By Brent Frazee
Jason Mitchell can’t wait for fall temperatures to start a slow descent in North Dakota, where he lives.
As the water cools on giant Devils Lake, the big walleyes go on the prowl for food. And some of the best fishing of the year can result.
“What you want is for the water temperature to slowly drop,” said Mitchell, a former guide on Devils Lake who now hosts a syndicated television show. “Sometimes, it will get better day by day.
“It will start when the water drops into the lower 60s (degrees). It can last all the way into late November and early December.
“It’s just a great time of the year to catch walleyes.”
That’s true not only at Devils Lake, but other famous fisheries on the Great Plains as well. Lake Sakakawea, also in North Dakota, Lake Oahe in South Dakota, the Missouri River in both states, and Lake McConaughey in Nebraska also produce outstanding fall fishing.
The obvious reason is that the walleyes are feeding up for winter. The forage is more active in the cooler water and sometimes make a fall spawning migration. But don’t overlook the fact that there is far less fishing pressure.
“There aren’t nearly as many people out on the lakes in the fall,” Mitchell said. “And I really think that helps the fishing.”
The key is determining the primary forage the walleyes are preying on and pinpointing where they will be.
At Devils Lake, the walleyes feed on young-of-the-year white bass and yellow perch, in addition to invertebrates.
The composition of the bottom structure will determine where that forage will be, Mitchell said.
“Any type of hard bottom is best in the fall,” Mitchell said.
“Up to 90 of this lake has soft bottom. But there will be deep-water points that have a lot of rock. Submerged road beds with rock in the ditches, and the water along bridges are also good.
“If you find rock, there’s a chance it will hold walleyes.”
If Mitchell is fishing an extended hard-bottom area such as a long road bed or a flat with scattered boulders, he will often troll with crankbaits or live bait rigs. If he is fishing a smaller area, such as the submerged tip of a point, he will use spot-lock on his trolling motor and fish vertically with a Jigging Rap or a jig tipped with a minnow.
One of the biggest challenges of fishing a lake as big as Devils is determining what depth of water the walleyes are using. They will move shallow in the fall, particularly along weeds that are still green and along rocky banks. But there are always fish that will hold deeper, Mitchell said.
Other tactics specific to other Great Plains lakes.
• At Sakakawea, the walleyes often gorge on rainbow smelt in the fall. Those baitfish often run the river channel in the fall and the walleyes hold on the breaks next to that underwater highway. Mitchell users jigging Raps, live bait rigs with creek chubs or crankbaits to catch those fish.
• At many of the lakes in northern Minnesota, the tullibees make a fall spawning migration and that sets up shallow patterns.
• At Lake Oahe, the deep structure near the old river channel can produce good fishing. “Oahe is a tremendous fishery,” he said. “But it’s like that lake is missing a few year classes of walleyes. There are lot of little fish and the highest number of fish in the 10-pound range that we’ve seen in some time. But there aren’t a lot of fish in between.”
• At many rivers, the migration of spot tail shiners drives the fall fishing.
Mitchell will fish for walleyes up to the last of open water, then he will switch to ice fishing once the ice is safe enough.
He recalls a day on the Winnipeg River when he and a fishing partner tested their resolve.
“We were probably the last ones to use that boat ramp that year,” he said. “We had to put sand down to even use it. It froze over shortly after the day we fish.
“The conditions were just miserable. But we caught some big walleyes.”
Those big ones don’t come along every day. But they’re in some of the lakes and rivers of the Great Plains. Mitchell caught and released a 34-inch walleye, his personal best, on the Missouri River several years ago. And he landed a 28-inch fish a few weeks ago at Devils Lake.
“It takes persistence to catch big walleyes,” Mitchell said. “They don’t come along every day.
“But there’s always a chance.”
Mitchell’s television show, “Jason Mitchell Outdoors,” airs the first 13 weeks of the year on Balley Sports Midwest and Balley Sports North. It also can be viewed on Midco Sports Net, ROKU KOTV, and Wild TV. Go to Jasonmitchelloutdoors.com for more details.