Late autumn and early winter can be an intimidating time to chase walleyes. With more anglers sitting in treestands instead of boats, fishing reports get a little sketchy. Plus, the demise of the thermocline means old marble-eyes is free to roam the entire water column — opening up a wealth of potential habitat. Fortunately, some of late fall’s finest fishing is a satisfyingly simple and straightforward affair.
“As soon as the water temperature hits the low 50s, migrations of lake-run minnows, tullibees and other baitfish begin arriving in the shallows,” explains veteran guide Jon Thelen. “Hungry walleyes follow, and the fish often hang around to take advantage of the forage through freeze-up and beyond.”
The ensuing feeding frenzy often creates fast action for anglers, although few capitalize on it. Thelen cites a prime example.
“For one of my trips this October, I found a small lake where the water temperature was 48 degrees,” he said. “The water was cooler than in some of the surrounding lakes, so I knew there was a good chance of finding walleyes shallow. Sure enough, the fish were snapping in just 7 feet of water, and I had the entire lake to myself.”
To tap the shallow bite, Thelen sets his sights on near-shore structure. He says that it typically outperforms offshore humps, flats and reefs because water temperatures close to the mainland better hit the preferred range for baitfish.
“Shoreline breaks and points are good, as are humps that are either connected to the shoreline or adjacent to it,” he says. “Having deep water closeby is a plus.”
The aptitude of likely structure is further improved by the presence of cover in the form of vegetation, timber or rocks.
After identifying promising fishing grounds on a lakemap, he motors in close with his main engine, kills the outboard, fires up his electric trolling motor and edges closer to scan the deep, structural perimeter with his electronics.
“Stealth is important in shallow water,” he notes. “So I move in quietly from deep water, watching for fish on my electronics.”
Once fish are marked, he drops a minnow-tipped jig to bottom and slowly but surely begins fishing his way into shallower water until the action stops.
Depths vary by lake and conditions, but Thelen rarely fishes deeper than 15 feet once the cold-water shallow bite heats up. Even when walleyes aren’t feeding high on the structure, they don’t automatically zoom out to depths of 30 feet or more, he says. They rest close to their feeding areas. By fishing my way up the structure, he catches some of these inactive walleyes while working toward the most aggressive ones.
Thelen’s go-to presentation is vertically jigging a Lindy Watsit Jig tipped with a 3-inch rainbow chub.
“A bulky bait is key in the fall because the forage is large and the walleyes are aggressive,” he says.
The jig sports a chunky soft-plastic body, and its portly aura is further enlarged by a wide, undulating tail and tantalizing trio of jiggling appendages on each side of the bait, making it perfect for such “sumo” duty. Watsit Grubs are available in three sizes, and Thelen invariably opts for the largest, the 2-inch “Fat” version, when targeting hot-to-trot fall walleyes.
Key colors hinge on natural tones, such as blends of brown and white.
“Earlier in the open-water season, when walleyes are roaming around eating a variety of food and the water may be a little stained from algae blooms, bright colors like chartreuse can help them hone in on your jig or lure,” he says. “But this time of year when the fish are focused on large concentrations of the same type of forage and the water is clear you’re not going to fool them with gaudy presentations. You want jig and grub colors that match the norm.”
A lively rainbow chub adds bulk, beefing up the jig’s profile while sweetening the deal with the scent and taste of real meat. And, since Thelen gently nose-hooks the minnow, it stays alive and lively, ensuring even the slowest of deadstick maneuvers enjoys a bit of enticing, tail-wagging locomotion. In a pinch, a variety of livebait works well, including everything from small “light-pike” sized sucker minnows to the baitshop’s brawniest fatheads.
When it comes to animating the presentation once it’s been dropped into the strike zone, Thelen keeps jig-strokes on the subtle side.
“Less is more,” he grins. “Snap the rod tip 6-inches or so to lift the jig and get the walleyes’ attention. Then let it fall to just off bottom and hold it still, before lowering it all the way to the bottom and setting it there for a few seconds. Raise it again, snap the rod tip and repeat the process.”
Walleyes, being the moody, ever-fickle fish we all love, require some experimentation with the the intensity of the lifts and duration of holds. Sometimes, successful variations of (or additions to) the snap-drop-hold-drop cadence include dragging the jig along bottom, such as when slowly slipping down-current in a river.
Too, there are times when nothing beats a Lindy Slick Jig dressed with a mid-sized minnow impaled through the mouth and out the side so it writhes and swims sideways like a dying baitfish. As a bonus, if there are jumbo crappies in the vicinity, you’ll know it because they’ll smash it as fast as a walleye.
Even during a hot bite, a cool hand is key to turning takes into catches.
“If you set the hook the second you feel a fish you’ll often pull the jig the out of the walleye’s mouth,” Thelen said. “Wait for the second ‘thunk’ before setting.”
A low-stretch superline aids strike detection, though he adds a 3-foot length of 6-pound-test Silver Thread Fluorocarbon to the business end for reduced visibility. He uses a Lindy No-Snagg Swivel to join the lines, noting that the swivel also limits line twist, which is a common challenge when jigging beefy presentations.
Add it all together and Thelen’s shallow-water system can produce banner catches throughout the glory days of late fall. Best of all, it’s an easy-to-fish pattern for picking apart prime structure, and it’s a heck of a lot more fun than freezing in a treestand.