Night Watching Great Lakes Walleyes
March 20, 2014
We stood on the pier in Oscoda, where the AuSable River meets Lake Huron, looking at the inky black water below, and following our tracks up the beach with a certain satisfaction. We patrolled the beaches and trolled the shallows under a full moon and found a bounty of big, gleaming eyes.
Captain Hook himself introduced me to night-fishing for Great Lakes walleyes. Not that Captain Hook (though there wharrrr pirates on the Great Lakes at one time, me bucko) — Captain John Hook, in the late 1980s. He pulled big F18 Original Floating Rapalas around seawalls, rockpiles, sandbars, and depressions in Lake Huron, taking advantage of foraging runs of big-lake walleyes slipping onto the "tidal flats" at night.
Nothing Hook revealed about night-fishing the Great Lakes has changed, but the activity has become a lot more popular. Back then, we had the river mouths to ourselves. The nocturnal behavior of Great Lakes walleyes at has proven consistently similar in other experiences from Lake Ontario to the bays of Lake Superior. At night, big-water walleyes relate to shallow, shoreline-related structure. River mouths are favorite haunts, but reefs, points, and bars up the shoreline for miles can hold big, unpressured fish. Almost universally, the best biters are 6 to 12 feet down over depths of 6 to 50 feet, though they sometimes hover that high in water even deeper. Stickbaits work everywhere, and optimum trolling speeds vary only slightly between 1.2 and 1.9 mph.
Some might ask, what's the point of reading further? Timing, location, depth, speed, and lure type have already been explained, so what's the point? The best way to answer that is to add that many other anglers hope you do stop reading right now.
Craig Lewis of Erie Outfitters in Cleveland says night-fishing has become "really popular 'round here. It's gone viral from Ohio to the Bay of Quinte on Lake Ontario. On western Lake Erie, we start between late March and early April, about three weeks after ice-out. It's still prespawn for a lot of Erie walleyes. The farther east you go, the later the bite starts. Night walleye fishing is so big here that we run a Spring Fling day-and-night derby for a month, from April into May. Most people fish at night. Last year, we weighed one over 15 that was caught at night. The winner almost always gets caught after dark."
Here's how Lewis describes typical night-fishing tactics in western Lake Erie: "It's as popular as day fishing. A lot of guys hit the pier heads and cast but it's dominated by anglers in boats. We have a regional hierarchy where the pier guys start hitting them and that lures the boat guys in. The most common depth they target for the boat path is about 12 feet while shallow boards carry lures up into 9-foot depths and deep boards take baits out to 16 feet. Traditional lures are Original Floating Rapalas, Storm Thundersticks, Smithwick Rogues, Rapala Husky Jerks, and Suspending Rogues trolled at 1.2 to 1.9 mph."
Sound familiar? Here's how guide Mike Kerempelis of Green Bay describes his night tactics: "We don't see a great night bite in early summer," he says. "Walleyes move offshore and suspend on alewives in June and we lose them, but the reefs around Green Bay produce a great night bite by late July and right through August as they head toward structure.
Kerempelis pulls boards on both sides of the boat. "Deep Little Rippers and Deep Thunderstick Jrs are posted out on the deep side," he says. "Walleyes bite best in the 10- to 12-foot range at night. It's the program at ice-out in spring. We run shallow divers 45 to 65 feet back behind the boards to get the depth correct on the shallow side. You want those lures running at the depth of the top of the reef, so adjust setback lengths accordingly. That time of year, my favorite is the Deep Little Ripper. You're talking about the upper-60°F to lower-70°F range. That bait has ideal action to trigger fish at that water temperature."
On the shallow side, Kerempelis runs 5- to 6-inch shallow-running minnowbaits, like the Smithwick Suspending Rogue, Smithwick Perfect 10, Rapala F13, and Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnow 25 to 30 feet behind the boards. "On flatlines straight behind the boat, set baits farther back — 100 to 125 feet — because the boat's running over those fish. I run everything on 10-pound PowerPro. It helps get hooks into fish quicker because it doesn't stretch. I use 10- to 12-pound Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon leaders with back-to-back uni-knots. It's more durable around mussels than braid. We always have our best luck in depths of 10 to 12 feet, trolling at 1.4 to 1.9 mph."
