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Fishing the shadows


In northern Wisconsin where I fish and guide I encounter some of the clearest lakes in the world.  This year’s lack of rainfall has increased water clarity and made fishing for some species very tough.  Bright sun and clear skies make for tough fishing if you cannot find shadows to reduce visibility. Fish may be present but long casts and clean presentations with long fluorocarbon leaders are necessary.   I have braid on all of my reels due to its strength and durability.  However it “weathers’ to a light color and is easily seen and has no abrasion resistance.  To combat this , I will tie a 6-12 foot fluorocarbon leader on to the braid with a double uni knot.  I use Seaguar Blue label leader material in 12-20 lb for most rods that are attached to casting lures to avoid bite offs  For walleyes with light jigs and panfish I will use 10 lb Seaguar gold label.  This has a much thinner diameter but doesn’t have the abrasion resistance of the blue label.  Here is a video of how to tie a double uni knot:


Growing up in an area dominated by river fishing, I had always fished for walleyes in areas of rock or sand.  Being able to read the river and current breaks was the major factor in determining your success.  The only time I considered wood when fishing walleyes was the current breaks they created on moving water or cribs placed in northern Wisconsin waters that I fished when I was very young.  Fast forward to the late 80’s.  I was invited to fish some northern Wisconsin lakes and planned some trips to Ontario. The name Greg Bohn kept popping up as a successful northern Wisconsin guide.  I attended a seminar by Greg while fishing the Wisconsin River in the spring at a store in Prarie du Sac.  His innovation in walleye fishing broke all the rules that I had learned and I was hooked.  For the next 35 years his techniques for fishing wood and weeds as well as slip bobbering for walleyes formed the basis for many of the strategies that I used to find and catch fish for my sons, students and now guide clients.


Trees that fall into the water provide shelter for fish as well as a substrate for algae and insect larvae.  This in turn draws in baitfish and crayfish and the food chain is set in motion.  All types of fish will use trees and ones that have their tips in 10 feet or over can be walleye magnets.  In lakes that don’t have weeds, they can be the only form of protective cover for minnows and young of the year panfish and gamefish.  Predator fish also use trees as an ambush point for attacking prey.  This year due to the lack of cabbage weed, wood becomes even more important as a type of cover.


Docks are another source of cover that is man made.  Generally, wood docks built low to the water line are the best as algae and insect larvae can adhere to the wood.  Unused docks are  best for obvious reasons but used docks can and do use docks especially during the heat of the day.  Unused docks can be identified by boat covers over boats and swim equipment stowed on shore.  Please be respectful of docks and boats moored on them as they are personal property.  A ripped cover or boat upholstery will anger anyone so please be careful.  Generally anywhere there are shadows cast can be good but the blow out holes beneath a motor are the best bets

As they will be a bit deeper.  On some lakes, old boat houses are available.  Because they are so complex, they provide many spots for larger populations of fish to be present.  Other man made structures like swim rafts can also be good.  Any structure closer to deep water will be better than shallow structure.


Fishing these structures whether trees or man made structures requires stealth and careful casting.  Cut the gas motor and move toward the pier slowly with your trolling motor so you don’t spook fish.  Use live bait on 1/16 oz. jigs and slip bobbers with leeches for walleyes or wacky worms, paddle tail minnows, plastic craws or tubes for bass.  The fish are there looking to ambush prey so when something slowly drops in front of it it will lash out and grab it.  You can tell if they run away from structure that there is a school of fish as they will take it away from other fish so they don’t try to steal it.  That is why you sometimes see multiple fish approaching the boat  Many times large predator pike or musky will be waiting to take advantage of struggling fish.  If one grabs a fish on your line , open the bail and let it eat it.  Slowly reel the fish toward the net.  I always carry my musky net in case of this event.  Be very careful when handling these fish as big pike and musky can be over 20 years old.  You should always have some sort of long nosed pliers and a cutter for hooks.  If the esox swallowed your fish just cut the line and stomach acids will dissolve the hook.  Don’t try taking a picture of you holding the fish unless you have experience or a protective glove.  All muskie fisherman have scars from fish thrashing and ripping hooks or teeth into hands.


The actual technique is to fish the perimeter of the structure first.  Don’t try casting into the structure first and get hung up and spook the fish immediately. I have caught 25 walleyes out of a tree in the water after we got a slip bobber stuck in the tree.  We just left it there and retrieved it later.  As you get closer it may require you to drop right into some part of the tree or dock structure. A jig or bait flipped into structure  is more accurate and sometimes accuracy is crucial. I like to pendulum swing the lure from me to the target to aim for the spot. After swinging it back and forth to get momentum, release the lure with the rod at about 10 o’clock.  You can feather the line with your free hand to stop the line from over shooting your target.  Hit many different spots repeatedly and if you see fish downsize weight to slow the fall.


The next three structures are vertical structures in the water. Utilizing the shadows in these 3 instances take a bit of analysis of the situation but it is these little details that can turn a slow day into a productive one.  Milfoil is an invasive species that grows into impenetrable walls of weed 8 feet tall.  It abruptly stops growing at approximately 13 feet on clear lakes forming a wallin 13 feet. This abrupt vertical change can create shadows when the sun is at the right angle.  Walleyes, bass  and crappies will utilize these shadows to ambush prey.

Humps and holes can also provide shade areas if the sides are vertical.  The more vertical the sides, the larger the shadow area will extend.  Shadow areas on humps will appear opposite the sun while the shadow area on holes with vertical sides will appear on the sun side of the hole.


Fishing close to shorelines of main lands and islands can extend the low light in the water for fish that have an advantage during low light like crappie and walleye.  I always plan for this when deciding where to fish if I have to guide on a clear sunny day. This extends the productive time on the water by a few hours in the morning or evening when the sun angle is low and creating shadows on the water.

Lastly, I want to discuss environmental haze.  This topic also flashes back to that day that I attended Greg Bohn’s seminar.  He related his catch records to the year that Mt. St. Helens erupted thousands of miles away.  His catch rate was much higher due to the ash in the air from the eruption.  Those particles in the air reduced the intensity of the sun similar to the way cloud cover reduces light intensity.  Recently, smoke from the Canadian fires has reduced air quality but it also reduces the intensity of the sun’s rays.  This helps to extend the productive time on the water for all species but especially those species that utilize low light to their advantage.


Attention to small details may seem insignificant but they can improve a average day to a great day.  Tweaks to presentations and these details are what separates the 10% of the fishermen and women that catch 90% of the fish from the rest!

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