August 01, 2012
So€¦between the bright skies and boat traffic and fishing pressure, the successive dog days of summer might have you feeling low and slow and less willing to go out and face the midday vacation crowds -- particularly on weekends. Hard to blame you; after all, anglers shouldn't need to keep one watchful eye on their surroundings to avoid full contact boating while attempting to keep another 'eye on their line.
Admittedly, you can still catch fish amidst the foam and fray, although it often detracts from your overall experience. If you can't stand crowds, the solution is either to go somewhere less popular -- like a shallow river or small lake undiscovered by the boating masses -- or to tackle your favorite lake at a time of day when the masses are still in bed and walleyes are on the prowl. That time of day is actually a time of night.
Night fishing is a welcome relief for those with the desire to fish during midsummer vacation season, but without the means or opportunity to get away from the crowds, at least during daylight hours. Instead, you wait until the sun dips below the horizon, the boaters withdraw, the surface stills, and all's well with the world again until the first personal watercraft greets the new day.
On popular waters, if excessive daytime boating suppresses midsummer fish activity, its absence often seems to spur fish movement and willingness to bite at night. On deep, clear waters known for producing big walleyes, nighttime is the right time to tackle a summer hawg. Best of all, the process is not that difficult; at worst, you lose a little sleep and miss a few summer reruns as late evening makes the transition into darkness. Game on.
SIMPLICITY RULES WHEN WALLEYES RULE THE NIGHT
Ask yourself, if I were a big walleye, where would I be and what would I do come nightfall? It's pretty straightforward, really. With the boaters absent and most baitfish unable to see well enough to thwart an attack, many walleyes move shallow to where the bait gathers: to river or stream inlets or narrows with shallow current breaks. To rocky shorelines against which walleyes can trap baitfish. To shallow rocky reefs where minnows and crayfish abound. To reedbeds adjacent to deep water. To irregularities along the edges of deeper weedbeds that interrupt baitfish movement along feeding lanes rimming the cover. Or up out of and above the same weedcover that walleyes lie in during the day, tucked down beneath the leafy canopy until the sunshine and traffic subsides. Walleyes could be in lots of places. All can be potentially good, but some better than others, depending on the local habitat. And most are potentially shallow, where you can fish effectively despite your innate discomfort and unfamiliarity at functioning in the dark.
Faced with this visually challenged dilemma, keep things simple, allowing your other senses to assist in your pursuit. For starters, perhaps your most universal tactic is to either cast or longline troll a minnow-imitating crankbait that dives just deep enough not to snag too often, yet sufficiently deep to tempt walleyes. That might be as little as a foot or two beneath the surface, although 6 or 7 feet might be the ticket where weeds are scarce and rocks line the bottom. The exact depths and places vary, lake to lake, according to available habitat and how the walleyes react come nightfall. But most of the time, you can't go wrong with a minnow-imitator in relatively shallow water.
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Try casting and retrieving at a slow, steady pace, providing walleyes a chance to zero in on and follow the lure. A couple times per retrieve, pause briefly to mimic a vulnerable baitfish and perhaps trigger a strike. Similarly, when longline trolling 75 or so feet behind the boat, use your electric motor to silently sneak and weave across shallow flats or along shorelines, moving at a slow and steady pace, just fast enough to wiggle the lure, to help fish find it in the darkness. To trigger additional strikes, occasionally sweep the rod tip forward, then drop back. This makes the lure suddenly rush forward like a panicked minnow, then pause like a vulnerable meal. Crunch time. The pump-and-pause is among your most valuable and deadly maneuvers in the darkness. Besides, the brief enhanced vibration as the lure speeds forward will telegraph through your sense of feel whether or not the lure has picked up a weed fragment that might detract from its natural action.
Fancasting or trolling cranks covers territory at a modest pace, but if potential fish-attracting areas are small and specific -- like the top of a small reef or a river inlet -- consider anchoring instead. The strategy now becomes one of repeatedly casting and straining the area for fish that periodically move in and out of the shallows. Cast and retrieve your crankbait, perhaps switching to a neutrally buoyant lure that hangs level beneath the surface, in the fish's face, for as long as you can stand to not move it. Ooh, that's nasty. Or slowly swim a jig tipped with a 4-inch plastic shad body, thumping along subtly in the darkness. But avoid overly fast or aggressive retrieves that make the lure harder to locate and strike.
