Turnover Time Walleyes, Fall Peak
By Bruce Litton
Timing isn’t perfect between peak leaves and re-establishment of oxygen throughout lake depths-- the fall turnover--but it’s close. And like the color of oaks this time of year, walleyes may give us a deeper experiential tone than do other species more readily caught in shallows and which do, in fact, have lighter body coloration, besides smallmouth bass anyhow. All lake species are available now, but walleyes are especially worth pursuit, since throughout long, hot summer days they may have suspended at 15 feet, but fed almost exclusively at night. It depends on whether or not a lake has oxygen at the bottom during summer or not. Now they may move into deeper water of 25 feet or more suited to the low-light vision afforded them by their namesake, the tapetum lucidum immediately behind their retinas, which reflects light back through so they can see prey better than they see them. Walleyes may now be caught anytime during the day, although fishing hours may be best early and late and under overcast skies and wind driven surface.
Two general approaches to fishing fall walleyes may be appropriate, depending on your preference for one or both, and whether or not the lake or reservoir you have chosen to fish has a population of alewives, choice forage for walleyes. In New York, walleyes thrive on a healthy diet of Omega oil rich alewives in Conesus Lake, Otisco Lake and other Finger Lakes, and Lake Ontario. Lake Hopatcong, Swartswood Lake, Greenwood Lake, and Monksville Reservoir are beautiful bodies of water in New Jersey with populations of large walleyes running with alewife herring. I have caught walleyes on shiners in Lake Hopatcong when alewives were not available for bait, but the value of alewives as forage, not to mention their liveliness on a hook, is superior to shiners.
Naturally, one of the two approaches I have in mind would be the use of alewives for bait. The second involves the same rocky drop-offs that fall walleyes feeding on alewives typically inhabit, but relies on lure imitations. Since the time walleyes first reached lunker size in New Jersey lakes and reservoirs—having first been stocked in the early 1990’s—someone struck on the clever idea of using Rapala ice fishing jigs and Gotcha Jiggers (used to catch Spanish mackerel from North Carolina piers) directly under a boat. Other jigs, 3/8th to ½ ounce, can be used the same way, possibly tipped with an alewife to combine the two approaches. Binsky blade baits have become very popular.
Perhaps no better time to fish walleyes exists than mid and late October, but the beginning of turnover is the inauguration of a long period for these two related forms of fishing that persists through November, into December, on through the winter, usually until early or mid-March through the ice, and even thereafter. (Alewives, however, are replaced by shiners as bait ice fishing since they are not available in the winter.) Shiners are baited on the terminal end of a tip-up line. Rapala ice jigs, and Gotcha Jiggers are snapped onto the 15 pound test braid of a hefty jig rod and light spinning reel backed with enough low diameter braid to battle a musky, since on occasion muskies approaching 30 pounds hit these lures.
When ice fishing, walleyes and muskies feel lumped together as a difficult specialty, usually requiring a lot of time spent out in the cold. In October, however, quite a few good walleyes of three, four, on up to 10 pounds can grace any given outing. It can be the difference between happy abundance and scarcity; the reward for ice fishing is chiefly to have functioned against more difficult odds.
Alewives are open water fish that relate to deep drop offs and rocks. They mass together in dense schools, and do not congregate in smaller pods among aquatic vegetation as shiners do. Many reports indicate that on some lakes October is the month to catch walleyes in the shallows. Most likely, those are lakes without alewives. Walleyes will spawn in early spring shallows and strike surface lures at night through the rest of the spring into early June, but their surface presence at night is a function of the alewives’ being there, probably after zooplankton.
In any case, whether surface fishing in June, or fishing deep by October first, always study a map of the lake if you’re new to it, then find on your graph recorder the presence of alewife masses 25 to 40 feet deep, or deeper, along drop offs. This is where walleyes are likely to be. Main lake, rocky points that ultimately drop off into at least 35 feet of water are, as a rule, excellent. So are other drop offs with rock structure and such depths. But points that contain rock structures along any sort of path from deep water into the shallows may be best because both alewives and walleyes have the full range of available depths. Very early in the morning or during a windy rainstorm, it would be wise to check such rocky shallows as well as the darker depths. However, with wind driven water crashing against a rock face, walleyes would be advantaged. Turbulent shallow water is also good for walleyes’ special vision, since the same eye structure advantages them in rough water as well as dark. But if no alewives are present in these shallows, it’s likely no walleyes will be, either.
I like to imagine that turnover is an enormous relief for walleyes because they get to be themselves again down near the bottom, ambushing prey from among rocks. But walleyes are not the stalkers pike are; they are not even closely related to pike. In fact, the pike family shares the same order of classification as the trout, salmon, and char family, Salmoniformes. On first take it may be hard to recognize a pike as anything like a salmon, but a deep intuition will resonate with similarities, such as smaller scales. Walleyes are of the order Perciformes which includes not only the (yellow) perch family, of which walleyes are members, but quite a number of fish families fresh and saltwater including the sunfish, white perch family (along with striped bass and white bass), and many other families. Nevertheless, walleyes are ambush predators—just not with the same, snake-like attack as pickerel, pike, and muskies. As awkward and lumbering as walleyes may seem—as if with their reflecting eyes they are hindered by light to travel unsteadily—they love to blend their coloration with boulders hiding next to or between them, or to sense prey while on the prowl in pods to then dash yards into a school of alewives and take one between rounded but very sharply pointed teeth. Perhaps they are awkward suspended over their real homes during the summer stratification, but by mid-October reawakened to the dark regions they enjoy best.
