Autumn ‘eyes at night

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Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the October 2006 Walleye Edition issue of FLW Outdoors Magazine. Learn more about FLW Outdoors Magazine and how to subscribe by clicking here.

I used to kid one of my friends, a night-fishing devotee, that fishing at night was only for people who couldn’t catch walleyes during the day. He’d say, “Just try it. The biggest walleyes in the lake go on the prowl after dark. Don’t you want to be out there when they’re biting?”

That makes sense except for the part about sacrificing sleep when we have life aspects like jobs, families and normal daytime activities to pursue. Yet there’s no doubt that whenever fishing and boating pressure takes its toll on midday angling productivity, big walleyes have likely shifted a good portion of their feeding toward nocturnal pursuits. After all, they can see much better than you and I can under the light of a full moon. They can also out-see, out-sense and outmaneuver any baitfish in the darkness. Their eyes gather and magnify the slightest bit of ambient light, and their lateral lines detect vibrations smaller fish miss. No fair. No wonder walleyes like dining on the night shift.

Great Lakes giants

All across North America, big walleyes feed aggressively once the sun goes down. Nowhere is this more evident than on the Great Lakes, where spring and fall migrations toward and into river mouths bring millions of monster walleyes within easy casting distance of millions of fishermen, even anglers fishing from shore – at least for brief periods of time.

“All around the Great Lakes, major rivers draw big walleyes up and into the current flow at night,” said walleye pro Rich Mealey of Westerville, Ohio. “Spring and fall are the main events for night fishing because baitfish also make similar runs into rivers and harbors, pulling walleyes upstream right along with them. In summer, night movements tend to be more shoreline-oriented, particularly where deep water swings in close to shore near islands, rock points, jetties and such. Walleyes tend not to cross expansive shallow sand flats to reach ankle-deep beaches, but they sure don’t mind moving the length of a football field to feed along riprap, concrete breakwalls, or natural rock shorelines where the water is 6 to 15 feet deep. Heck, you can drive to and catch them right off the lakeside concrete sidewalk in downtown Cleveland under the right conditions. How can you beat that?”

Where jetties or manmade structures jutting into the lake are absent, try rocky shoreline points extending out to deep water. The best areas have a deep-water swing-in running close to shore that leads walleyes right up to the bank. If you can find a good place to stand and put your time in, you’re going to get bit, big time. You could blank two nights in a row, and on the third, catch 10-pounders on consecutive casts. It all depends if you’re in the right place at the right time.

During the summer, offshore winds tend to pull cooler subsurface water in toward shore, which is likely to draw walleyes shallow. Everyone knows it’s easier to cast lures with a following wind than into the teeth of an incoming gale. But in spring and fall, the water’s already cool to cold. So the fish could be tight to shore just about any time. If big waves are rolling in, put on a bigger, heavier lure, grit your teeth and heave-ho.

Most Great Lakes night patrollers fish off piers, breakwalls, jetties, bridges, riprap etc. During the peak of a run when the word is out, fishing might be shoulder-to-shoulder in popular spots. At other times, you could have even the prime areas pretty much to yourself.

If it’s crowded, you could don waders and venture a bit farther away from easy access, given safe wind and wave conditions. But be careful. Algae-covered boulders, shifting big-water currents and darkness make for a slippery slope. Wading is more of an option for inland waters with less precarious conditions. Even there, it’s a good idea to carry a wading staff, or use the handle of your landing net to test unfamiliar depths in your path. Be patient, and probe before you leap. It’s better to be safe than soggy.

While all night walleye fishing is similar, the Great Lakes conditions are a bit different than most. First off, the fish are bigger on average and there’s always the potential for multiple giants. Second, the water is usually a bit deeper than the shoreline wading conditions you find on inland waters. So a couple of accommodations are in order.

Your lures don’t have to run in the top 2 or 3 feet of water. Diving crankbaits can get down 5 to 10 feet. You’ll be casting offshore into relatively deep water, and the water a few yards offshore will likely be at least 5 or 6 feet deep. So you don’t necessarily have to use the shallowest-diving model of your favorite minnow-imitating crankbait. Consider the next-deepest running model.

Next, think about using a sizeable lure. On inland waters, a size 14 (14 centimeters, 5 1/2 inches) Husky Jerk would be appropriate. On the Great Lakes, something the size of a No. 18 Rapala (pushing 7 inches, give or take) might be more appropriate. This is one of those cases where bigger can actually be better.

Neutrally buoyant or sinking lures are internally weighted to a greater degree than floating models, making them easier to cast long distances, particularly if there’s an inshore wind. So they’re top candidates in any night-fishing situation. A large Countdown Rapala, one of the few true sinking crankbaits on the market, casts like a bullet, and you can experiment with how deep it runs just by letting it sink to different depths before beginning your retrieve. This is a great way to strain the water column without having to switch lures and retie knots in the dark.

