January 23, 2022
By Pete Robbins
Four-time Bassmaster Classic winner Kevin VanDam built his legacy largely on the backs of power-fishing staples including crankbaits, spinnerbaits and jerkbaits, but his Michigan roots have irrefutably demonstrated to him that they’re not for bass only. The jerkbait in particular draws in all of the species, and he’s used it to catch countless walleyes. Whether he’s targeting walleyes or they’re simply bycatch of his smallmouth searches, he’s realized that he’s at his best when that’s what he’s throwing.
“It’s my confidence technique on northern natural lakes,” he said. “I’ve used it successfully at Mille Lacs, which is loaded with walleyes, and I pounded them on it at Champlain. I’ve also caught lots and lots of big walleyes on Sturgeon Bay and Green Bay this way. Anyplace I’ve been where smallmouth are on the same stuff, the walleyes are eating the same forage.”
That extends southward, too, at fisheries like Missouri’s Table Rock Lake, which has a rapidly growing population of this traditional northern favorite. In both the spring and the fall there, VanDam has caught tons of walleyes while fishing shallow rock and gravel points for smallmouths, largemouths and spotted bass.
The jerkbait’s universal baitfish shape makes it widely applicable, as does the erratic nature of its motion. VanDam explained that the biggest challenge for casting anglers “is finding walleyes in the zone where they can eat it. You need them to be on shallower structure.” He also noted that while they’ll eat the same lure, in the same places, usually walleyes do not want it presented as aggressively as do bass. Despite his wiry stature, in bass tournaments VanDam tends to work the jerkbait harder than many weekend anglers. “You need to tone it back a little bit,” when chasing walleyes, he said.
He’ll typically use the deeper-diving version of his signature Strike King KVD jerkbait, a three hook model that he can get down into the 10- to 12-foot range on 10- or 12-pound test Bass Pro Shops XPS Fluorocarbon. He said that “matching the hatch” is often not as critical as it is with bass.
“Walleyes don’t tend to be as picky,” he said. “They like loud, bright colors like pearl and chartreuse. You see that when you look at walleye trolling baits. They’re low-light feeders so you want visibility. It’s hard to beat Sexy Shad as an all-around color.”
No matter what he’s trying to catch, VanDam fishes the jerkbaits on his Lew’s 6-foot, 10-inch Signature Series medium-heavy baitcasting rod. He said that if he fishes something longer or softer, he doesn’t get the response out of the bait that he desires. If nothing else, he knows exactly how the lure will act with different varieties and durations of pulls. Some anglers may prefer a different rod, or even a spinning setup with a braid main line connected to a fluorocarbon leader, but he sees no reason to change. He pairs the rod with a Signature Series Lew’s KVD LFS casting reel with a 7.5:1 gear ratio. “You’re never moving the lure with the reel,” he reminded anglers. Instead, it’s just a means of picking up line.
Again, the super-intense and hard-charging VanDam cautioned that it’s critical to be a little more subtle and less exaggerated when jerking for walleyes than you’d be for bass. “If you do end up jerking it harder, let it pause a little longer,” he instructed. As a template for bass anglers, he said they should take the way they fish a jerkbait in the coldest temperatures and use that when walleye are at their most active. Indeed, he’s learned through his friends and acquaintances on the professional walleye tour that they too have learned to replicate the pull and pause methodology. Instead of trolling these minnow imitators in rod holders, they’ll hold them in their hands and occasionally make a pull to create an erratic action. “They’re probably doubling their catch,” he explained, noting that long-lined jerkbaits can reach depths that casters can only dream about.
The most important thing on the jerk, he explained, is to “start and finish with slack line.” That’s what gives the lure it’s unpredictable, yet easily snackable action.
He said that his catch-to-land ratio is much higher with walleyes than it is with smallmouths.
“They don’t pull or jump or fight like a smallmouth, and they almost always eat it on the pause,” he said. “That makes (the three hooked jerkbait) a great tool. It’s a sleeper technique, but if a walleye sees this presentation, they are going to bite it. They rarely just follow it.”
Don’t look for the greatest bass angler of all time to hit the walleye trail, but a multispecies approach – fostered by his upbringing in the upper Midwest – has played a critical role in his development of a wide range of skills. The benefits go both ways, so when he says it pays to throw a jerkbait for walleyes, savvy anglers will listen.