Drop Shot Walleyes
October 18, 2016
Drop-shotting is one of the hottest techniques on the bass fishing scene. But it's just as effective — maybe even better — for catching walleyes.
It's rare to be given an inside look at a new fishing technique in its infancy, when those in the know are catching unconditioned fish, winning tournaments, and doing everything in their power to keep it under wraps. But that's precisely where I found myself in the late-1980s, thanks to long-time In-Fisherman contributor Rich Zaleski.
Rich and I were trading notes and he divulged the details behind a bass presentation some Japanese pros had devised. Seems they were knotting hooks a foot or two up their lines where they'd traditionally placed sinkers and tying weights to the ends of their line where they had previously put hooks. When they cast the rigs and let them settle to the bottom and tightened up the line, they knew their baits were hovering off the bottom at the same depth the fish were suspended.
More importantly, they discovered that drop-shotting allowed them to subtly shake baits in place and impart action without pulling them forward. And when a fish bit the lure, since there was no terminal tackle between the hook and angler, sensitivity was magnified and hook-ups percentages were high.
It was revolutionary. I first put it into practice at the Fort Frances Canadian Bass Championship on Rainy Lake. This was almost 30 years ago and bass had never before seen a bait presented this way. Whenever my partner, the late John Vandivier and I spotted a smallmouth on the sonar screen, we'd open the bail on our spinning reel, let the weight drop to the bottom and watch the fish streak up and eat the worms. It was like plucking overripe grapes that were drooping from the vine. John and I finished third the first time we ever drop-shotted.
But then a funny thing happened. The more I incorporated the technique into my repertoire, the more walleyes I started catching. At the time, I considered them bonus fish. But then my walleye catches soared, especially when I spotted a school of fish that I mistakenly thought were bass.
Today, I rarely fish for walleyes without at least one, and often several, drop-shot rods. And everything I've subsequently learned from the best drop-shotters in the business, like three-time Bassmaster Angler of the Year Aaron Martens, who is widely regarded as the finest drop-shotter on the planet, and Derek Strub, the "Aaron Martens of Canada," is as applicable to walleyes as it is to bass.
"It's a rare day for me not to have 7 or 8 drop-shot rods on the deck," says Strub, who spends most of his time fishing Lake Erie, Lake St. Clair, and the eastern basin of Lake Ontario. "I can usually tell when I mark fish on my Humminbird if they're walleyes or bass, but it makes little difference in terms of how I drop-shot for them."
Why so many rods when the technique seems so simple? "Dropper length is a critical part of the drop-shot for walleyes," he says. "Sometimes they won't hit your bait unless they see it fall on the initial drop. Other times, if I'm fishing over large boulders, I want the hook and bait to be up above the rocks so they can see it. This is especially important when walleyes are feeding on emerald shiners.
"On the other hand, with so many gobies on the bottom of the Great Lakes, walleyes often won't swim up more than a few inches to grab a bait. So dropper length depends on the structure and cover that I'm fishing, as well as what walleyes are eating. When I have 6, 8, or 10 rods rigged with different dropper lengths, I can quickly sort through options at different locations without wasting time."
While Strub shortens the spread between his hook and sinker when he drop-shots for goby-gobbling walleyes, I do the same thing when I fish Rainy Lake and Lake of the Woods, two famous border waters that rusty crayfish have invaded and where the walleyes have taken advantage of this bottom-hugging food source.
"If you're not drop-shotting," Martens says, "you're hurting your chances of catching fish. I drop-shot everywhere and for just about every species of fish. I drop-shot for deep fish, suspended fish, and super-shallow fish. But I adjust leader length according to conditions.
"In early spring, around the spawn, you typically find walleyes in shallow water. Like bass, they're grubbing for crayfish and mayflies. For some reason I've never understood, anglers think that you can't cast a drop-shot rig up shallow. I space my hook and sinker only 4 or 5 inches apart and catch plenty of fish."
I've enjoyed excellent spring action on walleyes feeding on mayflies and crayfish by nose-hooking a 3-inch green pumpkin Angler's Choice Kill Shot only a few inches up the line from a light weight. And when walleyes pull into black-bottom bays adjacent to their spawning sites to feed on prespawn yellow perch, I switch to a 3-inch Chartreuse Glow Trigger X Minnow.
While Martens and Strub obsess over the lengths of their droppers, I'm fixated on drop-shot hooks. They come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and styles that can make a big difference at times, depending on the structure and cover you're fishing.
Case in point: When casting a drop-shot rig, if your bait isn't arrow straight, it spins and twists your line when you reel in quickly to make the next cast. Bernard Yong-Set, owner of Stringease Tackle, developed the first Zero Twist Shot arrangement where the drop-shot hook rotates around the shaft of a tiny swivel. He subsequently partnered with VMC on the arrangement, while Gamakatsu has come out with a similar Swivel Shot rig that eliminates line twist.
I favor these anti-twist arrangements when I'm casting. When fishing vertically, I prefer to tie a #1 to #6 Gamakatsu Split Shot/Drop Shot hook, Gamakatsu Wide Gap Finesse hook, or VMC Sureset Drop Shot hook (depending on the size of my bait or lure).
