Scenario: Opening day of the walleye season on Mille Lacs Lake, Minnesota’s huge walleye factory. Some years, there’s a great early-season daytime bite. Other years, there’s nary a fish despite the best efforts of thousands of anglers. Until dusk, that is. As the sun hits the horizon, Mother Nature suddenly throws the proverbial switch. During the next 45 minutes, anglers poised to take advantage of changing conditions score limits of walleyes from the formerly Dead Sea.
Off. . . on! From frustratingly fishless to ‘eyes on every line — with virtually nothing in between. How do the fish all know to become active at the same time?
Sometimes walleyes seemingly refuse to bite, even when you’re in the right place, with your baits or lures dancing in front of their eyeballs. Then a little thing like a changing light level sets in, and the fish go wild. And not just on Mille Lacs. Nearly anywhere walleyes swim, they react to changing conditions and become active when conditions are ripe for easy and successful feeding.
Shallow locations accentuate the low light fishing phenomenon. In early spring, for example, walleyes near spawning grounds often are shallower than most people think. Anglers, programmed to fish changes in the physical environment, frequently proceed to the first drop-off outside spawning grounds — typically a good pattern because the first adjacent depth change should collect fish. It might be the proper choice and produce good walleyes during the day. Walleyes, however, may not have the same preconceived notion.
If food and cover are available atop shallow flats, walleyes may linger there, relatively inactive during midday, until the sun begins to set. As it sinks, diminishing light levels give walleyes a superior vision advantage over most baitfish, whose visual acuity dims along with the setting sun. As perch, for example, settle downward to rest their fins on bottom for the night, walleyes rise up and go on the prowl, scarfing up easy meals. A short burst of activity quickly satiates walleye hunger. The following afternoon, another siesta likely will precede the evening fiesta unless wind, clouds, or rain diminish sunlight penetration during daytime hours.
LURKING, LAZING, BIDING TIME TILL DINNERTIME
In spring, walleyes sometimes remain relatively shallow even if cover isn’t readily available. That’s where the warmest water is found, along with the most food. Even if weeds haven’t yet begun to sprout, there’s an incentive to remain shallow, and fish may be slow to disperse to deeper water.
I recall one Wisconsin opener when I saw a school of walleyes lying in 3 feet of clear water in a mud-bottomed, coverless bay at high noon on a bright sunny day. Apparently, they enjoyed soaking up heat in the sun-warmed shallows, despite the immediate lack of lily pad roots, sandgrass, or other nearby cover.
That’s an extreme example that’s still tough to explain, although we see northern pike react the same way on a regular basis. Had some scrubby sandgrass, broken reeds, shallow coontail remnants, flooded brush or timber, or other cover been nearby, fish behavior would have made more sense. Perhaps cover lying a hundred yards distant was nearby enough for those walleyes. And they didn’t want to bite anything tossed in their general direction.
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