Whenever I’m presenting fishing seminars, I like to casually slip in the fact that I probably haven’t spent $25 on livebait for walleyes over the last half dozen years. It always produces disbelief, head-shaking, and shoulder-shrugging, followed by something like: “You might be able to get away with that in northwestern Ontario, but you sure can’t do it in my home waters.” I say, nonsense.
Regardless of where you fish for walleyes, it’s no more of a given that you always have to use livebait in order to be successful than the fish are always in a neutral or negative mood, or tightly relating to the bottom. Indeed, as our knowledge of walleyes expands, about the only “given” most days is that your best presentation involves a soft-plastic minnow, grub, swimbait, leech, crawler, or even a tube. And if the fake bait secretes a steady stream of seductive scent, so much the better.
GRUBBIN’ OUT ‘EYES
When most anglers think about using soft plastics to catch walleyes, a grub is almost certainly at the top of the list. Walleye anglers have probably caught more fish using grubs over the years than any other soft-plastic dressing, a testament to the diminutive bait’s versatility.
It helps to divide grubs into two categories—those with curly tails and those without. The first group, typified by the original Mister Twister Tail, Berkley PowerBait Grub, Northland Slurpies Swim’n Grub, Yamamoto Grub, and Trigger X Swimming Grub, are subtle-action baits. When you retrieve them at a slow to moderate speed, the tail shimmies and vibrates enticingly like a baitfish.
More importantly, however, and less well understood by many walleye anglers, is that when you carefully balance a 3- to 5-inch curlytail on a 1/8- to 1/4-ounce jighead, ensuring that its body is aligned perfectly straight on the shank of the hook, it not only shakes its booty temptingly, but also rocks side to side.
No one has studied this understated motion more than In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange. He’s concluded that the curlytail grub was the original swimbait. It’s an important distinction because many walleye anglers mistakenly believe that having attached a grub to a jighead, they must subsequently hop, pop, and skip the lure to make it work. That’s not the case, at least on most days, when a straight retrieve produces the ideal action and catches the most fish.
Teamed with a medium-light- or medium-action spinning outfit, spooled with 6- to 8-pound-test monofilament, fluorocarbon, or equivalent gel spun or braided line, the best presentation is the simplest. Cast the jig-grub combo, let it fall to the bottom, then retrieve it at a slow to moderate speed, keeping it within a foot or two of the bottom. Intermittently pause your retrieve for a second or two, allowing the grub to re-establish bottom contact, and invariably you feel walleyes whack it on the stop.
Grubs lacking curly appendages, like the Lindy Fuzz-E-Grub, can be as deadly as those with action tails. The distinction is that while the twister-tail variety works well right out of the package, you nearly always need to tip a Fuzz-E-Grub with a live minnow, leech, or nightcrawler.
I like to look at this jig-grub duo as the “delivery agent” for the livebait in much the same way a small popper-style topwater lure is the delivery agent for the trailing feathered tail. In the case of the Fuzz-E-Grub, the jig-grub combo attracts walleyes, while the livebait triggers them to bite.
It’s an even deadlier package when you consider the range of optimization features. For starters, you can use a jig poured on a bronze, silver, gold, or red colored hook. I’ve seen many times when a red hook has resulted in more walleyes.
You also can experiment with a rainbow of jighead colors. Ditto, for the soft plastic body. The combination and permutation of hues, including glow shades, is mind boggling. And then there is the nondescript trailing marabou tail that looks insignificant but is key to its allure. It functions like the sirens of Greek mythology that lured sailors to their deaths. You’d think that puff of marabou would be irrelevant. But it moves as enticingly as a wind-blown sigh, even when you try to hold the grub still. And like the Energizer Bunny, it keeps on ticking, especially when the minnow, leech, or crawler attached to it wiggles.
