Most walleye anglers are savvy to the virtues of fishing at night, and just as many of them are dialed into the fall-bite phenomenon. Only a select few, however, take the combination to the extreme that guide Steve DeZurik does.
While most fishermen confine their late-season quests to daylight hours and haul their boats to the barn with the first sting of approaching winter, this angler from Champlin, Minnesota, continues guiding hardy clients to big walleyes until ice-up in November. Perhaps more remarkably, his trips typically don't start until 5:30 p.m. and may last until 5 a.m. Weather conditions can range from comfortably cool to nastier than a bag of snakes. But wind and snow don't keep him off the lake.
"Even though the weather can be awful, the fish are there and feeding," he says. "On the best nights, two guys might catch 150 walleyes."
Alone In The Dark
During a river trip in August, when DeZurik and I matched wits with wing dam smallies, we set up a late-night walleye rendezvous for the full-moon period of October—regardless of the weather.
Three rigs were in the parking lot when we arrived at 6 p.m. on the appointed evening, and we could see two boats heading for the ramp as we launched.
"That's typical," DeZurik said as we idled out of the cove. "Other fishermen tend to quit at dark because of the cold. Most nights we're out here all alone."
The water temperature was 36 degrees, and the air was in the 40s. To ward off the chill, we wore insulated boots and layered clothing, and though this trip would not be an all-nighter (we were both due at work at 7:30 the next morning, and the lake was two hours from home), we also knew we'd need our knit caps and fleece gloves before we were through.
Prime targets for this type of fishing are patches of green weeds in shallow water near a drop-off. As we arrived at one of DeZurik's favorite beds, we saw the lone holdout angler. He was fishing far too deep and too far from the vegetation, however, so it was no surprise when he took a bearing on the launch ramp and fired up his outboard a few minutes later.
Late Night Program
Early in the fall—anytime the water temperature drops below about 52 degrees—DeZurik looks for expansive areas of live weeds in about five feet of water on the shallow side and 11 feet on the deep side. There he focuses on the edges—outside and inside.
He adjusts his strategy as the weather grows colder. "By October, the water temperature is usually in the 40s, and most of the plants have laid down," he explains. "I look for any pockets of standing weeds or plants that haven't laid down as far. They're easy to see with sonar. Baitfish hold near the taller stalks, and walleyes come in to feed on the forage fish."
Finding just the right combination proved difficult on the first bay we fished. While we were long-line trolling minnowbaits (a chrome-and-black ASDRD1200 Suspending Super Rogue and a B15AP Bomber Pro-Model 15A in blue flash), a sonar search revealed nothing but a flat, featureless weedbed. The fall weather had taken its toll, and all of the plants had keeled over.
The next bay was different, however, with two areas that offered standing weeds and one more where the plants were in mid-collapse.
The first walleye came about a half-hour into our initial pass, hitting DeZurik's Rogue. It wasn't huge, but it was a healthy 3 pounder. More important, it told us that we were doing things right. The guide quickly punched in an electronic marker on his GPS screen the instant the fish was solidly hooked.
"A plotter is critical so you can go back over the exact same spot again," he said, lifting the walleye from the net. "Sometimes these fish are so tightly bunched near a patch of weeds, you won't get another strike if you miss them by just a few feet."
Trolling speed is crucial, too. "It's got to be s-l-o-w," he said. We moved along at just 0.8 mph, which seemed like standing still compared with the 11/2 to 2 mph trolling speed that triggers aggressive summer walleyes.
With the lures just ticking the weedtops, we occasionally swept our rodtips forward three to four feet, then slowly let them drop back again as the boat moved forward. We kept the 10-pound fluorocarbon mono taut so we could feel the slightest tap on the suspended lures. Fluorocarbon is important not for its low visibility but for its low-stretch characteristics. A strike registers simply as a "tick," and the sensitive line allows for better detection.
"When the water is a little warmer, say in the 40s, you can troll faster and sometimes make short, foot-long snaps with the rodtip, pausing the lure after each twitch," he said. "In colder water, a sweep/pause works better because the lure stays in one spot for a long time. I think what triggers strikes is when that bait just stops in its tracks. It's weird because the lure will sit there and sit there until the fish hits."
As if to prove his point, a 4-pound 'eye attacked my Bomber a short time later as the boat sat motionless in the water. DeZurik had hooked a smaller fish and had thrown the outboard into neutral as he landed and released it. My lure was dead in the water, suspended just above the downed weeds, for almost five minutes before I felt a sharp bump and set the hook.
That walleye brought the total to five fish boated, with two missed strikes. In the fourth and final hour of trolling we added three more. My largest was a 5 pounder, while DeZurik's pushed 7 real hard.
Pursuing walleyes late into the season, as well as late into the night, is what differentiates DeZurik from other anglers. Whether you call his style extreme or just plain persistent, the results are clear—big walleyes and lots of 'em.
DEZURIK'S TROLLING TIPS
1. The walleye guide considers September's full moon the start of the fall fishing season, but don't ignore the new moon period. It can be just as productive.
2. Keep tabs on water temperature. When it hits the low 50s, consider this pattern.
3. Nightfishing is different from daytime angling. To minimize hassles and increase your success rate, get the lay of the lake and identify potential fishing spots before venturing out at dark.
4. Always troll suspending minnowbaits. Sinking or floating lures won't trigger strikes as well as a lure that hangs in the water column on the pause.
5. Under clear skies, use lighter patterns, such as silver-and-black or silver-and-blue. When it's overcast, brighter colors, such as orange, gold or firetiger, work better.
6. Remember that walleyes may be holding in a small area, perhaps just 20 square feet.
7. Make sure you can repeat your success. Drop an icon on your GPS screen when you hook up so you can make a second, third or fourth pass over the same spot, and use a line-counter reel to get the lure back in the strike zone.
8. Check how each lure runs at boatside. Some don't swim well at extremely slow trolling speeds. Make sure the lure has an enticing wobble before letting it back.
9. Concentrate on shallower weeds as the night passes. By 2 or 3 a.m., DeZurik's efforts focus on weeds in five or six feet of water.
10. Finally, don't put your boat away too soon. The walleyes won't quit before winter weather forces you off the lake.