks that create slack-water eddies where they can rest from moving water and stay close enough to current to ambush prey swimming by, he said. Warm water plus current breaks near dams equals fish.
One of the most likely spots to try first are the eddies created on the sides of the dams just downstream. The shorelines are usually covered with rocks. The logistics give walleyes plenty of spots to herd and corner baitfish. This area can provide consistent action all day long as schools of walleyes arrive and depart.
The dam area is also one of Olson’s favorite spots because he can use the tactic he enjoys most — flipping jigs and plastic bait to shallow water just 1-foot to 5 feet deep. He said he uses a 1/8-ounce to 1/4-ounce Max Gap jig dressed with a Thumpin’ Ringworm or a Techni-Glo Fuzz-E-Grub jig tipped with a minnow. He added the best colors generally are purple/silver, silver, black/silver, and chartreuse.
Choose the lightest jig you can and still stay in contact with the bottom. Lighter jigs are easier to free from snags in the rocks. He uses 6-1/2-foot to 7-foot medium-action rods with fast tips for pitching.
Use High-Vis, Low-Stretch Mono
Olson said a key is to use 8-pound high-visibility, low-stretch monofilament. Unlike braided line, monofilament can be broken free if a snag does occur. The thin diameter offers less water resistance, and flipping underhand gives the wind less chance to interfere with accuracy than casting overhand. The low-stretch line provides greater feel. The high-vis line gives him an early tip-off when a fish takes the jig.
“I’m a line watcher,” Olson said. “Watching the line is everything.”
Here’s a tip — Olson has noticed many anglers make the same mistake during their retrieves. The lift-reel-drop motion is fundamentally correct. But, they allow slack in their line during the drop. Keeping line tight during the retrieve can mean the difference between a fish or a missed strike.
Olson also uses the information he feels through the tight line — the bumps, the smooth places and the drops — to develop a picture of what lies below. That way when a fish takes his bait, he can tell what kind of bottom it prefers and whether it was on the top of a break or at the bottom. A pattern will emerge over time. Armed with that data, he can seek out other places just like the ones that are producing that day.
Also, watch for baitfish breaking the surface. This means predators are attacking the school.
“Get a bait in there ASAP. You’re seeing actively feeding fish when you see that,” he said.
Wingdams Hold Fish
Wingdams near the dam will also hold fish. Anchor above the wingdam and cast jigs or lures to the face. The water is usually low in fall so the walleyes will generally be closer to the tip of the wingdam closest to the channel, so start there.
Try jigs with plastic, he advised. But, if live bait is needed, use willow cats or night crawlers, both favorites of Mississippi River walleyes.
Three-way rigs with live bait also work, he said. Use a Lindy NO-SNAGG sinker as your dropper sinker to avoid hang-ups. Try quarter-casting to the current side and let the moving water carry your bait downstream to the base of the wingdam where the fish will be holding. Or use your electric trolling motor to move your bait along the front face of the wingdam.
As winter arrives, sauger will stay active longer than walleyes. But, there’s still fish to be caught. The sun shines even less than before and snow often covers the rocks on shore, limiting their influence on fish location, Olson said. Rather than look for them in the shallow water, move out to the 18-foot to 21-foot range, switch to shorter 6-foot rods for faster hook sets, and vertical jig below the boat. Vertical jig and slip with the current.
You should never stay home to be warm. Warm up on the water with the hot Mississippi River fishing during the fall!
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