Scenario: Opening day of the walleye season on Mille Lacs Lake, Minnesota's huge walleye factory. Some years, there's a great early-season daytime bite. Other years, there's nary a fish despite the best efforts of thousands of anglers. Until dusk, that is. As the sun hits the horizon, Mother Nature suddenly throws the proverbial switch. During the next 45 minutes, anglers poised to take advantage of changing conditions score limits of walleyes from the formerly Dead Sea.
Off. . . on! From frustratingly fishless to 'eyes on every line -- with virtually nothing in between. How do the fish all know to become active at the same time?
Sometimes walleyes seemingly refuse to bite, even when you're in the right place, with your baits or lures dancing in front of their eyeballs. Then a little thing like a changing light level sets in, and the fish go wild. And not just on Mille Lacs. Nearly anywhere walleyes swim, they react to changing conditions and become active when conditions are ripe for easy and successful feeding.
Shallow locations accentuate the low light fishing phenomenon. In early spring, for example, walleyes near spawning grounds often are shallower than most people think. Anglers, programmed to fish changes in the physical environment, frequently proceed to the first drop-off outside spawning grounds -- typically a good pattern because the first adjacent depth change should collect fish. It might be the proper choice and produce good walleyes during the day. Walleyes, however, may not have the same preconceived notion.
If food and cover are available atop shallow flats, walleyes may linger there, relatively inactive during midday, until the sun begins to set. As it sinks, diminishing light levels give walleyes a superior vision advantage over most baitfish, whose visual acuity dims along with the setting sun. As perch, for example, settle downward to rest their fins on bottom for the night, walleyes rise up and go on the prowl, scarfing up easy meals. A short burst of activity quickly satiates walleye hunger. The following afternoon, another siesta likely will precede the evening fiesta unless wind, clouds, or rain diminish sunlight penetration during daytime hours.
LURKING, LAZING, BIDING TIME TILL DINNERTIME
In spring, walleyes sometimes remain relatively shallow even if cover isn't readily available. That's where the warmest water is found, along with the most food. Even if weeds haven't yet begun to sprout, there's an incentive to remain shallow, and fish may be slow to disperse to deeper water.
I recall one Wisconsin opener when I saw a school of walleyes lying in 3 feet of clear water in a mud-bottomed, coverless bay at high noon on a bright sunny day. Apparently, they enjoyed soaking up heat in the sun-warmed shallows, despite the immediate lack of lily pad roots, sandgrass, or other nearby cover.
That's an extreme example that's still tough to explain, although we see northern pike react the same way on a regular basis. Had some scrubby sandgrass, broken reeds, shallow coontail remnants, flooded brush or timber, or other cover been nearby, fish behavior would have made more sense. Perhaps cover lying a hundred yards distant was nearby enough for those walleyes. And they didn't want to bite anything tossed in their general direction.
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Whether spread across relatively featureless flats or tucked into some form of distinctive cover, shallow walleyes simply may be reluctant to move or to bite under calm, bright, sunny conditions. Your best attempts at flippin', dippin', pitchin', bobbin', and any other subtle in' may go largely unrewarded. If so, don't simply assume that the fish aren't present. You never know for sure unless you stay long enough to experience one transition period when fish, if present, should reveal themselves during the peak feeding opportunity at sunset. Sometimes, they're simply not there, and a continued nonbite confirms your suspicions. At other times, hocus pocus, it all comes into focus, like suddenly pulling a herd of rabbits out of an empty hat.
PRIMARY PATTERNS AT SUNSET
Play percentages at sunset; you're not out to tease fish into biting, because you've been trying that all day and it hasn't worked yet. Instead, focus on the potential to target fish that suddenly become active and are willing to bite.
Structural layout determines the best tactics. If flats or a lack of cover suggest that walleyes may be spread out across a wide area, use coverage tactics to detect if they're present; place your lure or bait in front of as many 'eyeballs as possible in a short amount of time, coinciding with the change in light levels at sundown. At the other extreme, if distinctive structures concentrate active fish in limited areas, consider a precision casting approach to specific spots that attract feeding walleyes. If you're not sure which system should work best, try a bit of both.
