Catch Trophy Walleye with Swimbaits
April 27, 2018
Paddletail or thumper-style swimbaits are a fundamental walleye lure category on par with crankbaits, livebait rigs, and other classic presentations. In-Fisherman has long championed paddletails, chronicling the latest baits, applications, and benefits of these hard-thumping, versatile softbaits.
In the May issue, we looked at the paddletail's rise to prominence. The lure's storied history sets the stage for this discussion with top anglers on how they're using them to catch more and bigger walleyes.
In-Fisherman contributor and guide Jeff Matity says he's been following In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange's swimbait teachings for nearly two decades. "It's paid off," he says. "What began as Stange's summertime weedline patterns has evolved into an all-season, open-water quest with a cast of different baits that possess varying qualities that best suit the changing habitats and forage needs of big walleyes."
During the 2017 season, Matity and his brother Jason fished swimbaits from May until November, from Saskatchewan to Ontario. The number of 7- to 11-pound walleyes they caught was impressive, and the lessons learned were remarkable.
Springâ€”"The biggest walleyes in a system rub shoulders with big pike in order to have access to prime forage and warmer water," Matity says. "What that means is some of the biggest walleyes in a lake are in 'pike' bays. Whether walleyes are there to eat suckers retreating from their spawning runs or to soak up the sun and boost their metabolism is yet to be proven. Still, the best walleye contact is made during the heat of the day during stable, warming weather, which suggests the latter."
He says top spring baits are deep-bodied, 5-inch paddlers like the Big Hammer Swimbait and Berkley's now-discontinued Flatback Shad. "Since these bays often have an off-color stain or suspended sediment, the kick of a big tail is important, providing roll and creating flash from the deep-bellied bait," he says. "This draws fish in less-than-clear conditions."
Solid-body lures threaded onto 3/8-, 1/2-, and 3/4-ounce saltwater jigheads, such as the Hammer Head Jig or Owner Saltwater Bullet jig, are the primary presentation. "However, when conditions are flat calm and the water becomes increasingly clear, the sinuous swimming style and realistic look of a hollow-belly swimbait like the Strike King Shadalicious, again 5 to 5½ inches long, fished with an internally rigged jighead such as a 3/8- to 3/4-ounce Bass Magnet tube jig, seem to out-do solid-body lures," he says.
"As you progress from a 3/8- to 1/2- to a 3/4-ounce head, you can fish deeper or faster, or both," he says. "It's surprising how upping the weight and fishing faster can get the fish chompingâ€”the opposite of what many anglers would think for triggering sluggish fish."
Summerâ€”"As you progress from the shallow bays to main-lake rock and shorelines, newer shallow-belly swimbaits snake their way through the terrain and into the mouths of big walleyes," Matity says. "One such lure is the Storm 360GT Searchbait, which has a large paddle tail but a slim physique. With a prepackaged head that weighs 3/8 ounce, this lure is a shallow-water presentation, fishable down to about 15 feet. Wave action and wind spur the use of this shallow pattern and, unlike deep-bodied baits, that can be fished with a variety of retrieves, shallow-bellies perform best on a straight retrieve."
On main-lake reefs and flats, Matity's focus shifts back to deep-bellied baits. "If restricted to one size for trophy walleyes, 5 inches would be my choice," he says. "However, for open water, the 5½-inch Big Hammer and Shadalicious get the nod. Upsizing bodies yields gains in tail size, action, and vibration. This, along with the deep belly, gives the lure thump and flash, and moves a lot of water as it's reeled along."
The 3/4- and 1-ounce heads are right for 15- to 30-foot depths. He rigs the Big Hammer the same way as in spring, but says the Shadalicious also fishes "right" with an external jighead like the Hammer Head, superglued in place. "An external jighead gives the bait a 6-inch profile and telegraphs bottom well," he says.
His go-to retrieve is stop-and-go. "After the lure hits bottom, raise the rod tip to 10 o'clock and hold it steady while the lure is reeled quickly about 10 feet, then stop to allow it to scurry to bottom again," he says. "During this process, the lure sprints off bottom several feet, then stalls and swims back to bottom. Contact with the bottom are short or can be prolonged should the fish prefer to pin the swimbait to the bottom. Any bump is telegraphed to the motionless rod and the hook is set hard."
Fallâ€”Autumn walleyes may roam shallow bays when a warming trend draws them shallow or if they are congregating in current areas. "When this is the case, spring tactics apply," Matity says. "If the lake has large walleyes, however, odds are there's an open-water forage base that is both soft-finned and high in protein.
"Depending on where you are on the continent, prey may be alewives, shad, or ciscoes," he says. "In the case of ciscoes, walleyes take advantage of the fall spawn to hunt prey that is vulnerable and focused on spawning. In this situation, walleyes eat ciscoes measuring a foot or longer, so 5½-inch swimbaits are superb."
More Matity Tips
"Anytime wind roughs up the shoreline, swimbaits are great to throw," he says. "They fish shallow to deep and catch everything that swims." He says that adding a scent product like Pro-Cure Super Gel gives following fish a whiff of something attractive. "Trophy Walleye and Anise Plus are my favorites," he says.
