Fishing for night walleyes on your favorite lake might be better than you’ve seen all day.
With eyes adjusted to the darkness, you can make out the lakeshore, but it’s more than a cast’s distance away so you’re really just throwing in its general direction, across a big flat.
Everything is done by feel as you swim your minnow-shaped lure beneath the surface. You perk up when your lure kicks bottom or the tops of the weeds, but you recognize that neither feels right.
You’ll know it when a walleye hits.
Casting into the darkness and fishing by feel offers undeniable romance, and on a cool autumn evening, you’re unlikely to have to battle crowds for good spots. Those are genuine appeals, but neither is the primary reason you should consider making some after-hours walleye plans. Reason No. 1 is quite simply that the fishing tends to be best after the sun goes down at this time of year.
Equipped with large eyes and excellent night vision, walleyes generally prefer to feed under the cover of darkness. Those big eyes are light sensitive, so they don’t like too much brightness. Plus, their keen night vision provides an advantage over prey when visibility is reduced.
Night-fishing provides benefits year ’round for walleyes, but those benefits become even greater during the fall when the bulk of the walleyes’ favorite prey species are shallow, and the ’eyes move up at night to ambush baitfish.
Many waterways also tend to be clearer during the fall than at any other time, so the walleyes spend their days deeper, out of the sun they don’t particularly like.
It’s not that fall walleyes can’t be caught during the day. They can. However, they feed more actively and do so in shallower water, where they are easier to find and effectively target under the cover of darkness.
Because walleyes generally choose to spend their days quite a bit deeper than where they’ll feed at night this time of year, the best night-fishing spots offer good shallow structure that is close to deep water, often in a lake’s main basin or near the mouth of a big bay. Shallow humps and points are always worth exploring because they provide easy bridges out of deeper water. Also consider flats that are adjacent to deeper water and the mouths of flowing tributaries, which dig channels and form deltas that often drop into deeper water.
Atop any given structure, look for vegetation that remains fresh and green (it may require daytime scouting) or spots that are studded with plenty of rocks. Both hold extra food and provide ambushing cover for the fish. Also, pay attention to any defined break and to little points and cuts along either the main structure or a weedline.
Most important, look for baitfish with your electronics. If baitfish are plentiful over the right types of structure or in deeper water just off the structure a little before dark, chances are good the walleyes will move onto the feeding areas at night.
Few things will fire up nighttime walleye specialists quite like a good debate about moon phases. Most agree that the moon does affect the walleyes’ behavior. The anglers just don’t always agree on all the details, in part because specific impacts vary based on things like forage types and the clarity of the water.
Most anglers agree that the two best overall periods are within a few days of the full moon and the new moon. New-moon fish arguably are the most active and the least spooky, but the full moon offers the very practical advantage of an enhanced ability for anglers to see, and to fish more efficiently.
Also widely agreed upon among walleye anglers is that the fish bite best around times of the moonrise and moonset — whether either happens by day or by night.
Those things noted, the best nights to go walleye fishing actually are whichever nights you are able to go! — Steven Johnson
Because walleyes tend to move relatively shallow and to feed actively during the night this time of year, you don’t need a big arsenal of lures or rigs to make good presentations and coax fish into biting. In fact, all you really need are some minnow-shaped crankbaits and some jigs and grubs. In truth, either will work on many nights, but having both allows you to account for moods, and a minnow lure provides a little larger profile and depth control, while a grub offers a bit more finesse and the chance to work anywhere in the water column.
If you’re fishing from a boat, begin by trolling likely fish-holding areas with minnow lures. That allows you to watch for walleyes and baitfish with electronics while looking for active fish with your lures. If you catch one or even if you miss a strike, make a second pass through the same area. If you get hit again, circle back, stop the boat and work that area and start casting. The walleyes will often be in groups, and so while trolling is great for locating them, casting allows you to work the structure thoroughly with a variety of presentations.
If you’re fishing from the bank, you don’t get the advantage of being able to search by trolling. That makes it extra important for you to identify likely key spots before you start. That said, if the bank is sufficiently open for nighttime walking or if it’s practical to move by car to hit a few spots, be willing to remain mobile until you find the fish.
When you cast minnow lures, try reeling very slowly with shallow models so they wake on the surface or swim barely beneath it, and work swimming minnows that dive a bit deeper at a moderate pace. Either way, keep the retrieve steady. That helps the walleyes hone in on your offering in the dark. Swim grubs steadily or bounce them on the bottom. Either way, keep the pace relatively slow.
It has been said the only problem with night-fishing is the darkness, and that oversimplified statement carries significant truth. Darkness adds challenges and hazards that warrant consideration.
One of the simplest ways to contend well with darkness is to arrive while it’s still light. Even if the action comes later, giving yourself a couple of hours of fishing time before nightfall lets you get to your area and look around, have your gear in good order and simply to begin executing a plan while you can still see well. Whether you’re in a boat or on the bank, be very intentional about using that time to look for would-be hazards and simply to be well prepared.
From a fish-finding standpoint, you often can locate fish on your graph that are staging just off breaks, and it’s easy to see which points or humps they are likely to move up after dark. Don’t worry too much about trying to catch those fish yet. They’ll bite better after dark. You can troll as you look, but do so with flatlines, like you’ll use once the fish have moved shallower. That way, darkness won’t sneak up on you before you’re ready.
Also, keep in mind that “less is more” for night-fishing. You don’t need downriggers or bait tanks or various other specialized items, and you don’t need a big selection of lures. Stow anything you won’t need, or leave it at home, to keep things nice and open in the boat. The same applies to a shoreline approach. Traveling light means you have less gear to keep up with, which makes it far easier to move about as needed in the darkness.
A final important night consideration is that it’s apt to get cold — maybe colder than you’d expect — once the sun has been down a couple of hours. Even if you’re going out after a mild day, bring gloves, a warm hat and warmer layers than you think you’ll need. Clothes truly are the most important exception to the notion of packing light!