Classic Walleye Tactics
May 25, 2015
Fundamental Choices — Depth
Choosing potential crankbaits for great walleye catches isn't difficult, even though there are myriad choices. The steps are these: The crankbait must work at the right depth, travel at the right speed and retrieve (or trolling) cadence, and offer the right wobble (action), plus exhibit proper profile and color-pattern combination. Then it's up to the fish, given their feeding disposition and other factors — some of which are beyond our control. But control begins the process — right depth, speed and retrieve cadence, first and foremost. Nothing, though, is more important than depth.
The #12 Rapala Husky Jerk and #12 X-Rap, the Sebile Koolie Minnow, Yo-Zuri Suspending Crystal Minnow, and the Smithwick Suspending Super Rogue, classic walleye crankbaits, are versatile plugs because on a straight retrieve they run 2, 3, or 4 feet down, depending on line diameter. On a short cast they run shallower than on a long cast. By holding your rod tip high you can affect depth slightly shallower. Trolling the plugs on a longline gets them deeper. We can add lead shot to the line to get them deeper. By adding a snapweight we can make them run at just about any depth. The use of leadcore line is another option for depth control.
Crankbaits with distinctive lips aren't quite so versatile as shallow-running stickbaits like the Husky Jerk, because they run at specific depths based on their bill and body design. This can't be modified by the angler except by adding weight to the line. Figuring running depth in conjunction with a snapweight or leadcore line, though, becomes more difficult than doing the same thing with a stickbait.
But it can be and often is done, typically with smaller models of the lipped lures. In many areas of the country, lures like the #5 Rapala Shad Rap — a 2-inch bait also available in a jointed model, which dives only to about 3 feet on a long cast — is a favored trolling lure taken deeper by weight. Many anglers believe that smaller lures trigger more fish during early season and in difficult conditions throughout the season.
But think back to the list of criteria for judging which crankbait to use. Where is size in the process? Depth first, speed and retrieve cadence second, wobble third, and then other factors hard to order exactly — things like color, size, and profile.
Size can be a factor but usually isn't critical. Indeed, the best general rule in making size choices is to fish as "large" as you can get away with. Most anglers who reach for "small" when fishing's difficult would get better results if they experimented with wobble instead of size — although of course size affects the wobbling action of a plug. We'll get more deeply into this in a moment.
Back to the main point — that depth is the most important factor in fishing. Rods rigged and ready for a day on the water should reflect the angler's judgment about the depth fish are likely to be at when the day begins. Throughout the day the main part of the puzzle is further determining how deep the fish are — at least, how deep the active fish are.
One note here about a depth factor that is little written about: The absolute need for depth control doesn't mean the lure always has to be running at the exact depth of the fish. That's usually the first prerogative to consider — a starting point — I agree. But one of the biggest final triggering factors in walleye fishing often is in getting a walleye to move up for a lure.
It isn't true that only the most active fish respond like this. With the right speed and wobble, and retrieve or trolling cadence, we can get walleyes to "light up," as it's sometimes termed in saltwater fishing — that is, we can change their mood enough to get them to bite. Fish that won't bite a lure that passes directly in front of them sometimes respond completely differently to a lure that passes just above them. The key is to get their attention and then get them to move. Once they commit to moving, they're more likely to bite. This is a common factor in openwater trolling, but it's just as important when fishing down a shallow weedline.
Get the lure to the right depth: This can be right at the level of the fish, below the fish, or, often in the case of walleyes, just above them. For the multispecies angler, the nature of each fish species has to be figured into the fundamental equation that includes depth, speed, working action, and other factors.
When Buck Perry first outlined the need for depth and speed control above all other variables in fishing, he did it from the perspective of his times. Depthfinding in the 1950s was done by way of trolling his Spoonplugs, metal crankbaits that in each of their sizes ran at known depths, no matter the speed.
Once he established a productive depth he worked further on getting speed right. A properly tuned Spoonplug could be run from an almost dead stall to well over 10 mph. I've caught walleyes by trolling a Spoonplug during late summer at a speed that put me just up on plane with 25 hp motor on a 15-foot boat, certainly faster than the 10 mph figure. Walleyes can't swim that fast, but they can anticipate something coming at them because of the intense wobble the thing gives off. Then, like a hunter leading a duck, they take a crack at the thing as it passes.
Typical crankbait trolling speeds are from just under 1 mph to about 3 mph, but as indicated the range can be much wider, especially on the upper end. Typically, casting retrieves also fall within that speed range.
The speed factor, though, isn't just a matter of straight speed. Retrieve cadence and trolling cadence enter the equation. Again, consider the nature of the fish. Walleyes are notorious for falling in behind a crankbait and following it for a short or for a long distance before overtaking it, opening their mouth and using suction at the same time that they continue to swim toward the intended prey from behind.
