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Nighttime is the Right Time for Hawkeye State Walleyes

Nighttime is the Right Time for Hawkeye State Walleyes

Work the late shift for Iowa walleyes and you just might get into more action than you ever see during the day. Who needs sleep?

By Dan Anderson

They glide on smooth waters just after sunset, dark shadows on the moon-mirrored surfaces of lakes. The low murmur of a trolling motor drifts across the water. The lake is so quiet, the air so still, that you can hear from a quarter-mile away when one of the anglers quietly says, "Got another one."

They're anglers, searching for walleyes that go on the prowl after sunset. Anglers who know how, when and where to fish after dark are the anglers who most often bring home their limits of walleyes.

"There are certain Iowa lakes that are known for their night bite," said David Murray, a 35-year-old walleye tournament angler from Carlisle. "Saylorville can be good - Little River is better. Rathbun is really good. And West (Lake) Okoboji is probably the best night-bite lake in Iowa."

At Saylorville, a flood-control reservoir, the water's often high in late spring and early summer. Walleye anglers have discovered that flooded parking lots attract walleyes.

"When the water level is high, it washes a lot of insects and worms out of the weeds along the shore, and I think that stuff is easy to find on the smooth surfaces of parking lots," said Murray. "All that food attracts forage fish, and forage fish attract walleyes."

David Murray poses with an after-dark 'eye from a southern Iowa reservoir. Photo by Dan Anderson

The area off Sandpiper Beach is another nighttime haunt of walleyes. Two points bracket the swimming beach at Sandpiper. A sand and rock point runs northwest-southeast from the west side of the beach, while a sand point curves around the east side of the beach. Runoff from the beach's parking lot has carved a gully in the hillside on the east side of the beach.


"Sandpiper has everything walleyes like," said Murray. "The old river channel swings close to the west side of Sandpiper; there's sand, there's rocks, there's flooded weeds. There will be walleyes in that area no matter what the pool level is."

Murray likes to use a spinner and a night crawler to target Saylorville's walleyes after dark. While other anglers use snells of 24 to 36 inches, Murray regularly rigs 42-, 48-, even 60-inch snells.

"I use a 1- or 2-ounce bottom bouncer and troll real slow with my trolling motor - maybe only 3/4 of a mile an hour," he said. "I want that spinner blade just barely turning. The slow speed and heavy bottom bouncer means I can keep the bouncer right under the boat, and I can really monitor where I'm at in relation to any bottom structure."

The extra-long snell is Murray's trick to outwit spooky walleyes.

"The bottom bouncer makes some noise, stirs up the bottom a little, and that spooks them, but also arouses their curiosity," he said. "With the long snell, my bait comes along after they've had time to relax. Plus, that longer snell allows my rig to drift a little higher off the bottom, and I think that's really important with walleyes.

"Walleyes tend to feed upwards. Yes, walleyes will feed on the bottom, but I've caught a lot more walleyes since I made a practice of keeping my baits and lures at their level or slightly above them."

That same strategy of keeping lures and baits above walleyes has been effective at Little River Lake near Leon. A series of rock jetties near the dam, and an area near the campground at the north end, have been especially productive.

"Up near the campground, the old creek channel twists in close to shore, and the walleyes really like to move up out of that deep water at night," said Murray. "That's a good place to use a spinner and a leech on a 8- or 10-foot long snell in maybe 6 to 8 feet of water. There's also an old submerged roadbed in that area that's good for trolling. There are a couple places where creeks ran down and went under the road or under a bridge. Those are great places to anchor and vertical-jig."

Rock jetties at the south end of Little River have been consistent walleye producers for Murray after dark. He and his father fish right beside the jetties - in fact, they actually toss their anchor on the jetty to hold them in place. As nightfall approaches, Murray uses a night crawler or leech under a slip-bobber rig. He uses a battery-powered lighted bobber after sunset.

His father, who prefers a jig-and-minnow - a big (3-inch) minnow - annoys the younger Murray by laying his rod in a rod holder. The older Murray sits back and enjoys the view while nighttime wave motion gently jigs his minnow 1 or 2 feet off the bottom.

"I'm a hands-on guy - got to have the rod in my hand - and it drives me nuts that he catches so many fish with his rod in the rod holder," laughed the younger Murray. "He just sits there until the rod tip bows down a little bit, and pulls in his fish."

Murray has lifted walleyes as large as 8 1/2 pounds from Little River. Andy Moore, fisheries supervisor for southwest Iowa, said that Iowa Department of Natural Resources survey crews have found walleyes up to 12 pounds in that lake.

"Most walleyes at Little River average around 14 to 20 inches, but it's not unusual to see 10-pounders in our surveys," said Moore.

Even more tantalizing is Moore's report about Lake Rathbun. "I've seen reports of our crews finding 15-pound walleyes at Rathbun," he said. "And not just one or two. You never hear of anybody catching walleyes that big - but they're in there."

Murray focuses his after-sunset attention on a few specific, highly productive locations at Rathbun. California Point, near the Honey Creek Area, and major points across the lake in the Island View neighborhood, always draw his attention.

"More tournament fish come off those two areas than any other place in the lake," said Murray. "There are rocks on those points, and rocks are magnets for walleyes in lakes like Rathbun that don't have a lot of rocks. I like to troll or pitch crankbaits in about 10 feet of water off those points."

While most of Rathbun's walleyes are taken from relatively shallow (5 to 15 feet), Murray has learned to stay flexible at that lake. "One time I was running a bottom bouncer and spinner in about 15 feet of water, and the bottom dropped down into the old channel and about 25 feet," he said. "I was feeling lazy, so I lef

t my rig at 15 feet over that 25-foot bottom, and darned if I didn't pick up a 9 1/2-pound walleye suspended out in that deep water. That taught me to really watch my graph for suspended baitfish. Wherever there are baitfish, walleyes won't be far behind."

Suspended walleyes aren't the only surprise for walleye anglers at Rathbun. Both Murray and Moore said Rathbun's walleyes are often found in as little as 2 feet of water - on bright sunny days.

"They aren't supposed to be there, but we've had some great walleye fishing in the middle of the afternoon in 2 feet of water," said Murray. "But there was sand and rocks and baitfish, so I guess it shouldn't have surprised me. If anything, the rule at Rathbun is to lean toward shallow. Walleyes in that lake just don't seem to like deep water like they do in other lakes."

A good example of walleyes favoring deep water is found in northwest Iowa, at West Lake Okoboji. While Murray has taken many walleyes from 10 to 15 feet of water off Pillsbury Point and other major points by trolling "plain old No. 9, No. 10 or even No. 13 Rapalas" over the tops of submerged weedbeds, he has also pulled 'eyes from as deep as 60 feet.

"I use leadcore line to troll crankbaits really, really deep," said Murray. "The leadcore line is color marked, so that it changes color every 30 feet. Depending on the speed you're trolling, you can generally figure you'll get 5 feet of depth for every 30 feet of line you have out. If you experiment with speed, you can get crankbaits down to 50, 60 feet.

"When you troll that deep you're targeting walleyes that a lot of guys miss. (Trolling lead-core line) is tricky to learn, but it can be really effective once you figure it out."

The same could be said for the overall tactic of fishing for walleyes at night. Anglers can't see their lines in the dark to watch for subtle bites, changing lures is a challenge, and safety is a consideration. But when you look at the size and number of walleyes caught by anglers who master the challenge of fishing in the dark, there's no way around it: Nighttime is the right time for Iowa walleyes.

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