Surfin’ for Oneida Lake Walleyes

By Spider Rybaak

Solitary figure fishing in the fading light.

October is the best time of year to grab your walleye dreams and head for the bank.

The sun’s annual migration south, a move it starts discreetly in late June, becomes impossible to ignore this month. Setting around 6:30 p.m., not rising again until after 7 a.m., its hang-time in the northern hemisphere is less than half the day; and will get shorter and shorter until late December. Less light means less photosynthesis which translates into fewer weeds, a drop in zooplankton, and cooler temperatures. The resultant food shortage, lack of cover, and chilly weather drive bait into shallow water; and walleyes follow.

While open-water bait and predators find a degree of comfort around mid-lake shoals, humps, and shelves skirting the islands, the choicest habitat is found close to shore. You see, nutrients, relatively warm temperatures and run-off (murky water fish find useful for cover) ride the currents of tributaries; and they feed the lake from the bank.

What’s more, fish react to changing conditions, and are driven by instinct. One of their greatest motivators is the wind. It stirs up bottom, especially in shallow water, moving nutrients–and everything that’s hungry—towards shore.

That’s why when you look out over the lake this time of year, even in broad daylight, you won’t find many fishing boats out there. They’re all in close.

Dusk contributes to the magic by sweeping away what little light remains. Emboldened by the lack of visibility, fish come in even closer, sometimes into water barely covering their dorsal fins. Just look along the lake’s shoreline at dusk, you’ll see numerous silhouettes of solitary anglers rising out of the waves in the fading light.

They’re not there for bullheads!

Surf fishing for walleye at night is about the most exciting way to go for these delicious beasties. The setting sun usually puts a damper on the wind. The lake’s surface simmers down, and by the time the sun’s corona creeps below the trees, twinkling stillness surrounds you.

Schools of gizzard shad invariably swim by. They appear in such numbers, their rafts dimple the surface. Reaching your side, the formation silently splits, wrapping around you like whitewater skirting a rock. Predators attacking from below the school, or stalking its periphery, send showers of silver erupting through the undulating, moon-lit glare.

Seeing a walleye hit a minnow within arm’s reach is exciting; having one slam your lure right in front of you is downright magical.

The eyes will be withdrawing minnows from the bank into first ice. Good baits are Bass Pro Shops XPS Extreme Minnows, Jr. Thundersticks, Rapalas and Challenger Minnows.

Cleveland Docks and Godfrey Point (NY 49 in Cleveland), the fishing access sites off I-81 in Brewerton, and Phillips Point (from I–81 exit 32 (Central Square), take NY 49 east for 3 miles, turn right onto Toad Harbor Road, then left about 3 miles later on McCloud Drive and travel 1 mile to its end) are hot spots worth trying.

Jim Novak, Secretary of the Oneida Lake Association, holds a nice walleye he took just after sundown.
Nightly limit.