On the Great lakes, we also add rattle baits like the largest Frenzy Rattl’rs, Rattlin’ Rapalas, Cordell Spots or Rat-L-Traps. You’ll probably face some incoming wind and waves at times, and these heavy baits will cast far and make some commotion. If it’s calm, however, they might spook the fish. Switch to something subtler.
In general, try to avoid getting fancy. You’re operating in the dark, out of your league, and in the walleyes’ domain. The best thing you can do is cast out and retrieve back at a slow, steady pace. OK, go ahead and instill the occasional pause to help trigger a following fish, but don’t put lots of jerks and erratic speed changes on the bait. That’s counterproductive.

Inland waters

On inland waters, reservoir anglers witness a similar phenomenon as walleyes move shallow along the faces of dams and causeways come nightfall. Since most manmade boulder structures have fairly steep slopes to deep water, reaching suitable depths with a cast is seldom a problem. The main trick is to fish areas with irregularities that focus fish activity in a limited area. An unusual projection of rocks, a steeper section of the causeway, a creek channel brushing against the riprap, etc. – all some form of high-percentage area likely to lead fish in to you. Bridges with current flow entering the lake are obvious hotspots. The current draws walleyes like a magnet after dark.

Natural-lake anglers typically catch nighttime walleyes in one of several areas. It might be along a rocky shoreline where boulders drop quickly into 3 or 4 feet of water. Shallower, sloping sand flats are simply too skinny to allow walleyes to corner prey – the minnows dash to safety in inches of water. But where a rock wall occurs along shore, baitfish have nowhere to hide.

Narrows between lake sections are obvious fish attractors, whether they have a predominant current flow in one direction or fluctuating flow direction caused by wind-generated currents. Wind from one direction pushes water through the narrows for a time, with the down-current exit from the narrows likely to draw fish after dark. Once the wind subsides, the water pushed into the downwind section of the lake has a chance to flow back again, reversing the current through the narrows. In this situation, walleyes are likely to be at the opposite exit from the narrows compared to where they were the previous evening. Very simply, baitfish go with the flow and so do the predators that feed on them.

While we tend to equate the better fall areas with being main-lake oriented and having immediate access to deep water, there can be exceptions. One good example occurs on fertile prairie waters where the lakes are bowl-shaped, shallow and have few distinctive structures to concentrate fish. Windblown shoreline rock points, reedbeds or weeds tend to draw fish at night, often in as little as 2 feet of water.

“You can’t fish too shallow at night,” said Mina, S.D., pro Rick Olson. “Waders are great, but a lot of the time you can stop the car and cast right from the edge of the roadbed at night. You don’t even have to get your boots wet.”

In the fall, there’s also a migration of frogs and waterdogs from surrounding swamps back into the bays. Walleyes know this occurs, and it’s not unusual for them to move at least to the mouths of shallow bays to intercept the amphibian parade. Some rainy night this fall, if you notice a flock of squiggly critters crossing the highway trying to run the gauntlet on their way from a marsh back into the lake, it’s time to grab a fishing rod and do a little nighttime prospecting where the water meets the road.

From foot patrol to boat brigade

There are indeed so many fall options for an adventurous soul carrying a pair of waders, a fishing rod and a couple of crankbaits tucked into the back of the truck. But if you insist on not getting your feet wet, the good news is that you can fish from your boat as well. The main challenge will be to be keeping quiet and stealthy and reaching out to ultra-shallow walleyes without spooking them.

Enter the long cast with a weighted minnow bait. A neutrally buoyant Husky Jerk, a Rapala Longcast Minnow, or another skinny minnow lure of similar design is ideal for casting to shorelines, riprap, creek mouths – just about anywhere walleyes swim. In this case, however, you’re casting to shore rather than away from it. So you need to select a bait that will run quite shallow during the first few cranks of the reel. Once it digs down to running depth, slowly crawl it along at a fairly steady pace, adding the occasional pause or pump-and-pause to help trigger a following walleye. But don’t overdo it. Don’t make it hard for the walleyes to locate and catch the lure.

Rather than casting directly in toward shore, slant your casts at an angle to the bank as you move slowly along with your electric trolling motor. As the night goes on, you’ll hopefully establish a depth range where fish are most active, be it hugging shoreline rocks, 30 feet offshore where the water deepens slightly or light weed growth occurs, or along some other feature that concentrates fish.

If your explorations indicate that walleyes aren’t particularly reachable near shore but lie a bit deeper out across a flat, then you need to switch tactics. The simplest adjustment is to fancast ahead of the boat as you drift or creep along with your electric motor. Try to establish a productive depth level or an area of fish concentration. A subtle depth change, a transition in bottom type from sand to rock, an inside weedline, a change in weed type – something should be out there in the darkness that draws fish into a particular area.

