In all my years of fishing, I have yet to see an angler pull a copy of "Criminal Masterminds" from the glove box of their boat.
Yet, there is no question that late-summer walleye anglers are a devious, even underhanded, lot. We have to be. It’s tough to put one over on a fish that has seen every kind of lure that swims, knows how to use the cover of darkness, has found safety and security in small groups, knows every nook and cranny of the neighborhood and understands that patience and impeccable timing usually pay off with a safe and tasty meal.
Catching these September bandits means thinking on their terms. When their life revolves around trying to sneak around your defenses and rob you of your angling fortune, it’s time to play dirty.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. Here are five proven steps to catching a late-summer walleye red-finned, if you will: Think like the Perpetrator.
The more you know about your prey, the better your chances of luring it into a mistake.
We know that because water temperatures are still near their warmest levels of the year, a walleye’s metabolism is working overtime. Cooling evening temperatures also tell most species of fish that the hard times of winter aren’t far off.
It all adds up to walleyes with a need to feed. They must eat in either larger quantities, more frequently, or both.
We also know that, as anglers, we are competing with a smorgasbord of food that exists in the aquatic world by late summer. From crawlers, leeches, crayfish, bugs and frogs to shiners, chubs, minnows, shad and other fish species, there is no shortage of available forage, much of which has spent the summer growing to an edible size.
We know that the comfort zone of late-summer walleyes relates directly to the oxygen content in the water. That means the perpetrator could be planning its next heist anywhere from a deep-water ledge or rock pile to a wind-blown point or shoreline.
We know, too, that big walleyes in particular tend to prefer smaller numbers in their gangs as the year wears on. In many bodies of water, they lay claim to a small piece of turf while their younger brethren heedlessly roam the underwater world in larger groups.
Conduct a Stakeout
Any crooked walleye worth his or her salt has studied every inch of its immediate environment. They know where they are comfortable, they know their best point of ambush, and they know where the escape routes exist.
As anglers, we can close in on these subjects by taking a similar approach. Fortunately, modern electronics give us the means to accomplish this.
While there are times when searching the shallows will jail a good catch of walleyes, most of my late-summer fishing is done in clear water on bright days with little wind. That’s when I focus on structure such as rock piles, breaklines, sand bars and points.
I trust my Lowrance 111HD to show me exactly what is beneath my boat. The sonar function shows me exactly what size and numbers of fish are present, and where they are located in the water column, which is often a strong indication of what species of fish they are. If I’m not marking baitfish or what look like walleyes, I move to another location.
Once I’m confident there are walleyes in the area, the 111HD’s global positioning feature with pre-loaded mapping shows me exactly what those fish are relating to, whether it’s a rocky bottom, a mud bottom, vegetation, a drop-off or the slightest change in depth. I can tell where thermoclines exist, and I can pinpoint those always important transitions in bottom content, along with the elbows, saddles and cups that so often seem to hold walleyes.
On the rare occasions when there is heavy cloud cover or a good chop on the water, I stake out likely feeding areas such as flats, sandbars or wind-blown points that are adjacent to deep water.
Walleyes will take advantage of these conditions because they feel safe, and they’ll move up into the shallows to feed several times during the day. If you are there when they get active, you’re in for some fast action.
A lot of times, this approach rounds up a walleye or two, then the suspects scatter. That tells me that only a few fish at a time are moving in from deeper water and usually, if I’m patient, there will be periodic flurries of activity. If not, simply slide back and raid the deeper water nearby.
Wear a Disguise
Since walleyes are always trying to hide from us or simply blend in with their deep-water surroundings, it follows that we’ll have a better chance to catch them if they don’t know that we’re looking for them.
That means offering them something that isn’t what it appears to be, and that usually means crankbaits.
Normark Shad Raps and Storm ThunderCranks are two staples in my trolling arsenal because they imitate a variety of forage species. They offer a realistic profile and alluring vibration, in addition to their visual appeal.
Just as important, these lures can be trolled at high speeds, and that is another key to catching late-summer fish. Walleyes have seen a lot of crankbaits by September, and if you give them too long a look at them, the mature fish are reluctant to commit.
I crank my Mercury 9.9 kicker up to 2 1/2 or even 3 1/2 mph and try to solicit reaction strikes. The bait is going past the walleye at a much faster speed, and it is therefore forced to act quickly to a bait that catches its eye.
Another reason I like Shad Raps and ThunderCranks is their performance at higher speeds. With a little tuning, which is done by making slight adjustments to the eye where your snap swivel attaches to the lure, you can usually get them running perfectly straight at whatever speed you want to troll.
Sometimes, it takes a couple of adjustments. After each one, hold the lure in the water alongside the boat, and then pull it rapidly forward. If it kicks out to either side, keep tuning until you can no longer get it to run astray.
Bait and Switch
Another devious trick that can bust big walleyes is to show them one thing, and then give them another.
This is a method I like to use when I’ve located fish, but can’t get them to bite crankbaits. Then I’ll switch over to live bait, slow down and dangle a hyperactive redtail chub, a willow cat, a leech or a crawler in their face.
It’s like feeding somebody who’s on the lamb. If they’ve been living on a steady diet of bologna and a steak presents itself, they probably won’t be able to resist.
If I can’t get a particular fish to bite after a few minutes, I move on to the next one and work on it for awhile, then return to round up the rest of the gang later.
Another way to execute a bait and switch is to rig a crankbait in tandem with live bait.
You can do this several ways. In depths of 8 to 12 feet, I use a deep-diving Shad Rap like a No. 8 or No. 9 with a bait-tipped floater or plain hook snelled on 3-4 feet of Yo-Zuri Hybrid line and tied to the rear eye of the crank where the split ring is attached.
In states that allow only one hook per line, simply remove the hooks from the crankbait. It still serves as an attractor, and most of the time the fish are going to be more interested in the real thing that’s coming along directly behind the crank.
Create a Diversion
There are a number of excellent ways to confuse walleyes that think they’ve got everything figured out.
Once of my favorites is to tempt them with something they don’t see every day. In bodies of water that don’t have redtail populations, that’s a delicacy walleyes often can’t refuse. In other bodies of water, a spot tail shiner might be the answer.
Combo rigs are another method of creating a diversion, as are bottom bouncers and spinner rigs.
Bouncers stir up the bottom and while that may send up a red flag to a walleye when it first passes by, fish don’t have much memory retention and by the time that leech or chub comes along eight or nine feet later, they move on it.
Spinners offer sensory qualities like sound, vibration and flash. And again, while that in itself might not impress a walleye, that juicy crawler coming along behind it might.
Late-summer walleyes don’t play fair, and neither do the anglers who are consistently able to catch them. Know your prey, study its habits and habitat and pull out your dirtiest tricks.
Don’t get robbed of your chance to catch these crafty fish. Turn your devious mind loose and put an end to those frustrating September walleye capers.