Have you ever tried pulling a 15-foot boat behind a ‘97 Chevy Cavalier? It doesn’t work.
That’s the dilemma I was faced with in college, when my vehicle’s towing capacity was roughly that of a kayak. Speaking of kayaks, have you ever tried fitting one in a dorm room? It doesn’t work, either.
I was able to store and haul around a spinning rod and pair of waders, though. Those simple tools taught me more than any college course ever did, and one of my favorite assignments was chasing fall walleye, where I learned that anglers don’t need boats if they ace the timing, location, tactics and gear.
Timing & Location
If you’re targeting walleye on a river, think of fall as their pre-spawn migration. As the days get shorter and temperatures dip, the fish move upstream to areas where they’ll eventually drop their eggs. Before that happens though, they fatten up for winter.
In early and mid-fall, walleyes looking to put on weight will aggressively hunt for prey on the edge of river’s current breaks. This may be the final opportunity shore anglers get at big schools of fish, because by late fall a majority of walleyes will have moved to the deepest pools of the river.
Finding fall fish on a lake or reservoir is heavily dictated by turnover. Fall lake turnover is what breaks down the summer layering that kept fish deep during the warm months.
Not every lake experiences turnover, though. Deep lakes (more than 130 feet deep) experience turnover once a year in spring. Shallow lakes (less than 50 feet deep) experience turnover constantly throughout the year. Medium-depth lakes experience turnover twice a year in spring and fall.
For those medium-sized, medium-depth lakes, the fall turnover mixes the warm water from the top with the cool water from the bottom. This oxygenates the entire lake and allows walleye to cruise where they please.
Most anglers think of turnover as a simple process, but there’s a lot of mysteries involved with the phenomenon. The timing of turnover is one of them — one lake may be experiencing the flip, while another lake just a few miles down the road isn’t.
Turnover is mostly dominated by air temp and wind. The falling autumn temperatures cool the surface of the water and cause it to sink to the bottom of the lake. Storms and wind can accelerate the process, but it’s ultimately determined by how quickly a lake’s surface temp gets into the 50s.
If the lake slowly experiences turnover, fish will move shallow where oxygen-rich water has yet to disperse, giving shore fishermen a chance to thrive.
A good indicator that your lake is turning over is a sudden drop in water clarity or mats of scum and vegetation on the surface that were dredged up from the bottom. Some anglers even report lakes getting a slough-type smell from the movement. If you can pick up on these clues, then the turnover has just taken place.
Mid-turnover can be a strange process for fish that causes them to shut down. The difference in conditions might catch them off guard and have them hang tight until things stabilize. If you struggle getting bites and feel your lake is experiencing turnover, just plan on giving the fish a couple days to recalibrate. That’s when they’ll start to leave the flats and spread out.
Once they leave the flats, walleye will stack up on obvious structure. Because the lake’s temperature and oxygen levels are fairly uniform after turnover, you could find fish anywhere from 3 feet of water to 20 feet of water.
For a shore fisherman, it’s best to target textbook habitat that you’d normally associate with the spawn. Rock piles, exposed timber and weed lines are sure to attract walleye, especially if they’re complemented by a gravel bottom. Classic structure like this gives walleye the chance to dart in and out of shadows to grab unsuspecting prey.
Unseasonal rains that get feeder creeks or tributaries running are perfect spots to catch schooling fish, too. The fresh, moving water will flush out bait from areas that walleye normally wouldn’t roam and create murky conditions that give them the predatory upper hand. Also at an advantage are wading anglers who can easily access these spots that boats wouldn’t normally reach.
Where shore anglers don’t have an advantage is locating walleye at midday. It’s easy to imagine them lurking on the steep side of depth changes or on the inside of deep weed lines, but fishing areas like that isn’t practical for anglers in waders.
One alternative is finding a mud line on a shallow flat. Spots like this give walleye cloudy water conditions they desire for hunting when the sun is high.
Another option is keying in on a shoreline that’s been pounded by consecutive days of the same wind. These areas will unwillingly congregate baitfish and willingly congregate walleye when the wind is strongest at midday.
A late-season possibility is midday casting around shelves of ice, which create awnings for walleye to camp under. These can be found in river situations, where slack-water areas are the first to freeze.
Tactics & Gear
Once you’ve waded within casting distance of a school of walleyes, the new challenge becomes getting them to bite. For walleyes, that means fooling their greatest asset ... their eyes.
