Peepers haunt the boat launch. Wet tracks lead up the ramp from the black water, but the parking lot is empty. The last boat has been strapped down and towed home. Moonglade shimmers on the surface of the lake. Time for the night walleyes.
Early season walleye fishing offers lots of options. Most fish are shallow most of the time. By shallow, we mean 1 to 8 feet. Most of the walleyes I catch this time of year prowl shallow flats, in water less than 6 feet deep, even in the daytime. But at night, the bite can be furious in 2 to 4 feet in many different types of water.
My focus is on natural lakes in spring. Walleyes can make dramatic movements this time of year, and rivers can be downright perplexing or unbelievably productive. I'll stick with the consistent bite. In natural lakes around here, I know I can land five fish in the toughest possible conditions.
Like the year I convinced John Storm, then of Storm Lures, my partner in the Minnesota Governor's Opener, to go out at midnight instead of dawn. "It's going to snow tomorrow, John," I warned. "The temperature's going to drop, the wind's going to blow, and the fish won't bite. Your call."
He looked out at the dying sun, the temperature already dipping below 40F. "It's brutal right now."
I smiled. "And it will be twice as brutal tomorrow." He opted for midnight and we went out and caught six nice walleyes in a slight breeze, even though my sonar failed in back and John had to sit up front and bark out readings from the bowmount unit all night. On the following day, I found no other guide that could report having more than two walleyes in his snow-laden boat. Most were skunked, and the list included a number of other angling luminaries that had to fish the daytime bite.
Compared to them, I'm just another guy in a walleye boat around here. But, when conditions get tough, darkness can even things out for us lesser luminaries. The night shift is a good thing to keep in mind when adversity hits.
A TROLLING PASS
Walleyes spawn just after ice-out. By the time the season opens in Minnesota (early May), the spawn is over. In the Dakotas, where the season doesn't close, shallow night fishing can turn on immediately after the spawn -- or as soon as ice leaves the lakes. In states where the season opens at some point in spring, count on walleyes invading shallow flats during the day on the opener, if they have cover from clouds and wind. In sunny, calm conditions, walleyes wait for low-light periods. In any conditions, however, at least some walleyes will feed at night. Every night. All spring long.
If you know where walleyes spawn, use that as a reference point and start tracking backwards, toward summer habitat. Walleyes are moving this time of year, but not fast. In natural lakes, they tend to concentrate around shallow flats (areas where, as a general rule, the slope is less than 5-percent) where perch gather to spawn. Perch begin to spawn as the water approaches 50F. Since perch use weeds and other secondary cover to spread their sticky strings of eggs, weedflats or areas where gravel and weeds coincide become prime areas at night. Walleyes have a vision advantage over perch in darkness, and everyone knows perch are the walleye equivalent of pizza to a human.
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Walleyes also move to necks, where two lake basins are joined by a narrow stretch. Currents established by wind and temperature set up in necks, and this moves baitfish into "eddy" areas where the neck opens up. Wind concentrates walleyes in these areas behind weed or rock points and in corners where the neck opens into the basin. In absence of wind or noticeable currents, walleyes scatter throughout the neck area and usually along both shorelines, which suggests trolling. After a windy day (note the wind direction during the day, as winds tend to lay down at night), casting might be the ticket.
Walleyes are up and about at night to feed. They don't tend to poke around in 2 feet of water when they're not hungry. That implies crankbaits. Whenever the odds say walleyes will be up and biting, crankbaits should be a first choice. Specifically, minnowbaits and variants thereof are optimum, designed to fish 4 feet down and less, or a little deeper with some weight applied. A #3 split shot or two will carry an average floating minnowbait, like the F-13 Rapala, down to 5, 6, maybe 7 feet on a long line.
When trolling is the key tactic, floating minnowbaits shine during this time frame. Optimum gear includes a 7- to 8-foot medium-fast medium power spinning rod, a moderate spinning reel with 8- to 10-pound mono or 10- to 20-pound braided line, depending on fish depth. Mono is thicker and resists the pull of the crankbait more, keeping minnowbaits higher in really shallow spots. Braids are thinner and allow minnowbaits to probe deeper. Braids, with such small stretch factors, are much more sensitive, allowing you to feel anything -- a leaf or piece of weed -- that fouls the action of the crankbait, even when the lure is back 200 feet (though 80 to 150 feet is preferred most of the time).
Some baits float up faster than others. The balsa Bagley Bang-O-Lure pops up quickly, which is good in shallow water when a slow, steady presentation needs to stay up a little higher to clear weeds, bad when walleyes show a preference for stop-and-go tactics. Plastic minnowbaits, like the Spro Prime Minnow 45, stay in their faces a little better on the pause. And if the water's deeper than 4 feet, a suspender like the Rapala Husky Jerk shines.
The best trolling speeds are slow -- usually less than 2 mph with an occasional breakneck burst of speed up to 3 mph to trigger wary fish. Kick the motor out of gear and just coast periodically to slow the bait way down, forcing followers to make a decision. Trolling passes should work back and forth between the 4-foot contour (where weeds allow) and the 8-foot contour, until a pattern develops. Placing markers on points and inside turns before dark can be tremendously helpful where the weedline wanders in and out.
A FEW CASTS
Sometimes walleyes concentrate at night, and casting becomes key. Casting is stealthier and allows you to pick your way around a school without spooking them all. Pier walls, shallow reefs, corners and points in the weedline, and similar spots can group walleyes tight, especially after a windy day or two. The best way to start the night usually remains trolling. But when you're picking up a walleye on each rod every time you pass a certain spot -- time to drop the bowmount trolling motor and cast.
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Variants of the minnowbait become the optimum choice. These include suspending jerkbaits, like the Rapala Husky Jerk and Smithwick Suspending Rogue, that work down to 4 feet or so and suspend on the pause. These come in shallow and deep models. Shallow runners vary in depth, depending on size and manufacturer. The Yo-Zuri 3D Minnow 100, for instance, dives 3 feet. It's a good suspender, hanging for long periods of time. Being among the smaller jerkbaits, the 3D 100 is subtle. It takes little rod action to make this bait dance -- a very different rod action than what you want with larger baits. It's a good bait when walleyes corral minnows along cutbanks and riprap, 1 to 3 feet deep. In water that shallow, you want something that won't dive too steeply, something you can start manipulating as soon as it hits the water.
Most of the time, just cast a suspending bait, crank it down quickly, four or five turns of the reel handle, and pause. Play with the length of the pause as you go, but start at 5 to 10 seconds. Twitch the lure in place by pointing the rod tip at the water and use short, subtle snaps. Let it put out some vibration without actually moving it far. (Most jerkbaits have rattles.) Pause. Then trill the bait along by getting the line tight and pulling it slowly for about three feet, just fast enough for the bait to barely wobble.
Deeper-diving shad baits, like the Cordell CC Shad or the Rapala Shad Rap, come into play at night, too. In clear water on calm nights, walleyes can see well at 10 feet and deeper, and diving cranks sometimes excel. In spring, this often isn't the case, but it's always worth trying if walleyes can't be found shallow.
Making long casts can be key. Getting the lure well away from the boat translates into more hookups most nights. Using their lateral lines and sense of hearing, walleyes know the boat is there, and when it's within 20 feet of them, it becomes a significant spook factor. Use a 7-foot medium-power fast-action or moderately fast-action spinning rod. To keep lures from diving too deep, use 8- to 10-pound monofilament. Where weeds are less of a problem, you can cast farther with 10-pound braided lines like Berkley Whiplash. Use a monofilament leader to add stretch. You might need it. The big girls often come out to play at night, another reason why the night shift is the right shift this time of year.