He says that paddletail swimbaits force you to fish walleyes as true predators. "Only by doing so do you realize how often the largest walleyes behave like any top predator, such as pike, muskie, or lake trout, aggressive with a big appetite."
He rigs a medium-heavy 6½-foot rod with a medium-size Pflueger reel spooled with 20-pound Sufix 832 mainline tipped with a 25-pound Sufix Invisiline fluorocarbon leader.
Strolling and Downsizing
In-FishermanField Editor Gord Pyzer, long a fan of paddletail swimbaits, notes a few recent trends in his paddler presentations. "When we first started years ago, the bigger 5- and 6-inch paddletails were best because they generally targeted the biggest fish, often walleyes in the 8- to 10-pound class and better," he says. "Smaller walleyes hit them, but there are often better presentations for run-of-the-mill walleyes.
"More recently, however, we've discovered that we catch more typical nice-size walleyes, those in the 16- to 24-inch range, by using smaller 3- and 4-inch swimbaits, and fishing them in shallower water," he says. "Regardless of the length and size of the fish, the key always is using a heavier jighead than you would expect for the depth. I often use an ounce for big walleyes in 8 to 10 feet of water. The heavy head forces you to fish swimbaits in the aggressive style walleyes often prefer."
Pyzer continues to promote paddletail "strolling." "As I've written about in the past, we often stroll the baits alongside the boat, in a modified snapjigging sort of way," he says. "By strolling and not casting, you keep you lure constantly in the waterâ€”no time wasted casting, waiting for the bait to fall, and retrievingâ€”it is always in their faces."
In-Fisherman contributor Scott Glorvigen, a longtime professional walleye angler, advises anglers eager to excel with swimbaits to think beyond the connection to traditional livebaits. "I think the biggest mistake walleye anglers make is looking at plastics solely as a replacement for livebait in traditional presentations, like a jig and minnow," he says.
"There are certainly softbaits that serve as excellent substitutes for livebaitâ€”including split-tail smelt baits and nail-tail designs like the Berkley PowerBait Pro Twitchtail Minnow. But a lot of different plastics, including paddletail swimbaits, work wonders on walleyes when fished as you would a crankbait or other artificial lure, not the way you'd fish livebait," he says.
Ever on the hunt for a better way to put walleyes in the boat, he experiments with swimbaits and other softbaits from a variety of manufacturers. "I'm not tied to any sponsors, so I try lots of options," he says.
To better understand where swimbaits excel, he compares them to the Twitchtail, which sports a thin, flexible tail that dances at the slightest twitch of the rod tip. He considers the Twitchtail a finesse bait. "It's one of the few softbaits that lends itself to a subtle approach similar to a shaky-head presentation. You don't hop it, just twitch it along bottom and let that magical tail do the work for you," he says.
Paddletails, in comparison, are higher-octane options. "They're great alternatives to hard-bodied, shad-style crankbaits," he says. "You can fish them anywhere in the water column, at a variety of speeds."
One of his top swimbait patterns is as straightforward as it is deadly. "I've been fishing smaller swimbaits on round jigheads, close to bottom with a steady retrieve," he says. "I've used them to catch walleyes in areas where traditional livebait tactics failâ€”going back in with a paddletail after crawlers and leeches struck out."
The presentation starts with a 3½- to 4½-inch paddletail. "The Megabass Spark Shad, Storm 360GT Searchbait, and Gene Larew Sweet Swimmer are great choices for this," he says. Bait colors lean toward the natural end of the spectrum in clear water. "Minnow, smelt, and shiner patterns are effective in these conditions," he says. "In stained or other low-vis conditions, try chartreuse, pink, and orange."
Baits are rigged on a round-head, long-shank jig. "An extended shank, particularly with a wire keeper, helps hold softbaits in place," he says. "Choose a jig that's heavy enough to keep the bait near bottom given the water depth and conditions. I generally use a jig of the same weight I'd choose for a slipsinker if I was dragging a livebait rig in the same scenario. A jig box stocked with an assortment of heads from 1/4- to 1/2-ounce allows you to adjust to most situations."
Glorvigen favors a 6-foot 9-inch to 7-foot spinning rod with a medium-fast tip for this paddletail presentation. "My mainline is a fused line like Berkley FireLine Crystal or a braid like Sufix Performance Braid, which lets me feel bottom, the lure's tail action, and walleyes overtaking the bait," he says, noting that braids also make it easier to cast in windy conditions. "Plus, they slice through weeds, which helps when you're trying to wrestle a big walleye out of the greenery.
"High-visibility mainline helps you visualize where your bait is and detect strikes," he says. He adds an 18-inch fluorocarbon leader to the end of the mainline.
Longtime tournament pro and reigning Cabela's Masters Walleye Circuit world champion Tommy Skarlis has fished paddletails since the early days. He's a fan of their ability to put walleyes in the boat, especially when the chips are down. And while he's fished virtually every swimbait under the sun, he's convinced some of the best around are poured in garages, not on large-scale production lines.
