It doesn’t seem fair.
The season’s best fishing is at hand, yet the days are getting shorter. Soon, the calendar will tell those of us who live in the Midwest to change our clocks. As the old adage goes, we will "fall back" by an hour, just as we "spring forward" each April.
However, for an autumn big-water angler, there is more to "falling back" than changing the clock.
It means returning to methods and locations that yielded some of the season’s largest fish during the prespawn through postspawn periods.
It means planer boards darting behind the boat under the weight of a trophy walleye, pike or even a bass.
It means falling back into bed with that satisfied feeling that follows a good day, or night, of fishing.
So there is a little less daylight. The hours that remain can be more productive in October and November than at any other time of year. And there are still 24 hours in each day for those adventuresome anglers who know the secrets of the night.
Think big – as in the size of the body of water.
Set your sights on destinations with abundant walleye populations like Lake Erie, Saginaw Bay, Little Bay de Noc, Big Bay de Noc, Green Bay, Lake of the Woods and the large reservoirs scattered from Ohio through Kansas and Nebraska and as far as Montana. Fish that tended to be scattered throughout an entire system from May through September begin to congregate in more predictable locations in huge numbers.
Think big – as in the size of the fish. Big water produces big fish, and there are few times of year when they are as accessible or cooperative as they are in the fall.
The fall cycle starts with forage. Certain species of shiners make fall runs into the rivers that hook up with many lakes and reservoirs. Other baitfish species migrate toward dams and warm-water discharges as the water cools.
It may be part coincidence, but many species and especially walleye return to their traditional spawning grounds when the days become shorter and the water temperatures colder.
Although their metabolism will tell them they are not ready to spawn, they will find abundant forage, so they stay in these areas.
By and large, that forage is baitfish such as shad, smelt, alewifes and shiners. Probably due to availability as much as anything, it’s been my experience that the food preference of most gamefish species shifts away from leeches and crawlers, although finicky walleyes have been known to whack a crawler fished behind a large spinner blade in October and even November.
Eventually, those fish will locate nearby wintering areas and pack on as much weight as possible for the cold-water months ahead when everything in the aquatic world slows down.
I like to start my search near known spawning sites. Local bait shops and anglers can tell you where these areas are if you don’t know from personal experience.
Among my favorite walleye locations are the mouths of the rivers that feed these big-water systems. While some walleyes probably spawn in all the various tributaries, some draw more spawning fish than others because of their water quality, substrate and depth. Rivers, creeks and streams with 10 feet or more of depth and plenty of rock are going to attract the most numbers of spawning walleyes.
Of course, we’re not looking for spawning walleyes, so the trick is to break down the nearby area until you locate these concentrations of fish. I focus my search on two areas – the first open-water area outside the mouth with good depth (10 feet or more) and the first well-defined breaklines, beginning in the same depth ranges and working deeper.
I rely heavily on my Lowrance LCX-111C HD sonar/GPS unit to pinpoint the fish. Whether they are suspended over open water, which they often are, or pinned tightly to the breaklines, they cannot hide from this highly detailed, color unit.
If you don’t see fish on your sonar unit, keep looking. Some anglers assume they are spooking the fish and that’s why they aren’t showing up, but my Lowrance has proven to me time and again that this isn’t the case. Even when I am spooking suspended fish, they don’t all dart away from the boat. A fair number will dart toward the bottom, too, where the Lowrance can still pick them up.
I work with the assumption that these are hungry, aggressive fish until they prove me otherwise, and my presentations reflect that.
My basic rule of thumb is to use large crankbaits that imitate the increased size of fall forage. Big fish eat big bait. It means they don’t have to eat as often. While a No. 5 or No. 7 Shad Rap or a Deep Jr. Thunderstick might have been the right choice in September, I turn to larger baits in October and November such as No. 8 and No. 9 Shad Raps, original Thundersticks and No. 14 Husky Jerks, which measure 5 ½ inches in length.
For open-water applications, I use my quiet and smokeless Mercury 9.9 horsepower Pro Tiller to troll these cranks behind Off-Shore planer boards to get them out away from my Triton 219X. Start by covering different depths, then adjust to the depth that is producing the most fish. Keep in mind that sometimes the depth that is providing the most action may not be the same depth that is holding the biggest fish.
Vary your trolling pattern, too. We’ve all seen walleyes crash our lures when we’ve made a slight turn that speeds up one side of the boat and slows down the lures on the other. I’ve seen videos, too, where walleyes will follow a bait for what seems like forever, but won’t eat it until it makes one little change in direction or one slight pause.
Considering that some walleyes will head for the bottom when they sense boat traffic, I sometimes fish one lure up high in the water column behind a board and another just off the bottom behind the boat on lead-core line.
That’s also a good way to probe breaklines. When I’m fishing alone and limited by law to two or three rods, I fish them all out of the same side of the boat at slightly different depths. I usually don’t waste much time running lures on top of the flats. Walleyes may move up there to feed at night, but I haven’t had much success finding concentrations there during daylight hours.
While I firmly believe that fall walleyes can be caught all day long, there is no question that the last few hours of the day and even the first few hours of nightfall can be phenomenal. A lot of true trophy walleyes – those over 10 pounds – are taken at night in October and November when they slip up on top of the reefs and flats or into decaying beds of weeds to feed.
I’ve caught these fish by trolling large crankbaits behind my Off-Shore boards and by targeting smaller areas and creeping along with my MinnKota bow-mount while casting big stickbaits.
A couple of accessories will help with these outings.
First of all, make sure you have a GPS unit and lock in plenty of waypoints to help you find your way back to the landing in the dark. A Panther lift for your kicker motor is also a blessing on these nights or even during the day when your hands are cold and it’s imperative that you keep them dry.
Attach glow sticks or flashing lights to the flags of your planer boards to help you detect strikes in the dark. Make sure you have a long-handled landing net. You do not want to be leaning over the boat and risking a plunge into the icy drink while trying to reach a big walleye in October.
Finally, dress for the conditions. It can get chilly after dark on big water in the fall.
So go ahead and fall back. In the life of an autumn angler, it’s a giant step forward.