By Daniel Quade

On lakes great and small, enjoying solid walleye action from midsummer into fall hinges on staying in tune with seasonal migrations of the marble-eyed masses.

Some of these sojourns span many miles, especially on big-water fisheries like the Great Lakes and massive reservoirs. Others barely cover the distance of a spirited touchdown run from the 50-yard line. Long or short, however, these journeys typically share a common theme—walleyes following wayward baitfish.

On the continent’s inland seas, such as Great Lakes Erie, Huron and Michigan, riding the transitional crest often entails keeping tabs on water temperatures and forage abundance, as the two factors go hand-in-hand dictating walleye location. Identifying walleyes’ favorite menu items from the underwater buffet can also help you dial in patterns other anglers miss.

On Erie, for example, hungry ’eyes binge on a baitfish bounty that includes white perch, yellow perch, shiners and shad. But savvy trophy hunters recognize that smelt are a favorite food of the biggest fish in the system.

Since smelt are cool-water creatures often found in 50- to 60-degree water, finding them in late summer can mean straining depths of 70 or 80 feet in the big lake’s eastern abyss. As water temps plummet from summer highs down to the 30s in late fall, staying on the big bite means moving westward toward Vermilion, Sandusky and Huron, Ohio, and fishing higher in the water column.

Similar scenarios play out on smaller scales across the Walleye Belt. On northern Lake Michigan, veteran guide Jason Muche plies the reefs out of Escanaba, Mich., for trophies topping 10 pounds. As typical summertime trolling patterns simmer, he fishes the night shift, pulling jerkbaits along the edges and over the top of reefs in the 17- to 6-foot range.

“I start trolling reef edges and move onto the tops as the night progresses,” he says.

Muche’s trolling program includes 10-lb mono mainline, planer boards illuminated with glow sticks or reflective tape, and a size 2 split shot ahead of a barrel swivel tied 6 feet from the lure. Trolling speed is from 1.5 to 1.8.

For walleye fans preferring the day bite, he recommends trolling a Purple Smelt or Tullibee pattern Lindy Crawler Harness in depths down to 30 feet off the reefs.

“It’s a great way to load up on 15- to 22-inch fish all the way through fall, particularly in clear water conditions,” he says. “Use a 1- to 2-ounce bottom bouncer to get the spinner down, and stick with smaller blades such as size 4 Colorado.”
Inbound ’Eyes
Not all seasonal late-summer migrations involve deep water or main-lake structure. On the hallowed waters of Minnesota’s storied Mille Lacs Lake, for example, longtime guide Mike Christensen notes a mid-August move from offshore flats and featureless basins toward near-shore haunts.

“When baitfish are abundant, an inward migration occurs as walleyes abandon deep water off shore in favor of rocky breaklines in 15- to 24-feet of water,” he said. “If your midsummer main-lake programs suddenly stop producing, it’s worth checking structure closer to shore.”

To trip the triggers of incoming ’eyes, Christensen trolls small crankbaits such as Lindy’s 2 3/8-inch, size 3 River Rocker at speeds of 2 to 2.5 mph. Perch patterns are deadly, but he recommends experimenting with splashes of orange or pink to help the bait stand out from schools of baitfish.

“I use leadcore mainline with a 20-foot superline leader,” he adds. “The leader is key shallow since it wards off snags and resists abrasion from zebra mussels, which are everywhere on Mille Lacs.”

Where invasive round gobies are on the menu, other shallow patterns erupt throughout summer. Often, these shoreline bites offer options overlooked by anglers focused on traditional seasonal migrations. On Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay, schools of walleyes head out of the bay into the main lake and deeper water, but hordes of gobies hovering around rocky points and reefs spur feeding frenzies in 16- to 25-foot depths as well.

To catch these fish, scout potential areas with sonar. In clear water, keep in mind you’re looking for likely structure, not fish, as walleyes can be hard to mark so shallow. After plotting passes with your GPS, troll back through the area with a diving crankbait. Given the gobies’ muted coloring, lures sporting shades of brown are best. Ten-pound mono mainline is a fine choice, as are speeds of 1.3 to 1.5 mph.

Veteran guide Jon Thelen adds another shallow twist to the late summer into fall plan.

“Across the Midwest, molting crayfish and juvenile minnows moving from shoreline weeds onto nearby reefs and rocky breaks attract hungry walleyes,” he says. “People are conditioned to expect summertime walleyes to move deeper and farther offshore, but this pattern is red-hot in depths of 10 feet or less, often within a long cast from the bank.”

While a variety of tactics such as slip-bobbering or drifting with Lindy Rigs and No-Snagg sinkers hold water for fishing shallow rocks, Thelen often prefers to cast crankbaits.

“When the fish move up onto structure like this, they’re aggressive and want to eat,” he explains. “Throwing fast-moving baits that bounce off rocks grabs their attention and triggers reaction strikes.”

Top picks include Smithwick Rogue or Lindy River Rocker, which he says are perfect for working wide swathes of water without moving and engender longer casts.

It’s worth noting that walleyes often rest nearby between binges. Some suspend at the depth they were feeding, and are vulnerable to the crankbaits. Others slide down the break and hunker on bottom.

“Forget the run and gun mentality of making a couple casts, then blasting off if you don’t get bit,” he warns. “Always make multiple casts before giving up on a piece of promising structure. Walleyes often hold in gaps between rocks and in other dips and divots. If you don’t bang the bait over their heads, you’ll never know they’re there.”