Ken Killingbeck takes part in the night bite phenomenon fishing for walleye along the breakwall in Luna Pier.
FRENCHTOWN TOWNSHIP, Mich. — The lights dance and flicker in the darkness, like candles in a crypt, but they signify a ritual of a different kind. This is the “night bite” — a fall Lake Erie phenomenon that pits angler against the elements for the opportunity to catch this water’s most-coveted prize.
Walleye, those denizens of the shadows and the deep, become marauding hordes in the shallows once night falls and schools of baitfish are snugged up tight along the shoreline, where they often find the warmer water they prefer. When nature’s light goes dim, the coal miner headlamps are flipped on and the fishermen cast away, hoping to cash in on this feeding frenzy.
Doug Gullette was not sure what to expect when he got invited along to engage in this unique angling adventure. He had heard a lot about the Lake Erie walleye cache, but he had never fished the lake. He assumed that if the target species was walleye, the fishing would take place from a boat.
Most of the year, yes, but the night bite is very different.
“When I heard we’d be fishing from a [sea] wall, right on the bank, I expected it would be panfish, but no, after it got dark the walleye were right there, in that real shallow water,” Gullette said. “It wasn’t what I expected at all. It was an awesome experience.”
On a recent night, Gullette ended up on standing on that sea wall in the dark, bundled up against the elements, with the headlamp and heavy gloves on, as the guest of his friend Randy Gardner, whose wife had purchased a night fishing auction item for him at a St. Francis de Sales High School fund-raiser.
Mick Malone, a longtime aficionado of this distinctive fishery, has a place on the Michigan shoreline of western Lake Erie and he donated an evening of “night bite” fishing to the auction.
“I always like to take an interesting fishing trip of some sort,” said Gardner, whose two college-aged sons attended St. Francis. “I had heard about this fall night fishing, but had never done it before. After Mick explained it, I was excited to give it a try.”
Gardner and his group of fishing friends met Malone for a relaxing dinner along the lake before gearing up as nightfall approached.
“We were fishing by around sundown, and sure enough, all of those minnows were swimming up against that wall,” said Gardner, a Crawford County native and Toledo resident. “We were throwing out into six or eight feet of water and then drawing the baits back into that shallow water along the shore, and before long we started getting hits.”
After a couple of hours, everyone in the group had caught fish. A similar scenario was playing out simultaneously all along the shoreline of the lake, from Huron west to Lakeside to Catawba, from Luna Pier to Stony Point, and at numerous other access points, both public and private.
Travis Hartman, the Lake Erie Program Administrator for the Ohio Division of Wildlife, said the fall night bite phenomenon hinges on two essential elements — where the walleye are in their migration pattern back to the Western Basin, and what the baitfish are doing at that time.
“When the water temperature hits a certain point, the warmer water pulls the baitfish into shallower water closer to shore,” he said. “This is the northern range for gizzard shad, one of those baitfish the walleye are feeding on, so those gizzard shad are looking for that shallow, warmer water.”
Hartman said that as the warmer water draws in the baitfish, the predator walleye will follow, once evening comes and the sunlight is reduced.
“On those later fall days, especially the calm days, the sun really has the opportunity to warm the shallow water along the shoreline,” Hartman said. “There will also be warmer water around the river mouths, and that warmer water has the food and the temperature that the baitfish need. The walleye tend to follow those baitfish.”
Hartman said that while gizzard shad are highly temperature dependent, emerald shiners, another food source for walleye, are attracted to light at night, and schools of shiners can be found around the harbor areas where lights hit the water’s edge. Feeding walleye will often position themselves nearby.
Bob Barnhart from Maumee-based tackle supplier Netcraft said the night bite has its own cult following, and every year he sees a run on the popular jointed Bomber lures preferred by the fall walleye casting crowd.
“They have very specialized equipment for this type of fishing,” Barnhart said, with long-handled nets a necessity, and long spinning rods and large-spool reels preferred. “They want to be able to cast farther than anyone else on the pier, beyond the lights of shore or lanterns,” Barnhart said, adding that the bigger walleye will often stage near that light transition point.
Captain Ross Robertson of Big Water Fishing works the lake nearly year-round and he said the popularity of the fall night bite has increased with boating anglers, as well, to the point where the boat traffic near some of the busiest launches gets quite chaotic around dark.
“In areas where I used to see one or two boats, now you see dozens,” said the native Toledoan, who expects the cooling lake water to really crank up the night fishery in the coming days. “I love night fishing . . . but I think the warm water and chaotic boat traffic is why the bigger fish have yet to turn on really good at night. Don't get me wrong — they are catching them — but the bite is about to take off as the lake temperature starts to dip.”
Malone, who has been fishing the Michigan waters of Lake Erie for about 25 years, said the night bite has a certain charm and most who try it end up wanting another dose.
“I’ve found that the young and old all love it, because it is so different from what they are used to with walleye fishing,” Malone said. He plans to donate another fall night bite fishing package at the upcoming St. Francis auction and fundraiser in December.
“Most people don’t know what to expect, and they all find out that it’s fun and it’s addictive. I’ve been doing it for a long time and I can’t wait to get back up there and fish it again.”
Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6068.
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