As the air begins to cool and the leaves begin to float to the ground, an annual event of nature takes place within one of North America’s premier walleye fisheries. Each fall, large numbers of emerald shiners make their way from Lake of the Woods into the Rainy River. The shiners are headed upstream and it can lead to some of the hottest and most enjoyable walleye action of the year.

Every year is different when it comes to how robust the run is.  In discussing the fall emerald shiner run with Phil Talmage of the MN DNR Fisheries office in Baudette, MN, he shares some good insight. “We don’t know for sure why the emerald shiners run in the fall, but one thing we do know is fish don’t expend energy for no reason. We think they may be attracted into the river by a favorable food source or perhaps a difference in water temperature. We also do not know the effects an invasive species, the spiny water flea, has on the emerald shiners’ behavior. “

It seems the run can be triggered by weather, flow of the river, how long the days are, water temps and most likely a myriad of things only the shiners know. Some years the shiners run so thick it looks like you could walk on them. This is when you hear splashing fish busting up through the schools of minnows. Other years, the run of shiners is more tamed down. Either way, between the local walleyes that live in the river and the walleyes that come out of the lake and enter the river to feed on the shiners, it leads to some great fall fishing.

Emeralds harvested for bait.

The fall shiner run is an important time of the year for local licensed bait dealers. With the popularity and success of emeralds for anglers fishing Lake of the Woods, bait dealers are hoping for a robust shiner run and are busy working to net these shiners. The success of the fall netting is the shiner inventory that provides anglers with a supply of frozen shiners through the rest of the year until next fall. If they don’t get the shiners now, they are out of inventory and risk missing out on sales to anglers who realize the allure emeralds have to walleyes.

Bait dealers have their favorite spots to net emeralds and acquiring the right spot can difficult. Typically, bait dealers will use a large light just above the water with a lift net underneath the water about 2-3 ft. When the shiners are running, they will be attracted by the light and swim in a circle just below the surface of the water and just above the submerged net. The bait dealer then pulls down on a rope connected to the net by a pulley lifting the net above the water. If everything goes well, there could be more than a couple of gallons of shiners in a single lift. 

Timing is everything.

This time of year is not a time of sleep for bait dealers. The best runs of emeralds happen during darkness. This might mean checking the run two or three times throughout the night. Some nights, there is nothing. Other nights it might fill the minnow tanks. 

Once the shiners are harvested, the decision is made to sell them as live bait or begin the process of properly freezing them. Shiners are not the heartiest of minnows to keep alive so bait dealers that do pay attention to the details. Some keep a live bait livewell in the river. Others have big minnow tanks with a certain temperature of water and robust water pumps keeping the water well oxygenated. 

It benefits anglers who purchase live emeralds need to keep the minnows alive as well. Filling your minnow bucket with cold water from the bait shop helps. Some anglers will use a portable aeration system installed on the minnow bucket. Others will use a flow troll bucket and get the minnows into the cold river or lake water as soon as possible. One resort actually sells emeralds with the minnows already in a small Styrofoam bucket they keep cold in a refrigerator.   

When it comes to freezing emeralds, every bait dealer has their special recipe and method. Some simply package and freeze the shiners. Others really have it down to a science. One local bait dealer pours pickling salt into a five gallon pail of water mixed with shiners just prior to freezing. This particular bait dealer believes this helps the longevity and quality of the bait. With his experience, he believes his bait will last a few years verses only nine months if not salted and frozen properly. 

When you find the bait, you will find the walleyes.

There are a number of methods to catch walleyes that are chasing the shiners, but the most common is a jig and minnow. Anchoring up on the edge of structure or a current seam and vertically jigging while watching the migration of waterfowl is a great way to spend a fall day. Some anglers use fatheads or rainbows on their jigs. Others prefer a live emerald shiner if available. Another great choice for anglers wanting to match the run is a frozen emerald shiner. 

One of the nuances I have incorporated while jigging fall walleyes on the Rainy is a stinger hook. Two things amaze me. First is how many more fish I will catch with a stinger. In some cases the stinger may detract from some of the action of the minnow, but remember, the water in these parts is stained due to the tannins from the watershed and I believe that makes the walleyes a bit more forgiving. This is also why anglers can do their fishing during daylight hours rather than focusing on low light or darkness.

Another thing that has surprised me is how big the fish are that the little stinger hook will catch. It is nerve wracking to me seeing a nice walleye shaking its head with a very small treble in its lip, but most of the time, those fish make it to the net. Stinger hooks have improved my catch rate of fall walleyes.

Trolling fall walleyes.

Some anglers go to method in this cold water is to troll, often times with crankbaits matching the shiners. Walleyes are opportunists and are always on the lookout for that one injured minnow in the school. A good crankbait will imitate that injured minnow, create reaction strikes and allow an angler to cover water until they find some fish.

One sunny fall afternoon, I was anchored and jigging on the Rainy River and had the chance to have some chit chat with some passing anglers who were trolling by. They were in a big Ranger boat that had Iowa tags on it. Kiddingly I said, “You can’t troll for walleyes this time of year, the water is too cold!” The reply back I received with a smile, “Tell the three walleyes over 28” and the many others we caught today that. We look forward to this trip every fall.” Obviously, the walleyes are still chasing and eating minnows when the water cools and crankbaits can be very effective.

If you are after the many walleyes in the Rainy River this fall or simply purchasing some shiners for your next fishing adventure on Lake of the Woods, there is quite a story behind it all. Chances are, the emerald shiners you are using once swam up the Rainy River in the fall, were attracted by a bright light in the darkest of nights, caught by a local bait dealer who is lacking sleep and became part of a well thought through process of packaging bait enabling all of us to experience the adrenalin rush of hooking a nice walleye, burning in our minds great memories for many years to come. 

About The Author

Joe Henry

As a long time guide, licensed charter captain, and tournament angler, Joe Henry has made fishing a part of his everyday life. Joe “cut his teeth” on MN lakes and rivers and has guided and fished walleyes throughout the nation. Joe’s home water is now Lake of the Woods, which he has fished for over 25 years. Professionally, Joe is an outdoor communicator and a media member of the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers (AGLOW). His professional background combined with his many fishing credentials lead him to his current role, Executive Director of Tourism for Lake of the Woods.