Night-Shift Walleyes

Not all bodies of water offer solid fishing opportunities after dark for walleyes, but there are many notable fisheries where we have traditionally caught the majority of fish or sometimes the largest fish long after the sun sinks below the horizon. On many bodies of water, the best walleye fishing happens after dark. From Montana’s Fort Peck Reservoir to the Finger Lakes region of New York to a long list of fisheries in between, the night shift is where it’s at for catching walleyes through the ice.

I cut my teeth with 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 lakes offered their own personalities despite their close proximity. We often caught 80 percent of our fish on Sakakawea, for example, during a window that occurred between one and two hours after dark. On Lake Audubon, the fish would often bite sporadically all night long with action that could keep us moving. I have been on Red Lake and Mille Lacs Lake several times when action was best between midnight and 4 a.m.

Most fish caught during the dark of night are caught by anglers using rattle reels in hard-sided fish houses. I have always loved the possibility of catching a fish while sleeping. A rattle reel combined with live bait is a simple, effective presentation that no doubt works, but you can see a dramatic uptick 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 that you can use to cover a location, but also act as 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 as 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 have used small trebles and multiple treble quick-strike rigs with some success. However, I have really started to favor a single kahle style hook, as the larger gap seems to keep larger chubs and minnows hooked up longer than the smaller gaps found on small treble hooks.

Big strong minnows are the ticket. In fact, we have often used minnows as long as seven inches, sometimes larger. The challenge with the larger minnows is that you have 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 itself. In that case, you’d have to use a heavier trip setting. What I like to do is use the bare minimum to keep the minnow near the bottom. I pinch off much of the fin on the tail so that the minnow can still swim, but doesn’t’t have as much horsepower to swim out of the strike zone.

Another thing I do is take electrical tape and wrap some around where the line guide is 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 that the line is spooled on the tip-up.

Jigging lures have caught a lot of fish for me after dark and can be much more explosive than tip-ups with the number of fish you can catch in a very 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 have found, bar none, is glow-in-the-dark. Since we started using some of the first phosphorescent jigging spoons over 25 years ago, there is no doubt in my mind that we get more bites when using lures that glow when targeting fish after dark.

A new spoon that really opened my eyes this past season when testing some of the early prototypes was 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 commercially made tackle.

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

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 1 to 2 feet off the bottom, don’t be afraid to work the water column 4 to 5 feet above; this zone 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. I can’t tell you how many times one fish would hit every tip-up until we eventually caught it. I dare to say that it was one fish because after about the fourth flag, we finally caught it and found that it still had the minnows from other tip-ups in its mouth or gullet.

We have also experienced blitzes when every tip-up would get hit in a short span of time as a school of fish moves through. A flurry best describes the action when you can sit for an hour or two and then the dams break loose and there are fish flopping all over the ice.

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