By Daniel Quade

Thoughts of fall walleye fishing conjure up a variety of productive presentations, from vertical jigging for river-run ’eyes to Lindy Rigging redtails along deep, steep, main-lake structure. Such tactics can be stellar, but another highly potent yet largely overlooked autumn pattern transpires atop shallow, rocky reefs.

“Throughout fall, from the time water temperatures drop below 68 degrees right up to mid-November or later, big numbers of walleyes move onto reefs to feed,” explains veteran guide Mike Christensen. “Catching them is a matter of hitting peak activity periods with high-percentage tactics.”

Hailing from Isle, Minn., on the south shore of legendary Mille Lacs Lake, Christensen has tracked the fall migration for decades. He explains that after spending summer roaming deep structure and offshore basins, wandering ’eyes focus on feeding opportunities emerging in skinny water.

“Warmer water near shore attracts a variety of baitfish, from young-of-the-year yellow perch and tullibees to spottail shiners,” says Christensen, noting that rock reefs adjacent to shallow bays are his favorite haunts.
rock
“Bays have warm water and often green weeds that attract baitfish in droves, which explains why reefs around bays hold more walleyes than main-lake structure.” Key depths typically run from 10 to three feet or less. “The most active fish are typically in the skinniest water,” he adds.

While walleyes may strap on the feedbag anytime, Christensen says the fastest action often occurs around sunset. Walleye eyes are designed to give them a low-light advantage over their prey, which triggers feeding binges at twilight and just after dark. Wind whipping the surface into a classic walleye chop can also spur increased daytime activity by reducing light penetration.

Trolling is a popular approach for taking shoreline walleyes in fall, but Christensen prefers bobber-based strategies when plying reefs.

“It’s so much easier and more effective than trolling in such shallow water, especially when walleyes are concentrated in relatively small areas,” he says.

Christensen’s go-to setup includes a 7½- to 8½-foot spinning outfit strung with 6- to 8-lb green monofilament mainline. A short leader of 4- to 6-lb fluorocarbon, attached via a small barrel swivel reduces spooking and boosts abrasion-resistance.

Above the swivel, a lighted slip-bobber betrays bites as darkness falls.

“Thill’s water-activated Splash Brite is the most hassle-free lighted float, but we also use the Nite Brite, too,” he says. With either style of float, a small split-shot—sized to balance the bobber—is pinched above the swivel.

Christensen ties a standard leadhead Lindy Jig to the business end of the rig. His bait dictates jig weight.

“Leeches and minnows are my fall mainstays,” he says. “A 1/32-ounce head works well with leeches, while you need a bit more weight to keep minnows in the strike zone, so I bump up to 1/8-ounce jigs.”

Leeches are impaled on the sucker end; minnows, including shiners, chubs and large fatheads, are lightly lip-hooked for maximum survival.

Upon arriving at a promising reef, Christensen anchors over deeper water, often upwind.

“The windswept side is often a hotbed of feeding activity,” he says. “But if the wind has been blowing for several days, reverse currents can develop, flowing outward from the shoreline into deeper water. So it pays to check the leeward side as well. And if you catch a few fish from a particular side on several reefs, the pattern should hold up on other structure nearby.”

Once in position, Christensen fancasts the reef, letting the wind or current carry his jig across the top of the structure in search of active walleyes.
rock walleyes
“Slack line yields the best drifts,” he notes. “When you get near the end of a drift, let the line tighten up. The rig will swing around in an arc, covering even more water.”

Bites are typically aggressive. When his bobber slips beneath the surface, Christensen tightens the line and sets the hook—never knowing for sure what size fish has taken the bait.

“You catch walleyes of all sizes bobbering reefs,” he says. “Expect lots of eaters from 15 to 22 inches, but don’t be surprised when a 10-pounder grabs your jig. This tactic produces trophy fish every season.”

Since sweet spots such as current funnels between boulders can concentrate walleyes in small areas, Christensen invariably fires repeat casts to areas that produced a fish. If there’s one walleye on a spot, there’s usually more, he says.

“The biggest mistake I see people make is catching a fish, then casting to a different spot on the reef.”

Depending on weather conditions, the reef bite typically lasts well into late fall. In typical years it runs at least through the third week in October, according to Christensen. During mild autumns, walleyes hang around the reefs through mid-November. Once the water temps dip into the 40s, the fish slide out a little deeper.

He cautions that cold fronts can shut down even the hottest reef rampage.

“If possible, plan your trips to coincide with several days of stable weather,” he said. “And if you can, look for lakes with low forage abundance. Hit the right reefs on one of these fisheries during fair weather and you’re in for the time of your life.”

Don't automatically head to traditional deeper-water hotspots this fall. Baitfish are moving shallow and the walleyes are never too far behind them. Find a wind-blown rocky ridge in the right area and you can bobber-fish your way to a limit in no time at all.