Not all bodies of water offer reliable after dark ice fishing opportunities for walleyes, but there are many notable fisheries where we have caught the majority of our fish (and many times the largest fish) long after the sun sinks into the horizon. From Montana's Fort Peck Reservoir to the Finger Lakes of New York, the night shift may be your key to catching more and larger walleyes through the ice.
|Jason Mitchell ice fishing for walleye.|
My Favorite After Dark Fishing Lakes
I cut my teeth walleye fishing at night on the east end of Lake Sakakawea and on nearby Lake Audubon, both large impoundments created by the damming of the Missouri River in western North Dakota. These two lakes are close geographically, but fish quite differently. We often caught eighty percent of our fish on Sakakawea during a window that occurrs only between one and two hours after dark, yet on nearby Lake Audubon, the fish would bite sporadically offering enoguh action to keep us moving through the night. My favorite two large Minnesota lakes fish differenty as well. I fish Red Lake and Mille Lacs Lake in the Northern portion of Minnesota where the best Walleye action occurred between midnight and four in the morning. No matter what 'bite' the pattern in your area offers, if you are looking to catch more walleye this winter, you should try working the grave yard shift!
Gear Up For More Walleye at Night
Most fish caught after dark are caught by anglers staying out over-night in cabin-like 'sleeper' fish house shelters equipped with rattle reels. Rattle reels are basically a spool attached to the side of the fish house above each hole. When a fish takes the bait and the spool spins, a built in rattle is activated by the spinning spool waking up the anglers in the sleeper house. I have always loved the possibility of catching a fish while sleeping, and rattle reels combined with live bait are a simple and effective presentation, but you can dramatically improve your night time walleye catch rate with a little bit of hustle and a lot less sleep. Let's take a look at the gear you will need!
Tip ups are an important tool for after dark walleye missions due to the fact one can place them in a pattern matching the structural elements surrounding the sleeper shelter. Think of tip ups as very effective fish catching devices also acting as your 'walleye radar'. By covering a spot with tip ups, you know when and where fish move up and off of the area one is fishing. I've always been a big fan of the classic Beaver Dam design, winding the spool with twenty or thirty pound Dacron for the primary fishing line, as the larger diameter line rolls off the spool evenly with less resistance. Below the Dacron, I attach a small barrel swivel and a leader of ten-pound fluorocarbon. I have used small treble hooks and quick strike rigs that used multiple hooks with some success, but favor a single kahl style hook as the larger gap keeps bigger chubs and minnows I prefer hooked up longer.
Big, strong minnows are the ticket. When we can find them in the bait shops, we use minnows as long as seven inches. The challenge with larger minnows is one has to keep them in the strike zone, which means attempting to hold the minnow in a more or less static area while still allowing good movement. If one anchors the minnow down with heavier lead rubber core sinkers or split shot, the tip up is more apt to trip from the minnow, forcing adjustment to a heavier trip setting. That can cause walleyes to drop the minnow because they feel the resistance and sudden 'jerk' when the tip up flag releases.
TIP Up Tip: Use the bare minimum sinker weight to get the minnow down and keep it near the bottom. Pinch off much of the tail fin so that the minnow can still swim but doesn't have the horsepower to swim out of the strike zone.
TIP Up Tip: Wrap some electrical tape around the line guide 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 improving on 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, leave the comfort of the sleeper shelter and move out to the area the tip ups are telling you have active walleyes near. I usually drill and maintain a few holes in the tip-up field for that purpose. This classic one-two punch combines complimentary but different presentations and will ice more walleyes than using just one.
The best night time jig or spoon color is 'glow in the dark'. We began using the first phosphorescent 'glow' jigging spoons over twenty five years ago, and there is no doubt we get bit more when using glow lures after dark.
A new spoon that produced well for me this past season while testing prototypes is the new Clam Rattling Blade Spoon. This spoon is unique because it features a pyrex-glass chamber that amplifies the rattling noise. The BBs are stainless steel instead of lead so they retain their circular shape better and offer a louder and more consistent rattle with less effort. I love glow painted rattle spoons and rattle baits for after dark walleyes, and the glow paint used on Clam Tackle spoons and jigs is the best available. For really charging a glow in the dark lure, nothing beats a UV light charger. The glow lasts longer and is much brighter.
Fish slightly higher in the water column than you would during the day. If most of the fish are swimming through one to two feet off the bottom, don't be afraid to work the water column four to five 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 the baits, clean the holes and move tip ups around... stay active with the tip ups until they start to fire. Typically, when fish move up on reefs and other structure after dark, they do so to eat and can be quite agressive. Frequently one fish hits every tip up escapes capture until we eventually catch it. Upon icing the walleye, it still had the minnows from other tip ups in its mouth.
We have been blitzed where every single tip up would get hit in a short amount of time as a school of fish moved through. One can sit for an hour or two without any action, then the walleyes move through and there are fish flopping all over the ice. After dark ice fishing for walleyes often provides the best opportunities for numbers, and many times provides a shot at trophy walleyes. One can easily double the number of fish iced by working the graveyard shift!
by Jason Mitchell of Jason Mitchell Outdoors