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Blades & Swimmers: Underused Producers for River Walleyes

Blades & Swimmers: Underused Producers for River Walleyes

Walleye anglers have access to a plethora of artificial baits that look, swim, and even smell similar to live baitfish. With so many options, it's hard to fathom that pro walleye anglers would consider using spoons or blades -- chucks of metal designed to look like something, yet don't resemble much of anything to the human eye. But the shine, flutter, vibration, and fall of spoons or blades looks like a wounded baitfish to river walleyes. And until that fact changes, anglers who've been overlooking and underutilizing spoons and bladebaits need to rethink their reasoning.

Several different designs of spoons and blades exist. Jigging spoons that are narrow, thick, and heavy, like a Luhr Jensen Crippled Herring or a Hopkins Smoothie, provide flash and flutter on the drop and are designed to be vertically jigged in deep water. Wide, bent, or curved spoons, like the Acme Little Cleo or Luhr Jensen Krocodile, that sink slower, wobble dramatically, and swing wide to the side as they descend, are more suitable for casting. Bladebaits like a Heddon Sonar or Reef Runner Cicada are weighted to sink and feature a blade that creates a tremendous vibration and action on the upstroke. Spoons, like Northland's Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon, Lindy-Little Joe's Rattl'r, or bladebaits like Heddon's Rattling Sonar, have enclosed rattles that further enhance their attracting power.

Spoons and blades work anytime fish are holding on the edge of deep structure, like points on sand flats, or suspended off the edge of structure or somewhere in the water column. Fish staging along river ledges are prime candidates for these metal baits too. In waters where silver-sided baitfish like ciscoes, shad, smelt, and alewives are present, walleyes often suspend near large schools of baitfish and can be caught on spoons and blades. They also can be worked above submerged wood or weededges to call walleyes out of snag-infested cover.

Bladebaits -- When walleyes are lethargic and have a general negative attitude, anglers tend to slow their presentation in an attempt to finesse them into biting. Finesse tactics call for slowly working baits in front of walleyes, teasing them into biting. Finesse tactics work for triggering fussy walleyes, but so do aggressive tactics. And the main advantage with blades is that they can be worked faster and cover more water to contact active fish, and they may even trigger negative walleyes to strike.

Bladebaits attack two senses, the lateral line (vibration), which helps fish locate food, and sight, seeing a silvery object falling like an injured baitfish. The interesting thing about bladebaits is that a variety of fish strike them. And the one thing all fish have in common is a lateral line.

Working blades isn't difficult. Drop the blade to the bottom, then engage the reel, taking up slack until the line is tight and the bait is just off bottom. Beginning with your rod tip pointed down at an angle (about 8 o'clock) toward the water, lift your forearm slightly while modestly snapping your wrist upward to about 11 o'clock -- an aggressive lift of perhaps 8 to 14 inches. Overworking bladebaits is common. A big 3- to 4- foot sweep is just too much, and the fish loses track of the bait. The key is creating just enough vibration on the upstroke, then lowering the bait back down, giving you precision control and giving walleyes a chance to track the bait. Inexperienced blade-baiters should start in shallower water where they can watch the bait work to get the correct action and jigging motion.

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Lower the lure with your rod tip, choosing a drop speed anywhere from almost a free fall to a slow lowering. Avoid a slack-line drop to prevent the lure from tangling in the main line and to increase your sensitivity to strikes. Occasionally touch or bounce bottom, but avoid laying the lure on bottom to minimize snags. Set the hook the instant you feel any resistance.

It's important to move the boat slow enough to keep the blade as vertical as possible. A 3/4-ounce blade is about right for most situations, but using one-ouncers in deeper water and heavier current isn't out of the question. With most bladebaits, tackle manufacturers change the weight size, but the actual body of the blade stays the same.

In current, bladebaits featuring a straight blade seem to excel over those designed with a curved blade. Straight blades seem to cut and hold vertically in current better, where curved blades have slightly more water resistance due to current pressure on the curved portion of the blade. Silver-plated blades create the most flash in conjunction with good vibration, but a variety of color options are available.

Present blades on about 10-pound test with either spinning or casting gear. Use a 6- to 7-foot medium-heavy casting or spinning rod. In deeper water, use a 61„2-foot baitcast reel spooled with 20-pound Berkley FireLine. Superlines allow you to stay in direct contact with the bait, and because the line is so thin in diameter, it cuts through current better, which allows you to stay vertical and in contact with the bait. Another superline advantage is that when the lure does snag the main line (which inevitably will happen) a quick snap of the wrist frees the bait.

In shallower situations, uses a 6-foot medium-heavy spinning rod spooled with 12-pound mono and a 10-pound 2-foot leader. Due to the stretch properties of mono, it's a better option in shallow water because it absorbs powerful hooksets and shock when fighting fish at close range.

Spoons -- Jigging spoons for open-water walleyes typically weigh between 1/2 and 1 ounce, with 3/4 ounce a popular choice. Silver, gold, and fluorescent hues, are the most popular colors, but a wealth of shades and realistic finishes are available. According to In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail (PWT) pro Daryl Christensen, "For many anglers, the biggest problem is deciding when to use spoons. When I recognize that the fish are scattered, relating to weededges, or are congregated on a deep-water hump, I often try spoons."

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Drop speed and action, two of the most important characteristics of jigging spoons, are primarily determined by shape and weight. Flatter, wider spoons, like the Hopkins or Acme Kastmaster, provide a sliding, darting descent. Narrower lures with a distinct bend, like the Bay de Noc Swedish Pimple, sink a bit quicker, vibrating more than wobbling. Spoons like the Bait Rigs Deep Willospoon are nearly oval in shape but quite heavy, combining a quick drop with a flutter. Slender, minnow-shaped spoons, like the Luhr Jensen Crippled Herring, tend to drop quickly with less side-to-side action.

