Vertical Walleye Swimbaits
March 28, 2014
You can measure satisfaction many ways. One is guaranteeing to a friend a new way to land scores of 7- to 9-pound walleyes, with an occasional double-digit dawg thrown in — and then delivering on your promise. More satisfying is when your friend says, "I thought I knew just about everything there is to know about catching walleyes on swimbaits, but that's something different."
That played out last fall after In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange, the swimbait ace himself, landed on my door step, camera man in tow. For weeks, I'd been sending Doug images of big walleyes, including a 35-inch monster weighing 15 pounds that we released the last week of August. The sight of that big girl sealed the deal.
"Okay," he said. "How are you catchin' 'em?"
"Soft swimbaits," I said, "skewered to the heads of heavy jigs. But we're not casting and retrieving." I knew leaving out the details would be more than Doug could tolerate.
"What are you doing the first week of October?" he asked.
"Showing you how to do it," I said.
Dispensing with the cast
Vertically pulling walleye swimbaits isn't a season-specific technique. It's produced consistent results from late spring until fall freeze-up. I remember the flurry of behemoths that buddy Tom Van Leeuwen and I encountered when we discovered the pattern. It was during a string of summer "dog days" when every morning dawned successively hotter and ever more humid and calm — conditions that many walleye anglers mistake as the signal to focus on finesse techniques with light line, small jigs, and livebait.
We had been catching good numbers of big walleyes for weeks, casting Berkley PowerBait Flat Back Shads, PowerBait Hollow Belly Swimbaits, X-Zone Swammers, and Bass Magnet Shift'r Shads in 5- or 6-inch sizes pinned to long-shanked, 1/2-, 3/4-, and 1-ounce Owner saltwater jigs and Freedom Lures Hydra minnow heads with removable hooks. We'd found walleyes bunched up in 28 to 32 feet of water around main-lake island points and underwater humps, bars, and reefs.
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The longer the weather remained hot, humid, and stable, the more the fish held higher up off the bottom, either on top of the structures or on basin flats adjacent to the structural break. This made them easy to locate using sonar and pinpoint with a marker buoy.
There were so many fish in some of the schools that, as well as we were catching them, we felt we should have been catching more. The fish were choking down our lures. When we first spotted hooked walleyes in the water alongside the boat we usually saw only the tip of the jig sandwiched between their lips. They were engulfing not only the large lead head, but most of soft plastic as well.
The tipping point came when we were feeling the "thump" and hooking most walleyes, following a short pause during the retrieve. Use a jighead that's heavy enough to force you to swim the lure aggressively, always keeping it within a foot or so off the bottom. But you also need to constantly interrupt the retrieve with pauses so that walleyes following it can react to the stutter, stop, and start. Simply casting a swimbait, letting it fall to the bottom, and then popping it up, and swimming it back to the boat doesn't cut it.
It became clearer over the initial experimental days that most walleyes were hitting our lures when we "popped" them off the bottom at the beginning of the retrieve or during one of the pauses. We rarely caught a walleye during the "fall" part of the retrieve.
We could increase the number of hookups if we increased the speed of the initial pop up off the bottom and the pull after each pause. Also, if we didn't reel the lure back to the boat quickly at the end of the retrieve, and let it dangle below the boat a foot or so off the bottom, we could often catch several walleyes by pulling the lure up aggressively and then letting it flutter back down. Think of it as a jigging motion that an ice angler might do with a Jigging Rap or lipless crankbait for walleyes, but more exaggerated.
Constant experimenting with the presentation led us to dispense with casting. We sat over a school of walleyes, dropped down a heavy-headed swimbait, and vertically jigged.
As Stange has long said, swimbaiting isn't a "namby-pamby" presentation. Forget everything you've heard about neutral, negative, turned off, sunny, bluebird, middle-of-the-day walleyes being "couch potatoes." That's rarely the case.
Instead, grab a 6-foot 10-inch to 7-foot medium- or medium-heavy-power spinning rod spooled with 14-pound-test Berkley FireLine, NanoFil, or Sufix Fuse, tipped with a 4-foot, 17- to 20-pound fluorocarbon leader and drop a jig-and-swimbait combo over the side of the boat. Let it fall to the bottom, tighten your line and then pop it up once to catch the fish's attention as it comes to rest about a foot or so off the bottom. Pause, and then pull the lure up a foot, fast enough that you can feel it wobble and kick its tail. Then let it settle back down to the starting point, pause, and repeat the procedure.
I develop a steady pull, pause, settle, pause cadence, while using the bow-mount trolling motor to slowly (about 0.4 mph) move around the vicinity of the marker buoy or waypoint. The entire time I go through the jigging sequence — pulling up the lure, feeling it pulsate, pausing, letting it fall back down, and pausing.
When you find a school of walleyes concentrated in an area, vertical pulling is more effective and efficient than making long casts. Because the pop, pause, flutter, pause, part of the retrieve is the critical stage of the presentation, by vertically jigging a swimbait, rather than casting and retrieving it, you create the greatest number of attracting and triggering movements.
Don't make the mistake of using a lighter jig because you're fishing vertically. A 3/4-ounce jig is my choice to start most days. With a lighter head, say 3/8-ounce, you can't effectively snap the bait off the bottom after the initial drop. And pulls, pauses and flutters — the attracting and triggering, side-to-side wobbles and tail-kicks of the swimbait — are greatly diminished, along with the number of strikes that you feel.
Vertically jigging big swimbaits is a surprise for most walleye anglers weaned on the traditional discourse of neutral, negative, belly-to-the-bottom, hard-to-catch fish. But, threading a soft plastic paddletail onto a heavy jighead never made sense in the first place, which is why it remains the finest technique most walleye anglers have yet to discover.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Gord Pyzer lives in Kenora, Ontario, near Lake of the Woods and surrounding Sunset Country, Ontario.