IN THE SWIM OF THINGS
While the grub may have snuck in the back door as the earliest unintended swimbait, soft plastic paddletails like the Trigger X Paddle Tail Minnow, X-Zone Swammer, Mister Twister Sassy Shad, and Berkley Hollow Belly Swimbait, Split Belly Swimbait, and Flatback Shad, are the unabashed, out-in-the-open, campaigners. They’re also the best soft-plastic offerings for big walleyes most anglers never use.
Friends and I have caught more 10-pound-plus trophy walleyes over the last 6 to 8 years than we did during the previous two or three decades, thanks almost entirely to swimbaits. Having studied with Stange hasn’t hurt the learning curve. He’s the master of the technique and has written and filmed more about using soft swimbaits to catch walleyes than anyone else.
Still, the reaction of most anglers is the same. A 5- or 6-inch-long swimbait skewered onto a heavy 1/2-, 3/4-, or 1-ounce saltwater bullet-head jig is too big and bulky for sophisticated walleyes. But when you find walleyes on flats and moderate slopes, in water as deep as 25 to 30 feet (isolated, crisp weeds are a bonus), a swimbait is often the best lure.
The setup is comprised of a 7-foot-long, medium-heavy-action spinning rod, a reel spooled with 14-pound-test FireLine, an 18-inch fluorocarbon leader testing 15 pounds, and the above mentioned jigs and swimbaits. It’s as close to walleye perfection as you can get, on many days.
The package forces you to fish the lure relatively quickly, in order to keep it the critical foot or two off bottom. The weight of the parcel also compels you to constantly drop your rod tip for a second or two while you reel in line. The staggered start, stop, and pause triggers trailing walleyes so completely most of the time that the only thing you see sticking out the fish’s mouth is the front tip of the bullet-shaped jig. So much for your neutral, negative, and sophisticated walleyes.
Buddy Roger Stearns is the Lake Winnipeg walleye ace who pioneered using loud, lipless crankbaits to catch giant winter walleyes. As of late, he’s been experimenting with a swimbait refinement, and it is turning heads.
Stearns says speed-trolling swimbaits behind #5 to #7 Colorado blades attached to 3- and 4-ounce bottom bouncers is a big-fish combination that blends the profile of a crankbait with the thump of a swimbait, behind a blade. The first fish he caught testing the presentation was an 8-pound ‘eye opener.
“The heavy bouncer forces you to pick up speed,” he says. “I troll between 1.2 and 2.0 mph, 1.8 mph is ideal. I’ve also found a 3-foot lead between the bouncer and the swimbait cuts down on snags,” he says. “But you need to select swimbaits carefully. The softest ones with the thinnest taper to the tail are best. Stiffer ones spin out when you start trolling. You have to rig them perfectly straight on your hook as well. I use 4/0 and 5/0 flippin’ hooks so the point is in the middle of the bait. This presentation shines when you find walleyes schooled in tight spots where you need precise speed and depth control.”
WORM YOUR WAY IN
Whether attached to a crawler harness, dangled off the end of a jig, threaded onto a Slow Death hook, or hooked through the nose or wacky style to a drop-shot rig, soft-plastic nightcrawler is often as good as or better than the living thing. But here’s the catch. You may not get quite as many bites with it as you do with livebait. If that sounds like a contradiction, I’ll explain.
Early last summer, buddy Tom VanLeeuwen and I were Slow Death fishing for walleyes using healthy live crawlers. Instead of the walleyes being spread out across the top of the hump we were fishing, they were schooled tightly. They had to smack our baits quickly or risk losing dinner to a hungry neighbor.
You’d think this would have been the recipe for success, but there were so many fish hitting so forcefully that they often missed the hook and tore the crawler. We were constantly reeling in and re-baiting.
Instead of using a real crawler, I threaded a Trigger X Nightcrawler onto the curved hook, slid the nose over the eye, nipped off the tail so only an inch-long nub flopped behind the hook bend, and dropped the corkscrewing collection over the side of the boat. Tom continued to be bombarded with bites, getting probably 20 percent more hits than me, but I caught significantly more walleyes because my lure was in the water for at least 40 percent more time.
