Full disclosure, most of the season I make my living driving up and down the lake in an expensive, sparkly disco sled of a boat with the intention of catching the biggest walleyes around. But, truth be told, my favorite time of year is actually when I can leave the boat on the trailer and grab a pair of waders to look for big walleyes at night.
Regardless of where you live, leaves starting to fall off trees signals some of the best fishing of the year. Ironically, the fishing pressure usually plummets in fall as many anglers turn to bucks, ducks, and football. During this season, boats become less important. Walleyes migrate inshore from deep waters to prowl shallow points, riprap, and manmade structures. A pair of waders, a spinning rod, a headlamp, and a couple lures are all you need to catch some of the biggest walleyes of the year—if you know what to look for.
As water temperatures dip, walleyes pack on weight before the winter slowdown. During this period, remember one simple tip: they don’t go far from the grocery store. Their migration back to shallow and typically rocky areas directly correlates with shiners or shad seeking warmer water. Simply put, find the bait, find the walleyes. Baitfish follow the path of least resistance, allowing currents and wind to significantly change their position from night to night and even hour to hour. While prime locations will vary depending on the body of water, three key visual identifiers quickly narrow down prime locations: points, piers, and break walls.
Points make great ambush locations for opportunistic walleyes. They can come up from deep water to feed, then quickly slide back down to safety when finished. Bait typically gets pushed up against the windward side of points, making easy ambush opportunities for hungry walleyes. But in the case of high winds and or heavy current, don’t be afraid to make a few casts on the leeward side of a point. The slack water area can act like an eddy and will occasionally hold bait and opportunistic walleyes.
One reason points are so productive at night is that you can usually fish them no matter what the wind is doing. The walleyes simply shift from one side to another without much effort, depending on the wind direction. Focus on points with hard bottoms like compacted sand or rock.
Piers are nice because in many cases you don’t even need waders. You can simply bucket fish off a nice, flat concrete platform. Much like points, piers that have deeper water nearby seem to be more productive. While small piers can hold fish, and get overlooked by most anglers, think big. Larger piers typically provide better current breaks and more room for fish to hide. Bigger piers also often have larger and taller lights, which attract baitfish. More baitfish means more walleyes.
Don’t expect the walleyes to be directly under the lights, though. Instead, fan-cast the areas just outside the light before moving on.
Break walls, much like points and piers, can offer current breaks, eddies, and windblown bait collection spots. Ideal break walls have rock riprap that extends gradually into the water to a decent size flat segment, before the ridge trails off into deep water. Typically, this type of structure doesn’t have as many lights to draw in baitfish, making the right wind direction even more important to position the fish. Extremely long break walls can appear overwhelming, but with some practice, you can identify sweet spots like rock wing dams, eddies, or wash-out holes at the ends of a wall.
Regardless of location, keep stealth in mind at all times. This is like hunting with a fishing rod for a species that spooks easily. Wade quietly and slowly, and don’t shine lights into the water.
Just like hunting, even if you know what to look for, a little scouting will drastically improve your results. Fish scouting is much easier because it requires less time and effort.
Water clarity is a big deal. Dirty water caused by big winds will surely hold baitfish, but it also creates a narrower strike zone. Anyone who’s tried getting into the fridge for a midnight snack without turning on the lights can surely relate. A simple walk-by before dark is all that’s needed to confirm sufficient water clarity. For larger lakes, up-to-date satellite images on your computer or phone can display this valuable information before you head out.
As I said in the intro, this type of fishing doesn’t require a boat. But if you have limited knowledge of the areas you want to fish, a boat will make quick work of scouting. Just driving through what looks like good water during the day with sonar running allows you to get a feel of where the drop-offs actually are so you don’t have a wading accident. That said, wading at night is probably still easier and safer than boating at night.
Even without a boat and depth-finder, modern mapping technology available for smartphones and handheld GPS units can often tell you all you need to know. Bathymetry (topographical maps of underwater terrain) is enormously helpful for identifying fishy holes and productive ridges, especially when you can see your current position overlaid on that map. It’s way more useful than the old school paper maps with numbers denoting depth soundings. Remember, though, this cartographical information may not reflect current water levels, especially in reservoirs. Large bodies of water like the Great Lakes can fluctuate several feet up or down from year to year.
Nighttime wading for walleyes can be done on a shoestring budget. While most any spinning rod will work, one that is 7 or 8 feet long provides more casting distance. Look for a medium power and fast- to moderate-fast action to not only help sling the baits further, but act as a shock absorber when an ornery walleye hits on a short line. A reel with a large diameter spool will handle the line better and increase casting distance.
As far as line goes, keep it simple. Monofilament typically works best; it handles well in the cold and provides a little extra stretch to act as an additional shock absorber. When the temps dip towards freezing, spray the spool with 100% silicone before fishing to improve handling and keep the line from absorbing water.
The KISS mentality (keep it simple, stupid) definitely applies to nighttime wading. If you don’t need it, don’t bring it. A headlamp is an obvious necessity, but consider getting one with a red filter or adding red cellophane to both avoid spooking fish and ruining your night vision.
An extra flashlight, toenail clippers, and forceps are my other must-have items. I keep all three on a lanyard so I like to have them where I can find them and they won’t end up in the drink. In the last few years I started clipping on a few extra duo-lock snaps in case of a break off. Using a small snap makes changing lures much easier and more efficient when it’s dark and cold.
A small box with a small assortment of lures to cover different depths can be kept inside the chest of your waders. It’s no fun to untangle treble hooks in the dark while wading waist deep, so travel light.
While ideal lures vary from region to region, large, shallow-running stickbaits are generally the ticket. Keep a small assortment of floating and suspending models handy. Floating models work great in warmer water and when fishing extremely shallow, while neutrally-buoyant lures work better in cold water and they tend to dive slightly deeper.
Color choice is a story of its own, but the four most important classes of lure colors to consider are white, transparent, chrome, and fluorescent finishes. Time has shown me that as important as the color itself, the bait should have a darker back and lighter sides to create contrast. Lures modified with glow and prism tape should get their 15 minutes as well.
Last but not least, you need a net—one that is small and manageable yet large enough to not require threading the needle when a decent-sized walleye comes topside. I’ve started attaching a piece of a swim noodle to the net with zip ties. This allows it to float alongside me, making access much easier in the middle of the fight. Attach a short leash to your wader belt and you’re ready for battle.
Fall nighttime walleyes require limited gear and budget, but can yield surprising results. So, before you put your rods away for winter, bundle up, put on a headlamp, and go look for your biggest ‘eye of the year.