By Jason Wright, Ultimate Outdoor Adventures TV
As the fall harvest comes to full swing across west central North Dakota and the pale rolling prairie begins to show signs that our short-lived summer is coming to an end, the brilliant fall colors signal the approach of yet another season of “walleye-fever,” and the Missouri River from the Garrison Dam Tailrace to the North Dakota/South Dakota border just may play one of its most major roles yet of producing great numbers of fall walleyes.
Some of the finest walleye fishing of the year often takes place during the fall months of September, October and November. And, the Missouri River is no stranger to producing great catches of walleyes during the fall migration from Lake Oahe to the northern reaches of the Missouri River, but the trick is to locate where the bite is, and to match your presentation to the disposition of the fish. Contrary to the spring walleye migration, fall walleye fishing on the Missouri River can be as unpredictable as the fall weather, and from my past experiences, it’s not unusual for this river system to produce some of its best catches and largest walleyes during the most brutal weather conditions. And, similar to most walleye infested waters, the majority of large fish caught this time of year are females on a feeding frenzy timeline in order to nourish their developing eggs prior to the many months of frigid water temps before the spring spawn.
Comparable to the spring walleye migration, the fall is a great time for those that aren’t as familiar with a river system to get their feet wet as schools of fish begin to migrate north from Lake Oahe staging in various breaks and/or slack current areas of the river, south from the cities of Bismarck and Mandan to the South Dakota Border. Although, good fishing can be found within portions of the river throughout the entire year – if you know where to look for them and how to fish for them – it’s the spring and fall walleye migration that causes unmistakable symptoms of “walleye-fever” for most avid “river-rats.”
Unlike lake and reservoir walleyes, river walleyes have to fight current all or most of their lives; therefore, they have learned to adapt to structure and/or areas that provide current breaks (areas of less or no current) so they don’t have to struggle against current all the time. A current break is caused by anything that partially blocks, completely blocks, and/or diverts the river’s current allowing for less or no current. These slack current areas can oftentimes be identified by the unmistakable “oil-slick” appearance on the surface separating the main current from the slack or no-current area; hence the term current break. Most slack water areas are found behind and/or alongside exposed and underwater sandbars. However, other obstructions that can cause current breaks are rocky riprap, wing dams, stumps or fallen trees, as well as man-made obstacles such as bridge pilings.
The key to locating river walleyes during the fall is to start by finding the river channel and then begin looking for areas of slack current and/or the “oil-slick” on the surface nearest the channel. Walleyes will be using the channel to migrate in search of the slack water in order to ambush prey; therefore, key in on anything that might jut out towards the channel or hard bends in the river which might act as a funnel or magnet for both baitfish and walleyes funneling them into the slack water and thus possibly narrowing your search.
Once you have pin-pointed such an area, begin presenting your bait in a natural manner along the current break. During the fall, most traditional summer techniques will continue to produce fish; however, I focus on either trolling larger shad imitating crankbaits such as the new Berkley® Flicker Minnow and/or presenting jigs tipped with either Berkley® Gulp!® Alive™ 3” or 4” Minnows or 3” Minnow Grubs. Another great bait/presentation which has really caught the attention of many open water anglers is the use of jigging raps, and the fall is a great time to experiment with this otherwise well-known hard water presentation. Jigging raps can be jigged vertically as well as pitched out and retrieved with a sweep and drop motion.
No matter the presentation, I recommend starting towards the tail end of the slack current area where there is slightly more current and troll your way up into the slack water. The rise and/or fall of the river level can oftentimes dictate where walleyes will be located, for example; if the river level is dropping, walleyes have a tendency to seek deeper water near the current in fear of being trapped in the shallower water, and the opposite is usually the case when the river level is rising. During stable water levels I usually begin presenting my baits in depths from 5 – 15 feet in hopes of finding the shallow “feeding frenzy,” but since the active bite may have taken place during low light conditions, I won’t overlook deeper water near the river channel where walleyes might be resting prior to the next frenzy or migrator northward, especially when the water temps begin to drop during late fall.
Unpredictable cold fronts of the Dakotas can oftentimes bring with them rain, sleet, wind and snow during the fall which can actually “jump-start” a feeding frenzy by causing water temps to plummet from 70 degrees to near 50 degrees. This sudden drop in water temperature can trigger large schools of baitfish to scatter, while at the same time walleyes will seek areas such as the current breaks and funneling spots mentioned above, which attract and/or funnel roaming baitfish. As the baitfish begin to congregate along the current breaks and filter or funnel into the slack water, walleyes take advantage of this opportunity while using these current breaks/slack waters areas to ambush the roaming bait. As the fall season progresses and the average water temperatures remain lower, the best days on the water will be the warm sunny afternoons after the water has had a chance to warm slightly.
My fall bait theory is…bigger is better, in fact, I don’t think there is a better time to go big than during late fall and just prior to ice-up. When the water temps begin to rapidly cool down, walleyes begin to get sluggish and are not as likely to expend a great deal of energy on nothing more than a snack; therefore, bulk up and slow your presentation down as the water temps drop. But, in retrospect, the fish will be the determining factor as to where they will be located, how active they are, and whether they want a snack or a meal.
Will the stars align, is it possible “Walleye-Fever” will spread like a raging wildfire this fall, could this possibly be the start to one of the best fall fishing seasons, or will it simply come and go like the rising and setting sun, only to go through the motions with a few hot days on the water? I cannot answer those questions, but I will say that the pieces are pointing towards the possibility of a widespread autumn fever.