“A split-shot rig is more of a finesse operation,” says Tom Neustrom, fishing guide and angling innovator from Grand Rapids, Minnesota. “A traditional slipsinker livebait rig creates more of a slam-dunk motion straight to the bottom. But a lightweight split-shot rig gently drifts downward, requiring patience to fish it correctly. This patience creates a subtle presentation that triggers reluctant biters.
“It’s also more versatile and adjustable than most anglers think, depending on where you place the shot on your line. Most folks simply position the weight 18 inches or so ahead of the bait–at a comfortable casting length and average position that allows bait adequate freedom of movement. But if you put the shot closer to the hook, like a foot or less, the bait functions more like a jig, with a more pronounced action every time you lift and drop the rig. Conversely, place the shot 3 to 6 feet up the line, and it minimizes action imparted to the bait, adding finesse. The nice thing is, you don’t have to retie any knots to change weight position on the line; just pinch it on and off.
“When I’m fishing a split-shot rig, I like to use a leech hooked through the sucker end or a nightcrawler hooked through the nose, using a lightweight livebait hook that won’t adversely affect the bait’s natural activity and attraction. Most of the time, I anchor and cast, letting the rig settle to bottom and giving the bait plenty of time to wriggle and tease fish in the area. Occasionally, I’ll lift the rod tip three feet or so, reel down to take up the slack, and repeat the process. Patience is key. Let the bait do its job for you.
“Where legal, I simultaneously fish two rods–sometimes two split-shot rigs, sometimes one split-shot rig and perhaps a jig on the other rod. In between casts, I just set the rod down, leaving the bail open on the spinning reel, and I check it occasionally to see if line’s spilling off the spool, indicating a bite. Sometimes when I lift the rig, I simply sense weight, telling me a fish is there.
“Use a long, light-action spinning rod–preferably 7 feet or longer–to cast a split-shot rig effectively. And stick with 6- or even 4-pound-test mono like Trilene XL, both for castability and finesse. Don’t worry about breaking your line; the long soft rod absorbs the shocks and surges of a fighting fish. To set the hook, simply reel up until you feel tension, then lightly sweepset until the rod doubles over. Maintaining tension will bury a tiny sharp livebait hook in the fish’s mouth.
“Anglers equate this to being strictly a shallow-water presentation, where, admittedly, it’s effective. I use a split-shot rig a lot in spring when walleyes are shallow, especially when I have them pegged in a limited area and need finesse to make them bite. But in summer, I also use it in boulder areas, letting the shot settle into gaps between rocks, yet seldom snagging due to the weight’s tiny proportions. And I even use it for spooky fish in deep, clear water, anchoring and casting a #3 split shot into 30 feet of water or more. That really takes patience, but it’s deadly.
“This tactic dates back to my younger days, fishing deep, clear Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, for walleyes and smallmouths. When I moved to northern Minnesota, I recognized similar potential on many area lakes as well. If backtrollers are seeing fish on their electronics but not catching them, break out the anchor and try a split-shot rig or slipbobber to dangle squirming livebait in their faces.”
Split shot commonly come in different sizes, from a small BB up to larger 3/0 or so, allowing you to match weight to conditions. Shot are typically molded from lead, although in recent years, several prominent sinker companies have offered lead substitutes like tin or bismuth. Split shot also come in standard and reusable versions; standard round shot, once pinched onto your line, can be difficult to pry open to remove. Removable shot, however, feature tiny wings you can grasp and pinch between thumb and forefinger, taking them off the line.
In most walleye fishing applications–split-shotting, slipbobber rigging, and adding shot to make trolled crankbaits run deeper–removable shot are fine. In current, steelheaders typically prefer round shot since they tend to minimize additional action caused by current catching the tiny wings and twisting the line. You make the call.
While split shot always have come in a plain lead finish, Northland Fishing Tackle recently responded to Tom Neustrom’s idea for brightly colored split shot to add attraction in dark or dingy water. Northland’s Neon Hot-Spot Split Shot are ideal for livebait and slipbobber rigs.
“The nice thing,” Neustrom adds, “is that split shot are so lightweight that the fish don’t feel ‘em. There’s no need to feed line to a tentative fish.”
Are you on fish that are off bite? Give ‘m a shot and split the difference.