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Bill Hilts Jr.: Night walleye fishing, turkey season conflicts

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Night walleyes

Bob Rustowicz of Cheektowaga with a night walleye from Lake Erie. 

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The change that moves the opening day of walleye season to May 1 makes the decision-making process a bit more difficult if you are both a turkey hunter and a walleye fisherman. May 1 would normally kick off with chasing bearded gobblers. If things had stayed as they were in years past, opening of walleye season would have been May 7 this year. That all changed April 1.

Of course, other activities can take up valuable outdoor recreation time in May. Perch fishing on Lake Erie is going full bore; the salmon and trout action on Lake Ontario is getting better every day (with the big Lake Ontario Counties Trout and Salmon Derby starting May 6); the lower Niagara River trout fishing is still going strong from boat and shore; and inland lakes such as Chautauqua and many of the Finger Lakes are turning on as the waters continue to warm. What’s a sportsman (or woman) to do?

If sleep (or work) isn’t a huge consideration, you could get up early for turkey hunting, come home for some sleep at noon, and then head out for some night walleye fishing when the action is best in May. You just might be able to pull it off, in a perfect outdoor world. If you tag out on turkeys early, you will have more time to squeeze in as much outdoor time as possible chasing different species of fish.

My first night walleye fishing experience on Lake Erie was last year, thanks to Bob Rustowicz of Cheektowaga and Todd Wojciechowski of Lancaster. We had tried to hook up for a trip several times in 2020, but Cvoid-19 and the weather got in the way.

His call came as promised in May 2021 and we made plans to fish out of the Point Breeze area of Lake Erie. I had been night walleye fishing on other bodies of water, but never on Lake Erie. Rustowicz said the planets were aligning, and it was shaping up to be a perfect night.

“We never fish past midnight, but there is a good chance we will be done way before that,” said Rustowicz. “It should be prime tonight.”

Yes, he just jinxed us.

When we met “Woj,” he was working on the big motor to his 18-foot Tracker. I wondered if that was a good sign. Maybe one of the planets dropped out of alignment.

Rustowicz had borrowed the boat earlier that week and the motor had worked just fine. In fact, he used it to troll as slow as possible due to another issue. When he arrived at his fishing destination, he couldn’t find the remote for the bow mount trolling motor. He called “Woj.”

“Where is the remote for the trolling motor?”

There was silence on the other end of the line for a few seconds.

“On the dashboard of my truck,” said Woj. “Maybe I should leave it in the boat.”

Rustowicz was already on the lake that night and they managed to catch fish despite the motor handicap.

Rustowicz was not worried on our evening adventure. “Todd can fix anything!” And he did. In 10 minutes, we were on our way to Lake Erie as the sun slowly set.

As Wojciechowski backed the boat into the lake, the sun was sinking into the horizon in spectacular fashion. As we headed to Evans Bar to try to catch some walleyes, the sun was gone – leaving a beautiful “purple haze.” Another omen? Off course, they forgot the music.

Lake Erie is without a doubt the walleye capital of the world. Estimates say there are nearly 76 million ‘eyes age 2 and older in this Great Lake.

“We will be fishing in rocky areas, focusing on 6 to 12 feet of water,” Rustowicz said. “You can catch walleyes from Smokes Creek (near Buffalo) all the way to the Pennsylvania line, but we picked this spot because there will be less boat pressure.”

A clear sky and a calm lake brought out a few boats, but the most amazing thing is that four kayakers were fishing alongside us, taking advantage of the calm conditions. And they were catching fish, too.

“The walleyes like to hide behind the big rocks when they are on the feed and ambush bait,” Wojciechowski said. “We will run stickbaits like Husky Jerks, Chatter Raps, Rapalas and Smithwick Elite 8 Rogues.”

Anything that is a shallow diving lure should work.

Knowing how far the lure is back is important in order to keep a consistent presentation. Wojciechowski uses the new Okuma Convector Low Profile Line Counter reels that have a high speed of 6.3-to-1 ratio. The rods are the Okuma Kokanee 7½-foot sticks that offer a great feel. The rod and reel were in our hands as we motored back and forth across the bar.

“We try to keep the speed between 1.5 and 2.2 miles per hour,” said Rustowicz. “The lures are back 60 to 100 feet, depending on what the bottom terrain calls for. If you are hitting bottom, pick your rod up or bring some line in. When you do hit bottom, check your lure for weeds and make sure it is clean.”

It can be a little tricky taking weeds off a lure with three treble hooks … in the dark. However, we were all wearing head lamps to make sure the sharp lures did not catch more than a fish.

It was about an hour in when Wojciechowski noticed that something was up with the trolling motor.

“My trolling motor is losing power,” he said. “I think one of the batteries is dead. They were new batteries!”

As he shined a light into the battery compartment, he could see one of the wires was not attached. Battery power did not last long. We soon needed to fire up the big motor and troll as slowly as we could with that power source. We were able to get the speed as low as 2.3 mph going one way, which was not bad. However, the fish were being finicky. We had four or five hits with no fish to show for our efforts.

Finally, several hours later, we hit our first fish. Rustowicz broke the ice, followed by Wojciechowski with a couple. The hot lure was the Smithwick Elite 8 Rogue in blue. It was nearing midnight. Yes, it was getting late, and we were talking about packing up. Most of the other boats in the area were already gone.

Woj handed me the Smithwick lure and almost immediately I had a hit. Success and dinner for the table. We decided to take another pass. I hit another, this one a bigger fish. It was clearly the largest of the evening, and it was a fitting end to a treasured first-time Lake Erie experience.

Bob and Todd apologized. “Sorry the fishing was off. We will have to get you out again when the fishing is better.” We caught five fish. The evening was far from a loss.

There was one downside. I did not return home until 2 a.m. I have not seen those hands on the clock in that position in a long time. I am now an early to bed, early to rise guy. In fact, I was up at 2:30 a.m. for a turkey hunt a few days later. I guess it is all relative, a small price to pay to experience the great outdoors.

Walleye – and turkey – season is open again.

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