Last year, Joe Landolfi told me since it’s September, we could jig walleyes in Lake Hopatcong.
“But the lake doesn’t turn over until mid-October.” I said.
He dismissed this as of no consequence, and we set our calendars for Saturday, October first. Over the past five years my son, Matt, and I have always waited to fish until fall turnover is all but complete in mid-October. But Joe and I marked fish at 33 feet.
Turnover happens as water cools in the fall. Warm water rises, unless colder than 39.2 F. During ice fishing season, obviously the warmest water sinks, or else no surface layer of ice could exist. Summertime surface lake temperatures reach the mid-80s, and oxygen vanishes in the depths so that fish and other organisms cannot survive. As surface temperatures cool beneath the temperature levels of deeper layers of water, surface water sinks as deeper water rises. This is turnover. And by late October, the deepest water of Lake Hopatcong, about 50 feet, has turned over with oxygen re-established through all depths from the surface down.
Walleyes like rocky, deep drop-offs, and especially the deep edge of such structures. It’s unlike a walleye to suspend in 12 or 15 feet of water over these habitats perhaps 30 or 40 feet deep. But this is what they have to do every summer. It’s useless to try to catch Lake Hopatcong walleyes on the bottom in 12 to 15 feet of August water—these depths are choked with aquatic vegetation and are the lair of pickerel and largemouth bass.
Once turnover is occurring, walleyes re-establish themselves in favored habitat—and increase feeding. Since Lake Hopatcong is full of Omega oil rich alewife herring about two and a half to five inches long, walleyes enjoy a great health boost during the fall. Alewives typically school massively around such deep slopes scattered with rocks, hiding amongst themselves and around the corners and beneath edges of all obstructions present. These clouds of baitfish show up on graph recorders, often with the fish alarm squaking and the screen marking predators with them. In addition to walleyes, hybrid stripers may be there. We've nailed hybrids jigging. The take may be subtle, but Power Pro braid doesn't stretch--jamn the rod up and the fight's on.
Basically two ways exist to fish walleyes from September all the way through ice fishing season until they prepare to spawn after ice-out: vertical jigging, and using live alewife herring. Casting or trolling half or full ounce lip-less crankbaits, such as Rat-L-Traps, may produce, but both jigging and live bait fishing are intensive methods that keep lure or bait before walleyes’ noses longer than trying to manage a plug in such deep water.
Rapala ice fishing jigs and Gotcha jiggers are classics. Both have hook eyes on top and are heavily weighted so that they can be allowed to drop directly under the boat, then jigged just off bottom by slowly drifting, using an electric motor to position, or anchoring. If live herring are preferred, it’s best to use up to three rods per angler, setting two out with half to one ounce egg sinkers above a barrel swivel and 30 inch leader to size six plain hook, and slowly retrieving another using the same rig.
I like to use six pound test, and have never had a big walleye snap the line. Set your drag at one third line test. A musky might cut right through, but they so rarely strike a jig or herring I don’t take them into account. But it does happen. Hasn't to me yet. Since we usually rent a boat from Dow’s Boat Rentals, and buy our herring here too, we always enjoy a story or two. The third weekend in October three years ago, a renter caught a 29 pound musky vertically jigging a Rapala ice fishing jig. The next day, which was the Sunday my son and I fished, he caught a 20 pound musky on the same lure. Every winter these jigs produce muskies through the ice, as well as quite a few walleyes.