Fall Crankbait Trolling

I really like fishing crankbaits. I try to be versatile and catch fish with the most practical technique, but if I had my choice I would fish crankbaits 365 days a year. Absolutely nothing beats a big fish grabbing a crankbait and stopping an inline board dead in its tracks. Personally I feel like March and most of April is the single best time to catch potentially huge fish on crankbaits. Next to early spring the late fall season is a close second for catching big fish by trolling crankbaits.

I primarily fish from Cedar Point to Vermilion in October through December, but the islands and plenty of other areas can also be fall hotspots. Depending on the weather both day and night fishing can be great. The name of the daytime fishing game is not just finding fish, because the Huron area will usually be littered with great marks in the fall. The real key is to find the right combination of good marks and the right amount of baitfish, and then figuring out where the most active fish are in the water column. I would argue that the best time for cranks is with water temps in the mid 50's all the way down to just above freezing, with the mid to lower 40's being exceptional.

We all know about a walleye chop and how wind can fuel fantastic bites. However, in the fall I'll take a near glass calm day over anything else. It might mean moving the boards farther from the boat than you're used to (I've run the outside boards as far as 200' away from the boat), but the payoff can be substantial. Some of my best fall days have been extremely calm and the best bite came later in the afternoon after the water had warmed up because of above average air temperatures and sunlight. It seems like the fish really get active in the top ten feet when shad are concentrated in the slightly warmer surface water. As I mentioned earlier the trick is to find active fish within the water column after you've found the right amount of bait with hooks under them.

I'll usually start by looking for a decent amount of bait. I try to avoid thick layers of bait. If you're getting false bottom readings because the shad are so thick you should probably keep looking. One of the keys is looking for bait schooled into tight balls. This will usually happen towards the edges of bigger bait schools, or even well away from the biggest schools. You will most likely see lots of big hooks (the walleye) in the bottom half of the water column and the baitfish will be in almost perfectly round balls in the top 10 feet. You can run your crankbaits deep just above the big marks, but you might go the entire day with a few hits or none at all. The best feeding activity will normally be in the top ten feet, at the bottom edge of the bait clouds. I let the shad depth determine my crankbait depth, not the depth of the big hooks. If the baitfish is scattered or the marks are inconsistent either look for a different area or spread your crankbaits out across the water column to figure out what depth is best.

If you find a great area you will usually see hooks literally diving into the bait balls, or you might see tight bait balls that are too high to mark the walleye diving into them. Either way, if you find the tightly schooled shad don't even mess with running your cranks deep, put them all up in the top ten feet making sure to cover the depth at the bottom of the bait marks. It will usually mean running ripsticks 20 to 100' back or deep reef runners from 10 to 20' back. Rogues and husky jerks can be great, but they are usually best with the water temp in the 30's. If you're used to fishing deep it can really be hard to switch your mentality to running so shallow, especially when you are still over 30 to 45' of water. At the very least you should always one bait up high with others running deeper. If the high bait gets hit start running the other lines shallower. You will by far catch the most and biggest fish up high when conditions are right.

As far as color I don't worry about it too much. The fish are mostly eating shad so I will usually start with colors like blue Hawaiian, purple prism, or gold clown to mimic the shad. I also have good luck in the fall with white-based baits such as the wonderbreads, mooneye minnow, white-purple hot tiger, or emerald shiner. I put most of my effort and thought into location, speed and depth, though, compared to color. If you get the baits in front of the right fish color is secondary. For speed I'll usually start out from 1.5 to 1.9 and I'll try s-curves or turns to vary speed. If outside boards get hit (the ones speeding up) I'll start running faster, or if inside boards consistently get hit (the ones slowing down) I'll reduce my speed. Sometimes a simple change in speed alone is more important than your actual speed. 1.7-1.8 mph (gps speed over ground) seems to be a fall sweet spot for speed.

If the water color is stained you might want to try darker baits like purple demon or bright baits like firetiger. Generally I'll look for clearer water, but fall blows can limit clarity. When you can't find water clear enough to see your lower unit try dark or bright colors. If you can see your lower unit and even your prop on the big motor, make sure to start with natural color crankbaits. My favorite conditions are when the water is clear enough to see my prop, but with a green tint that isnt gin clear. When my crankbait disappears in mud as soon as it goes under the surface my confidence drops.

As a general rule run your shallowest baits on the outside lines and your deeper baits on inside lines. Since I usually only run 4, or at the most 6 rods, I prefer to clear the inside line(s) when an outside line gets hit and have a clear path to fight the fish. If you do get a fall trophy on it's best to not let it foul with an inside line. At times, though, if you get a good solid pull back on an outside rod it can be easy enough to get it past the inside line and then release the inside line farther out to become the outside line. This lets you keep fishing while you fight the fish that you have on.

In an area with active walleye up high it's not unusual to have 2 or 3 fish on at once even when you only have 4 rods out. If you find an area like that immediately double back on it and stay on them. I put waypoints in immediately on each hit so that it's easier to identify the best spot within an area. This time of year it's almost 100% walleye and the waypoints are easy enough to erase if it does end up being a drum or something else. In open water waypoints are your only landmark compared to nearshore trolling where you might not need them. I will usually slow down to fight a fish, and if you feel the need you can come to a complete stop if you're running all crankbaits (since they won't sink and snag). You'll be amazed at how many additional hits you'll get when you take back off from being stopped to fight a fish.

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