Fall Walleye Jigging Tips
By Daniel Quade
Finding and catching walleyes in spring and summer is a relatively straightforward affair, thanks to their largely predictable location and behavior patterns. Come fall, however, the warm-weather playbook goes out the window due to falling water temperatures and other ever-changing environmental conditions.
During this time of change, walleyes shuffle from summer ranges toward wintering grounds, and keeping pace with the migration can be challenging. But when you crack the code by finding situations where peak feeding opportunities and prime structure collide, you can reap a sweet autumn harvest on lakes across the Walleye Belt.
Veteran guide Jim Orcutt plies the iconic Northwoods waters of the Ely, Minn., area. Though these are classic Canadian Shield systems, the strategies he employs to find and catch fall walleyes here work wonders on a variety of lakes elsewhere.
The depth he focuses on is the first big change Orcutt makes when the leaves are changing.
“When lakes turn over in the fall, oxygen levels equalize top to bottom,” he says. “Baitfish move from shallow areas into deeper water, and walleyes follow.”
Key depths commonly range from 20 to 40 feet in Orcutt’s territory, but 60 feet isn’t unheard of in some systems, and anglers on gin-clear western reservoirs may encounter ’eyes at 100 feet.
The turnover he refers to occurs when chilly autumn temperatures cool the upper layer of the water column to the point that it’s heavy enough to mix with the thermocline, and eventually blend into the oxygen-starved depths below. As a result, forage species and the predators that depend on them are no longer limited to the near-surface environs and may scatter into the abyss in search of food and favorable conditions.
To narrow his search area from the entire lake to a handful of high-percentage hotspots, Orcutt targets sharp drop-offs on points and sunken rock humps. Before wetting a line, he first cruises over likely drop zones, watching his sonar for signs of baitfish and larger predators lurking below.
“You won’t always mark walleyes tight to bottom, particularly on a steep break, but clouds of bait are a good sign that an area is worth checking,” he says.
Jigs are his weapons of choice once preyfish are found. Orcutt favors standard round leadheads like the Lindy Jig
, which sport a wickedly sharp hook and slightly bug-eyed horizontal profile. Bright blends of chartreuse and orange shine in stained water, while greens and blues excel in clear conditions. Water depth dictates jig weight.
“Make sure the jig is heavy enough to maintain bottom contact,” he said. “An 1/8-ouncer fits most of my fishing.”
Since fall walleyes aren’t shy about strapping on the feedbag, Orcutt tips with a beefy dace or 4-inch sucker minnow (which are commonly sold as “light pike” suckers).
“Hooking through the mouth and coming out either behind the brain with minnows, or through the tough nose section with suckers, keeps the bait alive longer,” he explains. “If only smaller bait such as fatheads is available, add a soft-plastic Fuzz-E-Grub
body to the hook shank.”
Curlytail bodies like the YUM Walleye Grub
are another top tipping option and can be used without bait, thanks to their lifelike feel and fortification with fish-attractant. To really beef up your presentation, slide a plastic grub on the hook and snug it up to the jighead, then add a head-hooked minnow. Known as “piggybacking,” the method is a killer when hungry autumn ’eyes seek super-sized meals. With its flappy plastic tail and stout body, the Lindy Watsit
also excels for doubling down with a minnow co-pilot.
Depending on the conditions, structure and depth, Orcutt either casts and retrieves or vertically jigs.
“For example, to cover a drop-off where the wind is blowing in and fish are scattered at different depths, I position my boat over deeper water, cast the jig up onto the structure and slowly fish it down the break,” he says. “This isn’t a fast presentation -- just drag the jig along, adding a light pop here and there for good measure.”
When popping the jig, Orcutt cautions to always make sure the leadhead drops all the way back to the bottom.
“A lot of folks aren’t patient enough and reel before the jig lands,” he said. “So, by the time they’re at the end of the retrieve, their bait is nowhere near bottom and they’re missing the strike zone by a mile.”
In vertical mode, Orcutt favors a subtle bottom-oriented snap-jigging cadence. It’s simple yet deadly. Drop the jig to bottom, snap it upward two to six inches, then let it fall back to bottom.
“A lot of times the walleyes pick it up off the bottom, so it pays to watch the line for twitches indicating a hit,” he adds.
Whether to set the hook immediately or give the walleye a second or two to take the bait is a matter of matching the mood of the fish, Orcutt says.
“They’ll tell you what to do,” he grins. “If you feel a bite, set it right away and miss the fish, you know you have to wait longer next time.”
Doing so takes patience and a light hand. Some days, light-biting fall walleyes may force you let them swim around with the jig partway in their mouths for up to 30 seconds or more until setting. The trick is not to let the fish know that they’re being duped—in other words, don’t apply any pressure until after you drive the hook home.
Orcutt’s steep, deep jigging strategies can help you put more fish in the boat this fall. But keep in mind, too, that exceptions to the deepwater theory abound. For example, shallow, sand bays that hold their heat can attract baitfish and walleyes well into fall. In prairie potholes, hungry eyes often raid the remains of shallow weedbeds to pick off juvenile bluegills, particularly during low-light conditions.
And areas with current—whether necked down areas or tributary inflows—can be good just about anytime, especially at night. All of which means that keeping an open mind on fall locations and jig tactics is key to catching the most fish on every trip.
By: Lindy Team