— By Jason Mitchell
Big boulders and rock locations can hold walleye throughout the entire year, but on so many different fisheries these rocky locations seem even more appealing in the fall.
Boulders in deep water — deep is a relative term here that might range from 15 to 40 feet depending on the body of water — are especially productive. Deep structural elements such as points or main lake reefs often hold fish, and rocks or boulders seem to make these locations even better. As a rule of thumb, any rock is better than no rock come late fall, but boulders that range from 2 to 4 feet in diameter are often big fish locations.
Finding the Sweet Spot
Fishing these rock locations is often a spot-on-the-spot affair. The entire reef might be covered with the same type of rock, but not every rock or group of rocks holds fish. As a result, we find that we catch more and bigger fish by picking these locations apart and analyzing them rock by rock.
Finding the sweet spots is often all about finding the right rocks. What we find on some northern Minnesota and Canadian Shield lakes is that some humps or high points on a contour map might simply be one enormous mass of rock that might be 15 feet across or more. That isn’t what we are looking for. In these scenarios, the best rocks might be on the outer edges of a chunk of rock that seems to be the size of a one-car garage.
Other locations might be covered with small rocks that are the size of a bowling ball or smaller, and on one piece of the structure are the boulders described above. These types of boulders offer a lot of crevices and character, and the sweet spots are often gaps or spaces in between the boulders or edges where boulders meet small rock, sand or even mud.
You have to pick your way through this type of structure. Just go in knowing that you are going to get snagged, and you must pay your dues figuring out these locations.
Fish can also get lost in the bottom where it can become difficult to consistently mark them. Side imaging can be a useful tool for gauging the bottom composition. However, I personally believe down view reveals fish the best in these types of locations, and it becomes easier to distinguish fish from rock when the fish are not separating from the bottom.
Fish can also show up on traditional 2D sonar, particularly when they are separating from the rocks. When fish do separate from the rock, these fish are typically aggressive, but the bottom line is that it is easy to miss fish with your electronics when they’re hiding in crevices and blind spots.
Lowrance has a feature called Fish Reveal that combines down view with traditional 2D Chirp sonar that is helpful for finding fish that are lying low, but there comes a point fishing boulders when you just have to fish through good locations, even when you’re not always marking individual fish. You might have to slow down and fish the entire location to pinpoint the spot on the spot. While marking waypoints on electronics is convenient, I still find that a marker buoy is extremely helpful for pinpoint boat control.
Fishing the Rocks
Because snagging is an issue, the key across the board is often simply fishing as vertically as possible. Prominent presentations include classic vertical jigging with either live bait, such as a chub or big minnow, or soft plastics, such as a fluke tail.
Live-bait rigging big creek chubs is a classic fall presentation that accounts for many big fish on a lot of different fisheries. Snap jigging horizontal swim lures such as Rail Shads, Tikka Minos or Jigging Raps can also be extremely productive. The key with all these presentations is pinpoint boat control — moving the boat in increments and hovering — and a vertical presentation.
In wind, I still love to back troll with a tiller, but spot lock capabilities on many trolling motors have made boat control easier. However you go about positioning your boat, just do your best to get straight up and down so you can feel your way through the rock.
Must-have pieces of equipment that are cheap and worth their weight in gold include a classic marker buoy, but also have a hook file in the boat for keeping a point on hooks, because you will be folding over the points on hooks nonstop. Some people like thin wire hooks on jigs just for bending out the hook on snags. The challenge with a premium hook point is that they do bend over easier on rock, and expensive hooks aren’t very durable.
Despite that downfall, I still would rather use a stiffer wire on a hook and a premium hook point as I feel that I lose fewer big fish when the hook doesn’t bend. I simply go through more hooks and touch up the hook as much as needed with a hook file.
For deeper water over 20 feet, I love to use tungsten and feel that the advantages outweigh the expense. Whether I am using an egg weight to hold down a creek chub or a jig, tungsten is louder when you make sporadic bottom contact. In addition to the weight advantage of keeping your presentation vertical and in the cone angle of your electronics, I truly believe the added noise gets more bites.
The Clam Pro Tackle Drop Tg Jig is ideal, as this jig is built with a heavy, pure-grade tungsten and has a long-shank premium hook. In many places where I fish, I have a hard time finding good minnows late in the fall, so I like the long-shank hook for doubling up minnows. Thread one small minnow onto the hook and nose hook a second minnow to bulk up the package. You can also bulk up with a soft plastic and add a small minnow on the back.
When rigging big chubs, don’t be afraid to experiment with leader length. Many anglers like to keep chubs on a short leash just to keep these athletic baitfish close to the bottom, but there are times when you must go with a longer snell to keep out of snags.
I like to start out with a larger size #1 or #2 wide-gap octopus or Kahle hook on a 12-pound mono snell and range my snell between 2-6 feet. On some tough bites, especially in clear water, I feel that I get more bites by dropping down to a snell as light as 6-pound test.
When you must use longer snells with chubs, clip off the tails and back fins with a line clipper so the chub doesn’t have so much horsepower. I get the best action and durability if I run the hook just through the top lip. On big chubs, don’t be afraid to run a small treble hook off the back of the snell like a stinger hook if you are missing fish.
Once you get dialed into the location, simply hold the weight off the bottom straight down from the boat where you are not dragging the weight on the bottom. Scoot forward 10 feet and stop as you pick your way through the rocks. You typically know when you are about to get hit because the chub goes ballistic.
Over the past 10 years, jigging horizontal swim lures has become extremely popular. These lures typically shine with an aggressive snap and cadence, and what continues to amaze me is just how hard fish will hit these lures.
If I miss fish or if I’m just getting frustrated by soft bites, I always try to throw a Rail Shad or Jigging Rap down before I pull my hair out and leave. It is surprising how often this presentation can turn a day around — the reaction bite is like a light switch turning on. The fish are just there when you snap the rod tip back up.
As you can imagine, rock is hard on these lures and can sometimes lead to broken fins. The Salmo Rail Shad is durable with a polycarbonate fin and has a wicked vibration that more resembles a crankbait. Clam Pro Tackle has a new lure called the Tikka Mino that features a one-piece zinc-alloy body with durable fins that won’t break off.
The key with all these lures is the cadence. After working these lures all day, I typically have blisters on my fingers. That is how hard I snap these lures to get them to work.
These rock patterns often produce big fish for us, and fall is often a prime time to fish these locations. While the general locations might not be a secret, the spot on the spot often takes some detective work to dial in. Some anglers get deterred by the snags and lost tackle, but if you understand exactly where to fish with some of these methodical, vertical approaches, these locations become less intimidating and less frustrating.
About the Author: Jason Mitchell hosts the TV program Jason Mitchell Outdoors on Fox Sports North and Fox Sports Midwest. Additional programming can be found on the Jason Mitchell Outdoors YouTube Channel.