Shore And Pier
Lipless rattlers are the loudest attractors used by walleye anglers on piers at night when wave action clouds up the water and curtails light penetration. On calm nights, Captain Hook liked to cast 1/4- to 3/8-ounce ball-head jigs with soft-plastic jerkbaits with forked tails and slowly swim them in.
Guide and TV personality Eric Haataja enjoys catching night-bite walleyes from piers, break walls, and beaches all around Green Bay in Wisconsin and Michigan. "I've done well off Great Lakes piers by casting crankbaits, clipping on an Off-Shore trolling board, and walking it along on both sides of the pier," he says. "We call it strolling. But we also throw 3/8-ounce jigs tipped with Berkley Gulp! Minnows and 1/4- to 3/8-ounce bladebaits like the Johnson Thinfisher."
He casts with an Abu Garcia Veracity drop-shot rod, using 14-pound Berkley FireLine. He ties on 4-foot leaders of 10- to 12-pound Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon for protection against quagga mussels. "I cast, let it hit bottom, give it a hop, and repeat," he says. "Not a lot of snags in these areas. It's incredible how well paddletail plastics and swimbaits work for big fish at night. They come up on shallow shelf areas where they're vulnerable to these tactics. If you have some small swells coming in, you don't need to be color-conscious. White and smelt patterns are the most consistent producers for me."
Haataja casts plastics and also strolls crankbaits from the bank, especially near current areas with a sharp break close to shore. "Spots where deep water bends in toward the bank are always good," he says. "I've found a lot of those places near Little Sturgeon Bay and the Menominee River either by trolling or scouring charts. I've trolled a lot of areas in Green Bay and found that the biggest walleyes are on little humps and points. They're concentration points. Along the shore, pier heads are concentration points. Almost any pier head in the Great Lakes may concentrate walleyes."
Mark Martin has more experience with Great Lakes walleyes at night than anyone I know. "I don't guide now, but I used to make 200 trips per year at night," he says. Before the advent of sonar, Martin's grandpa found key structures on Muskegon Lake at night by drifting empty plastic bleach bottles around on 15 feet of cord tied to a brick. "We used flashlights to stay on the deep side of the bottles. We trolled over water I've since graphed at 50 feet. We caught walleyes on and off structure in that 15-foot range at night.
"Grandpa used a 25-hp Evinrude, but he didn't troll it. He caught fish for one or two passes while running the outboard, then the walleyes were gone. We'd get upwind and start rowing at about 1 mph or drifting if the wind was right. We used black Dacron line with monofilament leaders and Water Gremlin Pinch-Grip sinkers. He cobbled baits together using the body of one old lure with a metal lip from another. With 60 to 75 feet of line out, I guess he was getting down about 8 feet by rowing.
"Then I started doing it for a living," Martin says. "I got a sonar, speed monitors, eventually GPS units and charts. I started trolling with a kicker motor and learned the same thing grandpa did the hard way. Every pass I'd see fewer fish on the graph. So I started doing what he did — either drifting or using the trolling motor, starting way off structure to see if walleyes were out there, often catching fish at the same depth as the structure. It seems that the key depth of structure is never more than 15 feet. In fact, 15 feet is extreme. I start trolling over deeper water and if I don't see fish, I move in. Depths of 10 feet or less account for 80 percent of my fish.
"I can look back at those trolling passes grandpa made and piece this program together. I use boards only when walleyes are aggressive. On an average night, I think a lot of fish hit the lure without pulling the board back. Customers are waiting for 'wham.' They say, 'I hit bottom again, Mark.' I tell them a strike feels like a bluegill pecking the bait. I set baits so I know they're not touching bottom."
