The boat traffic on lakes and rivers typically slows down after Labor Day. The kids are back in school. Moms and dads are thinking about putting deer meat in the freezer.
But, the best walleye fishing of the year still lies ahead!
The Chicago Bears, “da Bears,” aren’t the only “Monsters of the Midway” gearing up for action. The months of August, September and October are the transition period from summer, when anglers tend to settle for smaller, easier-to-catch, eating-sized walleyes, to autumn when true trophy-sized fish become more accessible and vulnerable.
It didn’t matter if it was a lake or reservoir, when the water warmed, many of the biggest walleyes in the system headed to deeper water where they suspended to hunt baitfish. They became harder to find — locations are hit or miss. Also, the finer points of trolling, a key summer tactic, aren’t easy for everyone to learn.
But, the beasts begin migrating to shallow water on structure as water temperature drops. They’re actively feeding as they beef up for winter. As we ease from late summer to fall, it’s the right time to catch, photograph, and release the fish you’ll want to model for a graphite replica for the wall. It’s possible to catch 10-, 11-, or 12-pound walleyes at many of the well-known walleye destinations as well as those secret spots only you and a handful of friends know about.
That’s not to say they “jump in the boat.” Older fish don’t make it to a ripe old age without having the instincts to avoid danger. Other factors also come into play, which offset the fact that walleye location is more predictable. The bigger fish may have hung together when they were cruising open water feeding on clouds of baitfish that numbered in the millions. But time starts taking its toll on the food supply by fall. Predation and disease and other factors cut the number of smaller fish. Trophy walleyes fan out to fend for themselves, and connecting with the loners can be a trick.
At the same time, presentations must be done with pinpoint accuracy this time of year. The best trophy waters are often clear-water lakes where fish generally are in deeper water much of the time. The reason everyone doesn’t have a replica of a 30-inch walleye on their wall is that catching one is often a matter of putting a bait down 20- to 60 feet in a space the size of a medium-sized automobile and convincing one of the wiliest members of the walleye community to strike.
But if you are willing to spend the time, we have a method that works — da rig!
Remember two things. Nothing beats live bait, and big bait equals big fish later in the year.
The baitfish that are dropping in number are also increasing in size. Forget minnows only 2.5- to 3.5 inches long. Buy BIG bait — chub minnows that are 5- to 8 inches long. Any thought you have that chubs that size are too big will vanish the first time a small walleye whacks one.
The key is to build-up a rig that will take bait that size down to the bottom in deep water and hold it in the strike zone. Leave small sinkers at home. Use Lindy slip sinkers up to 1 ounce. Switch to NO-SNAGG sinkers for rocks, and add a bead to protect the knot. Make sure to use good quality beads that move freely on the line. You want nothing to offer resistance when a walleye picks up the bait.
Debate has raged over how long snells should be ever since Ron Lindner first invented the Lindy sinker. He kept his short, down to 2 feet, to control the bait. Keep it short, perhaps 3 feet or less, in rocks and in cold fronts when the walleye’s mood may be sluggish. Lengthen the snell up to 5 feet over smoother bottoms, clearer water, or when walleyes are aggressive and willing to chase livelier bait.
Big hooks are needed; a 1-, 2- or 1/0 aren’t too large. But, use a thin wire hook that will leave the bait unhurt and able to swim. After all, that’s the action that will attract a walleye.
Yes, you’re fishing for big fish, but don’t use a pool cue to do it. The rod should have backbone enough to set a hook far below the boat and to fight big walleyes. But, they should also have a tip flexible enough to vibrate when the baitfish begins to panic when it’s getting “eyed.” A St. Croix 7-foot, medium-action rigging rod is a great choice. Eight-pound Silver Thread monofilament is a good pick for line.
Big fish haunt steep breaks on structure in fall. One reason — the food is there. Baitfish migrate along the steeper breaks. They pause and congregate on the turns where the points swing outward or they move out and around the tips of points.
The best structures border deep water. Check the map for deep basins in natural lakes. In reservoirs, look for points that reach the channel.
Just so we’re on the same wavelength, our definition of “steep” is a 1-foot drop for every 1-foot out. Yes, that is pretty dramatic, but that’s where the fish are located. Walleyes can move easily from deeper water, attack their food, and go back to the safety of deeper water again without spending a lot of energy.
Once several potential spots are identified from the map, check them out with the sonar. Look for baitfish, and then slow down and look for big marks that could be walleyes. Don’t worry if you don’t see any. As long as the baitfish are there, they will be, too. Walleyes can “hide” from the sonar by laying near rocks or tummy down on the bottom.
There is a trick to rigging. It’s summed up by two words: Boat control. A slow, precise presentation is critical. You can back troll, or you can use an electric trolling motor on the bow. In high wind, couple the electric trolling motor with the gasoline kicker on the rear to stay on the drops. Start in the shallower water and move down the break. Since walleyes feed up, fish can see dinner coming and have time to react rather than having your chub move by them from the back and below.
Stay vertical over the bait to help with the hook set. As important, you should also know where your rig is in case you hook a fish. Enter a waypoint immediately because that fish may have company down there. Once you’ve zeroed in on the productive depth, you can stay there using your sonar.
Feel a strike? Feed the walleye some line and wait. We know how hard that is, but big chubs are big meals and it takes time for a walleye to get it down.
If all you feel is weight, chances are the walleye has picked up the bait but hasn’t eaten it yet. Lift the rod slowly to give the walleye the idea the bait may be trying to get away. The result might be a reaction strike.
Do not try to horse trophy fish. Instead, make sure your drag is set loose and take your time. A 10-pound fish could take 10 minutes to bring to the net.
Have a good Beckman net on board. Remember, don’t net the fish, but net the water around the fish. If you look at the fish, odds are you’ll hit it with the net and knock it off the hook or the hook will tangle in the net and the fish will yank free. Either way, it’s da biggest mistake you can make!
As summer fades to fall, suit up and rig up to tackle one of these monsters of the midway.
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Ted Takasaki and Scott Richardson write a weekly column for sportsmansguide.com. Ted has many fishing achievements, including a victory at the FLW Walleye Tour event on the Mississippi River at Red Wing, Minn., May 6-9, 2009, the 1993 Mercury Nationals and the 1995 Professional Walleye Trail Top Gun award. He reached the pinnacle of both angling and business when he was named PWT Champion in 1998 and president of Lindy Little Joe, Inc., of Brainerd, Minn., a year later. (Ted’s sponsors include Ranger Boats, Mercury Outboards, Pinnacle Rods and Reels, Bottom Line Electronics, Minn Kota, Stren, Normark, Flambeau, Master Lock, Gamakatsu, Aqua Vu and Nautamatic TR 1.)