Longline trolling (widespread coverage) -- If conditions indicate that walleyes may be spread across wide areas, forward troll shallow-running minnow-imitators like Rapalas, Rebels, Rogues, ThunderSticks. Spool out 100 feet of line directly behind either corner of the transom and troll forward just fast enough to get baits wiggling. Weedcover shouldn't be much of a problem in early season, with last year's remnant growth seldom rising substantially above bottom. Run lures in the open space between the surface and weed tops, diving near but not snagging the growth. Pump the rod forward occasionally, then drop the rod tip back, to alternately surge and pause the lure to trigger following walleyes. Focus on the 5- to 10-foot levels in most environments.
Fancasting (coverage and precision) -- If modest-sized weedbeds, large reef tops, long shoreline points, flooded timber, or other forms of distinctive shallow cover or structure are present, try fancasting crankbaits across the tops, through lanes in cover, or along shorelines dropping directly to at least 3 to 5 feet of water. Such areas may not be large or deep enough to longline troll; frequently passing over fish in extremely shallow water may spook them. Casting, however, reaches out to the fish, alerting but not scaring them. Use subtle retrieves with occasional pauses. Floating-diving and neutrally buoyant minnow-imitators are good choices down to around 3 to 4 feet; select diving shad baits like Shad Raps to reach a bit deeper if necessary.
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Slip bobber (ultraprecision) -- Sometimes, small distinctive structures draw walleyes up into shallow water in limited spots, such as a creek inlet, the top of a small rockpile, tip of a shallow shoreline point, outer fringe of a reedbed, particular piece of standing timber -- even a lily pad cluster in the back of a shallow bay. When the productive spot is tiny, don't waste time trolling or casting all around it. Toss out an anchor within casting distance of the upwind side and saturate the precise area with a slipbobber presentation. Suspend a live leech hooked through the sucker, or a minnow hooked below the dorsal fin, a few feet below the surface, just deep enough to kiss the tops of the rocks or avoid snagging any cover. Lighted slipfloats from Fuji, Thill (Lindy-Little Joe), Blue Fox, and others carry you from the lowlight transition period into the hour of darkness following sunset. Lights out -- 'eyes on the line.
THE LOW LIGHT BITE
Long shot. Hail Mary. A three-pointer from the half court line. Call it what you will, but after a tough day of meager results, you can still pull out the game with a final flourish. Somewhere, walleyes likely will fire off at sunset. Percentagewise, it's probably somewhere shallow -- somewhere fish have been lurking all day with their mouths shut and brain stems on standby. If classic rock reefs, shoreline points, or visible cover are present, cast crankbaits or probe key shallow cover items with lighted slipbobbers and livebait. But if large flats with subtle cover predominate adjacent to spawning grounds, and postspawn walleyes likely haven't yet fully dispersed from the general area, give 'em at least a fair try, too. Longline troll or fancast expansive or featureless areas to see what's shakin'.
The fish will let you know. If they don't bite during low light, they probably aren't around. Tomorrow, try other more-distant spots, perhaps at greater depths. Until then, explore the shallow low light bite for a shot at fish other anglers often miss. If you hang in there until sunset, following the siesta, let the fiesta begin!
LATE-SPRING LOW LIGHT BITE POTENTIAL
So you tried deep weedlines, deep tips of points, and classic drop-offs during the day for postspawn walleyes -- and the patterns unexpectedly fizzled. Perhaps most fish haven't dropped deep yet and are relating to shallow flats or cover.
Probe shallower cover, the tops of flats, obvious reef tops or points. In spring, 5 to 10 feet may be deep enough to hold walleyes during the day. If, however, the weather's calm with bright skies, and the water's clear, the walleyes may not bite until sunset. Expect a short but intense flurry beginning about 45 minutes before sundown. Be ready with the right presentation.
Smaller spots -- creek inlets, small rock piles -- often are best covered with casting techniques. Slip bobbers excel for stealth in tiny precise spots, while crankbaits are better for fancasting moderate-sized flat areas or along the edges of shoreline cover.
On larger flats with adequate depth -- 5 to 10 feet -- longline troll minnow-imitators above weed tops, rocks, even relatively coverless areas. During low light periods and at night, active fish likely will rise off bottom and cruise for food, so you don't have to saturate small spots; rather, cover water, occasionally circling back over areas where you hooked fish. If some specific feature seems to attract walleyes, consider switching to a casting technique to probe every nook and cranny. If fish appear randomly scattered, however, trolling remains the best bet.