The night bite on Muskegon Lake is best from Independence Day through early September, Reinhold said, but once a good number of salmon come in from Lake Michigan, the walleyes turtle.
Rapalas are Chris Reinhold’s go-to walleye baits.
We were on Muskegon Lake well before sunset, trolling crankbaits, but Chris Reinhold said he didn’t really expect us to do anything until well after the sun was gone.
“They like it dark,” said Reinhold, a medical device maker/walleye angler. “They usually start biting around 9:20.”
As the darkness enveloped us on a warmish, breezy night, I heard “there’s one,” from my partner. I looked at my watch. It was 9:20 on the nose. Talk about Babe Ruth calling his shot, eh?
Reinhold cranked it in and I netted it. It was solid ‘eye, about three pounds, just what you want, not too big and not too small. And it was the start of something good.
It was one every 10 minutes from then on, all within an eighth mile area or so, just back and forth on the edge of a drop off. At 10:30, I put our sixth walleye in the live well. (We had one that was just short of 15 inches in the interim.)
To quote Frank Zappa: Zoot Allures.
Ah, but all things come to an end, eh? The wind got up, switched to the east (Re-member the saying, wind from the east...) and the bite died. Over the next hour and a half, we caught just one more ‘eye. They were there; the graph said there were plenty of fish, from the bottom to several feet up. But they just didn’t want to play. What’s the saying? It happens. Something like that.
Reinhold, 41, told me he’s been fish-ing at night for walleyes for more than 20 years. He’d heard about it—“I heard Mark Martin did it,” he said—and thought he’d give it a try. It took some doing, he said, but he eventually started catching ‘em. Now he gets them almost every time and usually in good numbers.
“I don’t remember how many trips it took me to catch a fish, but once I got it figured out, I got it figured out real quickly,” he said. “When they’re really biting you sometimes get your 10 fish in an hour.”
And sometimes you don’t. The night bite on Muskegon Lake is best from Independence Day through early September, Reinhold said, but once a good number of salmon come in from Lake Michigan, the walleyes turtle.
“At Muskegon Lake, when the bite is on, it’s great,” Reinhold told me. “But when it’s off, it will totally confuse you.”
Reinhold trolls, slowly, near bottom, in 17 to 19 feet of water—if you get any shallower you’re asking for trouble with weeds, he said—with a rather unique presentation. He uses a three-way swivel with a tungsten weight in front of his terminal rig, and runs a Shad Rap on a short leader on the bottom of the three-way and a largish (No. 13) floating Rapala on a longer leader above it. On the night we fished, all but one of our fish came on the original Rapala.
“Some nights they slam the floater and some nights they slam the Shad Rap,” he said. “It’s whatever they’re feeling that night so I give them both of them.”
But Reinhold said there’s more to it than just dragging baits. For instance, he separates the weight from the swivel with glass beads—“The weight hits the bead and creates a clicking sound,” he said—and he’s constantly imparting action to the plug with his rod while he’s covering water.
“I use a series of twitches,” he explained. “Sometimes just a shirt quick twitch with a quick let back. Sometimes a short twitch with a slow let back. Sometimes a long sweeping pull with a slow let back. I have series of cadences I run through until I start catching them and then when I find the right cadence, that’s what I go to.”
Tom Hoffman, left, and his son Theron shows off an evening’s catch on the Detroit River.
It was a short—about six inches—snappy twitch producing this night. We were both using silver/blue-back Rapalas on the longer leader, which is Reinhold’s go-to lure for night fishing.
“A number of them work—clown, gold and black, and others—but I like blue-backs best,” he said. “I catch more fish on them plain and simple, almost everywhere I go.”
And Reinhold jazzes his baits up with glow-in-the-dark tape and rattles, too, as do many night-time walleye anglers.
“At night I troll all hard baits,” he said. “In the summer time, during the day, I troll crawler harnesses and smaller crank-baits. But at night I like a larger-profile bait. And I don’t know anybody else who uses a three-way system at night.
“Once the salmon come through the bite dies and the night bite won’t start up again until the end of October,” he continued. “But it gets really good again in November and it’ll go all the way through ice up. Sometimes December is best, but that’s when the perch start biting and I get after the perch.”
Night fishing for walleyes in no secret, of course. Lots of guys do it. But most completely change their games. Planers boards? Unless you put glow stocks on them, so you can see the, they’re worthless. Most guys just long line them.
But there’s no need to wait until late summer to try. I found that out this spring when I met up with Tom Hoffman and his son Theron Hoffman on the Detroit River in May.
