I remember when I was younger that while I wasn't afraid of the dark I did have an uncomfortable chill run up and down my spine from time to time. Of course, growing up in the wild's of Florida there was good reason be wary of where you walked, or sat at night. There were always plenty of ornery critters that came out for an evening meal simply because they had the advantage over their prey.
As I've grown up, and am no longer bothered by the dark (well not much anyway) I find that my preference for fishing at night has increased dramatically in the last five years. There are several reasons for this shift to a nocturnal fishing pattern, and we'll look at a few of them. Living near Muskegon Lake, and Lake Michigan has given me the opportunity to hone my night fishing skills, and learn more about a trophy Walleye's habits.
Muskegon Lake has become quite the tourist destination for trophy Walleye in the past few years, and with good reason too! At different times of the year it can be a simple matter of filling your limit in a couple hours when the fish are feeding heavily. Spring and Fall find countless anglers trolling off the harbor mouth in a nocturnal pursuit of hungry eye's. These fish are there simply because the food is there. It is literally a baitfish buffet that draws these free roaming fish in to crash into schools of smelt, shiners, shad, or alewives depending on the time of year.
Like the anglers that come to find the fish of their dreams, these fish can be divided into two groups, resident, and non-resident. Muskegon Lake has it's share of "resident" Walleye which grow to trophy proportion's, but it is clearly the migrating "non-resident" fish that make up the bulk of the action during these time frames. I believe that these fish cruise Lake Michigan in small nomadic groups, mainly due to lack of structure to concentrate them. I have heard stories from commercial netters that catch big Walleye while targeting Whitefish, but nothing that can be considered a consistent pattern. Most of the anglers concentrate their efforts on the first few hours after sundown. Five years ago there may have been three to five boats out fishing on any given night, now there can be from thirty to fifty out there. The fishing is that good, and fishing at night tends to cut down on the recreational boat traffic as well.
Set-up for this type of fishing is also very simple. Usually you will troll one rod per angler, I call this "touch" trolling. You hold the rod in your hand, occasionally sweeping it forward and dropping it back. Normally the strike will occur when you are dropping it back to a pursuing fish. Sometimes subtle, sometimes savage, and everywhere in between, the take of a trophy Walleye can be surprising. Lately I have switched all my rods over to a superline, such as Berkley Fireline as this allows me to detect even the slightest "BUMP" from a fish.
The crankbaits I normally use for this type of trolling are Reef Runner "Ripsticks". These minnow imitating crank baits have a narrow "V" bill which allows them to "ripped" along without sacrificing the lure action. Simply tie a barrel swivel to the end of your main line, and then attach a six to eight foot leader of mono, or fluorocarbon material with a snap at the end for ease of switching baits. I have found these lures can be trolled at the desired depth without the need to use splitshot crimped onto the line four feet above the lure. Doing that will obviously cause a weak spot in your line.
The colors that have produced well for me are "Flame", "Clown", "Chartreuse Pearl", and "Firetiger". Depending on trolling depth I will switch to the deep diving "Reef Runner" instead. Using your sonar to determine baitfish depth, troll so that your offering is near the same level as they are, but stay at, or above them. Speed can be critical with the fish themselves being the deciding factor. Don't be afraid to mix it up, and change your tempo. I usually run from 1 to 2.5 mph, and if the fish show me a preference for a certain speed, that's what I give them. Using a trolling guide such as Precision Trolling to help determine your trolling depth, and a line counter reel can make things easier as well.
These fish can be very high in the water column, and for that reason you may see some anglers using in-line planer boards to move their lures away from the boat. Off Shore Tackle's model OR-12 is the predominant favorite in my neck of the woods, and with the "Tattle Flag" used in conjunction with the flashing clip-on light it's easy to see why. In most instances these anglers will run two boards out of each side to increase their presentation zone, and their likelihood of catching more fish. Whether you choose to long-line troll, or use in-line planer boards for these fish is purely a matter of each anglers preference, but I must issue one word of caution. When there are other boats in the area, please, be considerate of one another, and give ample room for each others lines. If you think tangles can be frustrating during the day try unraveling half a dozen lines by flashlight in the dark!
So the next time you are out fishing at night, and think you see a Sea monster with glowing eyes coming at you out of the mist, just remember it's probably another fisherman looking for something to go "BUMP" in the night!