Spray is ripped from the crest of waves on a wind-blown shoreline.
A low ceiling hovers darkly above as surf crashes into a rocky point. On a rolling deck, cold fingers grip rod handles, guiding crankbaits through a maze of boulders.
Opaque eyes look up from below the tumult of roiling water that throws their prey off balance.
Walleyes take advantage of wind blowing into points, shorelines, reefs, and shallow flats in fall, using waves as cover from above and as leverage against smaller baitfish that get tossed about.
Many species of baitfish and other forms of prey are moving shallow or through shoreline areas in fall, and walleyes follow.
“Ciscoes move shallow to spawn in fall,” says Tommy Skarlis, one of the most successful walleye pros of all time.
“Perch move to weed edges. In fall you have seasonal migrations occurring with frogs, and crayfish are moving around as shallow weeds die. Lots of bait items move to the outside edges of the weeds and the edge of shallow flats. When you have a marsh nearby or swamp on shore, walleyes come in for those frogs as they migrate. Other forage is all grown up so we often throw big cranbkbaits. Big cranks dive deep so you can get on that outside edge and get down 12 to 15 feet with a crank, throwing parallel to a weed edge or starting over the weeds and bringing it down the outside edge.”
A lot of pros pitch cranks rather than troll in fall. For one thing, it’s more fun. But they wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t more effective.
“Give a walleye fisherman a crankbait in October and he’ll troll it,” says Scott Glorvigan—another legendary walleye pro. “But I want the rod in my hands. Casting crankbaits to specific spots in fall is a lost art in the world of walleye angling. But it’s more effective in a lot of situations because walleyes often move into areas so shallow, trolling can’t reach them. And a trolled lure is in-and-out so fast, you won’t realize how many walleyes are swarming those prime spots until you’ve made several passes, potentially scattering the food chain.”
So I asked one of the planet’s finest walleye guides, Tony Roach, how shallow is shallow?
“I start the day in 2 to 3 feet on a lot of lakes,” Roach said.
“On other lakes, 10- to 15-feet might be shallow for these fish. Depends on the forage base. The spottail shiners go way shallow, whereas ciscoes spawn during fall out in 10 to 15 foot depths. Walleyes will be right there with the most abundant forage source, whatever that might be. For sure, there’s a great shallow movement in most if not all lakes every year. The spottail shiners come in as soon as the water drops below 60°F.”
Where To Look
When the water temperature at the surface of a natural lake hits 60°F, the lake turns over.
Deep water rises and inverts the surface layers as temperatures approach equalization—another factor that can drive fish to shallow water during autumn. The shallows are more stable during turnover, and wind can oxygenate the water there quickly. Fish are active in those spots, making windblown shorelines one of the first places to look for fall walleyes.
Whenever the wind is blowing into an area for more than 24 hours, better take a look at it.
“Wherever the wind is blowing into main-lake areas (not bays) adjacent to deep water, walleyes will be there in October,” Glorvigen said. “If the weeds are dead, I look for the deepest water adjacent to the shallowest rock areas. When not in full bloom, weeds don’t hold as many walleyes. I want the wind blowing in the same direction for at least a couple days. That really sets up the food chain shallow. The key areas tend to be less than ten feet deep.”
On weedlines, greener is better.
“The best spots are where the lush, green weeds persevere,” Skarlis said. “In lakes with few dense weediness, look at shallow sand flats and featureless areas with gravel, rock, or sand bottoms. Places most people ignore, where you never caught a fish all year, could be crawling with walleyes. Another key is inflow. Always look for water running in—creeks and rivers. Shore angling is popular in some areas this time of year, especially at night when the wind has been quiet. Big stickballs and suspending jerk baits, like the size #11 and size #13 Original Floating Rapalas and size #12 Rapala Husky Jerks are really effective. Just start fan casting shallow flats near an inflow in the 2 to 8 foot range. If the water is roiled up or dirty, the bite lasts all day. In clear water you want the sun below the treetops. Low-light periods just after dawn or in the evening are when walleyes move into shallow spots in clear water.”
Roach agrees on all counts.
“One of my favorite things to do as a kid was casting cranks from shore near creek mouths in the fall,” he said.
“I can’t think of a better way to catch walleyes in fall. Reminds me of when I was a kid. Something very special about tossing cranks this time of year, when walleyes are drawn to big main-lake points, wind-swept rock piles, and the leafy cabbage and coontail beds that remain green. When the wind is blowing into any of these areas, the fish are going to be up tight in 3, 4, or 5 feet of water even during the day. I see all-day bites even on clear lakes when the wind is blowing. I start shallow and work my way out this time of year, but I’ll quickly move out to check depths of 10- to 15-feet past adjacent drop-offs during calm weather.”
Sometimes it takes a visual reminder to pull out the casting sticks.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come into the harbor at the end of a guiding trip to find walleyes crawling all over the boat ramp in September,” Roach said.
“We start catching them in 6-to 8-foot depths in mid summer sometimes. Depends on the year, but the bite always lasts until ice-up. And it would last longer if your lure didn’t skip off the hard water. I can’t wait for severe cold-front days in autumn. Plummeting air temperatures chill the water and walleyes—all fish, actually—get rushed into a sense of urgency to feed. In early October walleyes come pouring into the shallows every time the temperature dips. Young-of-the-year perch come in, ciscoes come in, shiners come in. Turnover is another signal that tells them to feed because winter is coming. That 60°F mark is a critical marker.”
Check wind direction and duration and head to spots where it’s been pushing baitfish shallow for a day or more, if possible.
Once there, a simple checklist helps you locate the key “spots on the spot” quick:
1/ Start near the areas where the deepest water comes closest to the shallowest cover;
2/ Look for that cover in the form of boulders, weed lines, wood, troughs, rock piles or ledges;
3/ Keep the boat well away from those key areas, get the wind behind you, and cast to spots from all angles.
