July 07, 2021
By Pete Robbins
Pro angler Joe Okada is best known for his exploits on the professional walleye circuit, but he didn’t grow up with blinders on, counting jumping leeches instead of sheep to ease himself into sleep.
“All of our fish occupy the same areas, so anywhere there’s life you end up catching a little bit of everything,” he said of the waters around Madison, Wisconsin. “When I started guiding out of high school it was mostly for panfish and bass. We only really had a small window for walleyes.” So what fascinated him about the species that pays his bills? “The inconsistency. You never know if you’re going to have a good day with them or not, and that’s because they’re not afraid to deviate from structure.”
Walleyes still command most of his time, but he definitely loves to chase bass, too as well. He and a partner (another accomplished walleye pro) came in second in the prestigious Sturgeon Bay Open Bass Tournament in 2018 against a field that comprises the best of the regional best. What he’s found is that by pursuing both species, as well as others, the cross-pollination that occurs by being observant helps him improve all around.
“As both segments evolve, they become more similar than different,” he said. For example, traditionally walleyes have been caught primarily offshore and bass have been caught primarily facing the bank. At Sturgeon Bay, he and his partner feasted upon individual cruising smallmouths in 2 feet of water, and that contributed to his confidence to fish for walleyes at similar depths. “In the summer months, the mass of walleyes push off into deeper water, but we often forget about a population of fish that never go deeper than 12 feet. The standard playbook tells you to fish offshore, but bass fishing taught me how to fish with my eyes, how water moving over shallow rock, or a distinct piece of coon tail, positions fish. On the flip side, in the walleye world we’ve always used our electronics to analyze the life in an area prior to fishing. That’s nothing new to the new breed of bass guys.”
Indeed, the best pros on the Bassmaster tour now often spend as much time during practice idling and scanning – as well as relying upon their forward-looking sonar – as the walleye guys have done for years. When Spot-Lock came and “revolutionized” the bass game, you couldn’t blame the walleye crew for looking at them a bit side-eyed: “We’ve been hitting our trolling motor ‘anchor’ button for years,” Okada said. “It’s just a matter of utilizing the tools that we have at our disposal.”
The crossover extends to lures as well. Soft ribbed swimbaits like the Strike King Rage Swimmer are critical tools for bass pros nearly 12 months out of the year, but Okada found that they transitioned perfectly to his weedline walleyes.
“I use them for rip jigging off the bottom,” he said. “I use an oversized jig head to force it to plummet to get a reaction, instead of the normal presentation where you use the lightest head possible to finesse them.” He’s no longer surprised by the number of chunky largemouths that he catches while doing this. “We’ve traditionally fished a Texas Rig for the bass on those weed lines, but when I’m ripping a swimbait or a lipless crankbait I catch a lot of bass now, too.”
Because his quest for both bass and walleyes on northern fisheries often lead him to mean, toothy critters like pike and muskies, he’s also learned how not to fear being overpowered when using light tackle.
“I’m not afraid to have a spinning rod in my hand for every presentation,” he explained. “Even when I’m throwing a hollow frog on grass mats in the pond next door, I’m typically doing it with a large-arbored spinning reel and 30-pound test braid. The crossover is that I’m seeing more and more bass pros who are not afraid to use spinning rods around big fish. I typically don’t have a lot of patience, and over time you’ll be amazed by how much pressure you can put on a big fish with light line.”
He firmly believes that by not treating separate species as existing within silos, but rather as part of an interconnected ecosystem, he becomes better at specific tasks – and by chasing fish that aren’t his primary prey he remains open to doing things that aren’t part of the accepted or expected playbook.
“As we move forward, we’re becoming more and more alike,” he concluded. “I’m not sure which group is taking away more from the other.”