July 23, 2011
I used to kid my old buddy Art Moraski, alias "the Night Stalker" due to his penchant for fishing after sundown, that night fishing was for people who couldn't catch fish during the day. And do you know what? To some extent, that's still true. Because under certain conditions, daytime fishing for walleyes can turn so darn tough that it's hard to keep your spirits up and your lines down until the fish finally become active around sundown. At that point, the fishing can run anywhere from fair to good to absolutely phenomenal, making you wonder just what those walleyes were doing during the day, when you could have sworn the lake was empty of aquatic life.
The point is, if environmental factors conspire to make early-spring walleye fishing a daytime drought, why not explore the options after dark? Take advantage of the bite when the bite's good even if it costs you a little sleep in the process.
Only local investigation will reveal whether your local waters are good candidates for daytime aversion and nighttime conversion. Perhaps a little of both is in order. The surest tipoff is that when you fish hard, exploring all sorts of options in and around shallow rock spawning areas during the day and come up empty, something's gotta give. When the water temperature's between 40F and 50F, those walleyes have to be somewhere around classic spring spawning sites: rocky inlets, rock shorelines, shallow reefs, the riprap of dams and causeways, and rock shoals in rivers. So if you try logical presentations in likely adjacent areas and don't get bit under the midday sun, chances are it's not your fault. You're probably fishing in the right place and even with the right tackle, just at the wrong time of day.
Don't give up. Just switch into nocturnal mode. Walleyes are notorious nighttime feeders and will generally feed at night in and around shallow spawning areas, even when spawning's more on their minds than scoring a tasty morsel. In some cases, night feeding at this time of year can prevail, to the virtual exclusion of daytime activity. Classic examples? Anytime the water is extremely clear and there's a lack of shallow cover, walleyes usually remain in deeper water adjacent to spawning sites during the day, moving quite shallow after sundown. During the day, they may or may not be willing to feed, but at night, the feedbag goes on in the shallows.
Excessive boat traffic and fishing pressure can push fish activity into the twilight zone as well. Too many depthfinders pinging relentlessly overhead, and too many engines chugging and plugging away, and walleyes may drop tight to the bottom, especially if they're scattered across shallow flats with suitable weed or wood or rock cover to host fish during the day. They're there. They just refuse to respond. But after sundown, when most of the boaters go home and the aquatic world turns inky black and silent, the predators go on the prowl. Include yourself in that category.
And when schools of big suspended walleyes move toward and into the shallows as the sun dips below the horizon, they become vulnerable to simple tactics in obvious places. No more searching for needles in the greater haystack, out in the vast beyond. Instead, they come to you, often right along shore. Be ready.
THE NIGHT BITE
The easiest, most practical way to check sizeable spawning areas at night is by longline trolling a minnow-imitating crankbait through the shallows, typically about 3 to 6 feet deep, give or take. On a hundred feet of 10-pound-test monofilament line, a shallow runner should dip 1 to 2 feet below the surface, barely wiggling along under the influence of your electric trolling motor purring at low speed. Run roughly parallel to the shoreline, focusing on a general depth range, yet put a little left-right weave into the trolling path. This makes lures run alternately faster, then slower, without changing motor speed, which might alert the fish to your presence. It also makes your lures run through areas outside the path of the boat, further minimizing spooking. Successive trolling paths at slightly different depths may indicate a preferred level of activity, or tip you off to some form of cover, bottom content, or subtle depth change that draws fish to a limited area.
Be sure to occasionally pump the rod forward, then quickly point it back, further instilling a surge and pause to the lure motion, first imitating a panicked attempt at fleeing, then sudden vulnerability. The pump-and-dump routine pays big dividends on triggering following fish that might otherwise veer off at the moment of truth.
Once you've established a productive area, especially if said area is relatively small, consider a casting approach. Nothing's deadlier than reaching out into the darkness with a neutrally buoyant minnow-imitator, which is heavy enough to cast well on light line--especially superline--yet provides that slow, tempting, vulnerable wiggle, classic to minnow-imitators. Use a combination of slow pumps of the rod to the side, successively reeling up slack while pointing the rod back toward the lure. Repeat often. The lure sidles forward, then pauses, hovering, neither rising nor sinking, right in a fish's face--the ultimate in triggering capacity on calm nights when the fish can be spooked by unnatural sounds and wayward noises.
Neutrally buoyant minnow-imitators work as well from shore as from a boat. Or try waders, stealthily easing your way through the shallows, guided by moonlight and the feel of rocks and sand beneath your feet. In either case, however, your mobility is much reduced from fishing in a boat. So you must put the odds in your favor by fishing in areas that draw the fish to you, rather than having to seek them out. Creek mouths, breakwalls, bridges, narrows, points, riprap--any likely concentration spot for walleyes drawn shallow by the twin urges of spawning and feeding--are potential shorecasting spots. Some are best with the wind pounding in, usually heightening walleye activity, but making it more difficult to cast offshore. Others continue to produce in calmer conditions, providing you're sneaky and don't tip the fish off to your presence. You can catch walleyes virtually between your wader boots as they follow an escaping lure toward shore, but only if you become one with the darkness. A quick click of the flashlight and dip of the landing net, and you're back in business for the next one.
Need another option? A 1/4-ounce jig tipped with a 4-inch soft plastic shad body or curlytail grub provides a different triggering mechanism than a crankbait. Plop it in, let it drop to bottom, then work it back home with an alternating series of rod tip lifts interspersed with dipping the tip and taking up slack. Be sure to vary retrieves, trying lots of long pauses, fairly short pauses with brief swims, right up to steady swimming retrieves that make the lure wiggle and wobble. You never know what will work best until you try.
And finally, there's always the classic slipbobber approach, using a lighted bobber to suspend a leech or small minnow just off bottom, or slightly above the top of submerged cover like weeds or wood. Use either a 1/32-ounce jighead, or a baited hook with a split shot positioned 18 inches up the line from the bait, to pull line through the float until the bait settles at the preset depth, dipping and dangling and dancing in place. It's slow, precise, stealthy, and deadly, all rolled into one. Anchor the boat and drift a bait up onto and across a prime focal point like a shallow reef or weedbed. Let it float up near shoreline rocks, until the water becomes sufficiently shallow for the bait to come to rest on bottom.
Or, when fishing from from shore, simply pitch out into the inky blackness, using a long 7- to 9-foot (or longer) spinning rod and light line to facilitate a long cast into a light wind. As the float drifts back in toward shore, or circles in a river eddy, or nears some form of visible emergent cover like reeds or wood, be ready. When the light goes out, fish on. Gently sweepset the long rod to bury the hook.
OK, so night fishing not only works, but often excels, particularly at times when walleyes absolutely refuse to cooperate during the day. And it produces a disproportionate share of larger walleyes per hour of effort. So I therefore officially modify my original premise as far as night stalking is concerned. The night bite is indeed the right bite when the walleyes bite at night and refuse to bite during the day. The rest of the time, well, a little daytime action couldn't hurt--with the option to stay out a little while longer after the sun goes down. Just in case.