Often it's the slight interruption of a straight speed that gets walleyes to strike. The angler pauses — just hesitates the lure — once or twice during a straight retrieve along a weededge, or anywhere else for that matter. Or the angler uses a stickbait like the Super Rogue in jerkbait fashion, jerking the plug to make it skip and hop at various times during the retrieve. Somewhat the same action occurs when an angler, fishing near weeds, rips a plug free when it contacts a weed. Plugs dinging off rocks or ricocheting off wood also sometimes get fish to go. It's a change in the steady retrieve cadence that does it.
Or the angler, making a trolling run with either stickbaits or hard-diving lipped baits, hand-holds one rod and intermittently pulls the plug forward, stops it, then lets it drift back to the starting position at various times throughout the run. Or on a trolling run he moves the boat through S-turns that cause the lures on the outside of the turn to speed up, while those on the inside slow down (and sometimes stall). Or, typically trolling at speeds of 2 to 3.5 mph, the angler occasionally stalls the boat by shifting into neutral. The fish often hit as the plugs stall or as they scoot forward again when the motor's shifted back into gear. These all are moves in a straight speed strategy that often trigger walleyes to strike.
So, first comes depth control, followed by speed control and retrieve and trolling cadence. Almost inseparable from this two-step process, though, is the underlying truth that where walleyes are the target, wobble is of the utmost importance — and without playing with (experimenting with) wobble at the same time as you're playing with the two other variables, at times it's impossible to get the right answer. Lure size and shape aren't that important. Neither is color at this point. But wobble is. So, while wobble appears third in the scheme of things, it's more important than that. We may have depth and speed right, but never know it if the wobble is wrong.
The "wobble thing" and its overwhelming importance to walleyes became apparent to me during those years that I stood in waders in current areas after dark. Stand out there for 30 nights a year, 4 or 5 hours a night, for 20 years and you have time to think, to experiment, and to rethink and experiment some more. The thinking is then applied to all the other kinds of problems presented by fishing for walleyes from a boat.
During spring, it was obvious that walleyes usually preferred the tighter, subtler swimming action of a plug like the #11 Floating Rapala. Try fishing this plug during fall, though, and you'll soon be tons of fish behind someone throwing a lure with a wider, more distinctive wobble.
In those pre-Husky Jerk years I finally settled on fishing the #13 Husky Rapala doctored with lead shot to get it to cast farther and fish slower. Right out of the box this plug, like the Husky Jerk today, had a medium wobble that can be just right at times. But after dark, a more distinct wobble often proves better. I got it right when I used pliers to slightly flatten the nose eye of the plug and then bend it down just slightly. This results in a wider wobble.
Once you get depth, speed, and wobble right, color pattern becomes important. No science suggests that walleyes can see color at night, but they certainly see the flash resulting from the way a plug rolls and displays the color pattern. The old Rapala Tennessee Shad pattern was the best pattern I fished at night in those early days, casting or trolling. Nothing else came close. The plug was also the right size. Bigger is better at night. Fish can see bigger better — and when they strike it, there's less margin for error.
This small piece of history is the essence of what we're trying to get right with crankbaits in any situation that we face. Here are the factors in this situation again: The plug ran shallow (the right depth) at a dead slow speed (the right speed). The wide-thumping wobble attracted attention and triggered big fish (right wobble factor). Additionally, the added shot allowed long casts to cover more water in a wading situation. The added shot also allowed casting effectively when the wind was blowing in. Further, the right color pattern was employed, proven by letting the fish decide — in this case over the course of years of fishing. Lure size was also right — bigger being better at night.
These days during summer and fall, whether wading or fishing from a boat, I still tinker with the Husky Jerk and its modestly distinct wobble right out of the box, by using pliers to slightly flatten the nose eye, bending it slightly down. Bend it down slightly more and the wobble gets even wider — to the point that the plug does a "ca-thunk, ca-thunk" each time is rolls left-right right-left. Many times "right out of the box" works best, but at other times, the wider wobble is better. (Easy does it, when you begin to experiment here for the first time.) This tinkering allows the Husky Jerk to be several plugs in one, based simply on changes in wobble pattern. You change wobble pattern, you change the plug.
One final lesson for those who try to match the baitfish hatch is that matching isn't just an in-hand visual thing, based only on our perspective. The experiment has to go beyond that to include the fish, which often tell us they think something else looks a lot better than what we thought they should be eating. But we always have to work through the puzzle to find out. Often as not, color is one of the key final factors in making a great catch, once speed and depth control and vibration pattern are correctly attended to.
After working through the puzzle that is any given situation on the water, with what is arguably the hottest lure style in walleye fishing — considering depth, speed, vibration, and then other factors such as profile, size, and color — there's just one thing left. We need to keep reminding ourselves that walleyes like what they tell us they like, not what we tell them they should like. That includes considering — as so few anglers do — that what they want often is exactly the opposite of what we logically think they should want.