Fall is a time of big change; summer is winding down, and winter is winding up for the ice fishing season. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a man or a walleye; things are going to be different soon.
Just as a fisherman is concerned with getting another cord of firewood stacked or maybe his ice gear ready, a walleye is going to be nose down in the piscatorial pizza trough, eating what it can while it can. Winter is coming, and things will be a little bit tougher.
This need for winter preparation coincides nicely with the changes taking place in most lakes. Young-of-the-year fry are at their largest, fat and sassy after a summer of feeding in the weeds and back bays. “But when the weeds start to die off,” says Lindy pro-staffer Mike Christensen of Isle, Minn., “all those young perch have to move somewhere, and generally, you’ll find walleyes waiting for them.” The fall die-off of weeds and the cooling of the lake waters bring baitfish out of their summer habitat and concentrates them. It’s fairly easy pickings for walleyes genetically programmed to put on the nosebag in preparation for winter.
That can make fishing easy, according to Christensen. “What you need to do is find concentrations of fish and then fish them,” he says. One of the patterns that Christensen follows in the fall on Minnesota’s big Lake Mille Lacs is to use a slip bobber to target walleyes holding on shallow structure.
“I like to find humps and reefs and edges,” he adds. “Generally, they’re from three to 10 feet deep, and what I do is anchor and fish them as you would normally. “I find myself fishing these spots quickly, too. If I don’t get a bite within 15 minutes, I move. If I catch fish, I stay, but when it dies off, it’s time to move.” He adds that it can become pretty monotonous, re-anchoring a lot. However, it can pay off. “Say you anchor on 25 spots during the day,” Christensen says, “and you only catch one walleye off a spot, but there are a couple of places you do a little better. That makes a pretty good day.”
The key to all of this is the wind. Christensen says that if the wind is down, he’ll go to the windiest spot on the lake. For instance, if what wind there is comes from the northwest, then he heads for the southeast corner of the lake. Ideally, though, he likes to see the wind blowing around 15 miles per hour. “That’s windy enough to concentrate fish; plus, it keeps boat traffic down, and that’s a help as well.”
Once he finds the area he wants to fish, he’ll anchor the boat on the windward side of the reef or rock pile.
The next step is to set the depth of the slip bobber using a Lindy Depth Finder (a clip-on weight) and sets the jig 12 to 18 inches above the bottom. “If we’re fishing in cold-front conditions,” says Christensen, “I’ll set the jig even closer to the bottom, but 18 inches or so is about right most of the time.”
Christensen says that his slip bobber of choice is the Thill Pro Series Slip Float in XXL size (1-inch in diameter). “Some people prefer the XL size, but the XXL is easier to see, and that’s important to my clients.
“I usually use a Lindy Jig in 1/32 ounce in combination with a Number 2 split shot, but if it’s really windy or if the fish are running larger, then I’ll move up to a 1/16-ounce jig head.” The split shot gets the jig down to the fish’s level quickly while the light jighead allows more natural movement of the jig and bait.
While Christensen uses the standard chartreuse and chartreuse and orange jig heads, he’s also found that blue works. “I don’t know why it’s so, but blue and blue-and-white jigheads work during the fall. However, the usual chartreuse and orange colors also are good.” For slip bobber fishing, Christensen uses spinning rods between 7 ½ and 8 1/2 feet in length. “My clients find it’s easier to get the slack out of the line with the longer rods, so that’s what I tend to use,” he adds. He’ll spool up a medium spinning reel with six or eight-pound monofilament and run that directly to his jig.
The best bait, if you can find them in the fall, are jumbo leeches. Nightcrawlers also work in a pinch, especially if you pinch the tails off to provide more scent. Christensen will also use small minnows at times but believes that the best success comes when you present something that the fish haven’t seen that much.
“The slip bobber method I use is pretty standard,” he says. “There’s no real secret in the technique. “But what is important is finding the fish. You can just go fishing and look for concentrations of fish; that works. But you can also up your odds.”
The first thing to do is look for areas where the baitfish are moving out of their summer living quarters. Baitfish will leave dead or dying weeds since they no longer provide the shelter and food the fish need. As the water cools, baitfish will also start moving toward warmer water.
That warmer water could be darker, stained water—water made that way when the wind churns up mud or silt. Warmer water can also be found on sand flats or along riprap or shallow rocks.
And as the water really cools, baitfish will move out of the shallows and into deeper water for the winter. Areas such as shallow reefs and rocky ledges or similar structure that lies between the summer shallows and winter sanctuary are natural holding areas for baitfish Combine any of those areas with wind, and you’ve got a natural feeding area for walleyes. Apply the slip bobber techniques that Christensen uses, and you’ve got dinner on the way.