Fall trolling tactics for walleyes

F or much of the fall, trolling crankbaits dominates most fishing I do. The location (and how the fish are using a particular location) determines the most efficient presentation.

So often, we find fish in transition relating to big pieces of structure. What I love about trolling crankbaits when fish are transitioning in the fall is that trolling is fluid, and it allows you to see much more effectively how and where the fish are moving, especially if you are on the water every day.  

Big schools of fish might be pushing up or down a reservoir. Fish might be filtering out of back bays and moving across the mouths of bays over deeper holes and main-lake structure. Usually, there is a general movement – could be fish moving up or down, or in or out – but they are moving somewhere, and trolling allows you to sample water and keep tabs on these often nomadic fish much easier than any other presentation I can think of. On big bodies of water, this is especially true.  

There is an old adage with fall walleye fishing that bigger baits work better. From my experience, this is usually true. 

Anglers theorize that young-of-the-year baitfish are larger in the fall. The other reasoning held by anglers is that fish want to bulk up on food in the fall and a bigger bait makes bulking up much easier. Don’t know the whys, exactly, but it is usually a good starting point.  

I begin with big baits that move water. There are many nuances with trolling and there are a few wrinkles I like to incorporate into my trolling that I think help me catch more fish in the fall.  

You can adjust the footprint or vibration of a deep-diving lure by how much line you let out. When you run a lure close to the boat, the lure will run more up and down. Its bill is down and its tail is up so the bait puts off the most vibration and looks the largest from the rear. As you let out more line and the dive curve flattens out, the lure will level off where the bait runs more horizontally. As the bait levels, the lure still displaces water and rolls, but the vibration and footprint get toned down. Many anglers will troll cranks and let out line to get the lure to dive to the depth, and that factor dictates how much line they let out. In the fall, there are many times when the fish really seem to like the vibration and look of a lure running bill down and tail up, which happens when a lure hasn’t peaked the dive curve. Learn to manipulate that and you will catch more fish this fall.  

In deeper water, I often accomplish this task with leadcore line. You don’t need leadcore to get some crankbaits to tick bottom in 23 feet, but if you want that lure moving an optimum amount of water with the bill down and tail up, you will not be able to do that by simply long-lining the lure. If you long-line the lure, the lure will flatten out as it reaches the bottom of the dive curve. 

Now, there are days when the fish want the lure flattened out. As a general rule of thumb, the fish seem to prefer the lure running more horizontally earlier in the season, but this is something to experiment with that can make a big difference in the fall, from my own experiences.

The other factor I love about leadcore in the fall is that it will snake behind the boat and follow the contour much better, sticking that lure right along the break where it needs to be for longer periods of time. The changes in direction often seem to trigger fish. What I don’t like about leadcore is that it takes longer to roll off a spool compared to the speed of sticking a lure down with a snap weight or even a downrigger. You have to have more set up time, and you need to approach your zone from farther away, as it takes a little while to roll off more than three colors of lead.  

One thing I have been doing with a lot of success, especially when I am trolling tighter or shorter runs where I am in and out of the zone fairly quickly before I have to pick back up and set back out, is to use a snap weight in conjunction with the leadcore. Typically, I will clip a snap weight right on the leader above the crank about 12 feet, or two arm lengths. If I go farther than two arm lengths, it becomes hard to net fish without removing the weight. By adding a little lead to the leadcore, it rolls off the spool super-fast and cuts the amount of line out in about half. 

It kind of combines the best of both worlds regarding leadcore and snap weights. It gets down fast and still gets some snaking and direction change behind the boat. The pendulum effect where the lead core rises and sinks as you speed up or slow down becomes more exaggerated as well, which seems to trigger fish. There have been times that, for whatever reason, this system didn’t work well and I had to go back to traditional leadcore. But there have been many times when I know I caught a lot more fish by using this system, so it is something to experiment with.  

When fish are moving on big water, trolling allows you to land on the “X” each day like nothing else. You can get a feel for where they should be tomorrow because you can see where the fish have been and track that movement much more easily. 

Trolling is a very fluid presentation and you can get a really good pulse of how large the school is, and whether you are dealing with fragmented groups of scattered fish or one large school of fish. You can figure out the bearing or direction these fish seem to be heading, and you can almost guess where they will be. You gather an incredible amount of information when trolling because you go over so much water.  

Come fall, trolling remains one of the most efficient tactics for catching walleyes.

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