Fall is the time of year that walleye begin prepping for a long, stressful winter. Much like a runner “carb loading” the night before a race, walleye feel the need to consume as much energy as possible in preparation for winter. Energetic demands are even greater in females as they are also budgeting resources for egg production. These factors combined create the perfect recipe for a trophy walleye at the end of your line.
Go Big or Go Home
Larger baits are going to shine this time of year. This is for a few different reasons. The first is that the young of the year fish are going to have had all summer to grow and are significantly larger than they were at the beginning and middle of summer. The second is because the fish, in particular females, are looking to stack on calories before winter reduces their forage options. Summer is a buffet table of bait, although once it begins winding down the buffet table begins clearing as well. The cooling water temperatures are lowering the fish’s metabolism making it more important that meals are worth the energy expended to obtain them. The third and final reason is I am looking to target the biggest fish in the system and would rather go with a larger bait to appeal to those fish as opposed to a smaller bait that may catch more fish, but not the biggest fish.
There are a few different tactics anglers can employ when targeting these trophy walleyes. The first option is targeting shallow structure with shallow running crankbaits and jerkbaits. Generally, this seems to be a better option when the waves are crashing across this structure or at sunrise and sunset when walleye are more likely to be shallow.
I have a few go-to presentations depending on the wind and weather conditions. If it is clear water, there is a slight to moderate wind that is not creating waves big enough to cause a mudline and the sun has not fully set yet I like to go with a bit smaller, more natural presentation. In this situation, I like a #7 Rapala Shallow Shad Rap that is Perch, Yellow Perch, Walleye or Silver colored. This also seems to catch more bonus smallmouth bass than anything else. Once the sun sets, I switch colors to Purpledescent or Hot Steel or will put on a #12 Rapala Husky Jerk that is Pink or Purple Chrome colored. The more natural baits generally catch fish as well, the important factor here is the light levels are going down and that is when I generally expect to do more damage on walleye.
If the wind is blowing strong and creating a mudline, regardless of what time of day it is, I plan to catch walleye shallow. The clock may say 3 pm but the light conditions say, “walleye time”. In this situation, I like to go with a larger, louder bait so that the fish can pick up on it in the dingy conditions. I usually favor a #12 Rapala Husky Jerk, again in that Pink or Purple Chrome. I also have done well with a #9 Rapala Shallow Shad Rap that is Hot Steel or Purpledescent colored. The main thing I am going for is a big bait that creates a lot of vibration. The big difference in these two baits is the Shad Rap is balsa, so it does not rattle like the Husky Jerk does. The Husky Jerk is also longer, but more slender while the Shad Rap has a shorter, but deeper profile. The main thing I am going for is a big meal that is worthwhile for a trophy walleye and both baits accomplish that.
The second tactic that can be employed is pulling spinners on bottom bouncers. When conditions are not as favorable for walleye being active on the shallow structure and you are waiting for the wind to pick up or the sun to set pulling the deeper water adjacent to these shallow areas is a good method to pick up a few extra fish. Often even when fish are not actively pursuing prey, they will take the opportunity to snag an easy meal if they feel it is worth the effort.
In this situation, larger blades are going to excel because they look like those larger, easy meals. A size 5 Colorado blade or a 1.9-2.8” Smile Blade with a fair number of beads and a minnow are great options for a beefy profile behind the bottom bouncer. The larger blades put out more vibration and add to the overall profile. The nice thing about the Smile Blades is they can be fished extremely slow and still give off the proper action. This is not a situation where we want to be cruising. The active presentation is casting plugs as discussed above. In this situation, we are targeting neutral fish and hoping that a larger bait at a slower speed can convince the fish that the meal is easy and worth-while.
The biggest surprise I had while I was experimenting with these presentations was is that they are not exclusive to trophy caliber fish. I have caught quite a few of the more “eater” class walleye while fishing these baits, but the biggest eye-opening experience I had was up by Webster, SD. I was fishing with Paul Stark of Waubay Lake Guide Service pulling spinners looking for a nice bag of fish to eat later. I reeled in one walleye that was 15 ½ inches long and had a partially digested walleye carcass in its mouth that I measured at approximately 7 ½ inches, but yet it still wanted the spinner and nightcrawler! If the bait looks worth the effort these fish are going to eat, even when they are still trying to finish their previous meal. Every time I worry if a bait is too large, I think about this situation and that gives me the confidence to either “go big or go home”.
Confidence is Key
I have detailed the kinds of baits I like to use for trophy fall walleye, but the most important part of targeting these fish is to have confidence. Trophy walleye fishing is a frustrating game, even when conditions may be perfect, and everything feels right you might not get a bite all day. It is important to be confident in yourself, your location and your presentation. I do not believe there is a “magic lure” on the market, but I do believe that there is a “magic lure” for individuals. The baits I discussed above are my magic lures. I feel confident when I have them tied up and that reflects in my casting, my retrieve, and my general mood. As an individual, each angler needs to find what baits, areas, and retrieves give them that confidence and then use it! This may take some experimentation and a whole lot of failure, but that is the name of the game when hunting these giants. It only takes one cast to hook up with a fish of a lifetime. It is critical to always have your knots, line, and mind 100% ready to go because with this type of fishing even in the midst of the worst day of your worst season it only takes one cast to land the biggest walleye of your life. Good fishing!