Just about the time the sun was disappearing and most of the jigging crowd was calling it a day, the Hoffmans were getting into their boat for what has become a regular occurrence for them. And though I’d fished with them before—jigging during the day, hand-lining after dark—the insisted I join them for a night of long-lining.
We went out of Wyandotte, and cruised up to a long flat across the river from the launch, dropped the trolling motor, and started working our way upstream and then downstream, trolling with two lines—one at 115 feet back, the other at 125 feet back. Both Hoffmans had pinched a split shot on their lines, a few feet above the snap. Both angler used custom-painted floating Rapalas, a No. 11 and a No. 13. It’s all they ever use, they said.
We trolled slowly upstream, then reversed course, and picked up the tempo a little bit going downstream.
“We troll 2.4 to 2.8 miles an hour up-stream,” explained Theron, a construction worker. “Heading downriver it’s anywhere between 3.4 and 4 miles an hour. That’s moving pretty fast and if you run them too fast, you lose your action. So I like to try to cut the current when I’m running down-stream. I don’t run straight downstream. I run at an angle.”
We caught our first walleye at 9:37, just after good dark, when Theron snatched a 20-incher. A few minutes later his father brought one in the boat. Both fish came from about eight feet of water as we fished from about six feet to 12 over the course of the evening.
We had them all to ourselves; the other boats—and there were a few out there—were hand-lining, which is a traditional approach on the Detroit River. The hand-liners were all out in deeper water, 20 feet of more, which is typical for hand-liners.
“I think it’s because a lot of people don’t realize they can this in shallow water,” Theron said. “Everyone thinks they need deep-divers. But I think it’s going to become more popular when people catch on.”
Tom will tell you he was one of the first to do so. Like many veteran Detroit River anglers, he grew up hand-lining. But in the mid-1980s, he decided to give it a try with a rod and reel and he’s been at it ever since.
“It’s a little easier than hand-lining,” Tom explained, “but It’s a short window of opportunity. Once the weeds get up high you can’t do it.”
We had our hands full with the weeds as it was. The key to try to stay right over the tops of them as the walleyes are in there with them.
“By mid-June there are too many weeds to fish shallow,” Theron said. “You could do the same thing deeper – all you have to do is use heaver weights. You could go down to 20 feet with in-line weights. But by the time we get that deep we go to hand-lining.”
Theron said he’s trolled with a three-way, running a deeper diving bait on the bottom, but they’d just as soon hand-line with Rapalas and Pencil Plugs.
Trolling at night is just “another tool in the box,” said Theron. “I enjoy it more than I do trolling with planer boards be-cause you can feel the bite. You’re watch-ing the boards and then you’re fighting the board until you bring it in and then you’re skiing the fish across the top. But with long-lining, you get to feel the bite. And you get to feel the weeds, too, so, you know when you’re hanging up.”
We trolled back and forth over a half-mile area, changing depth occasionally, but catching a fish or two every pass. After about two and half hours, we figured we needed one more—the limit on the Detroit River is six now on the Michigan side as the Department of Natural Resources has standardized the creel limit for the entire Lake Erie-Detroit River-Lake St. Clair-St. Clair River waterway—and we had 17 in the box, so, wouldn’t you know it, we hit a double. But before tossed one back, we decided to count ‘em to make sure we hadn’t under-counted what we had in the live well. And we found we had 18 in the box—somehow we missed counting one—so we had to pitch both of them back.
All our miscounting did was keep us the water an extra 15 minutes or so. We were finished by 12:30. And we could have been done earlier if we’d have run three lines. Theron said. “All you do it run the guy with the center rod the farthest back.”
The only argument I might have had with the Hoffmans is that I don’t think we needed to run our baits so far back. After Tom caught his sixth fish and I took over the rod, I caught three of my fish while I was still letting the line out, one of them at 35 feet (I checked the line counter).
“The reason we go back a farther is you don’t get lines tangled as easy,” Theron said.
Chris Reinhold says night is best for Muskegon Lake walleyes.
The tackle we used was fairly simple. Both Hoffmans use braided line. They like Fireline.
“It cuts through the water better than mon and it doesn’t float.” Theron said.
“There’s no need for a leader, just a small snap at the end.”
Theron used an 8½-foot medium action Denali rod that was designed for lead-core.
“The rod dad uses, you’d be lucky to find one like that ever again,” Theron said. “He’s had it a long time.”
We caught nice fish that night, from about 17 to 22 inches. “A couple of days ago we were pulling fish in the six- and seven-pound class,” Theron said. “They slapped it so hard you think they’re either going to break the rod or jerk it out of your hand.”
We didn’t have any of those, but I was just as happy. The only thing that big walleyes do for you is make more impressive pictures. I think the smaller ones eat better, and most guys I know agree completely.