It's not only a more subtle presentation, but when you tie the hook directly on your line, it kicks out with the hook point up in position to nab even the lightest biting walleye. Always remember to insert the end of your leader through the eye of the hook from the point end first before doubling it and using a Palomar knot, completed by pulling the tag end back through the eye.
Another point: Weed walleyes are overlooked by most anglers, but they're ignored when it comes to drop-shotting. That's a big mistake. There's nothing I enjoy more than pitching a lively minnow, leech, or 'crawler hooked lightly through the nose on a weedless Gamakatsu drop-shot hook to the edge of the vegetation and letting it swim freely in one spot a foot or two above bottom on a semi-taut line. The minnow tantalizes nearby fish until they can't stand it any longer and they eat.
Remember not to set hard when using one of these small but sticky-sharp hooks. It's not needed and doing so is the quickest way to lose a big fish. Instead, sweep your rod tip back smartly, not unlike the way you would with a circle hook, and slide the little hook into the fish's mouth.
There are two other traps walleye drop-shotters sometimes fall into. The first is shaking the sinker instead of the bait. The second is not casting, believing the technique to be solely a vertical method. "Shake your bait, not the weight," Martens says. "You want to draw attention to your lure. That's why you should shake it on a semi-slack line with the sinker on the bottom. When you shake the weight, you 'weird out' the fish. They sense something's not right, so they lose interest.
"I typically make a cast, let my sinker fall to the bottom, shake the bait, and then pause for a second or two. If I don't get a bite, I drag, slide, or pull it toward me, then shake it again. Sometimes, especially when I'm covering water quickly, I hop it 3 or 4 feet off the bottom to get the fish's attention."
On the Great Lakes, where the water can be ultra-clear, walleyes get "boat smart." "Most walleye anglers drop-shot vertically, the same way they fish a jig," Strub says. "But in popular areas, big walleyes are getting too wise for that. I always start by casting as far ahead of the boat as I can. Many times we've been catching big walleyes consistently this way, only to have another boat or two pull in around us and spook the school. The fish see the hulls and hear the transducers and get wise."
Because of the depths he fishes and the frequent windy conditions he encounters, Strub says that he rarely fishes with a sinker that weighs less than 1/2 ounce. And he favors a 7-foot 2-inch jig/worm rod rather than those with more parabolic action most drop-shot anglers use.
"Great Lake walleyes are big," he says. "So when it's windy it's harder to tell if you have a bite with a traditional 6-foot 8-inch drop-shot rod. And I never go lighter than 8-pound-test fluorocarbon line. With so many zebra mussels on the bottom, the benefit of going lighter doesn't outweigh the risk of breaking off a big fish."
I should mention, too, that in the Northwest Ontario walleye waters that I fish, cylinder-shaped Ultra Tungsten sinkers shine. They're small — almost half the size of comparable lead sinkers — and unobtrusive.
I especially like the information they transfer up the line when I find walleyes relating to the transition where hard bottom close to shore meets the sand, mud, and clay of the basin. I can tell the moment the sinker slides from stone to mud.
Late-spring walleyes cruise along this edge, using it like a path, even when there's no change in depth. Cylindrical sinkers also come through sandgrass and vegetation easily.
Another sinker tip I've learned from West Coast smallmouth specialist David Sweindseid is to use fingernail polish or craft paint to match the color of my sinker to the bottom. When I find walleyes in a back bay with a dark bottom, I use a black sinker. When fishing around vegetation and sand, I opt for green or tan. Bass anglers do it to camouflage their weight, but I do it because I'm convinced that walleyes are attracted to a bright sinker and often hit it. I've often felt weight on the end of my line and lifted it up smartly to set the hook only to feel the tungsten sinker slide through the teeth of a walleye. Strub has experienced the same thing on the Great Lakes and has even found walleye teeth marks on the weight.
The Livebait Option
If the walleyes are biting sinkers, imagine what they do when you offer them live food. I'm convinced that because drop-shotting has been so closely associated with fishing bass with small artificial worms, minnows, or other baits, it's been largely ignored by walleye anglers. Indeed if bass anglers incorporated livebait into their arsenals they'd be amazed at the action.
I don't mean to suggest that you can't use the same small artificial worms (Berkley Havoc Money Maker, Berkley PowerBait Twitchtail Minnow), minnows (Basstrix Flash Trix, Berkley Gulp! Minnow, Zoom Fluke), and leeches, (Angler's Choice Kill Shot, Bass Magnet Twitch, Z-Man LeechZ, Berkley Gulp! Fry) to catch walleyes. When you find them concentrated and aggressive, artificials work well. But when you present a nose-hooked red-tail chub or emerald shiner, fat nightcrawler, or mud-flap leech, you open up a new frontier.
At the 2012 Bassmaster Elite tournament on the Mississippi River out of La Crosse, Wisconsin, Martens used a drop-shot rigged Roboworm to finish a close second, catching largemouth bass that were feeding on mayflies over a mud bottom. He was the only angler in the event who fished a drop-shot.
Ask yourself, how do you think mayfly gobbling walleyes would respond to the same presentation if you used a live leech or crawler, and you understand when I say that drop-shotting is the best technique too few walleye anglers are using.