Walleyes are built for hunting at night. Armed with keen night vision, a super- sensitive lateral line and a highly developed sense of hearing, walleyes have the upper hand under the cover of darkness and take full advantage of it. It’s a wonder more anglers don’t.
A walleye’s glassy eyes aren’t just for looks. The opaque appearance of a walleye’s eyes is the result of a light-gathering pigment called the tapetum lucidum. This reflective layer of pigment in the retina of the eye gives the walleye the marbled-eyed appearance, gathers light very effectively and accounts for the walleye’s unparalleled night vision. Made up of minute reflective crystals, the tapetum lucidum acts like a mirror. Faint light coming into a walleye’s eye passes by the cones and rods, and is reflected off the tapetum lucidum and passes over the cone and rods a second time, instead of just once like in most fishes. This phenomenon, in conjunction with a higher density of rods in their eyes, gives walleyes their superior night vision and a huge advantage over their sightless prey.
The light-gathering qualities of the walleye’s eyes account for their aversion to bright light. You won’t find walleyes in shallow, clear water when the sun is out. Walleyes retreat to deep water or cover then and don’t come out until the odds are again in their favor. That’s also the reason walleyes have a vampire-like dislike for sunlight. You might find them shallow when it’s dark and overcast or if the water is strained or riled by waves action. I once caught walleyes one after another on a hot, summer day in two feet of water, but pounding waves had stirred the water to the color of chocolate milk. But this was the exception. Walleyes normally get active as the light starts to wane. Why is it then that most anglers fish for them during the daylight hours?
While walleyes can see better than most fish in dim light, they can’t see colors as well. Species like bass, pike and trout can recognize colors better than walleyes because they have two types of color discriminating cells that differentiate between red-green and blue-yellow. Walleyes lack the blue-yellow cells and can most likely only see shades of red or green. In spite of this tendency, a friend who guides for nighttime walleyes swears that body baits that feature an orange belly will out-fish other colors. Obviously, some of this preference can be attributed to the prey species the ‘eyes are feeding on. There are other variables that influence how a walleye sees color too including water depth, clarity and color. But at night, color vision is probably of little use and walleyes rely on their acute night vision and superior lateral-line senses to locate a frenzied baitfish, a wriggling night crawler or leech suspended below a slip bobber or your rattlin’ crank bait.
Walleyes at night hunt in packs or marauding schools that use structure and edges to corner schools of unsuspecting baitfish. Weed edges, breakwalls, break lines; ledges and similar structure are perfect places to begin your search for nighttime walleyes. The walleyes will become active as evening approaches and begin a migration from their daytime lairs to the feeding grounds. Schools of walleyes that are hunting will be constantly on the move and anglers need to move to in order to intercept as many fish as possible when the bite is on. The most effective way to cover water and contact fish is to troll.
Because of a walleye’s acute hearing, nighttime anglers must be super quiet, especially when trolling. This is no time to fire up the 225 horse and go flying into your favorite spot. If you do, walleyes are going to be scattering for parts unknown. A better plan is to shut down far short of your destination and go into a stealth mode using your trolling motor. A trolling motor allows you to sneak up on edgy walleyes. The maneuverability of a trolling motor also allows you to trace the subtle contours and structure that nighttime walleyes often relate to. Key is to not spook the fish before your lures get to them.
Getting into the stealth mode starts way before you hit the water. It’s a lot easier organizing your tackle and boat in the daylight than it is when it’s pitch dark in the middle of the lake. Make sure the floor of your boat is clear of obstacles such as chairs, tackle boxes, cooler, anchors, garbage etc… that can get in the way once it gets dark. Get the lures ready that you plan on using, sharpen hooks, have a pair of pliers and the net handy. Make sure you have a couple of flashlights too, but use lights sparingly. Lights on the water are likely to spooky light-shy walleyes. A black light can be used to help you net fish or when rigging and can help your night vision.
Walleye guide Tom Irwin has been showing anglers how to catch trophy walleyes at night for almost two decades and is a master at stealth trolling. “Walleyes at night relate heavily to structure,” observed Irwin. “Not that you can’t catch them on flats, but a sharp break, weed line or other structure concentrates them making their location more predictable.”
Irwin relies on his Minn Kota Maxxum 74 trolling motor and his Lowrance electronics to trace contours that foraging walleyes relate to while long-lining floating body baits or stick baits. Irwin likes to run his baits directly behind the boat so the lures are tracing the same path that he’s pinpointing on his graph. Customers hold onto rods instead of placing them in holders so they can feel the lure working and detect the often- subtle way a walleye strikes. Irwin encourages clients to rip the lure forward occasionally and then concentrate on feeling the lure as it wiggles while dropping back. A strike is often nothing more than a tick.
Generally, Irwin said the nighttime walleyes can be found in 10 to 17 feet of water on his favorite lakes. A spike in the action usually occurs when walleyes first move in from their daytime haunts right after dark. From dusk until midnight is usually a hot period, although flurries of action can take place throughout the night when a hungry school of marble eyes is encountered or boat traffic thins. Just before dawn is anther peak time to be on the water, if your drooping eyelids will allow it. Another plus of fishing at night is that the biggest ‘eyes in the lake will be on the prowl then. Irwin’s clients routinely break that magic 10-pound mark.
