It has been said, about the death of those close to us, that as long as there is memory, those we love remain with us — we're never more than a thought apart, as love lives on in the heart. That sentiment also works for activities we love that we've mostly left behind for various reasons.
The 20 Septembers, chasing elk in high-country Wyoming, bow in hand and backpacking, aspens inflamed on mountain sides, bulls bugling in the distance, lives on in the heart, now that climbing through high country isn't so easy anymore. ¶ So it is with my shorefishing for walleyes. I've always called it "shorecasting." Busy lives and duties that don't allow late nights fishing conspire to limit the times I can go. Yet I've probably spent more total time in waders fishing for walleyes than just about any other single fishing activity in a long fishing life.
Aspects of the process of this kind of pursuit become an integral part of one's life, even life changing, or at least, in some sense, life defining. I am who I am in part because for so many years, during my most formative years of fishing, I spent 30 nights each season shuffling around in waders at the mouths of current areas, casting for those walleye monsters that swim silently through the shallows in search of baitfish (and sometimes leopard frogs).
You stand there hoping and scheming, so much alone with your thoughts, until you find a way to make the catching happen.
Drinking countless cups of coffee by the light of a quarter moon. Some nights, rain, sleet, or snow pelting your back. Standing, too, on those perfect nights, the smell of smoldering leaves in the air, a harvest moon magically rising in the east. And in other ways, defining and redefining the process — the rod, the reel, the line, especially the lures, the spots, the time of year — until the process is a fine science of sorts.
Soon enough, too, having spent the time, paid enough dues, it begins to work so well — those senses so finely tuned in the darkness, so abruptly interrupted by a "walleye pause" in a dead-slow retrieve. And then kneeling there with one of those monsters with quarter-sized eyes — in earliest years, a fish for the wall. Soon enough those fish released, the satisfaction in a photo. The last several decades, no more than a smile and a salute send the big ones on their way. Smaller fish, though, still fare well at my table — even one smaller one the focus of a fine meal.
But again, the midnight trips to catch boot walleyes are much less frequent today. Still, in October and November I feel each full moon rising in these bones. I lie sleepless some nights, wondering how business can interrupt such essence in anyone's life. But we fish, too, if only for a moment, and at some distance, when we have hard-won experiences to remember and the hope of more to come.
I paged through some of our earliest writings about shorecasting and have been pleased by how right we got it more than 30 years ago. The spots haven't changed. Fishing can be good in rivers, but that's another story. In natural lakes and reservoirs the main draw is current, which attracts baitfish. Could be an incoming stream. Outlet areas above a low dam also draw fish at times so long as there's enough water outflowing. The most consistent spots are pinched areas between portions of lakes or reservoirs. Most, but not all, of these spots have a bridge. And the fish mostly gather on the down-current side of the area.
Where exactly they hold is dependent on the structural elements that lie down current. You can make a calculated guess by looking, but you need to fish the area to find out for sure.
One of my favorite spots of all time has a deeper channel running under the bridge between two different lakes. The fish push up into the current in the channel at and after dark. About a long cast down current the channel shallows and bends left, creating a big shallow flat out into the lake. The flat drops off quickly into the main lake about 50 yards out.
Most of the flat is too shallow to hold feeding fish, but you can wade out onto the flat far enough to cast to the deep edge, which holds a lot of fish sometimes, often running suspended several feet down over 10 to 15 feet of water. You need just enough current pushing over the flat to draw baitfish.
We didn't keep track, but the late Gary Rosenberg of Merrifield, Minnesota, my night-fishing partner in my early days in Minnesota, and I probably caught more than 200 big walleyes from this area over the years. On one memorable full-moon night in late October we tallied 6 fish that weighed 69 pounds.
It was one of those perfectly still nights, cold enough to see your breath, and bright enough in the moonlight to see baitfish dimpling the surface, the occasionally walleye fin or tail slicing through it all, playing like the sharks they are. We got to toying with words on the way home and decided we'd had a positively "sharking" experience. After that those kind of calm nights were "sharking nights."
