One of the unexpected byproducts of COVID-19 has been a major surge in boating activity on our lakes and rivers. While that may be good news for the boating industry, odds are that it hasn’t made your summer fishing outings more enjoyable.
Fortunately, Midwest walleye anglers have the perfect antidote to the influx of August pleasure boaters—night fishing.
"The lakes I fish are crowded in summer, and with COVID even more people than usual are using our waterways, especially on weekends," says Steve Everetts, owner of Finseekers Guide Service (847-707-1827; finseekers.com), who guides for walleyes and other game species on inland waters in southern Wisconsin and the Great Lakes. "But I can target these lakes in the evening when the boat traffic is thinner. Walleye is a great species to chase at night, especially on lakes with clear water. They seem to see better at night than they do during the day."
Aquatic vegetation often dictates Everetts’ trolling strategy.
"I deal with a lot of vegetation on our lakes in summer, so I fish deeper than I would in late fall or spring," he says.
Frequent targets are weed flats in the 12- to 16-foot depth range.
"I choose baits that run over the tops of weeds or just tick the weeds when I’m trolling,” he says. “If fish are pushed tight toward shore, I’ll be casting for them in 2 to 6 feet of water."
When he is casting, he prefers shallow-diving, medium-billed baits (the Storm Wiggle Wart comes to mind) or high-riding 1/4-ounce lipless crankbaits.
While “gradual diving” stickbaits like the Smithwick Rattlin’ Rogue and Smithwick Perfect 10 do the lion’s share of the work in spring, Everetts summons more aggressive diving baits for summer service.
"I run shorter lines—maybe 40- to 60-foot leads with more aggressive deep-diving baits in summer," he says. "You deal with a lot of floating vegetation in summer, and the more aggressive diving lures on a shorter line cut better through the floating weeds than a gradual-diving stickbait running 100 feet back."
Nighttime walleye killers include Bandit’s lines of deep-diving minnow-style baits, the Strike King Banana Shad, Reef Runners and the Berkley Flicker Minnow (Size 9).
"The line has to be short and tight because the bait is diving so much faster," says Everetts, who spools his trolling reels with 10-pound braid and 10-pound fluorocarbon leader. "When I have a weed on the lure, I can feel it immediately."
For walleyes on inland lakes, Everetts fishes four flat lines, seldom more.
"I run two long 10-foot rods [that act] almost like outriggers," says Everetts. "Then I run two shorter 7-foot rods at a slight ‘up’ angle straight back. The rods positioned in the chute running 80 feet cover the same depth as the flat lines at 55 feet because they are angled up in the rod holder. I put all of the rods in rod holders so I can see if the rod tip is vibrating the way I want it to."
On big walleye waters like Green Bay and lakes Erie and Huron where vegetation is not an issue, Everetts runs a mix of flat lines and planer boards to strain water more effectively. A typical configuration includes four planer boards running off the shore side of the boat, one off the deep side and two flat lines running from corner rod holders.
"A useful trick is to take dollar-store glowstick bracelets and scotch tape them to the backs of the rod blanks," says Everetts. "It turns the last six inches of your rod into a glowstick, and you can easily monitor the vibration of your rod tip."
Typical trolling speed is between 1.5 and 1.8 mph, Everetts notes.
"But if I’m getting bit, I will speed up to see how fast I can go and still get strikes," he says. "I want to cover as much water as possible."
When fish are clustered and bites are coming fast and furious, he shortens his trolling passes to 15 or so minutes and runs back through the productive area.
BE SAFE AND GO GET THEM
Everetts and his clients consistently catch largemouth and smallmouth bass along with northern pike and rock bass when putting on their “night moves.” He also stresses the importance of safety and simplicity when fishing in the dark.
"I take out all the stuff I don’t need before we leave the dock," he says. "It’s a ‘streamline the boat’ process. I also mount flashlights on the landing net to help land fish and remove hooks. And everyone in the boat wears a headlamp!"