By Jason Mitchell
The late open-water period during fall is a coveted season for many anglers looking to target a trophy-class fish. In addition to the fact females are bulking up with egg mass, fishing during the fall typically offers some of the best fishing of the entire season.
There are several prominent patterns that set up during the fall. While productive patterns can vary from fishery to fishery, there is a surprising amount of similarities across the board when comparing different big-fish locations and patterns on several fisheries.
What seems to push most patterns into gear are cooling water temperatures. There doesn’t always seem to be a magical surface temperature, but more so a trend, and various trends often dictate the strategy anglers should use on a given day.
Cooling trends solidify the traditional fall patterns and locations, while warming trends in fall seem to scatter fish. These are important concepts to consider, which will be discussed in more detail later.
Classic Fall Locations
Productive fall locations for big walleyes can be both deep and shallow. This time of year, prominent main-lake structure that features quick access to deep water is a classic fall location. Steep structure that has a hard bottom is textbook. Large round boulders are often big-fish magnets.
Another classic fall location is where current is present. Current that is created by a causeway or slot between a couple of islands, or perhaps a feeder creek or bridge, will often be a perennial fall location for catching big fish. Taking it one step further, current in conjunction with rock or boulders can often be magical, particularly after dark during full-moon phases.
Shallow locations can run the gamut, but weeds such as cabbage, wild rice or milfoil can hold a surprising number of big walleyes during the fall until the weeds break down and die. The allure of weeds in the fall is that they provide a consistent and stable environment for fish as everything else in the aquatic world changes quite rapidly. Weeds also seem to hold in or retain some heat as the surrounding water temperatures cool.
What’s more, these shallow-weed bites get better when water temperatures cool after the first major frost. However, it’s also interesting that these shallow patterns often mimic shallow-water springtime patterns in that the afternoon often produces some of the best fishing when the sun warms up the water a touch.
Other shallow-water locations include rock reefs and current locations that, in many cases, are nocturnal walleye locations. Shallow current, for example, has long provided some exceptional chest-wading opportunities for catching giant walleyes after dark on many fisheries. Typically, the after-dark fishing peaks with each consecutive full-moon cycle.
The patterns highlighted above are just classic programs that produce some of the biggest walleyes each season for many anglers across the Midwest. These classic fall patterns seem to set up when the water temps begin cooling. The bite often intensifies when the water temperature each morning is cooler on a regular basis
The worst thing that can happen to a fall bite is a warming trend. When an unseasonably warm spell reverses the cooling trend to the point water temps begin to rise, it seems to unravel traditional locations and patterns. At this point, we often joke that the pattern is that there is no pattern, as any fish we do find are scattered with no consistency.
Knowing what to do during cooling trends over classic patterns is easy, but making the right decisions on when fish scatter is much more difficult. When the water is cooling, you can focus on a spot or location. When the water warms during the fall, you need to focus on the process of covering as much water as possible and fishing through a milk run of good locations knowing you will find fish scattered all over the fishery.
When faced with warming trends and scattered fish, trolling crankbaits can be a great way to target these fish. When fish transition and travel between Point A and Point B, they typically take the shortest and easiest route. What this means is that primary main-lake contours and the old river channel on reservoirs essentially become underwater highways for traveling fish.
Cover water over big locations, and if you’re specifically targeting big fish, remember that bigger profiles typically catch bigger fish. Don’t be afraid to double the length and profile of the baits you use from what you would typically use the rest of the year.
When faced with transitioning and scattered fish, don’t get hung up on an icon or waypoint. In other words, don’t think that you should troll until you find the fish and then assume that you will catch more fish from the same location.
Instead, focus on your fish per hour. On a tough bite, I am happy with a bite an hour. Two bites an hour would be considered good in some cases.
Anticipate a grind where you simply put in the time over a general location and pick fish off one at a time. Because fish are scattered, you need to get in the groove where it’s probable that you will contact so many fish per hour by traveling a set distance. Also, remember that scattered fish often have a much more difficult temperament in that they are not competing with other fish for food and, in some cases, are stressed from the distances they’ve traveled. This is exactly why I love to troll crankbaits in the fall in tough conditions. Not only do I cover water and contact more fish, but I can also do a better job of getting a reaction strike by using larger baits and speed to trigger fish.
This fall season, catch some of the biggest walleye of the year by matching up your fishing strategies to the general cooling or warming trends happening on the water. Don’t watch the calendar, watch the temperature gauge.
About the Author: Jason Mitchell earned a reputation as a top walleye guide on Devils Lake, N.D. Today he produces Jason Mitchell Outdoors, which airs on Fox Sports North and Fox Sports Midwest. For more information, go to jasonmitchelloutdoors.com.