By Alex Martin
One of New York’s finest game fish is a real night owl! In the heart of summer, if you are targeting walleyes, get used to fishing after dark.
Walleyes have exceptional vision in low light situations and take advantage of this natural tool by feeding heavily when the sun goes down, or on days with poor weather. If it’s raining and cloudy, you can bet the ‘eyes are on the prowl!
These large members of the perch family tend to favor areas near steep drop-offs, weed lines, and deep plunge pools or channels when they are in rivers. The walleyes like to stay close to the bottom or pieces of cover and structure allowing them to ambush their prey, which are primarily smaller fish.
During the summer I head to the rivers. The better the weather, the tougher the fishing can be, however, so I look for rainy days or wait until the sun has gone down and the moon has come out.
When the walleye bite is on, it often gets very hot and then dies off fast, so it’s best to get there around dusk and just start casting so you don’t miss it.
Floating crankbaits that run up to 5 feet deep are my go-to lures at night. I use dark colors like black, purple and dark blue. The darker colors might seem counter intuitive, but they will stand out much better against moon and stars in the night sky. Walleyes tend to feed up, so from their point of view, these will really pop and grab some attention.
After I cast I let the lure rest for a few seconds after it hits the water. Many bass fishermen use the same technique, which allows for a walleye to have a chance to react and hit it right away. You may be surprised how many times fish will pick a lure off the surface on impact or even after it has started to drift with the current.
If you don’t get a strike on the lure hitting the water, then begin to retrieve the lure either so slow that it barely has any action or pull the lure about a foot slowly and then reel up the slack and repeat. Often, on the pull and retrieve technique, a walleye will hit the lure as it starts to float up when you reel in the slack, so be ready. Walleyes like a slow retrieve at night and this also keeps your lure in the strike zone longer and gives more fish a chance to see it.
Don’t forget the plastic jigs and bucktail jigs though when you hit the river! Bucktail jigs might seem a little old-school and basic, but ask any angler who has spent time on a river, and they will tell you they are a must-have. These are arguably the most versatile jig in terms of how they can be fished and what they can imitate when you are on the water.
Natural colors like brown, black, and white are staples. You can jig them in the water column, crawl them along the bottom, and fish them underneath a bobber. My preferred method is to tip the jig with a small piece of nightcrawler and slowly drag the jig along the bottom of deep holes or at the base of dropoffs in the river bed. This technique can imitate a crayfish or minnow scurrying away and the dragging really stirs up the mud and silt attracting a lot of attention to your lure.
Plastic grubs in bright orange, chartreuse, or yellow are my favorite to use when the water is high and muddy or when it is a stormy day on the water. The more turbid the water is, the brighter the jighead I go with to give a little hot spot for the fish to key into. You may find when you are using jigheads that certain color combinations will out-fish others and jigheads that have painted-on eyes will often work better than those that are plain. A retrieve that gives the jig slow twitches along the bottom or keeping a tight line and letting your lure roll along the bottom with the current are both irresistible to walleyes.
Walleyes can be especially particular about what they are into on a certain day, so keep switching until you find out what they are biting on. Presentation is what is going to sell your bait, however, so don’t quit a lure until you make a few passes with it using different speeds and retrieves. Sometimes all it takes is for the lure to look a different way in the water.
Pay attention to the back ends of pools when you are fishing them at night, especially if it is a very clear night with a full or waxing moon. On one particular pool I fish at a dam, the fish hang out in the slow-moving water at the back of the pool and feed on minnows floating on the surface that are stunned from the current, or that have been washed over the dam. I have done quite well by casting small floating crankbaits just upstream of this section of the pool and letting the bait drift slowly down to where the walleyes are waiting for an easy meal. Let the fish show you what they are into, I was always of the mindset that deeper is better for walleyes, but I quickly found out that at nighttime this is not the case.
You can find walleyes in many rivers and creeks across New York. A few of my favorites are the Schoharie Creek, the Hudson River and the Mohawk River.
When it is summer and you’re thinking walleyes, schedule yourself for the night shift because when most people are clocking out from the water, that’s when the walleyes are clocking in.