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Night Shift Walleyes

by Jason Mitchell


Not all bodies of water offer solid after dark fishing opportunities for walleyes, but there are so many notable fisheries where we have traditionally caught the majority of fish, or sometimes the largest fish, long after the witching hour when the sun sinks into the horizon.

On many bodies of water, the best walleye fishing happens after dark. From Montana’s Fort Peck Reservoir to the Finger Lakes of New York with a long list of fisheries in between these two destinations, the night shift is where it’s at for catching walleyes through the ice.

The “evening bite” is more prevalent over ice than in summer. You’d think that with the ice cover above them, walleyes wouldn’t be so conscious of daylight. But they know.

I cut my teeth on after-dark walleye fishing on the east end of Lake Sakakawea and nearby Lake Audubon, both large impoundments created by the damming of the Missouri River in western North Dakota. Each of these two lakes offered their own personalities despite their close proximity. We often caught 80 percent of our fish on Sakakawea during a window that occurred between one and two hours after dark. On nearby Lake Audubon, fish would often bite sporadically all night long with action that kept us moving through the night. I have been on Red Lake and Mille Lacs Lake several times when the best action occurred between midnight and 4 a.m.

 

Basic Tools

Most fish caught during the dark of night often get caught in hard-sided fish houses with rattle reels. I have always loved the possibility of catching a fish while I slept. Rattle reels combined with live bait is a simple and effective presentation that works, but you can dramatically see an up-tick in your vampire walleye game with a little bit of hustle.

Tip-ups can be an important tool for after-dark walleye missions. Think of tip-ups as not only a very effective fish-catching device you can use to cover a location, but also your walleye radar. By covering a spot with tip-ups, you know when and where fish move up on a particular location.

I’ve always been a big fan of the classic Beaver Dam design, opting for the heavier 20 or 30-pound Dacron for the primary line; the larger diameter rolls off the spool nicer with less resistance. Below the Dacron, I typically attach a small barrel swivel and a leader of 10-pound fluorocarbon. I’ve used small trebles and multiple treble Quick Strike rigs that used multiple hooks with some success, but have really started to favor a single Kahlee-style hook. The larger gap seems to keep larger chubs and minnows hooked up longer vs. smaller gaps found on small treble hooks.

 

Bait Choices

Big, strong minnows are the ticket. We’ve often used minnows as long as 7 inches, sometimes larger. The challenge with the larger minnows is to keep them in the strike zone. If you anchor the minnow down with too much lead in the form of a rubber core sinker or split-shot, the tip-up is more apt to trip from the minnow and then you have to use a heavier trip setting.

What I like to do is use the bare minimum to keep the minnow near the bottom and pinch off much of the fin on the tail so that the minnow can still swim but doesn’t have as much horsepower to swim out of the strike zone.

Another thing I like to do is wrap some electrical tape around the line guide attached to the rod next to the spool so that the minnow can’t swim off line by rolling the line guide around the spool. Big minnows can peel off a lot of line without ever tripping the flag by just swimming in a big circle counter to the direction the line is spooled on the tip-up.

 

Other Options

Jigging lures have caught a lot of fish for me after dark and can be much more explosive than tip-ups for numbers of fish you can catch in a small window of time. While you can jig all night long if you want to, a top strategy is to let the tip-ups tell you where and when to jig. When flags start to pop in an area, bounce around and jig open holes. This classic one-two punch combines two complimentary but drastically different styles of presentations and optimizes each.

When it comes to jigging walleyes after dark, the best color I’ve found, bar none, is glow-in-the-dark. Since we started using some of the first phosphorescent jigging spoons 25 years ago, there’s no doubt in my mind that we get bit more when using lures that glow when targeting fish after dark.

 

Spoon Baits

A new spoon that really opened my eyes last season when testing some of the early prototypes is the new Clam Rattling Blade Spoon. This particular spoon is unique because it features a pyrex-glass chamber that amplifies the noise much more than traditional brass. The BBs are stainless steel instead of lead so the BBs retain their circular shape better and offer a louder and more consistent rattle with less effort.

I love rattle spoons and rattle baits for after-dark walleyes and the glow paint used on the Clam Tackle is some of the best available in commercial tackle.

For really charging a glow in the dark lure, nothing beats a UV light charger. The glow lasts longer and is much brighter.

 

The Depth Factor

Another tip for jigging after dark is to work slightly higher than you would during the day. If most of the fish come through from one to two feet off the bottom, don’t be afraid to work the water column four to five feet above. This is often the big fish zone, particularly after dark.

Bite indicators, hole covers and tip-up lights are also great tools for the after-dark walleye angler. While tip-ups require some patience, don’t get complacent. Check baits, clean holes and move tip ups around. Stay active with the tip-ups until they start to fire. When a school of fish comes through, pick up a jigging rod and go to work. This tip-up first, jig rod second component of the strategy seems to make my after-dark fishing more successful.

Typically, when fish move up on reefs and other structure after dark, they do so to eat. Can’t tell you how many times, seemingly one fish would hit every tip-up until we eventually caught it. I dare say that because after about the fourth flag, we finally caught a fish that still had the minnows from other tip-ups in its gullet.

 

Things Happen Quickly

We’ve also been blitzed where every single tip-up would get hit in a short amount of time as a school of fish moves through. Flurries best describes the action where you can sit for an hour or two and then the dams break loose where there are fish flopping all over the ice.

After-dark walleye bites often offer solid opportunities, sometimes the best opportunities on many bodies of water for not only catching numbers of fish but also some of the biggest fish. You can realistically double or triple the amount of fish you touch by working the graveyard shift in the winter weeks.