When there aren't obvious current areas, it depends on how the body of water is put together and what it offers for fish to push shallow near shore. Points are obvious spots to try — anything with a hard bottom that projects into the lake. I've also done well at times in shallow prairie lakes, wading the outside edge of shallow rush beds. But this fishing often is inconsistent.
Most of the time you just have to try spots to see what's cooking. When I fished the Iowa Great Lakes region, most of my fishing was at the old Foot Bridge area at the north end of Spirit Lake, a current area most years. It produced into November, but during late season it wasn't consistent. Which is when I spent time exploring on nearby West Okoboji, another beautiful glacial-formed lake with big walleyes.
A ridge of sand, gravel, and rock left by glaciation runs from Eagle Point south maybe a mile to Pocahontas Point. On Eagle Point, once weedgrowth began receding in late October, I could catch fish that pushed in shallow, chasing exposed baitfish, but only on the main-lake side of the point, not the bay side. Yet rarely would Pocahontas produce even though the structure there was fundamentally the same.
And one would have thought the bridge area between East Okoboji and West Lake, where it enters Smith's Bay, which has current flow most years, would have been good; but it rarely was. Yet fish would gather at times on the subtle point on the north shore just a quarter mile or so farther inside the bay to the west. Another glacial ridge runs between Fort Dodge Point and Pillsbury Point. Those points were always inconsistent too, with the fish gathering on rocky spots too far from shore to reach without a boat.
In recent years I've spent time fishing for the giant perch in some of many "scud lakes" in Northeast South Dakota. Many of these lakes have been swelled in size by groundwater the last 30 years. One friend who shore fishes these waters for walleyes, finds potential spots by looking for small sections of rocky shoreline in large bays where most of the shore is sand or mud. Sunken roadbeds can also be good.
At times on prairie lakes like those in South Dakota it's possible to catch fish during the day — typically early morning or late afternoon until dark. On most lakes, though, the best bite is from sunset and for several hours thereafter, or the hour before sunrise until just past sunrise. I like the moon (even a partial moon) to be up to spur the bite, but I've also done well on dark nights. Just go. Darkness is the great equalizer on heavily fished lakes. And most times cold fronts don't have the impact on fishing at night that they do during the day.
Moon Over the Mundane
Don't cut corners on boots, which should be 5-millimeter insulated waders. Most nights you need long johns, warm pants, and a shirt, covered by a hooded sweat shirt. Over it all on the outside of your boots is a hooded rain jacket. I add a down vest in colder conditions and, eventually, late in the season, fleece pants and a jacket before donning the rain jacket or something even warmer. The boots should be a size large so you have room for boot socks. There isn't a lot of walking once you get into position, because you're mostly waiting for the fish to come to you.
A long-handled net acts as a wading staff and to land and handle fish. I tape a 3-foot section of heavy Dacron line to the end of the net handle, using a big snap at the end to secure the net to one of my wader straps, so it's always there when I need it. A flashlight and a small lure box are in the pouch on my waders, and I might have a thermos of coffee and a snack somewhere nearby on shore in a backpack.
We're not alone out there. Curious raccoons are a common visitor and with food on shore can be a nuisance. Mostly they're just fun to have around, especially when you hit them with a sudden flashlight beam. I've seen them stand up on their back legs and actually cover their eyes with their paws to get away from the sudden harsh light.
Mallards sound off in the distance, noisy hens going non-stop for hours on end. Muskrats swim around your boots, looking for a place to rest. So, too, once a beaver that snuck up from behind, it being a toss-up which of us was more mortified upon finding each other at close range. Once, in thick morning fog, with visibility of 30 feet making it difficult to tell where water met the horizon, a ghostly white something seemed to float toward me in the gloom. At 30 feet it became a flock of pelicans, riding shoulder to shoulder and butt to beak to stay together and safe in those conditions.
