Great Lakes Autumn 'Eyes on the Rise'
Published: Tuesday, September 19, 2017
As with any season, locating Great Lakes walleyes this time of year is half the battle of actually catching them. The perennial bottom-dwellers go on the prowl once autumn temperatures arrive, and you can often find fall walleyes suspended just below the surface over deep water haunts, particularly in areas near rock-strewn reefs or sunken islands. Why? Because when the mood to feed strikes, they can hightail it straight across the water column to hunt down prey.
While there are an array of tactics used to catch ‘eyes when they are on the rise, two techniques are gaining popularity among Great Lakes fishermen: trolling at a crawl with a worm harness when the fish are still suspended, and snap jigging split-tail soft plastics on heavy jig heads when fish are hanging tight to the rocks.
Walleye pro Mark Martin of Twin Lakes, Michigan, has been catching walleyes for a living since the late 1980s. He’s tried every trolling tactic out there, from pulling live-bait rigs to narrowing down every nuance of a walleye’s whereabouts and catching them on crankbaits. This time of year, he often turns to crawler harnesses.
“Speed, size, and scent are crucial when it comes to catching walleyes when they are suspended,” says Martin. “I’ll troll at various speeds until I get bit, and then make sure to stick to that pace. After that, I’ll start switching out blades, trying out different sizes and shapes to narrow the bite down more.”
Martin keeps his crawlers fresh and aims for speeds from 0.7 to 1.3 MPH when pulling harnesses behind in-line planer boards. And he’s adamant about keeping whatever tempo he’s been getting bit at, right down to the one-tenth of a mile-per-hour.
It’s not uncommon to see Martin rummaging through tackle totes to change blades every half-hour if he’s not catching fish. For starters, you’ll find him using size #3 and #4 Colorado and Indiana blades when fishing inland lakes, and beefing things up to size #5 and #6 blades, and adding willows to the mix on the Great Lakes and reservoirs where walleyes feed on larger shad.
Martin generally uses one-ounce inline weights spaced six feet ahead of his spinning blades. With this weight, when trolled at 1 MPH, the offering will sink about half the amount of line out behind the board when using 10-pound-test monofilament. (Example: Thirty feet of line out will drop 15’ down.)
It’s important to realize that walleyes don’t always show up on standard down-reading sonar when they are holding high in the water column, due to them spooking out from under the boat and the transducer’s range. Side Imaging, however, like that offered by Humminbird, allows anglers to see fish and bait suspended just under the surface hundreds of feet to both sides in a two-dimensional illustration. Additionally, with just a couple of button pushes, a GPS position can be placed over the area where the fish are so that your next pass can be on the ‘X’.
Sonar and GPS are also a must when fishing for autumn walleyes holding tight to reefs, according to De Pere, Wisconsin, fishing pro Steve Becker. Combined with mapping technology such as that offered by LakeMaster, the boat can be positioned within casting distance of a structure without running up on it and spooking fish.
One of Becker’s favorite ploys is casting 4- and 5-inch split-tail minnows on top of reefs and rip-jigging them back to his boat. “Rip-jigging” is the continuous swift lift and radical fall of a heavy jig while being rapidly retrieved to the boat; a technique that can trigger strikes from even the most lethargic fish.
“But even when using such an aggressive tactic, the light bite of a walleye can still go undetected; so you have to use equipment that telegraphs every little tick,” Becker adds.
That means six- to eight-pound-test super-line spooled onto a spinning reel that’s mounted to a six- to seven-foot medium, extra-fast-action spinning rod.
Which, more often than not, will be bent double once the ‘eyes of autumn are beneath you.