Legendary walleye men Bob Propst Sr., Gary Roach, and Mike McClelland were so ahead of their time that, other than lure tweaks and bit of technology, the trio could have probably written this article back in 1987.
Gary Parsons, a walleye star past and present, refers to them as "next-level predatory anglers," gifted fishermen with a nose for tracking fish. Parsons isn't talking about simply being able to catch more than your buddies. He's referring to the talent of sniffing out, stalking, and targeting one king-size walleye at a time, regardless of whether the fish is holed up in a boulder field in 32 feet of water or a cabbage stalk on an 8-foot flat.
"These days, top guides, tournament anglers, and a few select fishermen are zeroed in on more than just structure," says Parsons, the only angler to have won Angler of the Year titles on three professional walleye circuits. "They're targeting spots-on-spots—individual boulders they discover on side-scan sonar, small clearings in vegetation, subtle transitions, or the steepest portion of a drop-off. Move the cursor over the object and drop a waypoint. It's that easy.
"We're using that system to target individual fish. Drop an icon on a big mark and either back off and cast to it, or use a GPS-based anchoring system to hold above a fish and drop a Moonshine Lures Shiver Minnow, Rapala Jigging Rap, or other vertical jigging minnow. Fish often cruise through these spots, but you can set up and get lures to them quickly before they vacate. Even if you mark one or two fish, there may be more walleyes in the area.
"Early in my career, I watched anglers like Roach and Propst target individual fish in much the same way, although they used flashers and jigs or rigs instead of side-scan, GPS, and glidebaits. Of course, these lures aren't new. But what is new is that we can find and identify individual big fish, and even when they won't bite with the boat above them, we can still catch them with a slight modification of our presentation."
Sonar, Sound & Spook Factor
Parsons brings up an increasingly relevant scenario—you mark walleyes on sonar that for whatever reason won't bite. Every angler you talk to has a different explanation. One of my earliest fishing memories occurred on a guide trip with Gary Roach and my father, while fishing central Minnesota's Pelican Lake. I was captivated by Roach's flasher screen, and disappointed when he switched the unit off as we glided into a sandy area full of flighty walleyes. Roach was convinced the fish were spooked by sounds emitted by the transducer.
Parsons, Tommy Skarlis, and Doc Samson also are convinced. They've watched walleyes vanish from beneath the boat following the initial pass with sonar. Or, equally common, you hover above fish but simply can't induce a bite.
"It's possible fish can hear the ping of a transducer," says Samson, longtime walleye pro and electronics guru. "But they can't hear the higher-frequency vibration of sonar signals, which run into the 80- to 200-kHz range. We know walleyes and other fish hear best in the low-frequency range below about 200 Hz."
Parsons takes a more pragmatic approach: "With the boat floating above, even fish in 40 feet of water know you're there. It could be the boat's shadow, transducer pings, trolling motor noise, or just a sense through their lateral line or inner ear that detects a boat's presence. Think about a large object 30 feet away from your position, like a moving car, or another person. It's not a great distance, and when we're looking at fish in 30 feet on sonar, it's no different. The fish probably know your boat's there. Whether or not they spook or bite is another story."
Combining several tools and technologies, Parsons hits on a method for targeting individual fish or a small pod of fish from a distance. "It used to be that in deep water, or in clear water to 40 feet, we couldn't catch walleyes vertically. We'd troll spinners or pull leadcore, planer boards, and cranks past them, hoping to trigger active fish.
"Now we use GPS-enabled trolling motors to hold on a waypoint and not move outside a 2- or 3-foot circle. We can put the cursor on a particular fish on the side-scan screen, then back off and cast to it. All along, we're monitoring the fish's position on the map screen."
Two final elements in the deep-water search: heavy bombing lures (Parsons calls them glidebaits) and low-stretch micro superlines such as Berkley NanoFil, Sufix NanoBraid, or Power Pro Maxcuatro. The heavy lure and fine line allow for long casts and let you work a zone quickly and efficiently. The connection to the lure is palpable and direct throughout the retrieve, even with a long cast and in 35 feet of water. With a 3/8- or 1/2-ounce lure, a medium-power moderately fast-action St. Croix Legend Tournament Walleye spinning rod, and micro-thin braid, and you get nearly the same feel over long distances and deep water as you would with a 1/2-ounce jig 5 feet beneath the boat.