If the flat is too large to effectively cast, switch to a slow forward-trolling approach with the electric motor. Try longline trolling with Rapala Minnows – long, thin, shallow-lipped balsa minnow imitators with a subtle wobble. On calm, quiet nights, subtler lures seem to perform best in extremely shallow water. If the opposite occurs and the wind is really pounding in, your lure needs to make some noise in order to help fish locate it. Switch to a rattling bait.

Troll minnow imitators on about 100 feet of 8- to 10-pound-test line, using either spinning or casting gear, according to your comfort level. Trolled at speeds just fast enough to impart a subtle wiggle to the lures, mono should take your baits down 1 to 2 feet; no-strech FireLine will increase it to 3 or 4 feet. Point your rod tip straight off one side of the boat and have your partner fish off the opposite side to maintain lure separation and avoid tangles. And yes, every so often, give the rod tip a pump forward then drop it back to make the lure surge and pause, exciting a follower to become a biter. But again, don’t overdo it. Excessive action minimizes fish action.

If you need to get deeper, to run lures just above the tops of boulders or across a sand flat, try adding a couple of split-shot sinkers to the line about three feet ahead of the lure. That should take a No. 13 Rapala down to about 7 feet. In most nighttime conditions, you shouldn’t need to fish any deeper for walleyes that penetrate the shallows.

“When folks think about night fishing on Mille Lacs in Minnesota,” said walleye pro Paul Meleen, a Mille Lacs veteran living in Isle along the shore of the lake, “they assume it’s all about fishing with lighted bobbers and leeches, casting to rock piles from an anchored position. Not so. Many anglers longline-troll minnow imitators in the shallows after dark up near shore when local regulations allow. In fall, however, when the ciscoes that big walleyes feed on move back toward shoreline drop-offs to spawn in the shallows at night, some of the largest walleyes of the year are caught by longline trollers. The fall night bite, particularly around the full moons in October and November, is trophy time.”

Slow trolling allows you to cover water by weaving in snake line passes, moving shallow, then angling out deeper, then back again. Feel for what’s out there and occasionally glance at the depth finder. Somewhere, a pack of fish is using a stretch of thinner or thicker weed growth, a stretch of rocky bottom or something loaded with bait and cover. Once you locate the key section by hooking a fish, you have the option to swing back with repeat trolling passes, fine-tuning them as to depth and direction or to go back to casting. Very simply, use whatever works best.

Keep noise to a minimum. Use a flashlight at the moment of truth to net a walleye, but don’t wave lights unnecessarily or stomp around the boat. Keep a minimum amount of tackle and gear organized so you can find whatever you need quickly and quietly. Clutter and loose lures lying around are disasters waiting to happen.

Night fishing for walleyes can be a surprisingly fun, effective and an exciting way to catch fish. Man is a visual creature, however, and when it comes to functioning after nightfall, no one can compete with a fish that has senses fine-tuned toward functioning in both daylight and darkness. So you do your best, put your time in as well as you can, and relish the eerie anticipation preceding the main event. When a strike occurs, your daytime experience kicks in and your sense of feel and familiarity puts you back on more even terms with the beast below. Until then, you’re the bull in the china shop, and someone turned out the lights. Tread softly if you plan to get bit.

Nighttime is the right time for shallow-water walleyes.

The wading game
For safety reasons, wading at night is best done in pairs or small groups. Let folks know where you’ll be going and when you expect to return. Tuck a cell phone in a waterproof pouch or keep it on shore with your thermos and snacks.

When visibility is reduced, your other senses take over. Your toes feel every irregularity in bottom type and depth. Your legs sense the pressure of current variations. Your hearing is alive to night sounds while your eyes attempt to peer into the darkness, sensing shadows and glimmers in the moonlight. The longer you’re out there, the more you let go of your discomfort and grow better in tune with the world after dark.

Fortunately, you’ve already honed your sense of feel during daytime fishing forays, and that gives you confidence. You feel with the rod for any changes in lure motion. And you’re always anticipating that sudden surge of an unseen strike, nerves on raw edge. Was that the rush and brush of a walleye with a last-second change of mind? Or was it just your imagination?

This is a run-down of the necessities you need:
• A 7- to 7 1/2-foot medium-heavy spinning rod and reel for long casts, spooled with 10-pound monofilament
• Small pocket tackle box with miscellaneous lures and snaps
• Insulated boot foot waders
• Heavy socks
• Sweatshirt
• Hooded jacket
• Rain-suit top or wading jacket
• Gloves
• Lanyard and nail clipper
• Needle-nose pliers
• Flashlight tucked in your wader tops, or a battery-powered headband light
• Landing net either kept nearby on shore or clipped to a hook on your back, much like a trout angler uses, only with a bigger hoop and longer handle
• A stringer if you plan on keeping a fish or two

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