Want to catch a really big walleye -- the trophy of a lifetime -- and do it from shore? It's no secret that, of the five Great Lakes, Lake Erie would likely be your best bet. But what time of year to go, and how to catch them? Early spring produces the heaviest fish -- the females are full of eggs -- but Fall may be even better for catching numbers of big walleyes, for several reasons.
Someone who has experienced this fantastic fall fishing first-hand is Lake Erie Fisheries Program Administrator, Roger Knight, a biologist for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife.
"I have great memories of a walleye fishing trip to a Huron, Ohio, pier one October evening, when eight of us caught our 6-fish limits in an hour. And the fish ranged from 6 to 10 pounds. A longtime friend and I fished side by side, and we both caught our 6 fish on 11 casts. My friend broke his personal best walleye record three times that night. I can't remember a better fall walleye pier-fishing experience."
But Knight says that fall night-fishing from piers for walleyes is like angling anywhere -- sometimes sizzling, sometimes not. "The fishing can be spotty because the walleyes follow the food, mostly gizzard shad. If the shad stay offshore, so do the walleyes. But if the shad come in close, you can literally catch a walleye on every cast. I have seen walleyes in water as shallow as 4 feet, with their dorsal fins exposed like sharks," he says.
Typically, shad schools hug the shoreline when offshore waters cool quickly. A chilly October tends to create better shorefishing than a mild October, but there are exceptions. November usually produces more consistent fishing, with water temperatures in the mid-40F range the key. In many years, walleyes can be caught from shore well into December.
"These fish tend to be large females that spent their summer in the Central and Eastern basins of Lake Erie," Knight says. "They then migrate back west, where they stage until spawning in spring. In fall, they're on a major feeding binge because of lower water temperatures and an abundance of high-energy preyfish. It's not uncommon to catch multiple walleyes over 10 pounds in autumn, though the average fish is between 4 and 8 pounds."
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Knight says that the best daily fishing times vary, but dusk to midnight is generally most productive. "I've heard of people doing well fishing from midnight to dawn, but that hasn't worked well for me. You will, however, avoid most other anglers by fishing after midnight. Believe me, when the bite is on, word spreads quickly and some piers get crowded."
Jim Fofrich, Jr., son of the late, legendary Lake Erie guide and fishing innovator, Jim Fofrich, Sr., was a former aficionado of Lake Erie's nighttime shore walleye fishing. A longtime contributor to In-Fisherman publications, Jim Jr. passed away last year.
Fofrich approached night walleyes a bit differently from most anglers. Not liking the crowds when the fishing heated up at piers, he put on waders and move along the shoreline, well away from other fishermen. "But if you try wading, be careful," he always cautioned. "Remember that you'll be walking on rocks below the surface in the dark, and that next step could be a deep one."
Fofrich used a medium-heavy 7-foot spinning rod-and-reel combination, the reel filled with 10-pound-test Berkley FireLine. "It's important to be able to make long casts," he said, noting that skinny nostretch FireLine vastly increases casting distance over monofilament line. "Just after the sun goes down, cast as far from shore as possible. Later in the evening, when the walleyes have moved in, make most of your casts parallel to the shoreline."
For crankbaits, he liked #9, #11, and #13 jointed Rapalas, as well as Countdown Rapalas of various sizes. Fofrich also preferred what he considered the "softer" colors for clear water: blue/white, silver/black, and pearl/chartreuse. "The only time I'll go with a color such as firetiger is in dirty-water conditions," he said. "And remember, bigger baits usually catch bigger fish. A large lure casts farther and makes a bigger target for walleyes to find in the dark. I also use bladebaits from time to time, such as Bitzer Creek Zip Lures or Reef Runner Cicadas. Gold or silver seem to be my two best colors for blades." Other anglers prefer a vibrating, lipless crankbait for nighttime fall walleyes, such as a Bill Lewis Lures' Rat-L-Trap, a Cotton Cordell Super Spot, or a Rattlin' Rapala.
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At times, Fofrich dabbed a small amount of light-colored glow paint on his artificial baits -- a tip learned from his good friend and fellow night-fishing expert Mark Martin. "Not too much," he cautioned. "Just a touch on each eye of the bait, and then I paint a thin ring around the tail. I believe this gives walleyes an easier target in the dark."
Occasionally, if the fishing was slow, Fofrich switched from lures to livebait. "Again, keep your bait size large," he said. "I prefer a 5- to 6-inch gizzard shad or emerald shiner. I fish them on either a Lindy sliprig or a Thill Nite Brite float."
In the end, it's best not to overcomplicate pier fishing at night. The best time to go is anytime you can, although it's always easiest when the fish are in, the weather's moderate and you don't have to cast into the teeth of a fierce onshore wind. Easier doesn't always equate to better, however. And while no one enjoys fishing shoulder-to-shoulder with other anglers, their obvious presence at the ends of piers or lining breakwalls strongly suggests that the fish are inshore and biting. Dealing with pier pressure -- it's all part of the game when it comes to fishing for Great Lakes walleyes at night.