Walleyes are much harder to pattern in fall than in summer because most lakes stratify during the summer months, forming distinct temperature layers. The shallow water is usually too warm for walleyes and the deep water often lacks sufficient oxygen, so the walleyes hang out in the middle, where optimum temperature and oxygen levels exist. But that all changes in fall, when the temperature of the shallows drops to that of the depths and the entire lake circulates, resulting in adequate oxygen from top to bottom. Now the fish can go anywhere they want to find a meal.
On lakes with low water clarity, you can find fall walleyes only a few feet deep. At the same time, walleyes in a clear lake might be 40 feet deep or more.
No matter the depth, fall jigging can produce some of the year's best walleye fishing, especially for trophy-caliber fish. Here's a quick rundown of the equipment and techniques needed for success in both shallow and deep water.
Fall walleyes are in the shallows for only one reason: to eat. When you find them shallow, they're aggressive and will often respond better to an intense jigging action than to a subtle one. That's why rip-jigging (also known as snap-jigging) works so well.
WORK IT RIGHT: When rip-jigging, you work the jig with sharp jerks and then throw slack into the line so the jig plummets. The jig never hits bottom, however, because you make another jerk just before it touches.
Most rip-jigging is done as you slowly troll at about 1 mph, but you can also do it while drifting or still-fishing. With a little practice, you'll discover how hard to rip and how long to pause after throwing slack, so that you keep the jig moving erratically while almost, but not quite, touching bottom. The most difficult aspect of rip-jigging is getting used to the fact that you might not feel the usual tap or twitch that signals a bite because of the slack in the line. It doesn't really matter, though, because you'll set the hook with the next rip.
Like any other fishing presentation, rip-jigging doesn't work all the time. There will be days when the fish are in a less aggressive mood and prefer a slower, more subtle jigging action. Experiment with different motions and let the fish tell you what they want.
GEAR: To snap the jig with minimal effort and take up slack line when setting the hook, you'll need a fairly long rod. A 7-foot, fast-tip spinning outfit is ideal. Spool up with an abrasion-resistant line such as 8- to 10-pound-test Trilene XT. Lighter or softer line won't stand up to the sharp ripping action. Even tough line might fray from abrasion on the guides, so it pays to check your line often and respool when necessary. Because you're usually fishing depths of 10 feet or less, a 1/8-ounce jig should be sufficient, but if there's a strong wind or heavy current, you might have to step up to a 1/4-ounce jig. Tip the jig with a 3- to 4-inch minnow and hook it through the mouth and out the top of the head.
Once the lake destratifies and surface temperatures drop to around 50 degrees, baitfish will head to the warmth of deeper water, and walleyes will follow. In gin-clear lakes, you might find them as deep as 70 feet, but 30 to 45 feet is normal. Any kind of structure with a firm, rocky bottom might hold walleyes in late fall, but big, rocky main-lake humps offer your best fishing.
WORK IT RIGHT: Rarely are walleyes super-aggressive in cold water, so a slow jigging presentation works best. A jig-minnow combo fished with short 2- to 4-inch hops will usually do the trick, but there are times when a slow drag with no hopping action is better.
Many anglers make the mistake of using a jig that's too heavy. They'll tie on a 3/4- to 1-ounce jig, thinking they need that much weight to get down in the deep water. But a heavy jig sinks too fast, resulting in fewer strikes. The idea is to use the lightest jig you can, taking into consideration water depth and wind conditions.
In calm weather, a 1/4-ounce jig will easily get down to 35 feet, but on a windy day you'll have to add another 1/8 to 1/4 ounce to stay down. When fishing deep water, it's important to keep your line vertical. If you're dragging too much line, you won't feel the strikes.
GEAR: A sensitive rod is a must for jigging deepwater walleyes. I use a G.Loomis GLX 722, which has the extra-fast action necessary to detect the slight nudge that often signals a deepwater walleye bite. Mono simply has too much stretch for fishing this deep; use no-stretch line, like 6- to 10-pound-test Fireline, to help you detect light bites and get a firm hookset. Splice on 10 feet of mono or fluorocarbon leader to reduce line visibility and dampen the sharp jigging action that you get with no-stretch line. Late-fall walleyes generally hold in tight schools and don't move much, so once you find a pod of fish, chances are they'll hang around that area through the rest of the fall and probably into early winter. If you're an icefisherman, mark the spot on your GPS so you can return after the lake freezes over.