During the months of August/September, fish aren’t the only creatures in transition. As popular fish species like walleye prepare for the onslaught of winter, fishermen experience their own transitions.
Among anglers the most obvious change is that September apparently marks the end of the fishing season. No such ruling appears in print, but that doesn’t prevent countless boats from being winterized and shrink wrapped immediately following Labor Day. It’s almost as if a strange desire to hibernate takes a toll on some fishermen.
While many anglers suffer from a form of seasonal hibernation, others trade in their fishing rods for guns and bows. Ironically, the same weather transitions that seem to discourage anglers from fishing, cause walleye to bite like there is no tomorrow.
Walleye start experiencing a number of transitions when the heat of summer begins to give way to cooling air and water temperatures. These transitions impact on where walleye are most likely to be found and what they are likely to be eating as the weather cools.
All summer long walleye feed actively, but the food resources consumed are quickly digested. With a metabolism rate that’s on overdrive, keeping those belly fires burning requires walleye to feed almost constantly.
The summer is a time for walleye to thrive, but despite an abundance of food resources these fish do not enjoy the luxury of developing fat reserves. It’s not until fall when water temperatures cool and the fish’s metabolism rate slows a notch that walleye start to pack on the fat.
Beginning with the first cool days of September walleye instinctively know they must feed both often and on larger forages. Fortunately, larger forage is more readily available to walleye in the fall because baitfish species are nearing maturity. The timing of these important events works out perfectly. Selectively feeding on larger forage allows the walleye to become more efficient at consuming food energy. The end result is a major growth spurt complete with fat reserves.
Food energy stored as fat is critical to walleyes for a couple reasons. Fall is the time when the walleye’s body starts aggressively producing eggs and sperm that will be needed during the upcoming spring spawn. If walleye don’t go into the winter months with a cushion of fat reserves, the number of eggs produced can be seriously limited.
Secondly, with winter comes a declining forage base. Fat reserves and an even slower metabolism rate in winter allow walleye to survive with much less food than would be required in warmer water.
The old saying make hay while the sun shines, applies double to walleye that are in transition from summer to fall feeding habits. As walleye feed aggressively on larger forage species, they take full advantage of these important food resources.
However, transitions in feeding habits aren’t the only change walleye encounter during the fall. Another transition takes place in the shape of seasonal migrations. During the fall walleye migrate towards productive feeding areas. Depending upon the body of water, these seasonal migrations can be as predictable as a subway route. A big part of these migrations and ultimately where walleyes turn up depends upon the forage species available.
Food related migrations most commonly occur in the Great Lakes and also in large reservoir systems. In natural lakes where food bonanzas are more rare these seasonal migrations are not as prevalent.
Walleyes living in reservoir systems are among the most predictable. Driven by the desire to feed, walleye that during the summer scatter throughout the reservoir, start to migrate upstream towards major dams or spillways. By early fall these fish commonly show up on main lake points near the upper reaches of the reservoir. Later in the fall these same fish push right up to the dam and spillway where they hunt for a variety of forage species that are attracted to the current.
Trolling crankbaits near the points is productive, but most of the walleye that stage on these points are caught rigging good sized sucker or chub minnows. Later in the fall when the fish concentrate below the dams, a jig and minnow combination is hard to beat.
In the Great Lakes fall walleye migrations tend to be towards major spawning reefs and shoals. For example, in Lake Erie each year adult walleye spawn in the Western Basin on scattered reefs or in tributary streams. After spawning adult fish migrate east to the Central and Eastern Basins where they feed on suspended forage species during the summer months. In the fall these same adult fish return to the Western Basin. As these schools of fish move westward, they tend to group up near river mouths, rock reefs, piers and islands where baitfish concentrate.
Fall fishing on Erie centers around crankbait trolling. Popular minnow baits like the Salmo Sting, Reef Runner Deep Diver and Rapala Deep Husky Jerk produce amazing numbers of big fish in the fall right up until freeze up. Great action takes place both day and night throughout the fall.
Fish Movements: Understanding seasonal transitions in walleye behavior and movement makes it much easier to predict the whereabouts of fish during the fall. The same places that walleye were found during the spawn and post-spawning season in the spring generally hold good numbers of walleye in the fall.
What kinds of baitfish are in the system will in part determine where these fish turn up. Bodies of water that have gizzard or threadfin shad and alewives will find that most of the baitfish population during the fall is found in shallow water and or near flowing water. These species of baitfish are attracted to warmer water. River mouths and dam spillways are prime places to fish crankbaits or a jig and minnow combination.
Smelt are another common walleye forage that has a different habitat preference. Smelt favor deep water and where smelt are found walleye also go deep. Most often smelt suspend over soft bottom areas in the main basin of the lake. To reach these fish anglers troll crankbaits using lengths of lead core line to achieve the deeper depths.
Bodies of water that have a lot of emerald shiners experience yet a different fall fishing opportunity. Emerald shiners thrive in clear waters and they also prefer to live in or near the surface film. The combination of clear water and surface loving bait sets up a situation where walleye are most vulnerable to specialized nighttime trolling tactics. Stickbaits like the Salmo Sting, Reef Runner Ripstick, Smithwick Rattlin’ Rogue, Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnow and Dave’s Lures Nitro Shiner fished behind in-line planer boards produce many walleye under these circumstances.
In order to monitor the boards and also detect strikes, anglers must use small lights on the boards. This form of fishing not only produces trophy class walleye, but some fast action as well.
Summing It Up
Walleye during the fall are subjected to a number of transitions. Cooling water spells an end to the food factory they enjoyed all summer long, but it also causes their metabolism to slow down so the food they do find provides essential energy longer. As food naturally becomes more scarce, walleye respond by hunting more aggressively and by targeting a larger average sized prey. Walleye also respond by migrating to areas where hunting conditions are ideal.
Collectively these conditions concentrate walleye and that favors angling efforts. This annual fall phenomenon starts in September, builds in October and peaks in November. In many fisheries the action lasts right up until freeze up. While some anglers ponder the virtues of seasonal hibernation, those who target walleye in the fall are rewarded in many ways. Big fish, lots of fish and next to zero fishing pressure add up to a fishing transition any angler can adapt to.
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