Muskrats often die ingloriously along nearby shorelines, in a struggle with mink. Owls fly so low you feel them (but don't hear them) go by — and I've had bats touch my rod tip and line, apparently mistaking them for insects. A pair of coyotes once checked me out in the moonlight, the wind blowing offshore, keeping me a mystery. On one remote lake, wolves howled in the darkness, one of the most eerily memorable sounds in the wilderness. Luckily, as some anglers must, fishing western waters such as the Boysen Dam tailwaters in Wyoming, I haven't had to worry about cougars on the hunt after dark.
Critical Lure Criteria
We have a lot of lure options available today that fit the criteria for catching shallow walleyes. These criteria are critical to success, and that hasn't changed since I started more than 40 years ago.
It is firstly about depth control, along with the visual picture of the lure, the flash and roll, and vibration it gives off, while grinding along dead slowly through the shallows. The working speed and the retrieve cadence are second in importance, once you are fishing one of the right lures.
Among the puzzling things in fishing is the penchant for lure manufacturers to sometimes cancel great lures, which is part of the business cycle. They may be great lures, but they don't make money because they don't sell well. Often these lures are higher priced than the competition and they also usually are a little or a lot larger than most anglers feel comfortable fishing — so, again, they don't sell well even though they're terrific fish producers.
So it was for my favorite shorecasting lure of all time, the #13 Husky Rapala, which was around for about a decade in the 1980s. In the early days there were no neutrally buoyant lures on the market, so we made our own, drilling balsa minnow lures and inserting lead shot to make them cast farther, while working slower and getting slightly deeper than floaters. And you could fish them stop and go without them popping to the surface before a walleye could eat them — although overall over so many years of testing, the best retrieve is a straight steady slow grind.
Lure doctoring was in swing among a handful of hardcore shore boys when I started fishing after dark in the Iowa Great Lakes region in the early 1970s. I helped to perfect the process and popularize it, so much so that after writing about it in Fishing Facts magazine in 1978, Ray Ostrom of Rapala (Ray and Ron Weber imported Rapala lures into the U.S., starting in 1960) contacted me about it. He sent me a box of lures, which I doctored for him. I never learned if those lures were in any way the impetus for the introduction years later of the Husky Jerk, the world's first and, probably still today, the foremost of all the neutrally buoyant minnow stickbaits. The folks at PRADCO might argue that point in favor of their Suspending Rogue, another superb option in the category.
Early on I doctored #9, #11, and #13 Floating Rapalas — and 5-inch Bagley Bang-O-Lures. The bigger lures produced more consistently after dark. The fish have to see the presentation before they can strike it. They also have less chance of missing a bigger lure. Plus, the #13 Husky had a bulkier body than the #13 floater, which meant it could hold even more lead. Once doctored to be about neutrally buoyant you could cast it even farther, work it dead slow, make pauses during the retrieve in which it held in place, and it was a big target with a wide wobble. I learned how to produce an even wider wobble by using pliers to pinch the nose eye slightly flatter, then bending it down slightly. It was an exceptional option, especially for bigger fish.
Two other categories proved deadly, remaining so today. In the early 1970s, Mister Twister introduced the revolutionary Curly Tail. When I started using it only 3-inchers were available. This option fished well on a light jighead, being a good representation of smaller baitfish, particularly small bullheads and perch. Later, 4-inchers became available. Four-inch curly tails like the Berkley PowerBait Power Grub are a fine option today — 3-inchers are too small for serious night duty.
In about 1978, Mister Twister introduced the Sassy Shad, the first paddletail with a shad or baitfish body. I fished the 3-inch body on a jighead also from Mister Twister. It was the only jighead molded with a long-shank hook. With a 1/4-ounce head you could make long casts and, with your rod tip held high during the retrieve, you could work it slowly through shallower water. It worked particularly well in remaining weedgrowth and in deeper spots. Again, a slow grinding retrieve was most productive.
Dozens of other lures have been used over the years, some of them, like the old Humpy lures, Lazy Ikes, and Strawberry Blondes, producing many fish. But they never were more productive than lures with the characteristics offered by suspending stickbaits and paddletail swimbaits. Pick lures from those categories from your favorite companies and you're in the hunt.