Locked in place with an iPilot-enabled Minn Kota or Motor Guide Xi5 trolling motor, with an icon on screen referencing walleyes 60 feet away in say 27 feet of water, you make a long cast to the target. Within seconds, you feel the Jigging Rap, Shiver Minnow, or similar lure hit bottom. Using a rip-stop-rip retrieve, you follow the lure's path back to the boat. You can't fully appreciate targeting fish with such precision—deep, fast, and horizontally—until you've done it, readily detecting bites and adapting your retrieve to match the mood of each walleye.
"While the Jigging Rap is great for working vertically and for short casts, the Shiver Minnow excels for distance casting in deeper water," Parsons says. "The lure glides, cuts, and darts in random directions with each pull of the rod. But we've also caught a ton of fish on a 3/8-ounce jighead with a 3-inch Berkley Ripple Shad, worked in 20 to 40 feet of water. When the lure touches down, crank a couple times and stop. Repeat. Unlike rigging a chub, you hardly miss a fish with the Ripple Shad. While plenty of anglers are now bombing fish vertically, relatively few are moving away and casting to deep, spooky fish with similar lures."
Even when walleyes aren't spooky, you often can't boat over fish in 5 to 15 feet of water with 2-D sonar and expect to catch them with vertical approaches. That's why side-scanning can be even more valuable for going one-on-one with shallow-water walleyes—especially individual big fish holed up on a micro spot or on a specific cover object, such as a boulder, brushpile, or clump of vegetation.
When Sean Warner of Lucky John U.S.A. (subsidiary of Eastern European tackle giant Salmo Latvia) put a Maiko in my hands last summer, I thought it might be the next generation of a bombing, gliding, swimming minnow. Just slightly longer than a #9 Jigging Rap (33/4 inch versus 31/4 inch), it also weighs about a quarter ounce less (just over 1/2 ounce versus 7/8 ounce), yet is built with a thicker body. Intriguing is its tail fin, or lip, which angles slightly upward, while the Rap and other lures sport down-angled lips.
On the drop, a Maiko wobbles and shimmies like something alive. Its reduced weight relative to heavier bombers allows it to plane out farther horizontally away from center. When I dropped it below a hole in the ice last winter, it appeared to swim a foot or more horizontally for every foot it descended vertically. When it's pulled, its up-angled lip forces it to work like a crankbait in reverse, climbing slightly upward in the water column rather than diving deeper.
I look forward to casting the Maiko this spring to shallow walleyes on sand and rock in rivers, reservoirs, and lakes like Leech and Mille Lacs. During several evenings late last summer, I pitched the Maiko to fish on inside weedlines and shallow sand extensions, where I might have normally cast crankbaits. Bigger walleyes crushed it, even though it didn't always catch as many smaller walleyes as a Rapala X-Rap or Lucky Craft Pointer. But the Maiko also proved more versatile, and more enjoyable to fish, working exceptionally well on both vertical and horizontal planes.
We're just beginning to experiment with Maiko retrieves. You can start with a basic rip-stop-rip retrieve and experiment from there; or work it like a jerkbait. Longer pauses for cooler water, perhaps. Try more frequent, fast, short rod pulls to make it dance like a jerkbait worked close to bottom. You'll love this lure for working shallower than about 20 feet, and as an alternative to the heavier Jigging Rap, Shiver Minnow, or Lunkerhunt Straight Up Jig.
In shallow water, Hall of Fame angler Steve Pennaz uses Garmin's Panoptix and LiveVÃ¼ Forward to scan for fish in front of the boat. "By turning the trolling motor left and right, I can scan along a weedline or drop-off and spot individual fish," he says. "The screen also tells me exactly how far they are from the boat and their position relative to the bottom.
It's an awesome tool for identifying and casting to individual fish, as they move along structure."
Doc Samson also plans to test Panoptix this season. "We're going to find out the capacity and efficacy of this technology for shallow-water fish," he says. "I've been anchoring and pitching slipbobbers to walleyes for decades. It may be the most consistently foolproof way to get bit by shallow fish. If Panoptix can show me individual walleyes moving around my position and track them in real-time, it's probably going to transform the way we all fish."