In other words, he's not a fan of rod holders. "The rod that catches the most fish every night is the one in my hands," he says. "Hits can be super soft. Sometimes you need to raise the rod to get over snaggy spots and when I lower the tip, they strike. You can't set boards out or reel up and release line to create that kind of accuracy. I tried boards and we caught 10 to 15 fewer walleyes per night. I like boards. I sell boards. But I gotta be honest. You lose triggering action with boards in this situation."
Pull forward, drop back, pause. That's Martin's mantra, the same one I've watched produce far better action for salmon, lake trout, pike, and other species than rods left in holders. "I don't have to think about it," Martin adds. "It's second nature. With rods in holders and boards, how are you going to know a fish pushed the lure forward? An expert might see it during daytime in calm conditions, but never at night. I've caught them at night on leadcore, on boards, and on wire line. You can catch them a lot of ways. I'm telling you the best way. The areas and depths walleyes use, the baits they hit, the amount of line out — nothing changes."
If Martin could only have one lure at night, it would be an F13 Rapala, but he'd never be able to pick its color. "Color is important at night, and it changes all the time," he says. "You'd best have every color they make. If you don't listen to the fish talking to you and you're going to do it your way, good luck."
Line setback depends on the depth and structure Martin plans to encounter on the next trolling pass. "I want the lure to run no deeper than the structure we're going to fish," he says. "I never run lures deeper than 15 feet. With lures set at structure depth, you can wander over 50 feet of water and catch them. Walleyes often come up for lures at night, and they tend to suspend at the level where they're active on structure.
"I use three #7 split shot on a floating Rapala, setting them back 70 to 80 feet to get down 10 or 12 feet. You can slip off the structure entirely and keep catching them. If they're not out there, take the split shot off and start running shallower. Electronics won't show you anything up shallow, but if you're not seeing bait out deeper it's probably close to the structure."
He almost always trolls slower than 2 mph. "A speed of 1.4 mph has proven consistent for trolling stickbaits at night," he says. "The most productive lures have been Rapalas, but I used Rebels and Bombers back in the day and did well. Even the big saltwater versions can catch a 12-inch walleye at night, so the Rapala F18 is certainly in that effective range of sizes."
Here's your reward for reading the entire article: "This is the secret," Martin says. "This is how you catch fish at night. Pull a lure with a lip on it and, even with braided line, if you can feel the lure wobble you're going too fast. When you barely pull it forward you should be able to feel it start thumping. If you're moving, it's moving. It's wobbling even though you can't feel it. It's just wobbling wider.
"I'll say it again: If you can feel it wobbling, you're moving too fast. Unless you have the rod in hand, you don't know that. Every lake has current. Your GPS speed-over-ground isn't lying to you, but you've got current. If your speed-over-ground says 1.4 mph but you feel the lure wobble, you're pulling into current."
Martin draws on old-school wisdom. "It's a family recipe," he says. "I have new ingredients, like GPS, charts, and polyethylene braids. What doesn't change is trolling at 1.4 mph with an electric motor while holding onto the rod. That's how you sense what's going on out there.
"On Lake Michigan at night, walleyes push up on sandbars, rock structures, and manmade structures they would use in a smaller lake and they suspend 10 to 12 feet down most nights. That's a key depth at night wherever you go. Nothing new about it." Sound familiar?
Doctoring Night Lures
"No color stands out after all these years of night-fishing, so I generally start by putting a different color on each line," says walleye pro, Mark Martin. But he does think a little lure doctoring helps. "Too much glow is bad, but a little can be effective on dark nights. I dot the eyes with glow paint and add a racing stripe about 1/32-inch wide around the tail. Then I add a strip of Witchcraft silver prism tape down the side of the bait. The color you like probably isn't what walleyes like at night." He also ties direct to the lure, using knot placement to control action. "I tie the knot as tight as possible and slide it down near the chin. Makes the lure darn near roll over. If I put the knot on top, it barely wobbles, but I generally slide that knot down."
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw, Brainerd. Minnesota, is an avid multispecies angler who contributes regularly to all In-Fisherman publications.