I spend a lot of time on the water, under every weather condition, with folks whose fishing skills vary from novice to veteran. It’s the perfect opportunity to experiment. I’m convinced that swimming lures like the Jigging Rapala and Nils Master Jigging Shad are in many situations as good as standard presentations like jigs, rigs, and crankbaits. When walleyes are concentrated in water deeper than about 10 to 12 feet, swimming lures often are the best presentation choice.
The best way to categorize when to use swimming lures is to look at when they aren’t a good option. That’s principally when you’re looking for fish. Swimming lures fish too slowly to use as exploratory tools because they’re meant to be fished almost perfectly vertical. The farther the lure drifts away from perpendicular, the less command you have over depth and swimming motion—two critical elements in catching walleyes. Crankbaits, jigs, and rigs are superior when you’re searching. Casting swimming lures works on sand and gravel, but doesn’t work well on rock and near weeds, because of problems with snagging.
Horizontal presentations often remain the best choices when walleyes are scattered across a large flat. Swimming lures shine when walleyes are clustered like grapes ready to be picked. Grouped walleyes usually relate to breaks—a pile of boulders, a portion of drop-off edge, a dent in a weededge, a specific water temperature or light-penetration zone. It doesn’t matter why the fish are concentrated, only that you’ve found them relating to a well defined chunk of aquatic turf.
There’s an exception to the prospecting rule when you’re using a jig or rig to search for walleyes. The problem is one of angler perception of what’s really happening down below. Jigs, rigs, and livebait combos often are too small to excite fish, especially larger fish during late summer. So we catch only a fish or two, when many more are present. Then we assume fish are scattered, when they’re not. You’re less likely to encounter this when you’re trolling minnowbaits like a #13 Floating Rapala. Such a meal-size package appeals to big walleyes.
Demand for commercial livebait peaks during summer, as warm water temperatures reduce the number and size of baitfish. As a result, small crappie-size minnows often are sold as “mediums.” Same with leeches, where the big jumbos become hard to find. Such second-rate bait helps to create the problem we’re discussing. Walleyes often are aggressive at this time of the year, so a few always are willing to hit economy-size offerings—just enough to convince us that the fish are spread out and we should stick with a dinky presentation. Your sonar screen won’t lie, though. If you spot plenty of marks but catch only seemingly scattered walleyes, toss out a marker and drop a swimming lure.
In Rivers & More
Swimming lures are outstanding river tools. Because of their size, weight, and profile (overall bulk), they drop quickly to the bottom where current is minimized and where walleyes spend most of their time. Size, weight, and profile also help maintain a perpendicular presentation—less need to open the bail and let out more line to stay in contact with the bottom, so the bait doesn’t drift downstream and snag. That means you spend more time fishing and catching and less time rigging.
Swimming lures can be good alternatives where livebait is banned—especially on fly-in trips to remote walleye lakes. Even where it isn’t banned, livebait (or deadbait) often reduces overall catches, especially of big fish for the reasons I’ve previously mentioned. Once again, at this time of year, in most situations, rely on crankbaits to search for walleyes and on swimming lures to mop them up.
But enough about timing and location. The key consideration, once again, no matter the environment or particular yearly situations is to identify grouped walleyes in areas where they’re vulnerable to a vertical presentation.
During winter, monofilament suffices for working swimming lures, although superlines like Berkley FireLine work well, too. For open water, however, FireLine is essential. The reason is that during winter, a short, stiff rod often is used and you don’t have to worry about boat control; that is, you don’t have to worry about being pushed off target by wind.
With FireLine’s thin diameter and no-stretch qualities, better control of motion and hang position of the lure below can be achieved—better feel of every pop, jiggle, and twitch. It’s also easy to determine the moment a walleye, sauger, or jumbo perch bites, in order to set the hook.
The right rod for this application is 6 or 6.5 feet long with a medium- or medium-fast action, along with medium power. A soft (slow-action) tip robs the angler of control.
Other rigging tips include using a small black swivel at the end of the main 10- or 14-pound FireLine to reduce line twist. To the terminal end of the swivel attach two feet of 8- to 10-pound-test fluorocarbon or monofilament leader and a small Berkley Cross-Lok snap. Next, replace the standard treble hook on the swimming lure with a sticky sharp #2, #4, or #6 treble. I prefer Gamakatsu or VMC cone-cut trebles. I increase the size of the treble on the swimming lure by about one size over the factory hook.
On The Water
Open the bail on the spinning reel and let the lure fall to the bottom. Reel it up a foot or so, close the bail, lift the rod tip a foot or two, and then pause after returning the rod tip to its original position, allowing the lure to swim up and around and back to its original position. Even in an anchored boat, even during the pause, the lure’s always moving—subtly perhaps, but moving nonetheless. Repeat the lift-fall-hold after 10 to 15 seconds or so. No need to fish the lure too aggressively. Let the fish get a bead on the bait after you’ve attracted them with the lift-fall motion.
As during winter, jiggle the bait in place once the lure’s paused, in order to trigger reluctant fish.
Still, these fish generally are more aggressive than during winter. The main presentation movement is a lift-fall-pause, followed by the same movement. The tendency is to do too much, to overwork the lure, to lift it too high, and jig it too quickly. Take it easy and let the walleyes add all the action.
While it’s rare during winter for a walleye to attack a lure when it’s moving, that’s not the case during summer. Be prepared. Aggressive fish often attack as the lure falls. I’ve had my rod almost jerked from my hand before I can even begin to pause.
Most fish hit during the pause, however. This works in spring, too, but summer water temperatures increase fish metabolism; walleyes are eating 2 to 3 percent of their body weight daily. Even during the pause, they usually react as soon as the lure begins the pause phase, when the lure’s settling and sliding back into the perfectly still position. So, once again, be ready.
Swimming Lures For Walleyes
Angle of the Dangle
During winter, walleyes often are sluggish—in a maintenance feeding mode, eating just enough to stay alive. Thus, it’s important to watch them approach a lure on sonar, then play with them, imparting subtle shivers and shakes to trigger a bite. In open water, fish are much more mobile and aggressive. As a result, I mostly rely on sonar to keep me generally among the fish instead of directly over them, so trying to monitor tiny subtle lure movements that usually aren’t necessary to trigger a bite.
Does the lure have to remain perfectly horizontal below the boat in order to catch fish? That’s the objective because it helps you maintain control of the fishing situation. Still, as you move along, often the line and lure might be at an angle off to the side of the boat. A 20-degree offset isn’t a problem so long as depth control is maintained. The lure generally needs to be within a foot or two of bottom.
It’s no surprise that these baits work so well in open water. It’s the same fish as during winter, attracted to and triggered by the same lure, the more so now that the fish are so much more aggressive. This is one of the most efficient presentation methods for catching lots of consolidated fish.
Gord Pyzer was for more than 20 years an Ontario resource manager, the last 10 years in charge of the Kenora District. He’s an In-Fisherman field editor who has written numerous articles for In‑Fisherman publications and has appeared along with In-Fisherman editors on In‑Fisherman Television.