When Tom felt one grab his worm, he’d sweep-set the hook, often missing the fish. Consequently, he had to reel in and re-bait. When I felt a walleye smack my soft plastic corkscrewing nub, I’d sweep the rod forward, and if I missed the first time, I dropped the bait back and nailed the fish on the second, third, or fourth hit. They couldn’t steal my bait and they couldn’t pull it down the hook.
Any time walleyes are roaming flats, feeding on yellow perch and whacking crawler harnesses, Gulp!, PowerBait, Exude, and Trigger X crawlers almost consistently catch more and bigger walleyes than live crawlers because perch and panfish can’t nip, snip, or pull the softbaits apart. You spend the bulk of your time fishing, not re-baiting.
The same holds when walleyes crave a leech or minnow towed on a single-hook harness. When bait-stealing panfish abound, you catch as many or more walleyes trolling single-hook harnesses dressed with a scented, soft-plastic leech or minnow as you would with the real deal.
Soft-plastic crawlers, leeches, and minnows also excel in rivers, especially when tipped on a jig. And the stronger and faster the current, the more they shine.
On many fast-flowing rivers, wise walleye anglers “double-up,” using two soft-plastic dressings to bulk up their jigs. The classic setup starts with threading on a 3- to 5-inch Trigger X Minnow, Gulp! Minnow, or Berkley Power Minnow, so the hook exits the back of the bait. A second soft-plastic minnow is attached to the hook by running the point under the jaw and out the nose. (Instead of attaching a second minnow, some anglers nose-hook a small plastic crawler or lizard.) When you double up, you’re offering walleyes a much bigger and more attractive package without adding a lot of extra weight. The combo has considerably more tail wag and action, and twice the bouquet if you’re using scented baits.
A great softbait option that almost no one is using works well when walleyes are feeding on crayfish. Craws are far more common than most anglers realize, and tube jigs represent the ultimate presentation. I stumbled onto this pattern many years ago while fishing for smallmouth bass after rusty crayfish invaded Lake of the Woods and displaced the smaller, more docile, native variety.
Today, so many rusties inhabit the big border water that it’s impossible to lay a live- or softbait on the bottom and not have it carried away by a crawfish. The rusty population is so huge, most first-time walleye anglers on the lake mistake crayfish dragging away their baits as bites from small fish.
This lobster fest has not gone unnoticed by the walleyes, however. Mark a school inhabiting a shallow rocky shoreline or moderately deep reef, and pitch in a pumpkinseed, watermelon green, or other crayfish-colored 3- to 4-inch long soft-plastic tube stuffed with a 1/8-, 3/16-, or 1/4-ounce leadhead.
A medium-action spinning rod spooled with 8- to 10-pound-test Berkley FireLine, NanoFil, or Sufix braid is essential for the “feel” factor. I always attach a 12- to 18-inch, 8-pound-test Maxima Ultragreen leader, but several friends tie their tubes directly to the superline with no negative effects.
The key is keeping your bait on the bottom and not hopping or popping it up, as you might when fishing for bass. Instead, let your tube fall to the bottom and rest for a couple of seconds. Then, shake the slack line as you would when fishing a shaky-head jig, so the tentacles on the tube tick, tremor, and twitch without the bait moving forward.
If you don’t get a bite, drag it slowly along the bottom for a couple of feet, imitating a crayfish, and repeat the slack-line shake. Sometimes you feel only the mushy weight of a walleye when it sucks in the tube, but most hits are so shocking you forget that the soft-plastic, scented, squid-like bait was invented for bass and become convinced it’s the best thing happening for walleyes. Like so many soft plastics—it’s often just that.
Gord Pyzer is an In-Fisherman Field Editor from Kenora, Ontario.