Fall can be an intimidating time for walleye fans, many of whom throw up their hands at the challenges of transitional fish locations and feeding behavior. But it doesn’t have to be. In fact, armed with the right game plan and tactics, you can catch hungry ’eyes night and day, throughout autumn.
Last fall, we outlined the secrets of NAFC friends Scott and Marty Glorvigen, who ply rivers in the pitch-black nights of the new moon (see “’Eyes Of Darkness,”). This time, we’re bringing you double coverage—with the full moon night moves of Cabela’s Masters Walleye Circuit competitor Mark Courts, coupled with cutting-edge daytime tactics from NAFC Fishing Advisory Council member Keith Kavajecz.
Fall is a time of opportunity for Courts, who fishes the MWC Central Division, as well as the PWT and FLW walleye tours. His latest accomplishment was a first-place finish at the PWT event last summer on South Dakota’s resurgent Lake Oahe, where he trolled his way to a dramatic comeback victory against some of the planet’s top walleye guns. The Oahe scenario included sweltering daytime temps topping 100, and deep fish scattered amongst flooded treetops.
When he’s not competing, however, Courts favors fall’s shallow-water night bite. “It’s by far my favorite, and most productive walleye pattern,” he says.
In Courts’ home waters of central Minnesota, the bite holds through freeze-up, often in late November or early December, and it hinges on the three days before and following the full moon.
“I’ve found the first three days of the full moon are the best,” he adds. “I definitely want to be out there when it’s lit up.” It is then, from moon rise deep into the night, that Courts’ night moves trigger walleyes moving onto shallow structure to feed.
Key fishing areas include shallow rocks adjacent to daytime holding areas—often in close proximity to a drop-off or deep hole—as well as sand flats and weedbeds. Courts typically looks for areas where the bottom rises from 15 feet or deeper up to five feet. The key is finding areas where walleyes can waylay baitfish.
“If you can find current, such as where a tributary feeds into the lake, you may have a gold mine,” Courts notes. “On one of my go-to full moon lakes, for example, walleyes stack up in the flow between a necked-down area between two basins. At night, they slide up into the shallows, and the bite is fantastic.”
The beauty of the full moon pattern is that, depending on the lake, you can often tap it as easily in a battered pair of waders or bobbing float tube as you can from the casting deck of a 20-foot walleye rocket.
“It’s a great time for wade-fishing,” Courts grins. “It’s a simple, deadly and fun way to fish.”
Afoot or afloat, slip float rigs or crankbaits are solid choices. Courts favors cranks on light spinning tackle. “I spool 10/4 Berkley FireLine on a spinning reel and 7-foot, soft-tipped rod,” he explains. “The rod still needs some backbone, though.”
A variety of shallow-diving minnowbaits trigger fish. Courts relies heavily on No. 11 and 13 Rapala Original Floaters. Top colors include firetiger, black-and-gold and gold fluorescent red. Longline trolling is a great way to cover shallow water from your boat.
Casting is another option from the boat, tube or waders. “When casting, take the time to try different retrieves and figure out what the walleyes want that particular night,” he says. “Sometimes a fast, erratic cadence triggers more strikes; other evenings, the fish like a slower, steadier pace.”
Hit The Breaks
Longtime NAFC Fishing Advisory Council member Keith Kavajecz takes a different track, targeting deep walleyes on steep drop-offs during the day.
“Think about where the fish were during summer, then find the closest sharp breaks,” he advises. “Walleyes feed on these structures throughout much of the fall.”
The key word here is “feed.” Inactive walleyes may sulk suspended off the structure, say, 25 feet down over 40 feet of water, Kavajecz says. But when it’s time to eat during daylight hours, they’ll move onto the drop-offs to shadow schools of passing baitfish.
Early and late in the day are often prime times to fish structure. And as Courts outlined earlier, nighttime action on the tops of shallow rock reefs (and points) can be incredible. But Kavajecz warns not to overlook steep breaks when winds are blowing into them; such conditions can trigger a solid bite any time during the day.