Vertical Video Games
I've just begun using Raymarine sonar units and have been impressed by their ability to consistently display my lure on screen—an issue with other sonar units I've used. Adam Murphy, Product Development Manager for Raymarine/FLIR, says the reason for the consistent Raymarine sonar returns relates to their ClearPulse CHIRP transducer, available with Dragonfly, A-, E-, and Axiom series products. "We've worked with numerous anglers and engineers with the goal of keeping the lure in the transducer cone and on screen," he says. "Our optimized 25-degree-angle transducer sends out a modulating CHRIP signal operating on 60 different frequencies, from 170 to 230 kHz. The result is a huge boost in sonar returns, resolution, and superior target separation, with less screen clutter. The wider transducer cone also gives you more coverage so there's a better chance of keeping your lure within the cone. The separation is so good that you can discern any gap between your lure and a fish examining it at very close range. It also separates fish in a group rather than showing a blob of signals. A trained eye can distinguish between a 3- and a 5-pound walleye—ClearPulse is that precise, that sharp."
Most Raymarine sonar units also offer A-Scope mode, a real-time rendering of what a flasher shows in an intuitive vertical orientation. Not only can you track lure and fish movements at actual speed, but you also get the benefit of history on the wider adjacent window. A-Scope also displays cone coverage diameter at any depth, so you always know how much underwater real estate is being canvassed by the transducer at any time.
Samson, who's tweaked settings on more sonar units than anyone I know, offers tips for getting the most from your units and keeping the lure on your screen, regardless of brand. "Start by setting your sonar at the 200-kHz frequency," he says. "In 30 feet of water, this narrower beam shows you a bottom area about 10 feet in diameter. So if there's a fish within 5 feet of the center of the transducer's signal, you see it. Same with your lure. You can also increase sensitivity. But if you're operating with a wider cone angle and the 83-kHz frequency, it becomes increasingly difficult to determine where the fish or your lure lie, relative to the transducer, or directly beneath your position.
"In all cases, boat control is more important than any sonar setting," Samson says. "In vertical situations where you're targeting an individual fish, your goal should be to 'chase vertical,' moving right, left, backward, or forward with the trolling motor until your line is perfectly perpendicular to the bottom and your lure exactly beneath the rod tip. "If all else fails and the lure disappears from your sonar screen, reel it up and start over," he says. "Drop it straight past the transducer on its way to the bottom. Also consider using heavier lures, which help maintain vertical position."
Samson's buddy, pro angler and Lake Erie guide Ross Robertson, has in recent seasons taken the vertical video game a step further, arming each angler in his boat with a flasher unit. "I love ice fishing, but two out of three winters, we don't have ice on Erie," Robertson says. "So we fish from a boat, and walleyes are still on structure, where they're best fished with vertical bombing methods.
"Putting a portable flasher or an LCD in front of each angler keeps them engaged in their presentation. But it's also a great way to learn to match your presentation to the mood of each fish. Often, we're working fish up—sometimes down—with lures like a Jigging Rap, and bladebaits like the Silver Streak and Rattle Streak. We also use a locally tied hair jig with scruffy, synthetic hair in gaudy pink and purple colors. To deal with current, drift speed, and depth, we use lures one size larger—1/2-, 5/8-, and 3/4-ounce—than what we might fish under ice.
"The beauty of targeting individual fish on sonar is we can quickly learn by seeing how fish respond to different presentations," Robertson says. "We see, for example, whether a fast stroke makes walleyes skedaddle or follow. Or whether a gentle hover and twitch gets a big one to bite. Working fish gradually 'up' in the water column makes them chase.
That's often the best trigger of all, regardless of lure. On tough bites, I do less, just keep the lure in front of the fish, shake it a little, and work them up slowly.
"It's funny how on different days, walleyes exhibit a different depth ceiling—a level they chase to and either strike or reject your presentation and bolt. With GPS-based anchoring and sonar, the one-on-one approach is a big advantage. It's far more efficient than drifting through an area, or anchoring, or even trolling in some cases, at least when walleyes are on structure," he says.
Perhaps it all boils down to two schools of thought: Keep your lure in the water longer than the next guy. Or, keep your lure in front of fish longer than everyone else on the water.