The Fall Walleye League

Posted: October 29, 2010 in Recent Reports

As I stepped out into my garage, also known as “the fishing shrine” by my neighbors and loving spouse, the air still faintly reminiscent of cool harbor water and stale fish slime, I made somewhat of a bee-line to my tackle collection. It was late, I had a long day at work, but with the kids tucked-in and my wife already upstairs for her evening soak in the tub, I had to take advantage of the time I found available. I had already begun to stack and pack the toys and miniature vehicles that kept my kids busy all summer long. However, with the unseasonably warm temperatures of late, some of those items had curiously made their way back out and had been left almost deliberately in my way. A Dad’s work is never done I suppose.

I intended to put the final nails in the coffin on my fall salmon fishing by stowing all of that gear. It was a great season, and I will keep many fond memories with me for years to come, but I had to make ready for the final open water push of fish. The equipment I utilized in the harbors up North was still lounging around the boat, cluttering up my tackle bench, and needed to be quickly inventoried in case I happened upon a sale over the winter on what may have been lost during battle.

As I was finishing up and closing my tackle bag, I came to the realization that I needed to incorporate some of the shallow-running jerkbaits I just put away into my fall walleye bag. The tried and true Husky Jerks, Rattlin’ Rogues, Storm Thundersticks, and Yozuri’s that I just packed away for next year’s salmon season need to come back out if I expected to be able to find the trigger for those wary Fall walleye. After all, the stereotypical jig n’ twister just doesn’t cut it every single time.

Over the past several weeks I have been conversing with a group of core anglers that frequent the same social circles as myself about having our own “League Night”. You know, like bowlers have a league night where they get together, enjoy a few rounds of their favorite sport, maybe a couple cold beers, some nachos, etc… you get the idea. I myself am not a bowler, well at least not anymore, with shoulder surgery, tendinitis flare-ups, how silly I look in those awful vinyl shoes, well I digress.

Anyway, last fall we organized a similar arrangement with some folks from fishing-headquarters.com, only it was dubbed as something more competitive, and interest seemed lacking at the time. For unknown reasons that year’s walleye bite on our chosen fishing grounds was far below average considering the location. More than a few of us left the river without as much as a bite most if not every night. It left a bitter taste in my mouth, but it also left me wanting something more out of the next season.

So, with a goal in mind, I set out on a quest to find as much information about prime walleye waters in my local arena. Many rivers and lakes came to mind, but none were as prominent as my hometown flow, the Fox River. It was local for some and within a reasonable driving distance for the others. Currently, the gauges in Montgomery were showing it at or near normal pool, and a slow steady flow. The Fox River has a reputation for good numbers of both stocked walleye, and even some healthy roll-overs from the Chain-of-Lakes upstream. As a bonus, it was virtually an unknown body of water for most of my fellow “Leaguers”. It was perfect water for some exploring, some fishing, some learning, and hopefully some good times amongst friends.

My plan was simple, and the word went out. We would start at the furthest point North within a reasonable distance and work our way South, fishing every Monday night after work. I began scouting the season opener location weeks in advance. I utilized all of the tools at my disposal; current digital maps, recent reports, past reports, local bait and tackle shops suggestions, and even the advice of a highly respected river sage, Ken Gortowski.

Ken and I prattle back and forth on occasion, sometimes about our exploits on and around the Fox river, and sometimes about what amounts to be almost nothing at all. Regardless of the topic, it’s always a pleasure to hear from him, and I’m equally delighted to absorb any ounce of knowledge he is willing to impart. Nevertheless, after all was said and done the current conditions of the river, a suitable nearby parking lot, and some quality information derived from previous years reports (this will be a point to note later), all pointed to my choice for the Fall Walleye League’s opener, Lion’s Park in South Elgin, IL.

The surrounding area held many prominent features that would point to a likely haunt for feeding fall walleyes. For starters, it was directly below a rather large man-made dam that was practically impassible for migrating fish thus making it a roadblock of sorts for staging fish. Below the dam there is a long stretch of winding riverbed that was sure to contain a multitude of current washed holes and pools which would make excellent holding areas for fish during the warmer months. Through that area was also a very prominent “neck-down” around the islands just to the South of Lion’s Park. It’s areas like this that I look to for their ability to concentrate fish as well. With only a small area for the water to travel through, fish on the move would surely utilize this water, as well as the slack water “rest-stops” directly below and above. This gave our group a nice section of river to pick apart from top to bottom over the course of our inaugural session.

So when the day finally came, and arrangements were made, myself and two other earnest anglers were the only ones without scheduling conflicts to bar us from putting the plan in motion. Local guide and prominent outdoor writer Cory Yarmuth of Legend Outdoors was the first to arrive shortly before daylight took its last breath. In fact he beat me to the location and called me while mid-river to confirm his arrival and offer an update on conditions. He had already tied into a healthy river smallmouth bass near a lay down, and even though he observed some alarmingly low water levels, his optimism was clearly discernible over the sound of rushing water beneath him. I assured him I was merely moments away, and ended the conversation struggling to find reprieve from the glaring ball of fire now looming right at the sparse treeline directly in front of me.

