Outdoors

Big baits equals big walleye

Fishing column: Fall is a great time for fishing

Neil Hammargren of Waterloo with a 27-inch walleye that was part of a tournament-winning catch in 2015 on the Mississipp
Neil Hammargren of Waterloo with a 27-inch walleye that was part of a tournament-winning catch in 2015 on the Mississippi River at Bellevue. (Doug Newhoff/correspondent)

BELLEVUE — When can a simple plan be almost a sure bet?

The answer is that time of year when the weather turns cold but walleye fishing on the Mississippi River gets hot.

Waterfowl are moving overhead. Frisky whitetail bucks occasionally plunge into the river and cross the channel in pursuit of a provocative doe against a backdrop of brilliantly colored hardwoods. A frosty chill in the air numbs your face and waters your eyes as you motor along.

Fall has arrived, and so have tremendous opportunities to catch the fish of a lifetime up and down the big river.

Some of the best days I’ve experienced on the Mississippi — fun fishing and tournament fishing — have taken place in October and November. As the water temperature dips into the 50s and then the 40s, walleyes that have been hard to find for a couple of months start showing up again in the main channel or very close to it where they put on the feed bag in preparation for the long, cold winter.

Catching trophy walleyes in the fall is largely a matter of location, big baits and presentation. Typically, we get our most stable river conditions in October and November. The flow is low, water clarity is excellent and when you find a group of fish they will often stay in an area for extended periods.

One October day on Pool 4 of the Mississippi, the bite was slow while trolling shad-imitating baits and bouncing minnow-tipped jigs at the head of Lake Pepin. I changed tactics, moved into a cut parallel to the main channel and caught a 31-incher trolling a No. 13 Floating Rapala.

A few hours later, I moved down into the lake and caught a 30-incher pitching a 1/4-ounce jighead tipped with a four-inch plastic tail to a particular spot along the rocky shoreline that features an underwater point, a gravel shelf where fish can move up to feed and a sharp break-line where they slide off until it’s time to chow down again.

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On the tournament circuit, my partner Neil Hammargren of Waterloo and I have taken days of going nowhere and turned them into something special.

One of our most memorable days occurred on Pool 13 at Bellevue, where a restrictive slot designed to protect the most productive breeders in the walleye population (anglers must release all fish between 20 and 27 inches and may keep only one over 27 inches) has created an impressive population of trophy fish.

We were fishing a 2015 Walleye Anglers Trail event. Conditions had been stable, and we found three areas that were holding quality fish in the week leading up to the tournament. The W.A.T. features a catch-photo-release format that allows anglers to count any fish they catch regardless of the slot since they are immediately released.

Neil and I had a great day. We started fishing a hole in a cut adjacent to the main channel with 3/8th-ounce jigs tipped with big plastic while we also dead-sticked a willow cat. We had a five-fish limit in about 30 minutes. After three hours, we’d caught at least 25 walleyes, but we only had two in the 25-plus range we knew we needed to compete with the W.A.T.’s field of exceptional river anglers.

We made a move downstream to our No. 2 spot, which was a finger of submerged rock parallel to shore. Casting large crankbaits, Neil put a 28-incher in the boat and we eventually added a 26 and a 27 to round out an impressive top five on our score card. We never got to our third spot, which was a series of three wingdams on an inside corner of the river.

Later, after we turned in our camera card and score card, we arrived for the video “weigh-in” at a Bellevue events center. Word had trickled out that we had a good weight, and one of the first people to greet us was our good friend — the late, great Hall of Famer Tommy Skarlis.

Tommy, who died a couple of weeks ago at age 55 after a battle with brain cancer, also had a good day with partner Jeff Lahr of Dubuque.

“What do you think you’ve got?” he asked Neil and me.

We didn’t give him a straight answer, so he tried again.

“Think you’ve got 36 pounds?” he asked.

“Yeah, we’ve got that,” Neil answered.

“Think you’ve got 37?” Tommy persisted.

“Yeah, we should have that,” I responded.

At that point, some of the excitement drained from Tommy’s face.

“You don’t have 38, do you?” he asked.

“We might have a little more than that,” one of us said.

Slightly dejected, Tommy walked away to prepare for his role as the circuit’s weigh-in emcee.

Neil and I ended up with what was then a W.A.T. five-fish record of 38.76 pounds (it has since been broken). Tommy and Lahr settled for second at 37.49 pounds.

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We didn’t get the best of Tommy very often, so we enjoyed that victory a little bit more than most.

That’s fall walleye fishing. Big baits produce big fish.

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