I have spent hundreds of days running crankbaits in the fall for big walleye. Most of this time has been spent on three of the world’s best trophy walleye fisheries; the Red River, the Winnipeg River at Pine Falls (including Traverse Bay) and Tobin Lake (Saskatchewan River). Each present its own unique set of the challenges, so let’s break them down one by one.
For years the Canadian Wiggler dominated the big fish bite on the Red River in the fall time. Wiley old veterans would troll from Selkirk to Lockport and everywhere in between to catch monster fish. In recent years, these baits have fallen off the angler radar for the most part but believe me, when the conditions are right they will still catch big walleye! I can remember one year, back in 1984 when a north wind had stacked up a mega school of greenbacks from the “Miracle Mile” all the way up the Lockport Dam.
Lure selection was not a problem when the bite was this hot, just get a lure that dove to 12 to 14 feet and you had a fish on. In fact that was when the Shad Rap was at the height of its popularity. One other lure that worked well during this time frame was the original floating Rapala fished off a three way swivel. This was best when water clarity was a bit better because the vibration given off was more subtle than a Canadian Wiggler for example.
In recent times, I have found a bait that falls in between as far as action is concerned, seems to work the best. The Berkley Frenzy and the Berkley Flicker Shads combine the best of both worlds, a fairly aggressive action and nice nose to the bottom wobble that big fish like. Last year I landed a brute on a #7 Flicker Shad in 12 feet of water by the Selkirk golf course. In this river, you rarely have to crank deeper than 12 feet so you can run monofilament line if you prefer. I use Berkley Crystal Fireline in 12 pound test on most of trolling reels.
Pine Falls to Traverse Bay—In this section of river you will find some deep water and some deeper fish. Still the most active fish are usually less than 15 feet, depending on current flow. In this case using 10 pound Fireline along with a # 7 Flicker Shad will get the job done in most cases. If current is strong in the river and fish are deeper some anglers will use a bottom bouncer combined with a Deep Diving Rapala Tail Dancer to get down along the sharp breaks, looking for big fish. I have not seen a lot of anglers use leadcore in the Winnipeg River but that could be an option, especially when used in combination with a drop weight. That’s because it becomes critical to keep the lure tight behind the boat in order to follow the break lines in the river itself.
Traverse Bay—This is where trolling with crankbaits on the flats or on channel edges really pays. I can remember a number of incredible days whacking walleye in six to nine feet of water on the mud flats. Having a GPS is also key so you can track your trolling runs and mark the little rock piles that dot the landscape. These will hold roving schools of fish for short periods of time and when this happens you’re in the money. Monofilament 12 pound test is not a bad choice in these shallow conditions. The stretch of mono will act as a shock absorber when these big fish steamroll your bait! A wide range of a shallow running baits will work so carry a selection.
It was the fall of 2002 and we had keyed in on a pattern the year before that was to produce a lot huge walleye over the next 12 years. It was a real dark night, about an hour after sunset when friend Russ Heatherington hooked into the fish of a lifetime. We were trolling crankbaits on the edge of the main river channel when his # 9 perch coloured Rapala Shad Rap got bit and bit hard.
Russ was no were near the bottom when this fish hit. After ten minutes of incredible tension, we got a look at this monster. Finally in the net, we quickly weighed this fish in at fifteen pounds, one ounce! In 2003 we set aside time to fish at night and it paid off in spades. Since that time, we have good nights and bad but the keys are good water clarity and a bit of moon to silhouette your baits to the marauding walleye!