Fresh Fall Focus: Kayaking Coldwater Walleye - The Fisherman

Fresh Fall Focus: Kayaking Coldwater Walleye

Don’t lay up those kayaks for the winter just yet!

When the cool, autumn air moves in, I generally have my sights focused on hunting. However, I have always had a keen interest in getting into some cold weather fishing as fall leads into early winter, and sometimes, just having that right connection triggers the right motivation.

Blade Baits
“These are the exact Blade Baits I used that day”, the author noted while tending his article for The Fisherman Magazine.

For me, that connection came mid-October of last year when I crossed paths with one of my longtime Facebook fishing friends Pat Gallagher for the first time in person while muskie fishing close to my home. Pat, whom I consider an expert fisherman, has truly a vast wealth of fishing knowledge and is well-versed in many different types of fisheries. After a lengthy conversation while sitting in our kayaks, he asked if I’d be interested in having a go at jigging for walleye once the weather cooled off in a few weeks up north.

When it comes to fishing, you don’t have to twist my arm or ask me twice, especially when it’s an opportunity to learn a totally different type of fishing.  And jigging was something that I had never attempted.

Gearing Up

Pat and I had messaged each other back and forth over the span of several weeks, as I wanted to be as prepared gear-wise as possible. I opted to set up two rods, both which are 7-foot, medium-action rods each paired with a Shimano 4000 series, medium size spinning reel. I spooled each reel with 15-pound PowerPro braid, attaching a 15-inch piece of 12-pound Berkley Vanish fluorocarbon leader using a surgeons knot.  Pat did mention that you could go as high as 20-pound braid combined with 20-pound fluoro leader for the walleye if need be, but he advised not to go any heavier. I told him that I had purchased several 3/4-ounce Binsky Blade Baits a few months earlier, which he said should work just fine.

Another concern was my kayak, as I am rather quite primitive and only paddle on a Perception Sport sit-on-top. So if trolling was part of this cold-weather walleye game, I might have a problem. Pat is sponsored by Wilderness and has a beautiful flat-bottom Wildy with a pedal-drive making it ideal for trolling.  He told me that we would not be trolling at all and focusing purely on horizontal jigging, so the pedal-driven kayak wasn’t actually mandatory for this trip. He explained that by horizontal jigging rather than vertical, we would obviously have the blade bait cover much more area. I must admit, I was definitely very intrigued.

Watching the weekend weather forecast ahead of our trip, the Saturday looked to be the windier of the weekend days, with Sunday predicted to be much colder but with little to no wind. I suggested that we hit the lake on Sunday, as I’m not a huge fan of fishing in the wind. Aside from the fact that the area had just received 7 inches of snow the day before, Pat agreed and thought Sunday was a wiser choice as well. We wanted to keep as many odds as possible in our favor, so a cold, overcast Sunday it would be.

Pat tested the water temperature before I arrived, a cool 48 degrees, perfect for coldwater walleye!  At 8:30 a.m. the air temperature was 38 degrees, as we had launched our kayaks into the chilly lake water. As we paddled out to our first spot, Pat mentioned how he had caught a monstrous 47-inch muskie one fall while trolling a spoon plug out on these waters as well. “I’ll have to keep that in mind,” I replied, Pat knowing all too well about my adventures with the toothy critters.

a good marbleye
Pat Gallagher pedals his way to a good marbleye aboard his Wilderness kayak. While paddles are adequate for jigging, the pedal-drive also opens up new territory for trolling

Boulder Basics

Our first stop was a huge boulder/island drop-off.  Pat noted that we would mostly find walleye in 30 to 40 feet of water hanging around these drop-offs.  I listened closely and watched attentively as my “mentor” explained the method of retrieving the blade bait as he made the first few casts of the day. “The important part to jigging is to develop the right cadence,” Pat explained. “As you retrieve, jig or sweep the bait a bit and let it drop to the bottom briefly,” he told me, adding  “You will feel the action as you jig it up off the bottom Ken and many times the strike will come on the drop.”  With that advice, I began working the Binsky towards to boulder drop-off.

I watched Pat carefully, trying to mimic his methodical retrieval speed and cadence as he carefully worked the area. We had probably fished for about an hour and a half when all of the sudden I heard “Fish on!” Pat had hooked up, and as fast as he could say fish on, it was off again. “That was a muskie, picked up the blade and started peeling line,” Pat exclaimed. “And then broke off my fluoro leader.”  Shortly thereafter, he did hook and land the first fish of the day, a huge crappie. “Not really what we’re after,” Pat said while releasing the big slabside back into the lake.

Our next stop was over a very long, underwater finger that also had a couple submerged islands near it. As we paddled over the area, Pat marked a lot of fish on the depthfinder. A slight breeze started to pick up as we set up our first drift at this spot. Half an hour into it, once again I heard “fish on Ken” as my mentor landed the first walleye of the day. A tad too short for the stringer, he was released to fight another day. Then in just a matter of minutes, he landed another big crappie.

In light of all of the action Pat was getting at this point, I was beginning to doubt my jigging methods a bit. “I don’t suppose you would happen to have another one of those Johnson ThinFisher Blade Baits in that color would you Pat,” I asked.  Pat smiled and offered me a few options; I hooked on the exact color that he had been casting and on the next drift it was my turn to shout fish on!  Just as I’d exclaimed “it feels pretty decent” the line went slack.  At least I finally had one on and knew somewhat how the strike felt.

With that, snow flurries lightly began to dust the cold afternoon sky, as we moved to another sharp drop-off across the lake.

the ice during the dead of winter
New Jersey walleye are a “fish for all seasons”that will hit deeper in the summer, nearer the shallows in late fall, and are even available through the ice during the dead of winter.

First Of Many

As the morning wore on, the wind had changed in our favor and was literally blowing us slowly parallel to the drop-off; it seemed like it was a perfect drift. Pat explained that we were very close to the shoreline because right at the edge of the water it literally dropped off 30 feet. We began to drift side by side and simultaneously began to work the blade baits into the icy depths. Pat picked up a nice walleye on that first drift, but again, this one was just a little short and was released. Thereafter, he found a “ghost anchor line” and got hung up again. 

While Pat wrestled with the snag, I paddled my way back up along the edge of the drop-off for another drift. I made my second cast towards a partially submerged smaller rock pile literally 10 feet from shore. As the blade bait sunk to the bottom, I began to work a smooth cadence between retrieving and jigging it back.  By drop number three, I was reeling back on a good ‘eye. 

“Hey, I’ve got a nice one,” I yelled back to Pat who by now was paddling back up towards me. The fish dove under my kayak as the drag screamed, and I carefully walked my line around the bow for a better chance at netting the fish. I quickly switched hands holding my rod and went for the net, slowly bringing the thick-bodied walleye to the surface and into the net.  My first “jigged” coldwater walleye turned out to be a 22-inch keeper.

“Congrats Ken, I’m so happy you got a good one,” Pat said as I proudly hooked my catch on the stringer, as this delicious fish would indeed be a meal fit for a king in my book.

We fished for another hour or so, and I landed another smaller walleye before we called it a day. By the end, our hands and feet were frozen; it never did get above 35 degrees on the lake.  It was quite the cold-water Adventure to remember, with my good friend Pat Gallagher.

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