When the leaves turn and the lakes turnover, walleye strap on the feedbag.
Though the fall turnover, the re-establishment of oxygen throughout lake depths, does not exactly coincide with the peak of the fall foliage, it’s pretty close. And like the oak trees at that time of year, the walleye fishery is at its best.
All lake species are available in autumn, but walleye are especially worth pursuit. Throughout the long, hot summer days, walleye suspend around 15 feet, in waters with acceptable dissolved oxygen levels, but feed almost exclusively at night. I like to imagine that turnover is an enormous relief for walleye because they get to be themselves again, down near the bottom, ambushing prey from among rocks. These green-and-gold beauties are ambush predators, and their coloration allows them to blend with underwater boulders, hiding next to or between them, waiting for prey to swim past. Sometimes, walleye will prowl the depths in small groups, dashing through shoals of alewives, seizing the baitfish in their rounded, but very sharp, teeth.
Perhaps no better time to fish walleye exists than middle and late October, but the truth is, once a lake has turned over, an extended walleye season kicks off that persists through November, into December, and through the ice during the winter months, usually until early or mid-March. Since alewives are not available in the winter months, shiners are baited on the terminal end of a tip-up line. Rapala Jigging Raps and Gotcha Lures are snapped onto the 15-pound-test braided line of a hefty jig rod and light spinning reel with enough line capacity to battle a muskie (on occasion, muskies approaching 30 pounds will attack a jig intended for walleye, and not just through the ice).
When ice fishing, walleye and muskies are lumped together as a difficult specialty, usually requiring a lot of time spent out in the cold. In October, however, quite a few good walleye of 3, 4, on up to 10 pounds can grace any given outing.
Walleye are more suited to low-light conditions because of the tapetum lucidum immediately behind their retinas, which reflects the smallest amount of light back through, allowing them to see well, even in darkness. The reflection of light off the tapetum lucidum gives walleye their characteristic eyeshine and their name. As walleye return to the depths, they can once again be caught anytime during the day, although the most productive fishing takes place early and late in the day, under overcast skies or beneath a wind-driven surface.
All About Alewives
In New York, walleye thrive on a healthy diet of omega-oil-rich alewives in Conesus Lake, Otisco Lake and other Finger Lakes, and Lake Ontario. Lake Hopatcong, Swartswood Lake, Greenwood Lake and Monksville Reservoir are beautiful bodies of water in New Jersey with populations of large walleye feeding on alewife herring. It’s no myth that this forage is high in omega fatty oils, which surely answers in part why 10-pound walleye swim in these lakes and reservoirs. I have caught walleye on shiners in Lake Hopatcong when alewives were not available for bait, but alewives are superior, not just because of their identity, but because of their liveliness on a hook.
Alewives are open-water fish that relate to deep drop-offs and rocks. They mass together in dense shoals and do not congregate in smaller schools among aquatic vegetation as shiners do. Many reports indicate that on some lakes, October is the month to catch walleye in the shallows. Most likely, those are lakes without alewives. Walleye spawn in the shallows in early spring, and strike surface lures at night through the rest of the spring into early June. Their surface presence at night is a function of the alewives being there, probably in immediate relation to the zooplankton which the baitfish feed on.
In any case, whether surface fishing in June or fishing deep in October, always study a map of the lake you intend to fish. When on the water, keep an eye on your fish finder for masses of alewives 25 to 40 feet deep, or deeper, along drop offs. This is where walleye are likely to be. Main lake, rocky points that ultimately drop into at least 35 feet of water are, as a rule, excellent. So are other drop-offs with rock structure and these depths. But points that contain rock structures along any sort of path from deep water into the shallows may be best because both alewives and walleye have the full range of available depths structured for them. Very early in the morning, or during a windy rainstorm, it would be wise to check such rocky shallows, as well as the darker depths where walleye are more advantaged. However, with wind-driven water crashing against a rock face, walleye will still have a significant advantage over their prey. Turbulent, shallow water is also relatively dark, as sunlight is broken up by the waves and rough water. But, if no alewives are present in these shallows, it’s possible no walleye will be either.
