We've all seen days when livebait is a must. We seem able to catch nothing without a lively 'crawler, leech, or minnow on our jig.
Yet at times, walleyes shun those tasty morsels.
What to do? Heed the advice that young Ben Braddock was given in the '60s film The Graduate. "Plastics, my boy."
Like Benjamin, plastic should be in your future anytime walleyes turn up their noses at natural baits. The look-alikes can light a fuse and transform the slowest day into a plastic-explosive one.
In spring, walleyes are fooled by soft, lifelike minnow replicas, such as a marabou-tailed Fuzz-E-Grub or curlytail grub bodies, worked slowly on hard-bottomed points and humps with rock or gravel. Or pitch them to shorelines and reel them steadily back to the boat at dawn and dusk.
Artificial worms, leeches, and minnows can dominate in early summer. They're great for attacking emerging beds of sparse coontail and cabbage. Use a pop-and-drop or steady retrieve to swim them through open patches and corridors in the weeds. Durable plastics stay on a hook better than natural bait in vegetation. They also withstand attack from nuisance bluegills, perch, and yellow bass that steal livebait or rip and tear it into an unappetizing mess before walleyes get a chance at it.
Use minnow replicas in late summer and fall to explore the edges of thick weedbeds in the shallows, or the deeper edges and tops of plants like sandgrass that remain green and attractive to fish all year long.
Walleye plastics can be fished faster than their fragile livebait counterparts. Quicker speeds may trigger bites from neutral or negative fish while cutting time from the search for aggressive ones. Plastic baits that bump and grind through an obstacle course of weed stems cause a ruckus and grab a walleye's attention more so than livebait that must be fished more slowly and cautiously.
We may get lazy in changing a real nightcrawler or chub for a fresh one when the action is slow. But plastic bait always looks its best. That fact alone may tip the scales in our favor when times are tough.
Small livebaits moved at a crawl are the only things that work during cold fronts, right? Not so. Fast approaches with plastic often ignite lethargic fish, like turning on a light bulb in a dark room. For that reason, plastics often outproduce livebait in bad weather.
Livebait or artificial, which will it be? Let the fish tell you what they want. Try livebait at a handful of spots that normally produce walleyes, and graduate to plastic if you don't get action soon. With two people in the boat, try different approaches to see if the fish show a preference. It won't take long. Remember, walleyes often change their moods over the course of a day. If action stops with one type of bait, switch to the other.
Where To Start
Effective use of plastic bait begins with your choice of jighead.
Weedless jigs like Lindy-Little Joe's Veg-E-Jig have the eye at the front to avoid snagging in weeds and wood. Snagless jigs with light, flexible weedguards, like the Veg-E-Jig and Timb'r Rock Jig, often are best if you expect plastic baits to make it through a garden or forest of potential hang-ups.
Ball (round head) jigs work well with shad-type bodies and twisters with oscillating tails. Use a steady retrieve in snag-free spots or over weed tops, maximizing their natural wiggling action. Or vertically jig them in deep water or river current.
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Make certain the jig has a barb on the collar to hold the plastic snugly in place. File the barb to a point to better pierce the plastic without excessively damaging it to hold it tight. If a fish slaps at a plastic body with no barb to keep it in place, the plastic slips down around the hook bend and looks unnatural for the remainder of the retrieve. There's no second chance to catch that fish, whereas a walleye might chase a proper-looking bait and hit it again and again.
If you're using a curlytail, opinions vary as whether to position it on the jig so the tip of the tail is up or down. Best advice: note the lure's appearance on swimming versus hopping retrieves and use whatever rigging technique looks best to you.
No matter what style of plastic bait you use, center it perfectly on the hook to swim straight and naturally. Lopsided baits twist the line, spoil lure action, and spook fish. Test them in the water next to the boat to be sure they run true.
Avoid jigs with small hooks when using plastics. Choose strong, sharp hooks from #1 to 1/0, with a large bend and wide gap for better hooksets. There must be sufficient space between the hook point and the grub body to hook a walleye; if not, you'll miss fish.
Adjust jig weight upward to account for the added buoyancy of plastic. A good rule of thumb is to choose a jig one size heavier than you think you'll need. For example, you might make do with a 1/8-ounce or even 1/16-ounce head when fishing livebait around a weedbed 12 feet down. Use 1/4-ounce in the same situation with plastics. Step up to 3/8-ounce in wind or current. Use 1/8-ounce in shallow water unless snags are present. In that case, a 1/16-ounce head may work best.
