Autumn is one of the very best times of the year to catch walleye. The fish are plump from a summer of fattening up, and, on most lakes, the angling traffic is all but gone. It’s a wonderful feeling to see the boat launch empty, knowing you have a great walleye lake to yourself. There are a few tricks to catching fall walleye, however, so here’s a guide to catching Ontario’s favourite sport fish during the dying days of the open-water season.
Location is the element of fall walleye fishing that’s the most difficult to tackle. Many anglers assume walleye move back into shallow water in the fall. On most inland lakes in Ontario, the reverse is true. As the water gets colder, walleye move deep, and concentrate around drop-offs. Prime locations are associated with a large reef or flat that extends to the shoreline. These reefs and rock piles can be spawning areas for ciscos, a primary food source. Walleye use the flats at the base of drop-offs as ambush areas. They will also move into steep shoreline areas, particularly if there’s wind blowing on it. The more consistent the blow, the better the chance fish will be piled up on deep shoreline edges. If the weather is warm, walleye will move up to more shallow water.
One unusual aspect of fall fishing is something called turnover — the fall time when the cooling water at the top of the lake forces the warmer water below back to the surface. Mixing of the lake water takes place, and this can make for a tough bite. Yet after turnover, the temperature and oxygen levels become even throughout the lake. Conditions stabilize and walleye become easier to pattern. As a general rule, if you can establish a depth fish are holding at in the fall, it will hold true provided conditions don’t change. I’ve seen autumn days where every fish caught was at an exact depth. No deeper and no shallower. A quality sonar unit is invaluable in the fall.
Walleye in the fall prefer live bait, and large minnows get the nod. The vast banquet of summer food really thins out in autumn and that means fish have to start chasing larger food to make up the caloric deficit. The best minnows always look a bit too big in the minnow bucket. When I say big, I’m talking four to six inches. If you can find a bait dealer that traps minnows in the fall, have them put the largest ones aside for you.
Chub or dace are best, but suckers can work very well. Fall walleye react to a lively, large minnow in much the same way a shark reacts to chum. You can also try night crawlers, although they don’t seem to have the same appeal as they do in the summer. Crawlers are a decent replacement bait, especially if minnows are not available. Leeches are usually hard to come by and on the small side in the fall. If the water gets too cold, they also tend to curl up on the hook. That being said, if the fall is warm, leeches are worth a try.
Old school live-bait techniques really work in the fall as walleye want to see lively bait presented where they live. This means putting a big minnow right down to the lake floor and keeping it there. There are two really good ways to do this.
My go-to is the Lindy Rig. The premise of the rig is to feed a walleye a minnow and hook without the fish feeling any drag. The rig requires a walking or snagless sinker with a hole that allows the line to slip through. You’ll need a swivel and bead on the line to stop the sinker from moving down to the hook. A selection of ½- to 1 ½-ounce sinkers is all you’ll need in the fall. You want to fish the Lindy in as vertical an angle as possible, so use a fairly heavy weight. A 1-ounce weight in 25 feet of water is not too heavy — the larger the bait, the larger the hook. A green bead slipped on the leader acts as a good attractor. Troll with your reel bail open and snug your line against the pole with one finger. When you feel a strike, drop some line to the fish, reel up the slack, and set the hook.
Bottom bouncers work much the same as Lindy Rigs, but you can’t drop line on the fish. Use a long rod, baitcasting reel, and a heavy main line of up to 15-pound test monofilament on your reel.
It likely goes without saying that a jig and a minnow also works well come autumn. But larger minnows can be problematic to fish on normal jigs. A stinger hook can also help to increase hook ups with large bait.
One of the coolest ways to catch fall walleye is vertical jigging with spoons. Despite the cooling water temperatures, a walleye will smack a flashing silver spoon. The technique is relatively simple. Drop a jigging spoon to the bottom, then snap it up hard. Follow the spoon on the descent with your rod tip. If you see the line go slack, set the hook. Walleye often hit a spoon on the drop. Some favourite walleye jigging spoons include the Hopkins Smoothie, Swedish Pimple, Kastmaster, and Crippled Herring. A half-ounce spoon will do the job in water up to 30 feet deep. Clip them on with a snap and use a barrel swivel 18 inches up to reduce line twist.
Fall walleye fishing is a lot of fun, and it’s happening right now. The temperature’s dropping, so fish the drop-offs.
Originally published in the Fall 2020 edition of Ontario OUT of DOORS Magazine