Live-Baiting Fall ‘Eyes
Taking advantage of the walleye’s fondness for alewives, many anglers use them as live bait. Bait is messy and requires work to keep it alive, and live bait has a will of its own (and needs to be allowed to exercise it), but it is undeniably effective.
When fishing bait, prepare two or three medium-action spinning outfits per angler. Length is fairly arbitrary because neither pin-point accuracy nor very long casts are necessary. Still fish with two rods, bails open, and cast and retrieve a third along the bottom. The rigs for the still-fishing rods and the held rods are identical – the only difference is that rods left in holders should have the alewives hooked behind the dorsal fin, while alewives cast and retrieved should be hooked through the lips. Walleye baitfishing rigs consist of size 6 plain shank hooks tied to 3 feet of 6-pound-test Seaguar Carbon Ice fluorocarbon leader ending in a barrel swivel tied to a 6-pound-test main line, with a ½- to 1-ounce egg sinker slid onto the main line. Don’t worry about a walleye’s teeth—unless you have any intention of placing fingers between them. These teeth will not cut light line as the teeth of a pike will. The Carbon Ice is abrasion resistant against the edges of rocks, but it’s still wise to diligently check your leader for abrasions or nicks after any fish. If you must be fancy, a rig with a Lindy walking sinker and a float above the hook may save you a few rigs in the long run since snags are ubiquitous. But the floats may not be necessary because herring are so active on a hook they don’t need help keeping out of snags.
For the retrieved rig, reel it along the bottom slowly, occasionally letting it sit for 20 to 30 seconds before lifting the rod slowly to 12 o’clock position and dropping it back down to 9 o’clock. Always keep an eye on the deadstick rods. The alewives on the still rigs will swim freely near the bottom and any rocks.
Despite being very active on a hook, alewives are very fragile in a bucket. Without a livewell, you must have an aerator. Use a rounded buckets as well – alewives will damage themselves by swimming into flat-walled cooler surfaces. Larger alewives, 3 to 5 inches long, are spotted by walleye at a greater distance, making these a better choice for the deadstick rods. On the other hand, when retrieving an alewife, you are covering more water, so a smaller bait might be the better choice.
Double anchoring from the bow and stern will keep the boat in a stable position. The idea is to position the boat so that the wind blows against port or starboard by setting anchors, each tied to 150 feet of nylon cord, from stern first, and to then motor upwind and aside to place the bow anchor. However, I’ve been on Lake Hopatcong in a 14-foot boat with the wind so strong I just anchored from the bow and let the boat bounce and swing.
Save any alewives that die in the process of fishing, break them up, and chum the water by tossing pieces over the area fished. Yellow perch will get most of the chum, but once perch start moving, bigger fish may be aroused by both the scent of the chum and activity of the perch. It’s not always the case that a mass of alewives will be present on a good structure, so chumming an area is a great way to entice walleye to your baits.
Jigging October ‘Eyes
On Lake Hopatcong especially, vertical jigging has almost a cult following. It is very productive. Sometimes it’s as simple as marking a fish on a graph that trips the fish alarm, and then lowering a jig down in front of its jaws. Most of the time, controlled drifting and the use of an electric trolling motor will help keep the jig or Gotcha Lure as straight down under the boat as possible. The more vertical the presentation, the better you will be able to control your jig. A sharp lift of a foot or two, or more, keeping a tight line on the fall, works in October, while more subtle motions produce better as the water cools down.
While walleye may chew up some of the younger of their own, as well as small perch, they swallow overwhelmingly more alewives than anything else, so lures with a color pattern closer to that of the silvery alewives generally get the best results. A good choice, I think, is the Gotcha Lure in a chrome finish.
Fishing deep in the fall is an interesting diversion from the shallow-water pursuits of summer, so when your local lake turns over, switch your sights to the wonderful walleye and start mining some October Gold.