Bigger Is Better For Fall Walleye
Size does matter when it comes to certain walleye fishing presentations. Walleyes like other predatory fish tend to have a weakness for big and slow moving forage. If your goal is to target big walleyes, then fishing with jumbo sized baits or lures makes sense. The bigger question is however, does the big fish, big bait theory always hold true?
The answer is yes, and no. Walleye have the unique ability to eat just about anything they can get their jaws around. In fact, reports of trophy fish that washed ashore dead because they had a fish lodged in their mouth are common. Without question walleyes routinely feed on forage fish larger than the typical angler is comfortable using, but this doesn’t mean that bigger is always better. We know that walleyes are capable of eating forage fish nearly as large as they are, but the fact is most of the walleye’s collective diet is made up of bite sized meals.
To every rule in fishing there is an exception, and in this case the exception takes place during the fall when walleye become especially aggressive in their feeding habits. Cooling water triggers walleye into a feeding frenzy that might best be described as bingeing. It’s at this time of year that oversized minnows, jumbo soft plastics and full figured body baits produce significantly more bites than normal sized lures.
The interest in big meals starts as soon as the water starts to cool in September and continues into the winter months. The peak of this big bait phenomenon usually occurs in October, but depending on the latitude, November and even December can be good times to super size a presentation.
More than one theory exists as to why walleyes favor large forage in the fall. When I studied fishery biology in college, we learned that walleyes instinctively know that cooling water temperatures trigger a slow down in their metabolism rate. As their metabolism slows, the time it takes to digest food is increased. Feeding on larger meals allows a walleye the luxury of feeding less often, conserving energy and actually building a fat reserve to help sustain them in the lean winter months ahead.
Another theory suggests that walleye feed heavily on larger forage during the fall because there are simply more adult sized baitfish available at this time of year. There is little doubt that walleye are opportunistic feeders, who quickly adapt to any forage bonanza.
We may not know exactly why walleyes feed on big forage during the fall, but we certainly know the benefits of stepping large with our fishing tackle.
Bigger lures and live baits routinely produce better results when targeting walleye in the fall.
LIVE BAIT STRATEGIES
The typical minnow used for walleye jigging and rigging barely stretches three inches. In the fall extending the size of minnows two or even three inches can pay off in more and bigger fish. The problem is traditional minnows like fatheads don’t even grow this big! Switching to larger minnow species including dace, suckers, chubs or shiners is the answer.
Finding suitable sized bait can be a problem. Another problem is that large minnows are more than a mouthful for walleye. Because they can’t easily slurp the entire minnow into their mouth, anglers have to use some special gear and a little more patience to effectively hook fish.
When fishing large minnows on a jighead, it’s always a good idea to rig up a stinger hook. The ideal stinger hook is a No. 8 treble hook tied to a six or seven inch length of monofilament. The hook itself is pinned into the minnow near the tail and the other end of the stinger is tied to the eye of the jig. This simple rig insures that a hook will find its way into the fish’s mouth even when using large minnows.
Slip sinker rigs are another popular way to fish walleyes with big minnows. When rigging with large minnows, start out by by super sizing the hook. Tradition suggests that rigging hooks are No. 4 or 2 in size. For fishing big minnows, bump up to a No. 1/0 or 2/0 hook!
When a fish strikes, give it line and wait for a few seconds before setting the hook. The fish needs some time to swallow the minnow. The rule of thumb is to wait until the fish runs a second time before setting the hook. If you miss fish, wait a little longer on the next one or rig up a stinger hook similar to that described for jig fishing.
Soft plastic grubs have carved out a major niche in the world of walleye fishing. A two or three inch grub body is considered ideal for most walleye fishing applications. During the fall bumping up to four or five inch grubs is the fast track to success. These larger grub bodies are most often marketed as bass lures, but they work very well on fall walleye.
Larger plastic baits must be fished with jigs that have oversized hooks. Again jigs marketed for bass fishing tend to have larger hook gaps than those targeted at walleye. Another option is to purchase a jig mold and some larger hooks for building custom jigs.
Crankbaits are one of the most effective fall lures for walleye because they can be used to cover lots of water quickly. Both casting and trolling presentations are effective, but all crankbaits are not created equal. The size, shape and action of crankbaits play a critical role in fall fishing success.
