Best Bet For Fall Walleyes
By Daniel Quade
Often overlooked by the masses, rivers become true gold mines for untapped walleyes come autumn, when the call of the deer stand and duck blind lure many warm-weather anglers off the water. As fishing pressure wanes, paradise awaits the savvy few who know where and how to pluck autumn ’eyes from the flow.
Charlie Nelson knows the drill. A retired F-16 fighter pilot turned hard-fishing walleye guide, the Duluth, Minn., angler plies the swirling, tannin-stained waters of the St. Louis River all fall.
His approach is far from helter-skelter. Nelson meets the river with the same analytical attack and attention to detail that served him well during three tours in Iraq and countless sorties elsewhere. Mitigating factors such as water temperature, current speed and baitfish migrations are all weighed in as strategies are laid for each day on the water.
A classic case is when the shiner run draws hungry walleyes upriver. Here’s how it works: Wherever rivers feed large lakes, fall brings the arrival of migratory walleyes from open-water haunts—in Nelson’s case, the icewater mansions of storied Lake Superior. Many of these fish congregate in holes, along breaks and on top of feeding flats in and around river mouths, where they provide fine fishing.
But Nelson knows that when the water temperature dips below 60 degrees, the shiner migration draws baitfish and predators farther upstream.
“When that happens, my go-to tactic is trolling stickbaits like Bomber Long A
’s in slack-current areas in the main channel,” he says. “The upper sections of pools or slight depressions in the river bottom often hold the most active fish, so I search such areas first.”
Depths commonly range from 16 to 22 feet, although where the flow is slow, forage and walleyes often rise up to four feet off bottom, making sonar a key ally in the hunt for autumn action.
“Watch for clouds of bait and larger fish mixed in with them,” he says. “Note the depth at which fish are holding, and target that with your trolling passes.”
is another favorite, as is the company’s River Rocker.
“The River Rocker’s curved profile and streamlined shape give it a rocking wobble that isn’t phased by moving water,” he notes.
For Nelson and other river walleye anglers, top hard-plastic minnow bait colors center on mimicking the predominant forage.
“I like blues and silvers, blacks and silvers, and perch colors to match the shiners, smelt and yellow perch in the St. Louis,” Nelson said. “But it’s important to experiment, so I also throw in baits with white, orange and gold for good measure.”
Even diving baits often need a little help reaching the strike zone, so Nelson adds snapweights to the line 50-feet ahead of the lure.
“I use the fifty-fifty method,” he says. “Tie on the crank, let out 50-feet of line, add the weight, then let out 50 feet more, for a total of 100 feet of letback.”
When trolling multiple lines, he uses planer boards to spread out his baits. He also favors 8½- to 9-foot, medium and medium-heavy trolling rods spooled with 10- to 14-pound mono.
“The rods should have a soft tip so they don’t jerk the planer board when you hit a wave,” he adds.
Trolling speeds average 1.8 to 2.0 mph, though when fish activity slows as the water temperature continues dropping, Nelson dials the speed down to .6 mph or less. He also factors in current flow and whether he’s trolling up- or down-current. If the river is moving 1 mph and you’re trolling down-current, you have to go 1 mph just to break even. To get the right action out of your lure, you might need to troll at a total speed of 2.0 or even 2.5 mph. One way to test lure action at various speeds is run it next to the boat before dropping it into the abyss.
Nelson says bottom content isn’t a huge concern on the St. Louis, since it’s predominantly clay and sand. However in many systems ranging from the mighty Mississippi to small, free-flowing rivers, substrate is a big deal. In some cases, the hot zone even centers on living structure such as sprawling beds of native clams or mussels.
Fellow river rat Mike Olson, of Andover, Minn., has targeted walleyes and saugers on clambeds from the Illinois River to the Mississippi, and has some definite tips to help anglers fishing similar living structure. Olson says the clambeds can be difficult to locate, but will hold fish throughout the fall season.
Like Nelson, Olson relies on quality sonar to find shellbeds, which often lie in areas of decent current, in depths of 4 to 18 feet. Sonar returns that signal subtle changes from silt to sand or gravel often foretell the appearance of a clam colony, though some mussel species hold their own on softer bottoms.
While vertical jigging is a top tactic early in the season, trolling shad-style cranks such as the Lindy Shadling gets the nod in fall. Blues and crayfish patterns are killers, but Olson says that anything with a bit of orange is hot when craws shed their skins during a molt. Olson typically starts trolling at 1.8 mph and speeds up if the fish are aggressive. Since many clambeds span less area than a football field in size, Olson crisscrosses them with figure-8 passes, dissecting the shells at different angles.
“You want your crank pounding bottom,” he says, “so when it hangs up and darts free, it mimics a minnow or crayfish trying to escape. When a walleye sees that, it can’t help itself -- it has to strike.”
The main-channel trolling bite holds water in early to mid-fall. Once water temperatures plummet prior to freeze-up, however, large current breaks such as bridge pilings, shipping piers and wingdams attract walleyes, as do deeper pools off the main channel.
“Walleyes are still feeding, they just slow down a little,” Charlie Nelson notes. “I use slip-float rigs or vertical jig with a large fathead hooked right through the noggin.”
He favors Lindy’s X-Change
jigs because they make it easy to swap head weights to match depth and current changes, and to change head colors until the walleyes tell him what they want at the moment.
Rivers can be your ticket to exciting walleye action in the fall. Less competition is one benefit, but the hungry fish will bring you back until the ice comes.