Walleye fanatics know that fall brings hard strikes and monster walleyes with the color change. And while perhaps not quite as productive as spring, a strong case can still be made for fall as the prime season to catch these gold-green predators.
Summer’s no slouch either, especially if you know where to look, what to throw, and how to work it.
Indeed, the trick to three-season walleye success is to understand their behavioral patterns across spring, summer, and fall--adapting to those changes as they happen.
Do you know what to throw in the spring?a Where to find walleye when the heat is on? What to look for in the fall?
Keep reading to find out!
Table of Contents (clickable)
Walleye, or Sander vitreus as they’re known to science, are a cool water predatory species common to much of the northern U.S and Canada. Sporting a beautiful olive-gold color, the walleye is long-bodied and sleek, explaining why its close cousin, the European zander (Sander lucioperca), is known as the pikeperch.
Females are generally larger than males, and like most fish, there’s a pretty constant relationship between a walleye’s length and weight. Expect 20-inch ‘eyes to weigh in at about 3.3 pounds. A 25-inch ‘eye, by comparison, will top the scales at about 6.35 pounds.
As you can see, just a bit longer is definitely a lot heavier!
Reaching a usual maximum of about 30 inches and 20 pounds, larger specimens have been recorded, but they’re very unusual. Indeed, the tackle record for walleye was set all the way back in 1960, when Mabry Harper landed a 25-pound brute.
Walleyes get their name from the outward-facing placement of their eyes. Well-adapted to low-light and murky water, they have especially acute vision. They’re also blessed with sensitive lateral lines.
This affects everything about walleye behavior.
Because walleye see well in poor light and sense vibrations over long distances, they prefer to swim in search of a meal rather than ambush prey. They also tend to feed in low-visibility (for other fish) conditions, like at dusk or at night, in murky or stained water, on cloudy days, and when the surface of the water is being disturbed by wind--also known as “walleye chop.”
The key to catching more walleye, then, is to fish in low light and find the prey items that will attract these predators. When you find their prey, you’ll find walleye cruising nearby.
Keep the following points in mind:
Low light is king.
Whatever the season, walleye feeding is triggered by diminished light. Dusk and midnight to dawn are prime feeding times, and you’re far more likely to find the walleye active on a cloudy day than in bright sunlight. Their exceptional vision gives them a predatory advantage that their prey can’t match, and plenty of walleye veterans know to skip the morning and start fishing walleye just as the sun is setting.
Ask any walleye addict and they’ll tell you that the 90 minutes surrounding dusk, overcast days, and any other conditions that disrupt light levels will trigger these fish to hunt. On open water, for example, “walleye chop,” caused by a stiff breeze, is a prime driver of feeding.
But whereas most anglers in search of summer walleye are tempted to troll deep as their go-to technique, these fish follow a predictable daily cycle that brings them to shallows. When the light is low, walleye rise from the depths looking for a meal. You’ll find them where they look for prey, and most of the time, they’re going to work the edges of living weed beds, small islands, and other structures, patrolling for smelt, suckers, shad, and other small prey species including immature perch.
If you choose to fish even later--the midnight to dawn shift--you’ll improve your chances for real bruisers. After midnight, larger walleyes move into the same areas smaller ‘eyes were feeding at dusk.
Walleye love contrasts. Look for unusual structure--something that stands out from the norm.
Wherever you find bait fish, you’ll find walleye. If you follow the ciscoe and shad, you’ll find the walleye. I like to look for live weed beds, current, and shallows immediately adjacent to either drop-offs or inflows like creeks and rivers.
Check out our buying guides:
Rigging a jig isn’t rocket science, but there are a few tricks that make them more effective.
Minnows don’t present themselves vertically, and if your jig is hanging tail down and head up, it won’t look or move like prey. Instead, you need your jigs to sit as close to horizontal as you can get them, and that’s mostly a matter of knot position.
If you slip your knot to the “front” of the eye, it will encourage a more vertical position that’s distinctly unnatural to would-be predators.
This is not what you want. Note where the knot leaves the eye.
Instead, you want your knot at the top of the eye. This will tilt the jig forward, lifting the tail and making it look and act a lot more like a real minnow.
This is what you want.
Jigs are easy to fit with soft baits, but if you’re not sure how to do it correctly, just take a look at this video:
For most fish, I recommend that you start small and gentle, working your way to more aggressive presentations. But with walleye, ripping your lure a few times can turn heads and entice bites. And if you’ve been wondering when you should use a big crankbait or spinner, you have an answer!
As you can see in the pic below, walleye aren’t afraid to swallow a mouthful! Don’t be afraid--you pretty much can’t run a lure too big, or fish it too hard, for these aggressive brutes.