"Lately, tournament partner Jeff Lahr and I have been using the Ripper, a homemade bait poured from a mold made by Do-it Molds," he says. "The Ripper is a fat, ribbed bait with a large, round paddletail. The name makes people think you have to fish it aggressively, and you can, but it's versatile enough to do just about anything."
Available in 2½-, 3½-, and 4-inch sizes, the Ripper is the brainchild of Do-it Molds product manager Kyle Steinfeldt, an avid walleye angler. "I aimed it at walleyes, knowing bass would like it, too," says Steinfeldt. "I began working on the Ripper two years ago, and let the fish tell me what they wanted while I went through about a dozen prototypes. The bait was finished in the spring of 2017 and quickly became our most popular selling lure mold."
Steinfeldt says the Ripper was designed for both still and flowing water, with equally deceptive action on the fall and during straight retrieves. Its attributes, he says, include a large paddletail, ringworm exterior, and deep-bodied profile. "It produces a wide wobble and pronounced side-to-side rolling action that causes baits with different colors top and bottom to flash like a swimming minnow," he adds.
As for jig pairings, he says initial experiments with teardrop-style designs proved promising. "A lot of anglers like the nose-first, bombing action created with teardrops, but then we introduced a new designâ€”the Swimbait Head Jigâ€”that matches perfectly with the Ripper. It has a large eye, rounded head, double keeper, and the belly of the jig extends into the plastic body, so the bait matches the shape of the jig."
While some anglers might hesitate at the idea of making their own softbaits, Steinfeldt says its simple, inexpensive, and offers a variety of benefits. "If you can heat something up in a microwave, you can make your own baits," he promises. "All you do is heat up the plastisol for two minutes, until it reaches 350°F, add desired color and glitter, then inject it into the mold, where it sets up in 30 seconds. The process is a lot faster than driving to a tackle shop or waiting for baits ordered online to reach your doorstep. Plus, you can pour your own baits as inexpensively as 7 cents apiece, which is a lot cheaper than you can buy them off the shelf.
"Tackle crafting also allows you to customize bait color and action," he adds. "You can create color patterns to match any species of crayfish or baitfishâ€”or stand out from the crowd or environment. Different hardening and softening additives also let you adjust the bait's action. You can loosen it up and widen the wobble, or tighten it to accentuate the tail thump."
Skarlis' strategies for fishing the Ripper are many and varied. "During the 2018 tournament season, I plan to pull it on three-way rigs along the faces of wing dams on the Mississippi River, slow-troll it on the edges and tops of flats on lakes like Mille Lacs, and vertical jig it on the Illinois River for monster saugers and walleyes," he says. "Plus a variety of pitching, dragging, jerking, snapjigging, and other presentations everywhere from Saginaw Bay, Michigan, to Cass Lake, Minnesota."
His pitching program: "I cruise along at 30 or 40 mph, watching for fish on my Raymarine Axiom sonar. When I mark a fish, I touch the sonar screen to save the coordinates. Then I spin the boat around, come back, and pitch to the icon, right in the prop wash. High-riding fish are typically more active and apt to hit an aggressive retrieve, but you need to figure out what they want at the moment."
Skarlis cautions anglers against having one pet paddletail presentation or preconceived notions about what jigstrokes and other motions are going to catch fish. "You never get up in the morning and say, 'This is how I'm going to catch them today,'" he says. "Walleye preferences change. One day they want you to rip the bait erratically with the rod tip as high as possible, and the next they prefer a steady lift and gentle downward glide. Other times, you have to twitch and wiggle it along the bottom like a swim jig."
When vertical jigging paddlers in rivers, he often slips downstream, executing classic lift-fall-pause routines. "You can also swim paddletails downstream about 2 to 6 inches off bottom, or drag them over the right kind of bottom," he says.
No matter the retrieve pattern, Skarlis advises using a strike-detecting combination of a hyper-sensitive rod and line. "The ability to tell when a fish takes the bait is paramount," he says. "Sometimes you get lucky and a fish that hits on the fall is 'magically' there when you go to rip the bait again. But most times, most anglers don't feel the hit, they feel the spit."
He favors a 7-foot, medium-fast St. Croix Legend or Legend Elite spinning rod, loaded with light superline mainline with a 2-pound-test diameter and 10-pound break strength. "Berkley NanoFil is a great choice, and hard to beat for long casts," he says. "FireLine is good, too, and I've also been trying a new braid from Cortland." He adds a 2- to 6-foot fluorocarbon leader of the same break strength to the end of the mainline.
"As soon as you feel something different or see the line do something different, set the hook. Hook-sets are free, and the action imparted by an 'airball' hook-set sometimes triggers a strike," he says.
"Again, vary your retrieves at times. Always imagine a walleye is following your lure. Sometimes it just takes a change up to get them to bite."
*Dan Johnson of Isanti, Minnesota, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and director of All Creation Outdoor Media.