Places where weeds meet rock, gravel, or sand can be bountiful, but precise location is often determined by how directly the wind strikes a spot. “Most winds this time of year come from the north or northwest,” Glorvigen said. “Wind changing from the northwest to the northeast or vice-versa striking a good north-facing spot will move walleyes down the breakline. The best action is always where wind is blowing directly into a key spot.”
If the wind is angling across a spot, or blowing offshore, walleyes tend to scatter. But the action just continues to heat up, day after day, on those spots where the wind cracks directly into a prime spot with cover near a sharp drop.
The Autumn Arsenal
“Go big or go home,” Skarlis often says. “Yeah, I like big cranks in fall most of the time, especially when walleyes chase bigger forage like ciscoes or panfish. If I’m working deep weed edges or the lip of a sharp drop, I want something that gets deep fast with a large wobble and profile.
Glorvigen tends to be more of a traditionalist. “I like shad-shaped cranks for walleyes.”
Roach says that, “Early in fall, I like lipless cranks like the Rapala Rattlin’ Raps and Rippin’ Raps, and I like tight-wobbling cranks like the Shad Raps and X-Rap Shad. As fall wears on, I like wide-wobbling baits like Rapala Original floaters, Rapala Husky Jerks, and Storm Thundersticks. Or I slow roll the new shallow-running Shadow Raps. I start fast and as the water cools I slow down. They bite cranks right down into the 30°F range, but you have to slow it down. Any crankbait I throw, though, I add a lot of pauses. That’s when walleyes bite—on the pause.”
Top-to-bottom, Left Row: Rapala Husky Jerk, Berkley Flicker Shad, Rapala X-Rap, Salmo Hornet
Right Row: Bomber 6A, Bandit 300, Rapala X-Rap Shad, Rapala DT14
Successful retrieves always amount to a combination of speed, depth, cadence, and triggering motions—things you have to play with every day to find the right combination.
“I chunk and wind to start out,” Skarlis said. “You really have to burn a crank sometimes—especially when the water is above 50°F. I have a routine and I’m not even aware I’m doing it anymore. I throw one cast and burn it back, throw another out and slowly retrieve it steady, then I try a reel-stop, reel-stop approach. Then I start over until the fish tell me what they want. A lot of strikes come when you pause or kill the bait.”
Gear is entirely a matter of preference for pitching cranks at walleyes. Skarlis likes casting gear. “I like the fact that, with casting reels, you can select different retrieve ratios,” he said. “Retrieve speed can be such a critical factor. I like the Abu Garcia Revo Winch which has a real slow 5.4:1 retrieve ratio. A Revo STX, with an 8:1 retrieve ratio, is a blazer, and my favorite for a fast retrieve. The Revo SX has a 6.4:1 ratio—right in the middle. I use all three. It’s something a lot of anglers don’t pay a lot of attention to. Retrieve ratios can make all the difference in the world. You can use a slow reel and wear yourself out and maybe get the job done, but retrieve speed is something that can mean the difference between just getting bumped all day or getting solid strikes every time. Speed is the trigger that makes a walleye charge out of the weeds in ambush. I haven’t tried the new fast-retrieve-ratio spinning reels, but I really like casting gear for pitching cranks, anyway—unless I have to downsize. When they get finicky, and really don’t want radical, wide-wobbling baits, I might go down to a size #4 Flicker Shad or size #4 Jointed Shad Rap, and you need spinning gear to throw those light, small baits any distance.”
Skarlis uses 10- to 12-pound Berkley Trilene XT on a 7-foot St. Croix Legend Elite in a medium power with a fast tip most of the time. “I also use a 6’8” St Croix Legend Tournament (TBCMXF) with an extra-fast tip,” he said. “Both are considered bass rods, but throwing cranks is throwing cranks. Another great rod is the St. Croix Eyecon ECC70MHN, a medium-heavy that’s really a medium-power with a slower tip. If I have to downsize to smaller cranks, I go with a spinning outfit like the Legend Extreme 70MF spinning rod with 12-pound Berkley Nanofil and a Revo SX spinning reel, or Pflueger President. Better distance with small lures that way. If I’m throwing with mono, I use 8-pound XL. Less pike bite offs that time of year, with small cranks. A lot of guys use superline for this. I use a 10- to 20-pound FireLine if zebra mussels are an issue, but most of the time I throw 10-pound XT. I lose a lot less fish with mono than superfine. You get a bite, and that little bit of stretch allows the walleye to pull it in and get the hooks in its mouth more often.”
Glorvigen says he sometimes uses 10- to 12-pound mono, but usually opts for 10-pound Berkley FireLine—as I do, and so does Roach. “I like spinning gear,” Roach said. “My rod is a Tony Roach Signature Wright-McGill 7-foot medium power with a fast tip. I spool up with 10-pound Suffix 832 braid, tying in a 2- to 3-foot, 10-pound fluorocarbon leader with double uni knots. I use 7-foot baitcasting rods too, also with 10-pound braid. Braid allows you to feel everything. You feel every kind of strike no matter how subtle, You can feel a tiny strand of weed trailing off a treble. I’m a control freak, and I can see and feel when a bait is running out-of-tune a lot easier with braid.”
Roach learned in those care-free days of childhood that he needed to hold on tight. “It’s amazing, even after the water cools down in late fall, how walleyes can almost rip the rod out of your hands on the strike,” he said.
“Walleyes are aggressive animals in fall—often ripping cranks harder than bass or pike.” Walleyes want to rumble in fall. It’s getting cold. They’re cranky. And hungry. And shallow. So in autumn, citing and ripping a crank through weed edges, or cracking it through boulder fields, pushes their buttons.
- written by Matt Straw