Crankbaits can be categorized into three groups including minnow shaped, shad shaped and fat body lures. Minnow shaped lures or stickbaits are slender and come in both shallow and deep diving models. This style of crankbait creates an action that’s best described as a top-to-bottom roll or wobble. The subtle action of stickbaits seems to work exceptionally well in cool to cold water conditions, making these lures top choices for fall fishing. A slow retrieve or trolling speed brings out the life in these lures and makes them absolutely deadly on fall walleye.
Good lures in this category include the Reef Runner Deep Diver and Deep Little Ripper, Rapala’s Deep Husky Jerk, Bandit 5/8 ounce Walleye, Bomber 25A, Rebel Spoonbill and the Storm Deep Jr. ThunderStick.
The shad body group of crankbaits are designed to closely imitate the gizzard or thread fin shad species. A little wider in the body than minnow baits, shad style lures have a little wider wobbling action. Shad baits enjoy the best action at slightly faster retrieve and trolling speeds. Early in the fall, shad baits including the Reef Runner Ripshad, Rapala Shad Rap, Cotton Cordell CC Shad and Berkley Flicker Shads and are great walleye baits. As the water cools, the effectiveness of shad baits also cools.
Fat body crankbaits are a class of lures that tend to be wide in both body and action. Because these lures feature a wider diving lip, they incorporate a more aggressive wobbling action. Fat body lures produce exceptionally well in warm water conditions, but they are rarely the crankbaits of choice for fishing fall walleye. Because these lures must be retrieved or trolled at faster speeds to bring out the aggressive action, they simply don’t make the cut for fishing cold water walleye.
Not only are minnow shaped lures the top choice for fall walleye fishing, these lures come in a wide variety of sizes and almost unlimited color patterns. Many of the most popular lures are available in two or three sizes with a similar profile or shape. The Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnow series comes in three progressively larger sizes making them ideal for fall crankbaiting. The same is true of Reef Runner lures that are offered in four different stickbait versions. Rapala also offers their Deep Husky Jerk series in two sizes.
CASTING OR TROLLING?
Crankbaits are deadly either casted or trolled. Casting is ideal when fishing specific targets like a weed edge, rip rap, rocky shorelines, points, Great Lakes piers or other physical features that attract walleyes. Crankbaits catch walleyes routinely during the daylight hours, but some of the best fishing occurs after dark when walleyes move shallow to feed.
The ability to make long casts is critical to success. Long casts reach out to spooky fish and also allow crankbaits to dive to greater depths. The best rods for casting crankbaits are seven to eight foot spinning combinations loaded with eight pound test line.
Trolling is the best way to target walleye in open water. Trolling can make short work of suspended fish, fish scattered on sprawling flats or meandering shorelines. Always when fishing open water, in-line planer boards like the famous Side-Planer by Off Shore Tackle are essential tools for spreading out lines and covering the maximum amount of water.
As with casting presentations, some excellent walleye trolling takes place after dark. Tape a cylume stick to the flag of the in-line board for fishing after dark. This simple trick makes it easy to detect bites even in total darkness.
DEEP OR SHALLOW DIVING CRANKS?
Stickbaits are offered in either deep diving or shallow diving models. Deep divers can be targeted at a wealth of depths by simply manipulating the lead length. The phone app Precision Trolling Data, (www.precisiontrollingdata.com) provides accurate depth diving data for over 750 different crankbaits and other popular trolling hardware. Known as the “Troller’s Bible” this guide makes short work out of presenting lures at productive depths.
Deep diving lures can be set to run shallow or deep by simply manipulating the lead length. Shallow diving lures must be fished in combination with weight to reach deeper depths. The clip on weight known as a Snap Weight is the easiest and most convenient way to add weight to a trolling line. Snap Weights come in sizes ranging from 1/2 ounce to three ounces allowing anglers to match the weight to the trolling situation.
Because Snap Weights clip onto the fishing line, they can be placed anywhere on the line between the rod tip and the lure. When a fish is hooked, the angler simply pinches off the Snap Weight when it reaches the rod tip. Slick.
SUMMING IT UP
Walleye are very active in cool and cold water conditions, making them prime targets right up until ice forms. When the water starts to cool, savvy anglers start to increase the size of the baits and lures they fish. It’s true, size does matter, especially when targeting fall walleyes.