These days, the period surrounding the September full moon has become the rollover period for walleye anglers, the official or unofficial time when many of us begin trolling for walleyes after dark. According to Ivan Burandt, however, walleyes often are going like hot cakes at a Boy Scout breakfast a month before the September moon.
Launch operators aside, Burandt probably has guided anglers to more walleyes at night on Minnesota's famous Mille Lacs Lake than any other angler, at least in recent history. I'm not looking to argue about that. Burandt would never suggest such a thing -- could care less.
I only suggest it after tracking the night scene for 20 years in these parts; only suggest it so you might appreciate Burandt as a gifted guide who has reduced the problems he faces in helping anglers catch fish to a simple science. It's all about catching fish -- and, I might add, having fun. Burandt is one of the best I've seen at consistently catching walleyes at night. He also is a gregarious sort who loves his work -- genuinely likes people and loves to see them catching fish.
Of course, most good walleye fisheries have a spurt of decent trolling activity for night walleyes during early season. Some years that activity lasts through much of June. On a few fisheries, it lasts into July. At some point, though, the trolling bite slows, although some walleyes are almost always being caught by one method or another 24 hours a day. A lot of the reason that anglers begin trolling at night during September is because weedgrowth diminishes so we have an easier time getting at the fish along drop-off edges and on flats. It's a logic that's worked for years and still does. One of our points here, though, is for you to consider beginning before the September rush.
The moon plays a primary role as a marker in Burandt's year, initially determining when he begins fishing at night. "I begin with the August full moon, so long as it doesn't occur during the first part of the month. This year, the full moon is on the 15th, so I'll start a couple days before that moon. I'll be on the water an hour before sunset, fish through the sunset bite, then settle in and fish until midnight for those couple days, plus the day of the full moon, and maybe a day or so after the full moon.
"On the night of the full moon, the sun sets just as the moon rises. Then the moon rises about 40 minutes to an hour later each evening. The moon needs to be up to stimulate good fishing after dark. Two days after the full moon you may have to wait almost two hours after sunset before moonrise. The period between sunset and moonrise always has been a dead time.
"That's when I switch to fishing the period from midnight through sunrise. Granted, I miss the sunset bite. But it's tough to do it all. I start at midnight in order to have a manageable night of fishing that also allows fishing through the most consistent of all periods, the sunrise bite. So the moon's already up when I get on the water at midnight, and it stays up or is just setting through the sunrise bite.
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"If I weren't guiding and had only, say, three hours to fish on a given night," Burandt continues, "I'd time my fishing to begin with moonrise, get a few hours in, then get enough rest to work the next day. Anytime you can fish through a sunset period without wasting a lot of dead time waiting on the moon, do it. The sunrise bite, though, is, in my experience, by far the hottest bite this time of year -- mid-August through October. Not so much competition on the water then either."
Burandt insists that fishing is far more consistent with moonlight than without. So he limits his fishing during the dark-of-the-moon period to a few midnight-through-sunrise runs.
"The sunrise run can really be good during the dark-moon period," he says. "The bite often begins just as light barely touches the eastern sky. Often times, a really good bite goes for at least two hours. The morning fishing also is highly patternable. If it gets going on one reef at 5:30 one morning and lasts hot and heavy until 6:30, just after sunrise, the pattern usually repeats for many mornings."
Burandt says about half the Augusts he's fished during the past 20 years have been good to him. "August isn't the sure bet to produce consistent fishing that September and October are. It's probably dependent on what's available (walleye year classwise). Generally, the fish are just getting going at night then. September's the best month for numbers and size. October's best for big fish, that is, fish near 10 pounds."
All this talk about moonlight influencing walleye behavior begs the question of how weather affects this fishing. On a cloudy day, Burandt finds that the fishing often begins as much as an hour before sunset. With no cloud cover, however, the fishing is less consistent throughout the night, no matter if the moon is up or down. Likewise, the morning bite takes longer to begin, but it may last an additional hour beyond sunrise.
Burandt: "Occasionally we have good fishing in windy, rainy, nasty weather, but usually the predictable activity in those conditions is confined to the twilight periods. Cold fronts don't make any difference at night. Indeed, they produce some of the best fishing after dark so long as we have moonlight."
SHORTLINE BACKTROLLING DEEP WEEDEDGES
After dark, walleyes in most lakes feed in water shallower than about 10 feet, often holding along the edges of reefs and bars, or even pushing well up onto flats. Longline trolling is the preferred method to present baits to these fish. With the boat moving forward at 1 to 2 mph, a shallow-running bait like a Bagley Bang-O-Lure or Floating Rapala, weighted with a lead shot about 18 inches in front of the bait, is trolled about a foot off bottom, some 70 to 120 feet behind the boat.
The farther lures are from the boat, the less control the angler has. In lakes and reservoirs with weededges that run well past the drop-off edge, walleyes sometimes hold deeper than 10 feet, further complicating presentation. Anglers in these waters often reverse procedure, running the boat in reverse to reduce trolling speed to less than 1 mph, thereby getting baits deeper on a shorter line and maintaining more precise control along edges where lure contact with weeds means a fouled lure that must be cleared and set back down into the fish zone. The same lures used to longline troll also work for shortlining. These walleyes apparently don't spook because they're holding deeper.
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GREAT LAKES PATTERNS AT NIGHT
Rivers that enter the Great Lakes often get runs of huge 'eyes in fall. These fish roam deeper flats during summer, often within five or so miles of the river mouth where they were stocked or where they spawned.
At night, reefs, rock piles, and shipping lanes always hold some walleyes near major harbors. The strongest locational cue, though, is the presence of baitfish schools -- alewives, emerald shiners, smelt, shad, cisco. Mark these bait pods with GPS or landmarks. When they seem to disappear, hunt downcurrent, remembering that convection currents and wind-driven currents out in the Great Lakes sometimes move in a different direction than the wind.
Typically, walleyes suspend 10 or 15 feet deep over depths of 20 to 40 feet at night. They may be near pier heads or 2 or 3 miles out and 4 or 5 miles up or down the shoreline. Longline trolling with minnowbaits like Rapalas, Bomber Long A's, and Reef Runner Rip Sticks works most nights, because walleyes will rise to take these baits. If the bite is slow, troll deeper with Shad Raps, Cordell CC Shads, or similar baitfish-imitating lures with deep-diving lips.
When walleyes hug piers and shorelines, fish from shore or use a controlled drift as you cast with suspending baits like the Rapala Husky Jerk or Smithwick Super Rogue. Add snap-pauses to your retrieves.
CASTING FROM SHORE
Casting from shore remains a potent option for big walleyes after dark, primarily during September, October, and November. Although many patterns develop, current is the most consistent attractor of baitfish and walleyes -- incoming feeder creeks and necked-down areas between lakes or portions of lakes, including areas where shallow marshes connect to the main lake or reservoir. On the Great Lakes, fish run up feeder rivers, holding along and behind structural elements that block current. Or they gather near piers swept by the wind. Meanwhile, on major rivers, walleyes hold below dams, again using current breaks that gather baitfish and block current.
Countdown baits like the Countdown Rapala remain an overlooked option for shore anglers. Many anglers on the Great Lakes also use lipless bass-style rattlebaits like the Bill Lewis Rattle Trap. The most popular baits are leadhead jigs dressed with 3- or 4-inch plastic curlytails or 3- or 4-inch shad bodies, or suspending minnow-imitating jerkbaits like the Rapala Husky Jerk or Suspendin Rattlin' Rogue.