The calendar said it was fall, late fall. In reality it was a beautiful evening, warm, a breath of southeast breeze. A few clouds hung in the western sky, just enough to make another spectacular autumn sunset.
I got to the lake early; wanted to scout a few spots before the evening bite. It was a reservoir I had fished before, but never in the fall. Up until this evening, I had never targeted walleyes there either. Having done some homework, the fish population sampling summaries said there was a good population of whitetips in this water. Some of them large enough to get my interest.
I was returning to a fall fishing pattern I had learned long ago. Walleyes feed in the fall. They need to get ready for winter and they are already developing eggs and milt for next spring’s spawn. Since they are a coolwater fish, they stay relatively active well into fall, mobile, agile and hostile. Sure, as the water cools they tended to move deeper, but the grocery store was often shallower–shallow enough that I can get to them without a boat.
This was a classic way to fish for walleyes. One I had read about in the pages of Fishing Facts and In-Fisherman years ago. Reading books was one thing, but eventually I applied it to waters that I fished. My success exceeded my dreams. Buoyed with confidence, the pattern was explored on a variety of waters across a couple of states. It worked most places. Sure, it was better on some waters than others, mostly depending on the size of the population and the identification of areas and conditions that concentrated fish.
That was exactly what I was looking for as I scouted. Key spots would be those with an abundance of prey. Depending on the waterbody, the prey could be leopard frogs, fathead minnows, gizzard shad, alewives, or small sunfish, crappies, bullheads and even bass. I did not care, as long as the prey was there the predators would come. Many a night my grin had grown when I discovered an abundance of walleye munchies near shore. As the light faded, I knew the toothy monsters would soon be there.
On this evening, I had used a lake map to pick out a handful of potential hot spots. At the second one, I spotted numerous small panfish and small bass. Looked like that was where I would spend the evening.
Spending much of my time fishing without a boat, I almost always slip into chest waders. I have spent so much time in waders I do not feel comfortable unless I am wearing them. Do not feel like I am fishing unless I am standing in waders. On some spots I do not wade at all; only step into the water. As much as anything, the neoprene waders are warm and keep me dry. Conveniently, they hold some tools and gloves, maybe an extra bait or two. They also are really nice for getting into the water to handle big fish.
Often, I pause to remember previous nights on other waters. Time never stops. I can remember when there were no such things as neoprene waders. Man, were autumn evenings standing in the water cold back then! I marveled at how nice the first pair of neoprene waders I had were. Ordered them from Cabela’s as soon as they had a pair listed in their catalog. I can still remember what those waders looked like. I spent a darned lot of hours inside them.
A high-quality spinning rod and reel and a couple, three boxes of lures was all the tackle I needed. Oh, a good landing net and flashlight of some kind included as well. Before I ever made a cast for the evening, I could tell you the five, maybe six lures that I might use. Of course, I always carried a bunch more than that. Never knew when I might need an extra or three.
The tackle had not changed much. Rods and reels were pretty much the same although I had worn out a few reels over the years. Broke a couple rods too. About the only thing that had changed was the line. Good quality monofilament used to be the only choice, I was a Stren man myself. Then the superlines hit the market, those made from the same material from which they made bullet-proof vests. It took a while to convince me, but eventually I found a braided superline that I liked. Now, that is pretty much the only thing I use for casting crankbaits and swimbaits.
Tie on a fluorocarbon leader, a quality fluorocarbon, and that combo had been used to catch a lot of big fish over the years, some of them really big. Funny thing was, walleyes were not the only predator fish that showed up to munch on prey in the fall.
Found the exact spot I wanted to fish probably an hour or so before prime time. Of course I casted and fished, casually. While it was still light was a great time to recon the spot, determine exact depths and any potential snags. Long before the fish showed up I had really good idea where the “X” was going to be.
Reminiscing again I recalled other spots I had dialed-in over the years. Many times a person could catch fish anywhere in a given area, but putting a bait right on the table top, usually an edge or pocket of some kind, meant a strike almost every time.
Had driven a few fishing partners and other anglers crazy by utilizing that secret, catching fish after fish while they picked up crumbs. What a rush it was to wobble a bait into position, instinctively sensing it was in just the right spot, pausing the retrieve for a count, feeling the strike.
I live for that “thump”. The strike of a big fish usually is more subtle than that of smaller ones. Big fish inhale baits. All you feel is a solid thump on the line, through the rod. If you can see the line, it will jump. Reflexively, the hook is set and there is mass on the other end. Initially, it may feel like dead weight, but then the head shakes start. I think I love that moment even more than the one where that fish slides into the landing net.
Have always shaken my head at those who believe walleyes do not fight. Usually those guys have never caught a walleye larger than an overgrown perch. Although they usually do not jump, I have even seen an ‘eye or two do that. Really, every species of fish is different and fun to catch. A guy just has to appreciate each and every one of them for what they are–unique and beautiful creatures.
There was still some light. It was also a great time to make sure baits were running perfect and hooks were sharp. I changed through several baits. When it became time to get serious, I would rarely change. Pick the right tool for the job, keep it in the water, it would get bit.
The sun dipped below the hills. I knew that the fish would soon be there, but not quite yet. Patience. No matter how or where fish were pursued, patience was needed.
Rooster pheasants cackled and crowed from the nearby native grass fields. It was nice to know there were still birds out there. Where there was habitat the pheasants, just like all game and fish, thrived. Imagine that.
A few more casts and I had a hit. Hooked a fish, a bass, not a large one, maybe a couple pounds. It was a good sign, a really good sign. Many nights other predator fish like largemouth and smallmouth bass, white bass, wipers, maybe a pike or muskie would be precursors of the low-light walleyes I planned to catch. Much of that “by-catch” over the years had been really nice fish too, and much appreciated!
Over the years, I had caught fish on some spots often enough that I could just about predict within minutes when the first walleye would be hooked. From experience, I am zoned-in about a half-hour after sunset. Concentration on every cast, knowing that I was going to get bit.
Covered water, fan-casted the area. However, I definitely made more casts to the spot or spots where I most expected fish. Repeating one of those casts, I started a slow retrieve. I felt the bait wobbling, rolling side to side. Cranked it into the red zone and there it was, that thump, life on the other end. Something with teeth just ate my bait.
I set the hook and felt satisfying weight. Taking my time I played the fish. As it neared, I switched on my head-light and grabbed the net. The glow from two big marble eyes reflected back to me. The fish played out and I lead it into the net.
Up the hill a great horned owl hooted.
Life was good. I could feel it coming in the air that night.