"I use spoons ranging from 1/8 to 1 1„2 ounces, depending on whether I'm fishing deep or shallow, in current, or in snaggy cover. As a rule, I use heavier spoons in deeper water and lighter spoons in the shallows and in snaggy cover, like weeds. Admittedly, I use Hopkins spoons almost exclusively," Christensen says, "and I'm not sponsored by them or anything like that -- I just believe in that particular spoon. It has the right fall rate, creates lots of flash, and simply does everything I want it to do. Believing in the baits you use is a critical factor in success. You must have the utmost confidence that the bait catches fish. For me, it's the Hopkins."

Keep an eye on your electronics to locate walleyes holding on the edge of structure. Drop a spoon to the bottom, engage the reel, taking up slack until the line is tight and the spoon is just off bottom. Beginning with your rod tip pointed down at an angle (about 8 o'clock) toward the water, lift your forearm slightly while modestly snapping your wrist upward to about 11 o'clock (aggressive lift-drops of perhaps 12 to 18 inches).

"When I'm vertically jigging spoons, I like to keep the bait within a foot of the bottom and on the bottom," Christensen explains. "One advantage of dropping the spoon to the bottom is that you're always in contact with the bottom, even if you working down a step break. And although walleyes strike the bait on the fall or when the spoon is darting up, 90 percent of the fish I catch inhale the bait right on bottom. I always let the bait sit on bottom for 2 to 4 seconds. Sounds odd that a walleye would even be able to suck the heavy bait off bottom, but they do. The key is giving the fish enough time to come over and suck the spoon off the bottom.

"Visualizing a walleye right behind your bait, tracking its every move, gives you the patience to work the bait correctly and the wherewithal to set the hook when a walleye eventually strikes. Simply cast out the bait and let it fall to bottom. Snap the bait up, let it free fall, watching your line for any ticks or possibly the line stopping prematurely. Then let it sit on bottom for 2 to 4 seconds before snapping it again. More times then not, I never feel the strike when a fish sucks it off bottom, but because I'm snapping the bait up with such force, I almost always get the hooks into the fish."

When targeting suspended walleyes, watch for baitfish to move through on sonar and raise your bait near or above the depth where you marked the fish. Predator fish generally cruise near or below schools of baitfish, and although you may only mark baitfish, there's a good chance predators are lurking nearby. Lower your lure near the depth where you marked the baitfish or fish and work the bait to create vibration and flash. Pausing the bait frequently (10 to 60 seconds) allows fish to move in and take the bait.

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Spoons also work for fishing the shallows and near snaggy cover. "You can use spoons to catch walleyes in a variety of conditions and situations," Christensen says. "I prefer using spoons over sandy bottoms, sandy points, or clean bottom areas where I don't have to put up with snags. Most anglers, including me, avoid fishing spoons around snaggy cover, and for good reason. You get snagged. But if I know fish are holding in the weeds, it's worth putting up with the snags.

"I typically work only the weededge, trying to catch active walleyes relating to the edge, not the fish buried in the weeds. Weedpoints, pockets, or cups along the weededge are key spots. I simply cast to the weededge and start snap jigging the spoon over the weeds, visualizing the spoon darting up and away, then letting it fall backwards. When you first get started, you'll probably snag frequently, but eventually it seems you get a feel for where your spoon is in relationship to the weededge, weed tops, and where you need to keep the spoon positioned. It's a timing thing. A feel for what the bait is doing in relationship to the bottom or cover. Snap it all the way back to the boat, then vertically jig it for a little while to catch any walleyes that followed the bait.

"A lighter spoon allows anglers to effectively fish snaggy cover. Light spoons don't fall into the snag as fast, and you're better able to control the depth of the hook. Another trick is to use a thin-wire treble hook in order to pull the hook free from the snag. Lighter hooks, though, are somewhat problematic because heavy walleyes can straighten the hooks when horsed out of cover. I'm always conscious of using light-wire hooks; after I set the hook, I often use my electric trolling motor to position myself over the fish to fight and work it out of the cover and into the boat.

"Walleye anglers have always been leery of using wire leaders, but wire doesn't hinder strikes nor the action of spoons. Along weededges, I use a 4-inch fine-wire leader to prevent pike from swiping my bait. The short leader doesn't affect the action of my spoon, and I catch just as many walleyes.

"For heavy spoons, I use a baitcast rod and a reel spooled with 10- to 12-pound test. Heavy spoons are easier to cast with a baitcaster, plus it's something I've done for over 20 years. Unfortunately in the walleye world, most anglers don't use casting gear for casting crankbaits or spoons. But trying to manage a heavy spoon on spinning gear simply doesn't work well and tends to wear you out over the course of a day. Lighter spoons, like 1/8- to 1/4-ouncers, which are ideal for working the shallows and for fishing snaggy cover, are difficult to cast using a baitcaster," he explains. "So I use a 6 1„2-foot medium-action spinning rod."

Bladebaits and spoons aren't widely used, but the anglers who use them often use them just as frequently as they use any other bait. The action anglers create with the spoon triggers strikes. You have to make the spoon resemble the action of a struggling or dying baitfish -- that's it. After you get a feel for casting them or vertically jig metal baits, it seems many walleyes can't resist. Using metal baits is hard work, demands good boat control skills, and sometimes requires putting up with snags and pike bites, but they'll probably forever be great baits for walleyes. Teach yourself how to use them -- they're a real weapon."

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