Livebait Isn't Dead

Call me old school. Color me contrary. Or maybe not. All I know is, I love fishing with livebait. Always have, always will. Maybe it's just my longtime fascination for wild aquatic critters. As a wee lad, and yet today, I still dig the seining, trapping, minnow-catching deal. The wild stuff is so good, so appealing to big walleyes, it's the closest thing to an actual fish-catching guarantee.


Maybe I just pine a bit for the days when Marv Koep still manned the counter at his famous Minnesota baitshop-- Nisswa Bait & Tackle. (Ever used a live waterdog? Might be the best big walleye bait of all time.) The rest of the blame rests with one of my fishing heroes, the late Bill Binkelman, who remains to this day the sport's most under-appreciated walleye educator (more on Binkelman in future posts.)


Tell you something, reports of livebait's demise have been greatly exaggerated. We in the biz like to talk about the proliferation of plastics in walleye circles. And most of the stuff is fairly dead on. So here's the detour . . .

When fish are shallower than 20-feet, I'm there dude-- swinging away with a favorite St. Croix Legend Elite (LES70MHF) / Shimano Stradic CI4 combo. Love throwing a 3/8- or 1/2-oz jig adorned with something like a TriggerX Paddle Tail Minnow or Castaic Jerky J Swim. Keep a long-nosed pliers on hand. You'll need it to extract 4 to 6-inch baits vacuumed down the hatch. It's a riot. Stange and Straw have written about this type of fishing a ton, and have taken us to a whole other walleye catching galaxy.


Now, for the rest of the story:

Visit most of the top walleye factories across North America and I'll bet my best Rapala box that over 90-percent of anglers have on board a selection of bait-- crawlers, leeches, baitfish. On many of those days, count me among them.

Consider a recent tour around my walleye neighborhood. Plenty of fish roaming shallow. And some real good ones, too. But the really big fish have been living deep. (And I mean BIG-BIG, including beasts above 30-inches.) In the last two weeks, we've boated literally dozens of 6-pound plus walleyes working 20 to 30 foot depths, feeding them a steady diet of wild 4- to 6-inch creek and horneyhead chubs-- both native members of the carp family.

When walleyes cluster over confined deeper structures, livebait is, was and will likely always be the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. In recent seasons, though, we've frequently abandoned the classic livebait sinker/snell rig in favor of a type of dropshot rig, or even a curious rig known as the sunken float rig. (Check out the 2012 Walleye Guide for details.)

Lots of these big fish suspend 3 to 10 feet off bottom. They're glued to structure-- or at least they hover in very close proximity to it. If you can't put a bait within a foot of their level, you simply won't catch these bigger walleyes. In a few cases, buddies have taken fish with an "in your face" jigging approach, using Jigging Raps and the Sébile Vibrato. Yet every one of the 6 to nearly 12-pound walleyes entering my Lund these past weeks have eaten a wild baitfish. That's 100%.

As bassheads know, the dropshot is a precision system for presenting softbaits. Ditto for walleyes and livebait. Mark thick yellow boomerangs 8-feet off bottom on your sonar? Down goes the dropshot--1/0 VMC hook tethered to 6-pound fluorocarbon with a palomar, 8-feet above the sinker. Feel that baitfish buzz. Thunk! 

Beyond the precision of the dropshot, it also acts as a sort of short leash for wildly swimming minnows. Don't get me wrong-- wild bait is key. But a crazy lively chub darting around in all directions behind a long snell isn't always a good thing. Walleyes sometimes swing and miss overly vigorous baits. Sometimes, too, it's just all too much, and walleyes give up.

The dropshot pins the chub in place. When the critter writhes wildly against the restraint, it stays in place. It's why you want to use only the wildest, jumpiest individual baitfish-- regardless of species. Get your hands on a bait that thumps your rodtip-- then get ready. I believe these violent baitfish body shakes are perhaps the very best strike inducing move ever conceived. Which makes sense, of course, when you consider that nature invented them.

As Bill Binkelman once said, "Let the minnow work its magic and you'll rarely be without walleyes."

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