We can’t say this enough–sweeten your lures and jigs! A minnow head on the ventral hook of a Chubby DarterorJigging Rap can often prove irresistible to walleye. And jigs trailing a minnow body, as well as spinners rigged with worms or leeches, are traditional favorites for ‘eyes. Try passing the hook through the mouth, out the gill, and back through the body, as in the video below.
Walleye exhibit unique spawning behavior. They remember their first spawning location, homing in on that area each subsequent year. According to Gord Pyzer at In-Fisherman, more southerly populations start spawning when water temps rise to between 48°F and 50°F. By contrast, their northern counterparts will begin to spawn at just 44°F to 48°F.
Walleye predictably look for rock, gravel, and other hard-bottomed shallows to spawn.
Small males are the first to move towards spawning beds, followed by larger males, and then finally, the females. But despite the predictability of this cycle, it’s not trophy time. As Andrew Ragas of Midwest Outdoors explains, the larger females are intent on spawning, and they curtail feeding during and after they’ve dropped their eggs, often for as long as two weeks.
Pyzer agrees, adding that the big girls quickly retreat back into deep water to recover and chase ciscoes and smelt. Basically, the really large ‘eyes are too busy to feed, and the chance of hooking a real monster is lower than average.
Does that mean the spawn isn’t productive? No way! But you should expect more males than females and smaller walleyes overall.
Look for walleye in shallow flats, especially where there are rock or gravel bottoms, in shallow weed beds, and along structure like drop-offs and points providing immediate access to spawning beds.
But be aware that seasonal anorexia will grip them during the spawn. Post-spawn, however, will find the wallies cruising for a meal and looking to put weight back on.
Almost any time you need to present live bait to walleye, a slip float is the way to go. Because you can set the depth precisely, and still cast well, a quality slip float is a thing of beauty when paired with a jig head and minnows or leeches.
I like to use a ⅜ ounce Thill Wobble Bobber on mono main-line, with a bit of fluoro leader attached to my jig head. The weight below the float, as well as the jig head itself, help me reach depth quickly.
As Tom Boley explains in the video below, the issue is finding the walleye to cast to. He likes humps of all kinds, what he calls “focal points.” Large rocks, steep edges, points--these are the likely spots he’s casting his slip floats to.
He’s also looking for a structure like large boulders and transitions between gravel and sand--all areas walleye are likely to hunt.
Take a look at his awesome tutorial video:
If you’re wondering how to rig a slip float, it’s simple:
When the wind is in your favor, why not use it?
One technique that I really like is to drift slowly down shallow, weedy flats while casting big swim baits. Not only does this increase your stealth, but it’s also just murder when you’re throwing the right combination of jig and soft plastic--especially when you know how to work them!
Many walleye anglers make a basic mistake with soft plastics--a habit ingrained by live bait. They fish them too slowly, forgetting that the swim bait needs you to do the work.
Pop and retrieve in uneven cadences, burn them across the tops of weeds, and let them sink and fall freely every few feet. That’ll get their tails quivering, attracting strikes.
I like the 3 ½” Gene Larew Sweet Swimmer for the same reason Scott Glorvigen does: extra soft, the paddle tail beats like crazy as you work it.
As always, select natural colors in clear water. “Threadfin Shad,” “Gray Ghost,” and “Glass Minnow” are ideal choices. But in stained water, don’t forget the hot pinks and whites.
I rig these swim baits on a ⅛- or ¼-ounce jig head. Give the Temorah ball jig heads a chance: they come in assorted colors, hold a soft plastic really well, and won’t break the bank.
If you’re skeptical about soft plastics for walleye, just watch Glorvigen crushing walleye:
As water temperatures rise to summer highs, most walleye will disperse and leave the shallows.
Note that word “most!”
But as Jason Mitchell can tell you, the wallies that do hang tight to the shallow weeds are there for you all summer. “One thing that has been a slam dunk for me everywhere I go is the shallow weed bite. While many summer walleyes follow the ‘old playbook’ and head out to deep structure as summer progresses, a certain percentage of fish will stay up in the shallow weeds all throughout the season. One thing that really plays into your favor when you’re targeting these fish is that they are mostly untouched throughout the summer!”
One effective strategy, then, is to keep hunting those weeds for walleye.
Here’s Mitchell’s strategy in a nutshell: “When I’m dissecting these weed beds, I’m targeting openings, lanes, troughs, weed edges and inside turns; basically any openings in the weeds that allow for room to move around. Another great spot is the water column from the top of the weeds to the surface of the water, even if it’s only a few feet of open water. Remember, the walleyes you’re going to catch using this approach are using these openings in the weeds to actively cruise water in search of food.”