When times are tough or when stealth tactics prevail, switch to a lighted slip-bobber setup and dangle a live leech just above cover or bottom, letting it drift and dance across the walleyes' noses. They can't resist. When the light goes out, the bobber's down. Time to set the hook.
Casting lightweight lures is best accomplished with spinning gear, typically spooled with 8- or 10-pound-test monofilament. Switching to no-stretch FireLine definitely increases casting distance and enhances your sense of feel, but if you're going to try it, make sure you first become familiar with its use during daylight hours. You don't want to be messing with line tangles in the darkness.
Longline trolling, meanwhile, is also easily accomplished with spinning gear, although some anglers opt for light casting tackle, and perhaps even line-counter trolling reels, to indicate exactly how much line is out. Line length affects how deeply lures might be running, since lengthening your line typically makes lures run slightly deeper, while shortening your line reduces depth. In a pinch, tie a bobber stop on your line about 75 feet above your lure, and feel for it to pass through your fingertips as you let your line and lure out for trolling.
Can you get more sophisticated and aggressive in your night fishing approaches? Of course you can. Will it pay bigger dividends? Possibly, but not necessarily. The basic premise is to employ simple techniques that you can comfortably apply in the dark without becoming all fumble-fingered and frustrated, tangled, and tense. A few select lures or baits, a flashlight, a landing net kept close at hand, and a silent and stealthy approach to walleyes, out there somewhere in the inky blackness, is the best way to start and often the top way to finish. Save the fancy tactics for daylight, unless you're an accomplished night stalker who functions better than most beneath a walleye moon. Speaking of which . . .
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Anytime you can go is a good time, but the interaction of several factors can make a good time even better. Statistics show that the days of, and the three days either side of, the full or dark moons tend to produce the largest fish, along with the days of the half moons. That's a headscratcher, but simply means that the moon's increased gravitational effects during those prime monthly periods apparently trigger an increase in big-fish activity. If we were talking about the ocean, it would be easier to recognize and accept, because tidal effects are greatest and most obvious in such vast bodies of water. Suffice it to say that in much smaller inland waters, increased tidal effects, though typically too subtle for us to notice, probably create mild currents and raise and lower water levels just enough to trigger increased fish and forage activity.
Then, too, the full and dark moons are opposing periods of the greatest and least amounts of visible light. With anglers being visual creatures, it's easiest for us to fish during full moons because we can see better to orient presentations and handle our gear. During dark moons, however, it's flashlight time whenever we need to accomplish even the simplest task. It's often harder to maintain our bearing, be focused, and function with efficiency and enthusiasm amidst the murk. If there's a downside to the full moon, however, it's that the moon's brightness may tend to make the fish move much later after sundown -- like well after midnight -- while during the dark moon, the night bite can kick in shortly after the sunset bite subsides; then it tapers off early enough for you to go home and catch some shuteye before getting up again to be on the water for the sunrise bite. After all, you can always take a midday nap to catch up on your sleep.
All of this is, of course, moderated by the weather, which during summer is typically rather pleasant, barring excessive wind or rain that can turn a quiet and gentle night of listening to nature's subtlest sounds into one of survival of the fittest, pitted against waves slapping against the hull and complicating trolling passes in the dark. Wind, however, does keep the bugs down, although mosquitoes typically lose their swarming ferocity several hours after sundown, and a bit of insect repellent takes care of the rest. Wind can also trigger walleyes to move extremely shallow, right along shore, where they throw caution to the winds by feeding more aggressively amidst the rock and roll of turbulence, unaware of your approach. Wind and waves disguise your presence and any unnatural sounds you make, compared to calm conditions where stealth is at a premium. Shhhh!
In the end, however, it's still a crapshoot, and you never know which conditions will be best come nightfall. So you go when you can and troll with the punches, recognizing that on some nights you'll be most comfortable, while on others you'll earn your catch, although the catching can be mighty good. Fishing is still fishing, day or night, with no guarantees but loads of potential rewards. What you do know, however, is that once the sun goes down, the biggest walleyes in the lake often become most active, targeting the nighttime hours when man's intrusive activities dwindle to a virtual standstill. Except for you, of course, you nocturnal schemer you.