As I jumped out of my car and began “suiting-up”, the sun was now completely set, and it’s remaining ambient light was just enough to guide my tired hands around the various buckles, snaps, and loose clothing to get me comfortable and on my way towards the water. I was already tied up with a 3″ Matzuo jerkbait in a river shiner pattern that I had taken a liking to many seasons ago. As if by instinct, I began breathing heavily through my nose to dwell in the thick aroma surrounding me. It was 70% burning leaves and twigs along with the faint smell of food cooking over an open fire. The smell was savory, not just the food but the leaves too, I could almost taste it. That quickly brought to my attention that the remaining 30% was mixed vehicle exhaust and river water.

Not just any river water smelled like the Fox. With an overabundance of urban sprawl surrounding its shorelines, treatment plant effluent now makes up a large portion of the river’s water supply. Years of farm and roadway run-off have changed the once rock strewn babbling waterway into an inconsistent mix of silt, muck, gravel, and the odd rock bar here and there. I’ve known folks to be turned off by this river smell, but flashes of my childhood spent chasing crawfish and battling the occasional river fish danced through my head as I casually strolled to the water’s edge.

I spotted Cory a ways down river standing just off-current from a nice laydown and I made my way slowly towards him. The river clarity was poor, hardly 3 or 4 inches. Even in the dusk’s dim light, I could tell the grey/brown turbid water was not normal for the river this time of year especially without any recent rain. Yellow, red, and orange leaves cascaded downstream passing me occasionally, spinning around in the current like miniature sailboats caught in a squall. My movements through the water were extremely clumsy and even though I was only walking through shin to knee deep water it was difficult to smooth my steps and feign grace.

The cool water on my legs felt strangely comforting, and as I got nearer to Cory I slowed my pace slightly, just enough to be almost gliding along with the river at its flow rate. We exchanged pleasantries, a few words about this and that, and like trained soldiers we began to work the current seams and channel edges with our offerings. Even though neither of us had spent any significant time at this location before, we knew what to look for, and we started hitting our marks right away.

Without much time to get into my rhythm, I was alerted to the arrival of another “Leaguer”, Brian Toth. Brian is a newcomer to the world of river wading, but with a few trips around the area and some help from his fellow anglers he has become a decent stick. His eagerness to learn and love of the outdoors has earned him due respect amongst his peers. Brian dispensed with the formalities and quickly took his position opposite Cory and began working the east side of the river.

By now the ambient light from the setting sun gave way to the artificial gloom of distant streetlights and nearby homes. Three-wide we all moved steadily downriver, conversing without losing step, slowly spreading out and slipping into the sanctuary of the river. With headlamps flitting about to my left I concentrated on each individual cast and crawling retrieve. In my mind I was imagining the river bottom I was attempting to cover. I could feel the difference in contour, transmitted like Morse code as my jerkbait struck rocks on the shallow flat to my right. Then losing contact as it came down the small grade to the smooth river channel I was walking through.

As we progressed along minor changes in the river gradient, some snags and momentarily foul-hooked carp kept us on our toes. All the areas I had marked out, examined diligently and painstakingly explored felt the deliberate prodding of our offerings. The anxious feeling you get as you finally feel yourself slip into your groove, when you feel that any second now you will be ripped from your harnesses of concentration…… lasted for what must have been hours.

Time slowly ticked away unbeknownst to the three anglers immersed in the damp night air and the ambiance of an ashen sky fleetingly speckled by distant faded stars. The river gave up not a single fish to the three men so intent on cracking this nut. A few missed hits, some lost jigheads, and a better understanding of this miniscule stretch of river weren’t the only things the “Leaguers” walked out of the water with this evening.

As I had mentioned earlier, previous years reports have indicated that sometime around the middle of October, after the harvest moon, is the general starting point for good walleye fishing on the Fox River. That’s been historically when the numbers have been good enough from reporting anglers to consider a “good bite” to be happening. Of course every year is a little different, with different flow rates, temperatures, and conditions dictating the quality of the bite.

After sifting through my research I can honestly say that last year and the preceding 4 years have shown a steady decline in the reported fish caught during this part of the season. I have some fairly reliable sources, and most of them have begun to see the pattern developing as well. The steady decline in reported fish catches, especially those of the gamefish, is a matter of concern for all folks who consider the Fox River as one of their favorite places to wet a line. I don’t know if it’s due to the massive flooding we experienced a couple years ago and previously in the late 90’s, or if the recently ceased pollution from chemical dumping by a company in Elgin had anything to do with it. Whatever is causing the decline is not immediately apparent to me, so it’s anyone’s guess at this point.

You would think that the “Leaguers” would be downtrodden and disappointed in the results from a fishless night on the water, but in fact just the opposite was true. We left the river that night with smiles on our faces and anticipation for another shot at it next week. However, there was one unfortunate consequence I suffered from this trip. Just that little bit of down and upstream wading took its toll and made me realize just how out of shape I really was. I’d like to think some of my soreness also came from the occasional heavy chuckle I enjoyed while listening and telling some great stories on the water. After all, what good is it to experience a night like this, and enjoy the river from this perspective if you can’t share it with others?

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