Proven options include #10, #12, and #14 Rapala Husky Jerks, Smithwick Suspending Super Rogues, 3- and 4-inch Sassy Shad bodies — also 4.5-inch swimbait bodies like the Berkley PowerBait Rib Shad. I haven't had a chance to fish the Rapala Shadow Rap, but it looks like it would produce right out of box. The test is, can you make longer casts, does it fish shallow enough and slow enough as it provides a bigger silhouette that flashes and wobbles distinctively?
Let's spend a moment discussing the characteristics of productive swimbait bodies. In the Berkley lineup we have the PowerBait Ripple Shad, the PowerBait Rib Shad, and the much bigger Flat Shad. These replaced the PowerBait 5-inch Flatback Shad, which exited the scene two years ago.
The Ripple Shad is offered in many color patterns and 5 sizes, including 3.5-, 4-, and 5-inch models that are most applicable to shorecasting. This body has proven highlight productive on many fish species in various situations, including night fishing for walleyes. But I prefer a body with a wider swimming motion, and a more distinctive tail thump, instead of the tight wobble and thump produced by the Ripple Shad.
The 4.5-inch Rib Shad fits that billing. And I wouldn't hesitate to toss the 6-inch Flat Shad in environments with big fish. There isn't a lot of shorefishing on the Bay of Quinte, but anglers do at times cast at night from boats anchored or drifting key spots. I'd fish it there — and from piers anywhere else on the Great Lakes, including piers on Lake Erie. The same characteristics that prove productive in shorecasting situations also shine anywhere one is casting for walleyes in shallower water after dark from a boat — or trolling for that matter. Try paddletail swimbait bodies with wider swimming actions and distinctive thumper tails.
Rods, Reels, Lines
Long casts are vital to covering water when you're standing in place waiting for walleyes to get within range, so the rod should longer, the reel bigger and with a wider spool, and the line light enough to allow those casts while maintaining proper depth control. So rods should be 6.5, 7, or 7.5 feet, with medium power and either medium- or fast-action tips.
Fast tips are better at tossing lighter lures farther and couple well with the 4-inch curltails and smaller paddletail swimbaits. A slightly slower tip action hefts bigger lures better, especially in lengths of 7 and 7.5 feet. I usually don't take two rods with me, and I usually prefer bigger lures, so a 7.5-foot rod with a medium action and medium-fast tip works for me.
Reels from most companies are sized from smaller 10-class options, usually coupled with ultralight rods, up to larger 40-class reels, with 20- and 30-classes falling in between.
Go with the 40-class reel. It has a wider and deeper spool, so the line comes off the reel more smoothly and, so long as the reel doesn't have a super-fast retrieve ratio, also winds back on the spool more smoothly. Reels with retrieve speeds of from about 5.4:1 to 6.4:1 work well. With a small reel you get the "coffee-grinder" effect of having to turn the handle many times to get the same amount of line retrieved. That ruins sensitivity. You want to be able to feel the lure doing its thing out there.
Today, I use Berkley NanoFil for most of my fishing. It's a slick fused superline that doesn't stretch and offers the longest possible casts. The 10-pound is just right, and with larger lures I use a 4-foot fluorocarbon leader testing 12 pounds. Any braid such as 10-pound Sufix 832, Berkley Trilene Braid, or Power Pro Super Slick works, too, but the finish is more noisy coming through the guides. I find that a bit distracting at night. Berkley FireLine, another fused superline, which some anglers consider more forgiving than NanoFil is another option.
When I used monofilament, an 8-pound line like Berkley Trilene XL worked for casting smaller lures. With heavier lures you need at least 10-pound to keep from snapping lures off when you cast. For the biggest lures, like the #14 Husky Jerk, go with 12-pound. Use a snap like a #1 Berkley Cross-Lok at the end of the leader to facilitate lure changes and lure action.
And so, the technicalities of the process become an important part of the passion and the process, because without success, there is little reason for the passion to develop, at least among the hardcore that love catching big fish. Shorecasting is an affordable, straightforward affair that, with a bit experience, is easy to get right, so much so that for many of us it becomes part of a lifestyle and an integral part of life.