Fall Walleye Fishing in the River
There comes a time every fall when outdoorsmen and outdoorswomen are faced with the dilemma of whether they should don those waders and fill the skiff full of duck decoys and head to their favorite marsh or take to a tree and in hopes they cross paths with one of the bucks they’ve been watching since early summer on their trail cameras at deer camp. While the late October and November timeframes are awesome for ducks and bucks, the late fall months can also be some of the best times to hit the waters in search of one of the best-eating freshwater fish that swims in North America, the walleye.
Fall is my absolute favorite time to target walleyes. I love looking for fish in rivers. They can be very predictable and are pretty easy to catch when you find them. When walleyes in my home waters on the Wisconsin River move up the river during their mock run in the fall, I change my tactics and move my focus to moving water. There are usually fewer anglers and bigger fish than what I find in the spring.
As waters cool leading into November and right up until ice-up, walleyes really put on the feed bag in preparation for the long winter and the upcoming spring spawning migration. Some of the best places to look for these hungry walleyes are in rivers all across the Midwest. In many rivers, such as the Mississippi River, Wisconsin River, Illinois River, and the famed Fox River that feeds Green Bay, shad and river shiners start a migration into tributaries and rivers. Walleyes, crappies, bass, and muskie all follow this migration that savvy anglers call the “fall run.” The main reason for this run-up river is for nothing more than to eat as much as possible before the water temperatures drop into the 30s and their metabolism slows to a halt. During this time, walleyes can be caught using a variety of methods and presentations that may be familiar to those who chase walleyes in the spring and in some of the same locations.
Where to Start Looking for Walleye
One of the first places fall anglers should start looking for fall river walleyes can be the first dam upstream in the river of your choosing. Any rainfall or melting snow can increase flow rates and bring even more fish into the river. Dams create a barrier where fish congregate. Higher oxygen rates and turbid water create a haven for walleyes where they can wait and ambush food coming through the dam and baitfish holding in eddies and current seams. Around the dam, a variety of presentations can be used. The tried-and-true jig and minnow combination can be used. Jigs and various three- and four-inch plastic baits like the classic ringworm and paddle tail are also great. Stick baits and suspending jerk baits worked slowly back to the boat can produce veracious reactions from hungry walleyes as well, especially at night.
If the chaos at the dam isn’t for you, you can look further downriver and still be successful! Just like in the spring, walleyes will seek out slack water areas near the main current where they can lay in, wait for food to flow past them, dart out and eat, then retreat into the slow water again. Natural points, rock bars, wing dams, and trees along the edges of the river are good places to start looking. These areas have water flowing past them and create small eddies and current seams for walleyes to hide in and for baitfish to come through. These types of areas might be large expanses over 200 feet long or might be as small as 20 feet long behind a newly fallen tree into the river. The best way to pick these areas apart is to use your side imaging sonar. Look for walleyes while driving up the river slowly outside of where you expect to find fish holding. A lot of times, you’ll find the most active fish in an area on the upstream side of a current seam or eddy or right at the tail end, where the current becomes strong again. Probe these areas with live bait presentations, swim baits, and hard rattle baits. Work the entire current seam from the fast water all the way into the shore.
Deep holes and runs can also produce. Walleyes hold in these areas during times of high current and bright sun, especially in clear water systems where light penetration may spook wary walleyes. The most active walleyes will hold to the front, back, and sides of these deep-water areas. Use your side imaging and 2D sonar to locate these fish and make a game plan from there. A great way to target these spots is using a vertical jigging presentation. Use a jig weight that allows you to drift back with the current and maintain a vertical presentation the entire time. If you need to slow down to entice light-biting fish, use a heavier jig and use your bow-mounted trolling motor to slow you down and hold over the fish a little longer. Minnows and plastics alike will get the fish’s attention. Sometimes, especially late in the fall, when the water really cools down, just holding your bait right off the bottom and drifting downriver will get more looks than actively jigging.
One of the best yet overlooked areas on a river can be the flats above a hole. Just like wing dams on the Mississippi River, active fish will hold just above a piece of structure or slightly upriver with the best opportunities for food floating downriver. Look for flat, consistent depths within 100 yards above a hole. In some rivers, there may be a transition area of rocks and sand, and walleyes will hold along that transition above those holes. Keeping mobile is key in these areas as the fish will be constantly moving to adjust to water flow and boat traffic. Cast jigs and minnows or small paddle tail plastics slightly across and downriver, and allow the current to sweep your jig down. Once your jig hits bottom, make small pumps of your rod tip to keep from snagging and feel for a fish to snatch up your offering. When your bait swings back behind the boat, work the bait slowly to the boat, lifting your rod tip slightly and following the bait back to the bottom. Make a couple of cranks on your reel and repeat until you can no longer maintain bottom contact.
Piscifun Reels: The Right Tools for Walleye Fishing
All of these techniques and presentations require the right tools for the job. Not every rod and reel is created equally, and your chances at success improve greatly with the right tools for the application. For fall river fishing, Piscifun spinning reels in the 1000 and 2000 sizes are perfect for pitching jigs and hard baits. A favorite for casting and working baits faster in the water is the light and smooth Prism or Carbon X II 2000 series. For working baits faster, the higher 6.2:1 gear ratio of the 2000 series Prism reels allows for a faster retrieve and allows the angler to pick up slack lines even faster to maintain control of your bait. At only 7.2 ounces, the Prism, paired with a quality 6’6” to 7’ medium-light fast or medium-fast action rod, allows the fisherman to make casts all day long without getting fatigued from holding heavy equipment while wearing warm clothes in cold weather. For casting and retrieving small jigs and small paddle tails for finicky walleyes, a favorite reel is the Carbon 1000 series. Although the 1000 was created mainly for pan-fishermen and ice fishermen, it works out perfectly for subtle, finesse presentations on open water. With a lower gear ratio and slower retrieval rate, the Carbon X 1000 allows the angler to work baits extremely slowly without exaggerated movements, all while still maintaining total control and maintaining the ability to fight that monster walleye to the boat in a fast current. Load your favorite reel up with a quality ten lb. braid and a three-foot long ten lb. monofilament or fluorocarbon leader, and you’re all set!
Fall walleye fishing doesn’t have to be difficult. Pick up your favorite rod and Piscifun reel combo, head down to your local river, and use the above techniques to bring home a fish fry for your family or to have a chance at the biggest walleye of your life. Chances are, you’ll have most of the river to yourself while everyone else is chasing ducks and bucks on solid ground!