But it’s fair to say that the majority will head for deep structure and cooler water, spreading out a bit more than in spring and fall.
That makes trolling, and any lure that can cover a lot of water quickly, a good bet.
Always take advantage of the walleye’s proclivity for low-light hunting.
Just after dusk--and through the night--walleye are going to come shallow looking for prey. That’s a predictable pattern in the fall, and one that’s easy to turn to your advantage.
What you want is a lure that can create action and transmit vibration, and the often-unused chatterbait is just the thing. I know...I know--most anglers think of these as bass baits. But the truth is that a lot of bass anglers land pike, muskie, and yes--walleye--on them by accident.
And that’s not something to ignore!
For night fishing, I like to run a “South African Special” craw on the “Candy Craw” chatterbait.
The trick is to pop this combo on the bottom, crank a few times, and let it fall again, making the chatterbait swim and drop. Toss it into weed beds, rocks, and other cover, and you’ll be amazed at its effectiveness!
This video provides a master class on this technique:
Most anglers think walleye sit out warm weather in cool, deep water. But that’s not entirely true.
As the sun begins to set, and all through the night, walleye will move from deep holding areas to prey-rich areas like weed beds. This daily journey is well-known to ice anglers fishing walleye, but it’s just as steady in spring and summer. The reason is food: walleye are hunting those beds because that’s where their prey is hunkered down.
In shallow water, the sun can provide clasping leaf pondweed, commonly called “cabbage,” with plenty of energy to grow. That thick cover and warm water are ideal for immature perch, minnows of all kinds, crappie, and a host of other prey on the walleye’s menu.
In fact, some walleye just camp out in the weed beds all summer, never retreating to deep water!
Two techniques can help you take advantage of the walleye’s predictability and hunting behavior.
First, you want to work the edges of those weed beds. As Greg Bohn, a legendary guide from Wisconsin says, “Don't pile right into the vegetation. Our initial casts don't even reach the weedage. Any clumps or points off the edge — that's where the big fish are. Start well outside the weedline and feel for the edge.” He prefers 1/16- to 1/8-ounce perch-colored jigs.
We recommend something like the Rapala Jigging Rap in perch. It provides a life-like presentation and is much easier to fish near weeds than live bait.
We also like the Bomber Long A, a fantastic jerkbait with the right depth for working weed edges on most lakes.
What we don’t recommend are live minnows! You’ll lose too many to the weeds, and you’ll be troubled by panfish, bass, and pretty much everything else, too.
Stick to artificial lures--you’ll thank us!
The second technique we recommend is to work the water column above the weedbed. For this technique, we like spinners like the Hildebrandt Hammer Time, especially with the #4 beaten brass blade trailing a nose-rigged nightcrawler from the first hook. Use just enough weight that you’re running over but not dipping into the weeds, and aggressive walleye will rush from below to take what you’re throwing!
If the panfish become a problem, switch to Zoom fluke in a green color.
Check out this video to see how it’s done:
Trolling is a tried-and-true technique for catching walleye, and done well, it lets you fish the right depth and cover a lot of water at the same time. But not all trolling is about deep water, and if you skip the shallows in your quest for walleye, you’re making a big mistake!
During the spring, walleye will often hold over sandy flats, soaking in the sun. They’ll be in shallow water, staying where the sun can reach them to heat their cold-blooded metabolism.
The trick, of course, is that the walleye are coming into shallow water to soak up some sun, and you don’t want to run your lures too deep. Adjust your trolling speed accordingly, and keep those lures off the bottom. Noted angler Jason Mitchell likes to start out slow, often just enough to get the crankbait to dive.
In this video, he gives a masterclass in this technique:
But deep trolling can work very well, too. The trick is to be able to adjust your depth precisely while running a rattling crankbait.
Our favorite is an easy choice: the Cotton Cordell Wally Diver. It’s got the right shape and a high-pitched rattle that excites walleye. If you want to ‘match the hatch,’ we recommend perch. If not, chartreuse red-eye is hard to beat.
But the right lure is only half the battle. To get it down to where you’ve found the walleye on your fish finder, you’ll need careful technique. We like to use a snap weight like the Krazywolf with a weight attached.
One simple way to make this combo work is the ‘50/50’ rule: let out 50 feet of line, attach your weight, and let out 50 feet more. The slower you troll, and the more weight you use, the deeper your lure will run. Just take a look at the chart below:
It’s obvious that lure depth is highly dependent on boat speed, as well as the size of the weight you clip to your line!