Walleyes that move up shallow this time of year find that their prey has grown significantly since spring. Young-of-the-year prey fish such as white bass, yellow perch, white perch and gizzard shad now measure between 4-7 inches. This is a substantial step up in bait size from the shad, shiners and minnows that walleyes were accustomed to snacking on all summer.
To cater to this, bulk up by going with plastics normally associated with bass fishing. A few of my favorites are the 5-inch Berkley Havoc Grass Pig and 4-inch Mister Twister Curly Tail Grub. Both are enticing enough on their own, but they gain an even bigger profile when paired with a 1/2-ounce jighead.
For colors, it’s best to match the forage and make adjustments based on water clarity. A good rule of thumb is to go with darker lures in clear water and brighter lures in dirty water.
For example, if I was trying to imitate a perch in very clear water, I’d go with a Rapala Perch crankbait. If the water was moderately clear, I’d go with Rapala Yellow Perch. If the water was moderately dirty, I’d go with Rapala Hot Perch. If the water was very dirty, I’d go with Rapala Firetiger.
I also like to brighten my presentation when fishing at dusk. As the sun and visibility go down, I’m more likely to go with unnatural colors in hopes of pulling walleye in from further distances. Once all light is gone is when I like to tie on more tropical-looking cranks with UV colors. If I’m fishing at dawn, the reverse order applies.
Not only do you need to dupe a walleye’s eyes, but you also need to deceive its lateral line. This line of sensory organs can feel out objects from a distance and help the fish determine the source of commotion.
If water visibility is low, opt for lures that give out a heavier pulse, like a lipless crankbait instead of a regular crankbait Or, try a Colorado-blade spinnerbait instead of a willow-blade spinnerbait or a 1/2-ounce jighead instead of 1/4-ounce jighead.
The lateral line does its best work when closing in on prey, though. If you feel like you’re getting follows but not getting bites, then the walleye’s lateral line is probably telling it your bait is an impostor. Change your presentation by becoming more aggressive, limiting pauses on your crankbait or plastic.
Another potential reason for leery walleye is they can see your line. In shallow-water situations it’s crucial to limit line visibility, but you need to consider other factors before spooling up.
Fluorcarbon is the most undetectable option, and it sinks faster than any other line. It does its best work in very clear water when casting crankbaits.
Monofilament’s thick diameter allows it to cast cleanly and sink slowly. This is ideal when you’re looking to make long casts or sluggishly work a jig.
Braid is the strongest line, but scores low in visibility and stretch. It’s your greatest ally when navigating snaggy areas or cutting through a weed line.
My favorite wading setup is 20-pound-test PowerPro braided line topped off by a 10-pound-test Berkley Trilene fluorocarbon leader. That combo is flexible enough to do well in any situation. The braid gives it great castability and strength, while the fluorocarbon gives it high elasticity and less visibility. This grants me the option to slowly pop jigs or quickly rip cranks, regardless of how snaggy an area is.
To work that line, I prefer a high-bearing spinning reel on a one-piece, fast-action rod. The Pflueger President/Cabela’s Tourney Trail Split Grip is the perfect combination of both, mixing a silky smooth reel with a strong, yet sensitive rod.
A 7-foot model gives wading fishermen the leverage they lack. It’s also long enough that you can afford to do tip repairs after lodging it in between boulders on a rocky shoreline. Doing the same number on a 6.5-foot rod would effectively end your day.
For selecting waders, it’s important to evaluate the temperatures you’ll be fishing in and substrates you’ll be standing on. Besides that, consider how you’ll be hauling the contents of your tacklebox with you.
I favor waders that have big protective pockets, such as the Compass360 Point Guide breathables, which have zipper-sealed chest pouches that can double as storage or hand warmers.
For the inclement weather that fall brings, it’s important to have a wading jacket that’ll protect you when it’s cold, windy or rainy. I roll with the Compass360 Point Guide wading jacket, which has a breathable waterproof construction that allows me to wear it alone in September or on top of other layers in November.
A wading jacket is also vital for tackle storage, but there are some alternatives if you’re fishing in bluebird skies. Simms makes Quick Stash accessory kits and lanyards that attach to the outside of your waders for easy access to your pliers, knife, flashlight, stringer or keys to a ’97 Chevy Cavalier.