Deep Thinking for Walleyes
Here's how to catch your limit in duck-hunting weather.
Walleye anglers across the Midwest anxiously await the advent of fall colors, but not because they’re smitten with nature’s brilliance. When the leaves begin to turn, fishermen know that lots of hungry walleyes will soon be prowling the shallows of north-country lakes and streams. The hot, shallow-water bite continues for several weeks, until after the leaves fall and the water temperature drops below the 50-degree mark. Then walleyes quit biting-or at least that’s what many fishermen believe. But they’re giving up too soon.
**No Depth Limit **
Drive by a good walleye lake on the way to the duck-hunting marsh in early winter and you might see a few die-hard anglers fishing despite cold, blustery winds, and even snow squalls. Those anglers know that the fall bite doesn’t really end when the leaves drop.
When temperatures plummet, walleyes just move to deepwater hangouts that the average angler-who abandoned his fishing pole for a shotgun in late October-would never think of exploring. It’s not unusual to find tight concentrations of fish 30 to 40 feet deep or even deeper. And they’re likely to hit a lure no matter what the water conditions are topside.
Besides seeking the warmer temperature found in the depths by late autumn, as well as a winter larder of baitfish, walleyes also are looking for a comfortable light level. That explains another late-fall walleye rule: the clearer the water, the deeper the fish will go. The deepest water from which I’ve caught walleyes is about 55 feet, but I’ve heard reports of anglers finding late-fall walleyes at 70 feet.
Typical late-fall walleye structure has a rocky bottom and is adjacent to deep water. The best structure is often in the deepest part of the lake. Practically any kind of deep structure-an extended underwater point, an irregular breakline or a small rock pile-may hold a few walleyes. My favorite type of structure is a large isolated hump surrounded by deep water. In my experience, a hump that tops off at a depth of at least 25 feet and has a “clean” bottom is much more productive than a shallow hump with weed growth.
When I’m scouting an unfamiliar lake and find a deep hump that looks promising, I’ll spend quite a bit of time checking it out with my graph before dropping a line overboard. Late-fall walleyes often hold in very tight schools, so it’s easy to miss them. The best way to graph a likely piece of structure is to start shallow and gradually work deeper. For example, if you find a hump that tops off at 30 feet and slopes down to 50 feet before the bottom flattens out, first crisscross it at the 30-foot crown. Then maneuver your boat to explore the deeper water, stepping down about two feet at a time and following each contour all the way around the piece of structure.
The walleyes could be at any depth, but the reason for starting shallow is to be able to cover the shallow contours more quickly. As you go deeper, the contours become much larger, so it takes more time to make a complete lap around the structure. When you see a likely mark on your graph (preferably several of them), toss out a marker buoy. Use the trolling motor to stay in the fish zone.
Once walleyes select a piece of structure, chances are they’ll be there until freeze-up and possibly well into the icefishing season. But that doesn’t mean they’ll always be in exactly the same spot where you first found them. The fish are much less depth-specific than they are in summer, when a change in depth would mean a major temperature change as well.
The fish probably won’t go far from their home structure in late autumn but they may slide up or down several feet from one day to the next or even over the course of a few hours. If the bite comes to a halt, return to scouting mode; there’s a good chance you’ll find the school within a short cast.
A slow prresentation, such as bouncing a jig-minnow combination right in the faces of the walleyes, generally works better than a faster presentation, like trolling with a spinner rig or crankbait. Walleyes are seldom super-aggressive in water this cold, so a subtle vertical jigging action is usually most effective. Normally, I’ll work the jig with two- to three-inch hops, but there are times when it takes a slow drag with no hopping action to trigger strikes from lethargic walleyes.
The most important consideration in selecting a jig for deepwater walleyes is its weight. Most anglers seem to think they need at least a 1/2-ounce model to get down 30 feet, and I see some fishermen using 3/4- or even 1-ounce jigs. I’ll generally use a 1/4-ounce jig for depths down to 35 feet and a 3/8-ounce for depths more than 35 feet. A lighter jig sinks more slowly and will trigger more strikes but it requires better boat control. In order to maintain contact with the bottom, you’ll have to use your trolling motor to keep your line close to vertical and stay on top of the jig. Only on a blustery day, when boat control is more difficult and the wind is buffeting my line, will I switch to a heavier jig.
Fishing By Feeling
If ever there was a time to use a super-sensitive jigging rod, late fall is it. Some days walleyes will smack the jig hard but more often the take is very subtle. You may feel a slight nudge or just a little extra resistance, or maybe the jig doesn’t sink when you drop your rod tip. I prefer a 6- to 61/2-foot super-high-modulus graphite spinning rod with a fast action. If the rod tip sags when you lift the jig, find a stiffer rod with a faster action.
One day last November, I was fishing with a buddy who was using a long, whippy spinning rod. Every time I’d get a strike, he’d become more aggravated. “It’s hard to believe we’ve got two identical baits down there and I can’t even get a touch,” he muttered.
“Why don’t you get rid of that buggy whip and try my extra rod?” I suggested. He reluctantly set his prized rod aside and grabbed my six-foot Loomis GLX 722. A minute later, he was cranking up a nice fish. “You were probably getting strikes all along,” I told him. “You just couldn’t feel them with that noodle rod. Even if you did, you’d never get a solid hookset.”
I rarely use a “superline” for jig fishing because I get considerably fewer strikes than I do when I use 6-pound-test mono. A non-stretching line can make a big difference when you’re jigging in water that’s deeper than 40 feet, however. At such depths, the slight nudges you feel when using monofilament are telegraphed as sharp taps by a superline and it’s much easier to make a solid hookset.
I spool up with 6-pound-test FireLine on such occasions but then add a long leader (about 15 feet) of 6-pound-test Trilene XL monofilament to add a bit of stretch that softens the jig’s action. I connect the FireLine to the monofilament with a double uni-knot (see sidebar below), which can be reeled through the rod guides. Connecting the line and leader with a small swivel just doesn’t work. Even if the swivel is small enough to fit through the guides, it’s likely to hang up at the rod tip when you’re reeling in a fish. There are good points and bad points to deepwater walleye fishing in late fall. If you like socializing with other anglers on the water, you might be out of luck because it’s likely you’ll be the only fisherman on the lake that day. That’s bad but not if you like having all the walleyes to yourself. Then it can be very good.