Livebait Walleye Fishing
April 05, 2017
The army of hawgs beneath the boat bothered me. In the 30 years since I'd first marveled at the images scribed onto a Lowrance paper graph, I had never seen sonar light up with so many thick arches in a confined area. Such numbers of fish should produce something like ultimate angling bliss. And yet at least that first season I couldn't get them to bite.
When I showed the fish to my friend, professional walleye angler Dr. Bruce Samson, who has spent a lifetime peering into sonar screens, his response wasn't surprising. "This is the biggest school of large walleyes I've ever seen," he said. Today, the fish are still on Unholy Point — so named because the fish so typically and I say wickedly just wouldn't bite.
They look like catchable fish when you first see them on screen. Idle into this area and the sonar lights up with activity: copious deep-bodied boomerangs hovering 2 to 10 feet above the bottom over 22 to 38 feet of water. The fish aren't exactly suspended, for they swim close to a steep, scattered-rock slope that rolls off a 5- to 10-foot flat on one side and a 50- to 80-foot basin on the other.
When I tell you that every fish on Unholy Point is 5 to 10 pounds or more, I do so based not just on sonar signals. We gradually devised tricks to generate at least a few bites, usually with livebait.
Between repeated failure and some success, there were many days when the fish wouldn't react to anything attached to hooks — artificial or alive. On these occasions, I often used a MarCum underwater camera, spending hours watching the fish. Observing them showed me the way walleyes perceive, approach, and finally, strike their food.
For eight seasons we attempted to trigger these fish with every possible approach — from casting jigs, to trolling plugs on leadcore, to casting swimbaits, and pitching lures at night. From May through November, success with these presentations varied from zero to an occasional single fish per trip. Ultimately, using large lively baitfish was the only consistent way to get strikes.
I rigged the underwater camera to work as a bait-monitoring device, connecting a fishing line to the camera via a planer-board release, so fish could be seen and also caught. As I drifted along with the camera, a big walleye approached the creek chub, rigged 3 feet behind the camera lens. The chub gave a few nervous kicks, and the walleye thumped its tail in rapid pursuit. I continued drifting along another 30 feet, watching this fish, which now swam within 6 inches of the chub, ever intent, yet not completely convinced. The bait wriggled and darted. The walleye's snout followed every move, but it still wouldn't bite.
After another two minutes, the chub suddenly thrashed its head, its entire body writhing wildly, as if trying to extricate itself from the hook. This commotion proved too much for the walleye, with the fish repeatedly snapping at and missing the chub by millimeters. At that the walleye lost interest, fading into the background of the camera screen.
I continued camera-fishing for several hours that day, witnessing identical behavior from several other large walleyes. Each one followed the chub for several minutes, reacting positively anytime the bait moved erratically or panicky. The walleye's reaction was the same sharp snapping and missing.
With the walleyes continuing to miss the bait, I shortened the leader, clipping the line closer to the camera lens, dropping from a 3-foot to a 6-inch leader. The chub still could make panic moves but was confined enough to allow walleyes to catch it. This allowed me to capture remarkable strike footage, while also catching a fair number of these big fish.
The next step was to apply my newly found triggering dynamic to my regular fishing routine. The camera had proven that long leaders aren't always better for fooling reluctant walleyes. A long leader allows baitfish to work freely and separates bait from the sinker. Many anglers assume sinkers spook walleyes, a false assumption at times, given that walleyes eat baits set within inches of a bulky camera housing.
Most importantly, long leaders disconnect you from what's happening, allowing fish to bite and release baits without your knowledge. Long leaders also allow large, lively baitfish to swim fast enough and erratic enough to escape walleyes. Walleyes make unsuccessful attempts at eating baitfish far more often than most of us realize.
Rigs with short leaders eliminate most of these negatives. Yet even better ways exist to induce bites from reluctant fish.
Crazy Minnows on Heavy Jigs
One such presentation is a heavy stand-up style jighead tipped with a 6-inch creek chub. The jighead holds the minnow in check, forcing it to struggle against the hook, but allowing it go nowhere. To pull this off you need the liveliest of chubs, golden shiners, or other minnow species. You also need a jig that's heavy enough — 3/8 to 3/4 ounce — to keep the minnow in place. And it should have enough hook gap to accommodate the baitfish.