Jon Thelen and Jason Muche show you how it’s done on Lake Winnebago:
Walleye are cool-water fish, and the summer heat really suppresses their activity and desire to hunt and feed. With a strong preference for water temperatures between 65 and 75 degrees, walleye stay deep to beat the heat for most of the summer.
But fall brings sweet relief as the water cools, and walleye make a seasonal migration to the shallows. There, they’re looking to feed voraciously after a summer of lying low, and they’ll be chasing minnows and other bait fish with a vengeance.
Some things haven’t changed, though.
Walleyes are well-equipped for low light, and whether that’s dawn, dusk, “walleye chop,” or just an overcast day, they use this relative advantage to ambush prey that can’t see as well as they do. Cooling water temps don’t change this fact of walleye biology, and these remain the prime times to land a big one.
Some anglers will tell you that lake turnover signals the move shallow. There’s some truth to that, but walleye will begin hunting shallow as soon as the water cools down.
I like to look for walleye by spotting contrasts. If you find a rocky patch on a predominantly muddy-bottom, they’ll be there. A large pile of rocks protruding from a sandy bottom is a good spot as well, as are weedy humps on a rocky bottom. In short, anywhere you find an unusual structure, look for walleye.
And because they’re on the hunt, where you find food, you’ll find the fish. On lakes or large rivers that offer a bottle-neck with current, you’ll find schools of ciscoe and other bait fish. That’s one of the first features I’ll target for walleye.
Any large structure that acts as a windbreak is also a prime hunting ground. Especially on nastier days, the walleye will hunt these areas, driving prey to their deaths there. Whether that’s a rocky point, a wall, or an island, if there’s foam, there are walleye!
A ‘beautiful’ day for walleye fishing:
Another combination of structure and cover to remember in the fall are shallow, sloping flats holding live weed beds. Bait fish are going to gather here, looking for food themselves. And the walleye will follow.
For those of you who fish jigs almost exclusively for walleye, this will seem like another unconventional choice. But give me a moment to explain.
Vertical jigging is an awesome technique, no question, but it has two disadvantages in the fall. First, it doesn’t cover a lot of water quickly. And second, because walleye will be in shallow water, spooking them with a boat directly overhead is a real concern.
Crankbaits, by contrast, allow you stand-off, providing excellent stealth in shallow water, and they allow you to work large areas quickly.
I like to look for those high-contrast spots: a rocky hump on a muddy or sandy bottom, a shallow strewn with boulders next to a steep, sandy drop-off, or a flat holding lots of live weed beds.
Stay back and work your crankbaits in the traditional fan pattern to cover the area thoroughly. No need to do anything special--just crank and retrieve with a few pops every now and then.
The Rap is a relatively deep diver, and the Strike King will sink when you’re not working it. Both offer enticing action and hyper-realism, and I like to fish these guys over rocks in shallow water and along the tops of weed beds, ripping them free when I feel the hooks drag.
If you doubt that this works in the fall, just take a look:
I’m not going to ignore live bait!
The key in the fall is to select for size, running the largest minnows you can find. In the summer, I like medium-sized leeches and nightcrawlers, however, as the largest leeches just don’t seem to work as well.
Tip a jig head with something living, and pitch it into transition areas at dawn or dusk. Look for the drop-offs near shallows, points that hold weeds up high, and more or less vertical structure in shallow water. These are all ideal hunting areas for walleye, and they’re the places they’ll be--or be moving through--during their daily feeding cycle.
Walleye can often be found holding near the bottom, and you can take advantage of their sensitive lateral line and attraction to cloudy water with the right technique.
While jigging, you can turn on finicky walleye by bumping the bottom a few times with your jig. This creates a cloud of sediment that looks like a fish has disturbed the bottom, and the vibration created by that pounding can help draw nearby walleye to your lure. Try alternating this with jigging just off the bottom, and you’re likely to get a few more bites.
Another tip is to use a bouncing rig when fishing spinners. With a Rock-Runner Bottom Bouncer, you can create the same effect while retrieving. This is one of Brian Brosdahl’s tips, and he likes his Rock-Runners in Parakeet and Sunrise. As he explains, “The color of the bouncer draws the fish in, and then the spinner comes in and seals the deal.”
The idea, of course, is to bump the bottom, not drag your lure along it. A bit of finesse and some fine-tuning is in order, but once you have this dialed-in, it’s deadly.
Any season is a great time to hammer walleye, and with a few unconventional choices, you can be the envy of other anglers. The trick is to adjust your approach to the seasons, learn the behavior of walleye throughout the year, and shake-up the “summer means deep” playbook.
If these tips help, and you catch more walleye with them, we’d love to hear from you!
Please leave a comment below.