Tackle selection is critical for feeling light-biting walleyes. Walleyes usually inhale their prey and a strike often feels like nothing more than a subtle tick or the feeling of weight on the end of your line. Irwin said that he relies on super lines, like Berkley FireLine, because of the sensitivity. Abrasion resistance is another plus of using super lines. Many walleye waters are becoming infested with zebra mussels and super lines are more resistant to fraying and abrasion. Rods for stealth trolling are usually of the casting variety and made of high-modulus, ultra-sensitive graphite and stretch to 6 or 7 feet. Reels that feature line counters, like Diawa’s SG27LCA-W or Cabela’s Depth Master Gold, are important for keeping track of lure depth and repeating productive trolls.
“I’m a big fan of lures with rattles in them when targeting nighttime walleyes,” said Irwin. “I think walleyes can hear and feel them better than lures without them.” Irwin said he looks for lure with a tight, side-to-side wiggle, which usually means a straight lure versus the jointed variety. “All lures are not created equal,” cautioned Irwin. “About one out of four lures are going to run right right out of the box. You should be able to feel the lure wiggling when you pull it through the water.” Irwin said that you can tune some lures to run properly; others are junk. As a last resort try gently bending the eye of the lure downward. Sometimes this alone will correct the problem, said Irwin, but you risk ruining a bait. Don’t assume that a lure is running right and then wonder why you didn’t get a touch all night.
Irwin likes Rattlin’ Rogues, Husky Jerks, Thunderstiks and Crystal Minnows in both suspending and floating models when targeting night ‘eyes. He prefers long, slender stick baits versus short, fat crank baits because the walleye forage in the lakes he fishes tend to be on the elongated end of the scale. Make note of the preferred forage in your lake and change accordingly. Irwin adds three number 7 split shot approximately three feet above the lure. The shot should be ticking bottom occasionally while the lure rides slightly off the bottom in view of cruising walleyes. Irwin staggers lead lengths depending on the water depth and which side of the boat the angler is on. Doing so helps lures hug sloping contours and structure, prevents tangles and allows for precision trolling.
Nighttime walleyes can turn on and off quickly. If you make contact with a fish, mark the spot on your GPS and after landing the fish turn around to make another quick pass over the same area. Usually there’s more than one hungry walleye in the pack. Another tactic is that once you hook a walleye trolling, quickly land the fish and then use the trolling motor to get close to where the fish was hooked and fan-cast the area to contact hot, aggressive fish. Irwin also advised anglers to not give up on a spot you know is productive. If you make a pass without hooking a fish give the location a rest and return to try it again. Marauding walleyes are on the move can show up at any time.
While it’s a good idea to pull lures directly behind the boat when working specific structure, fish that are cruising over open flats can be widely scattered. It pays to use small in-line boards then to cover more water. Mini-boards, like Big Jon’s Mini Otter or Church Tackle’s TX-6 Magnum Mini Planer, are perfect for pulling stick baits and increase your coverage area tenfold. You can add light sticks to the boards to keep track of them after dark. Simply drill a hole into the top of the board and insert the light stick. The stick will glow for 12 to 14 hours. They also act like a glowing bobber when a jumbo ‘eye grabs the trailing bait. You don’t need to run the boards 80 or 100 feet off the side of the boat like you would during daylight hours. 30 feet or less is usually far enough. The boards can be particularly effective on bright, moonlit nights when walleyes can be especially spooky of boat shadows, motor noise and wake.
Some nighttime walleye hotspots just don’t lend themselves to trolling. There are also periods during the year when casting can be more productive than trolling for walleyes after dark. “I tend to do more casting in the summer time,” reasoned Tom Irwin. “In the summer, walleyes are often relating to thick weed beds and edges. It’s tough to troll precisely along those types of edges. You’ve also have more weeds and debris on the surface during the summer, which makes trolling counterproductive.” Still, there’s a method to the madness even when casting for night ‘eyes.
Irwin suggests rather than position out from the weeds and casting back into towards the invisible weed line a better bet is to anchor right in the weeds or on the edge and cast out or parallel to the weeds. This tactic keeps your lure in the strike zone longer and targets ‘eyes that are patrolling the edge. It also takes the mystery out of where the weeds end and begin. Irwin also said that by casting out from the weeds your lure will more closely follow the contour or break line coming out from the weeds. “Your crank bait starts out shallow and then dives as you retrieve,” theorized Irwin. “The lure dives to its deepest point and then, about two-thirds of the way in, it begins to rise and work its way up the break line. By casting out and retrieving back towards the weeds, your lure will be in the strike zone for a much longer period.”
Don’t be afraid to look for walleyes in some pretty skinny water after dark. It’s not uncommon to hear night ‘eyes slashing and slurping baitfish in as little 1 to 2 feet of water. Rather than patrol the outside break, walleye will move to the inside of the weed line where they can corner baitfish between the bank and the weeds. The idea situation is when there is a sharply defined edge along the bank. This can be a lip created by erosion, rocks, a breakwall or pilings. Night walleyes will use this physical obstruction to heard and trap unsuspecting baitfish.
Situations like this make night walleyes available to more than just boat fishermen. Quietly slipping along the bank and listening for feeding fish is the ultimate method of night stalking. You can don waders or cast from docks. Walk softly to prevent sending out vibrations that will spook feeding ‘eyes.
Another prime nighttime walleye haunt is along piers, breakwalls and jetties along the Great Lakes. Boat-less anglers can net their fair share of walleyes by working riprap, rocks and current breaks that walleyes frequent under the cover of darkness. The ‘eyes gorge on the bounty of alewives, smelt and other baitfish that can be found seasonally near Great Lakes piers. Preferred lures include suspending and sinking stick baits, like Countdown Rapalas.
Fishing for walleyes at night definitely has its benefits. You won’t run into the crowds of anglers that you’ll encounter during the day and under the cover of darkness is the best time to catch trophy walleyes. It’s all worth loosing a little sleep over.