But a very common myth about walleyes must be dispelled. The truth about walleyes’ tapidum lucidum is that it adversely affects vision in bright light no more than cats’ eyesight is affected by the same eye structure—not at all. Walleyes are like any living organism—they seek their advantage and the tapidum lucidum increases vision in dark and/or turbulent water, giving walleyes the distinct advantage over prey in these situations. When lakes with oxygen depletion turn over, walleyes can behave more like themselves by going deeper.
Alewives as Bait
Bait is never efficient as is a lure; bait is messy and live bait has a will of its own (and needs to be allowed to exercise it). But bait has the potential to bring an angler closest to nature, any kind of bait does to some degree, even manufactured “mulberry” carp bait is more natural than using manufactured plastic. Bait contains a purity that no lure can replace. Natural essence is the purest of elements—everyone seems to believe that fresh air gives us the purest experience we ever feel. Catching walleyes with live alewives allows one to be a direct participant in a huge life and death drama. It’s not cheating; it’s being there.
You would need medium power spinning outfits, size 6 plain shank hooks tied to three feet of six pound test Seguar Carbon Ice fluorocarbon leader (abrasion resistant) between that hook and a small barrel swivel tied to six pound test main line, ½ to full ounce (depending on depth) egg sinkers with line running through them above the barrel swivel.
Don’t worry about the rounded teeth—unless you would have any intention of placing fingers between them. These teeth will not cut light line as razor-like pike teeth will part it at the slightest touch.
Prepare two or three medium power spinning outfits per angler—length is fairly arbitrary because neither pin point accuracy nor very long casts are necessary. Still fish with two rods, bails open, and work the rig of the other along or up a drop. Rigs are identical, but hook the still fished alewives behind the dorsal fin, and the retrieved through the nostrils. If you must be fancy, Lindy bait walker rigs with floats may save you a few bucks in the long run, since snags are common. But herring are so active on a hook they don’t need help.
Retrieve slowly, let sit for 20 to 30 seconds or longer before lifting the rod slowly to noon and back to 9 o’clock. Eye the spool of the soakers as often as you work the retrieved. The alewives on the still rigs will swim very freely near the bottom and any rocks. Larger alewives, three to five inches long, make their presence known to gamefish; walleyes may find them from farther distances. On the other hand, retrieving an alewife, you try to meet a walleye halfway.
Double anchoring from the bow and stern is a method to keep a boat in stable position. The idea is to position so that the wind blows against port or starboard by setting anchors, each tied to 150 feet of nylon cord, from stern first and to then motor upwind and aside to place the bow anchor. However, I’ve been on Lake Hopatcong in a 14 foot boat with the wind so strong I just anchored from the bow and let the boat bounce and swing—without water coming over the side. Believe it or not we managed to keep lines out, although lines alternately tightened and coiled.
If you are as particular as I am, save any alewives that die in the process of fishing, break them up, and chum the water by tossing pieces over the area fished. Yellow perch get most of the chum. But once perch start moving, bigger fish may be aroused by both scent and activity. It’s not always the case that a mass of alewives will be present on a good structure. And walleyes are not always immediately in position to feed on them because alewives are more suited to open water, while walleyes relate more closely to rocky bottoms of drop offs. So bait and walleyes are not a 1:1 relationship; they often go their separate ways, and arousing interest works.
On Lake Hopatcong especially, vertical jigging has acquired almost cult status in New Jersey. It is very productive. Sometimes it’s as clean as marking a fish on a graph that trips the fish alarm, then lowering an ice jig down in front of its jaws. Most of the time controlled drifting by graph use, as well as electric steering, is an attempt to keep the ice jig or Gotcha as straight down under the boat as possible for control’s sake. A sharp lift of a foot or two, keeping a tight line on the fall works in October, while subtler motions produce as water gets really cold.
Fishing deep in freshwater may be an interesting diversion from so many relatively shallow pursuits during summer. And walleyes, for that bronze-golden feeling-tone of mystery that they evoke, are a valuable catch. You can purchase Rapala ice jigs with precisely the same color (they work).
However, while walleyes may chew up some of the younger of their own, as well as small perch (no doubt muskies consume perch), they probably swallow overwhelmingly more alewives than anything else. It’s no myth that this forage is high in Omega fatty oils, which surely answers in part to why 10 pound walleyes swim in these lakes and reservoirs—good, chunky fish. So jigs that imitate alewives make sense and a good choice, I think, is the Gotcha chrome finish. Those depths are dark, but walleyes have night vision.