Fall Walleye: Tactics for North Dakota Fisheries
North Dakota has amazing walleye fishing and that is no secret, but how to catch these toothy critters in the fall, that is the question? With fisheries like Lake Sakakawea and Devils lake on the radar of a couple of the top walleye fisheries, there is no doubt that North Dakota also has some of the best walleye anglers out there. But what do these avid anglers do to target trophy walleye in the fall?
With excellent river fishing on Lake Sakakawea and amazing lake fishing on Devils lake during the fall months, there are endless opportunities and techniques to employ on these two bodies of water to hook into a true trophy walleye this fall. Even though several the typical fall techniques can be mimicked on both bodies of water you will have to adjust how you present them and where.
River fishing at its finest. As the walleye begin to migrate upstream for the spring spawn you will locate schools of hungry walleye all over this massive reservoir, but some places will be better than others. And as water temps begin to drop especially below 50 degrees you will encounter a very hot bite. One key to success on a river system like this is to keep moving with this fish and if possible, get in front of the migration so you can continue to experience a great bite in the same area for an extended period. It’s not uncommon on such a massive body of water to catch fish in a location one day and not even graph a fish in that location the next.
A great way to locate these schools of fish is by trolling Lead Core line. Lead core allows you to pull your baits through the water column very precise and efficient when current and especially heavy currents are in play. Lead core is a weighted line that gets your bait down to the fish faster with much less line out. Less line means boat turns and navigation becomes easier, changing lures or removing debris from the hooks is faster and getting the bait back to the active fish is quicker. Trolling crankbaits such as the Salmo Free Diver, Berkley Flicker Minnow’s/Shad, Rapala Taildancers and Husky Jerks in the size 9cm-12cm can be deadly in the fall. This allows you to cover lots of water much faster than the typical rigging of live bait. Once a school of active fish is located and there are some exceptionally large marks on your graph you may want to slow down and rig a large creek chub if you’re after a trophy size walleye.
Big fish, big bait? That’s what I have always thought but it’s not always the case. The best advice here is to experiment with several baits and sizes and pay attention to what the fish are reacting to. Live bait rigging creek chubs is a favorite amongst many anglers up and down the Missouri River. And a great way to catch a trophy-size walleye. But not all creek chubs have to be over five inches to be effective. Don't hesitate to use large minnows and or smaller creek chubs at times especially if the bite is tough. Take into consideration when using live bait, it may result in a deeply hooked fish and require you to cut the line or make table fair out of a bigger walleye than you wanted for the table. Also, when making the trip to North Dakota be aware of the Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) regulations that do NOT allow the transportation of live bait across the border.
Properly rigging your creek chub can be the difference in your hook up rate while using such a large bait. Understanding how a walleye devours this bait (head-first) will also make you a better angler. Adding a small stinger hook to the back or tail of the chub or using the threading device to hide the stinger hook in the rear portion of the creek chub is a deadly method that will almost guarantee less half-eaten chubs coming back to the boat.
Glide Baits are one of my favorite methods for taking fish not only in the fall but all season when applicable. Glide baits are lures such as a Rapala Jigging Rap, Northland Tackle Puppet Minnow the Shiver Minnow and many others have hit the market in the past few years to capitalize on this growing trend. The use of your electronics is huge with this technique. Once fish have been located and the target depth established you simply drop one of these heavy (7/8-1 ¼ oz) baits down to or near the bottom and begin to give it a good snap/jig motion letting the lure fall on a slackline. You can also cast these lures out the back of the boat to graphed fish and give it a couple of good snaps. Pay close attention to your line and look for any quick movements in the line. As you begin your next snap of the rod tip the fish will already have the bait in its mouth as they will almost always hit it on the fall. Be prepared with every snap to be able to follow through and turn it into a hookset.
This method works great for putting lots of fish in the boat fast and getting the lethargic fish to react. However, if it’s not working don’t try to force it. The water may be too dirty, or they just aren’t interested that day.
Glide baits are probably one of the most used techniques on Devils Lake. A good rule of thumb for Devils lake is to make sure you have at least 10 of each lure you plan on using as you will most likely need them. Devils Lake is such an amazing fishery mainly because of all the underwater structures available for the bait and the fish to hide and spawn within. With such a diverse system that has almost everything, you can imagine in a walleye factory. Devils Lake can humble you one day and make you look like a hero the next. With so many “Fishy” spots to cover it makes the question of where to begin probably the hardest thing, you will have to do that day. In the fall anglers usually think deep and that is certainly a good starting point but do not overlook shallow water and anywhere there is current. As water temps begin to drop and as long as the bait is still actively moving big fish can be found shallow chasing minnow and shad that have moved into the warmer water. You may find a perch population is some deeper water and that would be a great place to target a trophy walleye as they will most likely be feasting on perch vs little minnows. Devils Lake has a few coulees that flow into or out of it and a few bridges that are also bottlenecks. These areas offer current that moves the bait through like a buffet line. You can bet there are some hungry walleye hanging out on the current seams.
You can catch fish all season long on Devils using several techniques, but I have had my best success in the fall using Glide Baits around the underwater structure or bridges. If that’s not working, I will give the shallow water bite a chance by pitching some sort of paddle tail plastic up into the trees or rocks on the windblown side and just dragging it back to the boat along the bottom methodically. When all else fails, get out the Lead core and start trolling the break lines and outer edges of the deep-water structure. Your opportunities are nearly endless in North Dakota with two of the best walleye fisheries in the upper Midwest. I know it’s tough to decide which outdoor activity you want to do on a beautiful fall day but trust me when I say there isn’t such thing as a bad day outdoors. It’s good for the mind, good for the soul and hopefully good for your dining room table.
Brian Bashore is a Professional Walleye Angler and Guide on the Missouri River in South Dakota. He is also the regional director for National Wildlife Federation and the President of the National Professional Anglers Association. Visit
www.thewalleyeguys.com to learn more.