Kavajecz’s go-to method is live bait rigging. After carefully studying hydrographic maps to pinpoint likely hotspots, he motors over the structure, watching his sonar for fish hugging the bottom.
More now than ever, it’s critical to keep a sharp eye on your electronics if you hope to spot fish. “It can be a challenge to recognize walleyes on sonar, when the fish are tight to a steep break,” he cautions.
To aid in the search, Kavajecz recommends sonar units that offer a high vertical pixel count for optimum separation—that is, the ability to show fish that are tight to structure. “A color display is a huge help, too,” he adds.
“You may only see a bump on an otherwise smooth taper. With a monochromatic screen, it’s hard to tell what that is; but color makes it easier. For example, if you notice a bump that shows up as a reddening lump, almost like a pimple, on structure with otherwise uniform returns, there’s a good chance it’s a fish.
“When in doubt about a suspicious bump on bottom, I always fish it,” he adds. “If it’s a log, it’s a log, but there still may be walleye around it.”
A key point regarding Kavajecz’s boat position is when he marks fish at a consistent depth on structure, say, 28 feet, he runs his rig at that depth, if not a bit shallower—in this case, at 25 feet.
“I always fish at or shallower than the depth the fish are holding, because the walleyes are generally facing up the structure,” he explains.
Tools Of The Trade
Kavajecz favors a 61/2- to 7-foot graphite rod with a slow taper. “It should be soft, so the walleyes don’t feel you when they pick up the bait. But it still needs to be sensitive, so I choose a high-modulus blank, like IM-8 or HM-85. Sensitivity is a factor because keys to successful rigging include being able to feel the sinker tapping bottom, the actions of your bait, and changes in resistance when a fish grabs the minnow.”
For this reason, Kavajecz spools up with a low-stretch line like Berkley’s new FireLine Crystal, which he says transmits information better than stretchy nylon monofilaments, while offering near-invisibility other superlines can’t match.
“Low-visibility line is important when you’re rigging because you’re moving so slow, the line spends a lot of time in front of the fish,” he explains. “It’s a totally different story than when you’re trolling.”
To balance sensitivity with stealth, he adds a mono leader. “You still want some stretch, for when the fish pick up the bait,” he notes. “If there’s too much resistance, or they feel you on the other end, it’s over.
“Plus, your minnow can tell you a lot about what’s going on down there,” Kavajecz notes. “If it starts acting nervous and tugging erratically, there’s a good chance there’s a walleye eyeballing it.”
When that happens, or when he marks fish on his sonar unit, Kavajecz often lets up on the trolling motor, hovering over the walleye until it takes the bait.
Two basic forms of rigging get the nod for steep-structure walleyes: one is a walking- or pencil-style sinker on a quick-change clevis and up to a 10-foot leader; the other is a sliding bottom bouncer rig, with a 4-foot tether. Bouncers are fished faster, which makes them better at covering water.
Minnows, including redtail chubs, creek chubs and fatheads, are top fall baits. Kavajecz impales fatheads on a size 4 Mustad UltraPoint live bait hook; bigger baits may require up to a 1/0. “With a 6- or 8-inch creek chub, I often add a size 8 Triple Grip treble as a stinger,” he notes, adding, “Red is a good color for the lead hook; but not the stinger—you don’t want the walleyes striking at the treble.”
Bites often feel mushy, or like extra weight on the line. Sometimes, a big minnow can fool you into thinking a walleye has struck. No matter. When in doubt, set the hook, Kavcajecz says.
Actually, the hooksetting process also involves opening the reel’s bail, and letting the fish take the bait—experiment with how much time it takes—then taking up slack and driving the steel home.
Day or night, walleye fishing can be extremely rewarding throughout the fall. The key is not letting the change of seasons—as well as fish location and behavior—keep you from enjoying some of the year’s best action.