Use a 6-1/2- to 7-foot medium-light spinning rod. Braided no-stretch FireLine of 10-pound strength and thin diameter telegraphs the location of weeds and rocks, slices through water so the jig swims more naturally, cuts through vegetation, and lets you sense light bites. Be a line watcher. Set the hook at any sign of line movement.
Plastic baits come in myriad shapes and colors. But, as In-Fisherman co-founder Ron Lindner is fond of saying, most of them catch more fishermen than fish.
Where to begin? In most cases, stay as natural-looking as possible. If you think you'll trick a wily 8-pound walleye into biting something bright and wild-looking, think again. Perch, minnow, rainbow trout, shad, and cisco color patterns are good places to start, particularly in clear water. They include green, orange, red, chartreuse, yellow, white, silver, and blue. That said, don't be afraid to try colors that seem to belong more on a movie marquee than in your tackle box. There's no accounting for a walleye's taste, and extreme reductions in water clarity or low-light conditions may demand flashier colors like vivid firetiger or bright yellow, tipped on glow jigs, just to get noticed. A fish can't eat what it can't see.
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Walleyes tend to prefer a soft, flexible, lifelike bait. If not, they'll often sense something amiss and drop it before you can set the hook. The family of Berkley PowerBaits specifically shaped and formulated for walleyes adopts this design premise. Otherwise, some of the most pliable, and therefore the best plastic baits for walleyes, are generic, inexpensive brands lacking proper toughness for bassy conditions.
Minnow replicas come in solid or split-tails, spanning a range of action from subtle to aggressive. To mimic a shad, try a 4- to 5-inch silver tail with a white or black jighead, or a silver or gold jighead with a glittered silver plastic body. Fish a shad-style minnow-imitating bait with a steady retrieve. Then try varying your speed.
Curlytails seem to work best in dark water or during times of low fishing pressure where extra vibration can make the difference. Try a chartreuse/silver-fleck or black grub on a Timb'r Rock Jig in and around rocks and weeds. Keep baits high around cover or walleyes won't see them. In snagless spots, pop the jig to get attention, drag it across bottom, then pop it again.
Even artificial worms, ranging from 4 to as much as 7 inches, can be fished around weedbeds where real nightcrawlers wouldn't stand a chance with hungry panfish. When trolling spinners and bottom bouncers, substituting 6-inch Power Crawlers for live nightcrawlers is another excellent application.
You always bring different sizes of livebait along, right? Why? Because sometimes fish want the biggest minnow they can get, and sometimes only small ones will do. The same principle holds true with plastic. Three-inch curlytails seem to yield more eating-sized fish and are the odds-on favorite among most folks jigging for walleyes. Bigger baits catch bigger fish, however, although the trade-off may be fewer of them.
Some plastic baits are formulated with scent or taste attractants ranging from salt to garlic to secret formulas based on anything from fish and forage parts to, well, we're almost afraid to ask. But when times are tough, enhanced scent and taste usually help, whether they're molded directly into the plastics or added by applying a liquid, gel, paste, or powder to unscented plastics. It's impossible to say which formula is best under which conditions. In the end, it boils down to confidence. If you feel that a certain formula enhances your fishing ability while masking your scent, you'll fish better, with more confidence, and you'll catch more fish.
Regardless of size, shape, color, and scent, one factor rings true when fishing plastics: strikes often are vicious. Light bites that pull the bait away from the barb may indicate that something isn't quite right in your presentation, rather than that the fish don't want to eat the lure. Fine-tune it by changing bait size, color, or both. Change the retrieve speed. Hop it rather than using a steady retrieve, or vice versa. Use the versatility that plastic baits offer to your advantage. The combinations are truly endless.
Best Of Both
There may be days when neither plastic nor livebait alone will do. If so, try both in unison, especially when slower presentations are required, for the best of both worlds: the natural scent, taste and texture of the real deal, plus the added action and attraction of artificials. Tipping jigs with livebait is the most obvious example. Soft marabou-feather-tailed grubs, such as Lindy's Fuzz-E-Grub, work well partnered with livebait during cold fronts, where a subtle movement of your jig is necessary to provoke strikes. Slight twitches of your rod tip get that marabou to shake and puff with little effort, exuding the illusion of life. The added scent, taste, and profile seals the deal when fish move in close enough to strike.
Try tipping jig & grub combos with minnows in cold water, and switch to half a nightcrawler or a whole leech when water temperatures rise to 62 degrees F to 64 degrees F. Remember, as water temperatures change, the walleyes' preference changes as well.
Plastics, my boy. Make sure they're in your future.