The best jig for this presentation is the Heron Jiggler, but it hasn't been in production for years. Other options include the Eagle Claw Stand-Up Walleye Jig, Bait Rigs Odd Ball, and ReelBait Flasher, as well as various football jigs made for fishing soft plastics.
Hook the minnow lightly through its upper lip only, and then make a short cast or drop the jig vertically onto deeper fish, keeping the jighead on bottom while the hook and baitfish angle up at about 45 degrees. Once you're in the fish zone, let the jig set in place while the baitfish struggles. Keep the line semi-tight to the jig to maximize sensitivity. Give a rod-tip pop to occasionally prod the bait to struggle. If nothing happens, drag the jig slowly over bottom several feet and repeat the pause-pop-pause sequence. Bites feel like a sharp tap, followed by weight and a slow tugging sensation. Drop the rod tip slightly back to the fish to give it a chance to turn — and then set the hook.
Fish that bite this combo almost always engulf the entire package. But if you're having trouble with fish dropping the bait or you're missing fish, you also can substitute the jig for a sinker, such as a standard Lindy walking sinker. Tie on a #2 to 1/0 Gamakatsu Drop Shot hook followed by a bead, letting the hooked bait slide right down to the sinker. The jigging motion is the same as with the jig, only this rig lets you release line and allows cautious walleyes to run with the bait until the hook is in better position to be set.
Pop-Up Float Rigging
Given having extra lively baitfish, I believe it often makes no difference to fish what the sinker-and-jig package looks like. It could be a coffee cup with a hook and walleyes would still eat the bait, which might seem less odd than the rig that follows.
When walleyes station three or more feet above bottom, one effective rig is the Pop-Up Paternoster, fashioned after the classic European three-way float rig. Rather than positioning the float on the surface, the pop-up rig places the sliding float on the dropper line, which keeps the rig erect underwater, minnow set at a precise level above bottom. I use a small clear Rainbow Plastics Tough Bubble to position a bait above the bottom. By rigging the leader and dropper lines with back-to-back ball-bearing swivels, rather than a three-way swivel, you can feed line to biting fish without resistance.
So if I mark walleyes suspended 8 feet above bottom over 33 feet of water, I use an 8-foot dropper with a sliding float or bubble to set the bait at the level of the fish. A 1/2-ounce Bullet Weights drop-shot sinker slides along bottom as I drift or move with an electric motor. Whenever I mark fish, I can stop and let the bubble slide up the line to hold the rig at a 90-degree angle to bottom. If wind, boat control, or spooky fish become a problem, release line as the boat moves away, to keep the rig anchored in the fish zone longer.
As before, it's often important to run a 1- to 2-foot leader, to keep active baits in check so walleyes can catch them, and to force baits to struggle against the short leader. If mention of an 8-foot dropper or longer seems wrong given what I said earlier, consider that in practice, dropper length has no effect on rig performance, or your ability to land fish. Keep the sinker and dropper in the water until the fish is in the net.
The past two years during August and September, we've had good success fishing 5- to 7-inch yellow bullheads on pop-up rigs. Bullheads remain a walleye staple in many waters and are one of the most vigorous baits available.
Mini Boards and Minnows
Sometimes, the problem with triggering fish is that they become turned off or spooked by the presence of an overhead boat — particularly in clear water when a boat's shadow becomes a factor. When you've pinpointed a school of fish positioned along a drop-off, but can't catch them vertically without spooking them, a mini planer board becomes a tool for presenting live baitfish. Off Shore and Church Tackle both make mini boards that plane your bait 20 to 40 feet to the side of your boat and also serve as a bite indicator.
With an eye on GPS and, ideally, a side-imaging sonar, move along at 0.5 to 1 mph — 20 to 40 feet from the edge — until you approach a waypoint. Stop moving and let the bait flutter down to the fish level. Do this by running approximately 27 feet of line behind the board, to fish 27 feet beneath the surface. Using a line-counter reel, such as a Shimano Tekota 300LC, greatly aids this precision fishing.
A 1/0 or 2/0 Lazer Sharp L702 circle hook is critical with this approach, given that biting fish encounter the slight resistance of the mini board. Rig a circle hook 6 to 12 inches in front of a #12 InvisaSwivel (or a regular swivel), which stops a 1/2-ounce egg sinker. Or let the sinker butt right up against the hook. Hook a large chub lightly through both nares (nasal passages) for maximum kicking action.
When the board lags, jumps, or sinks, you have a fish; start feeding line via a loose drag. So long as tension is constant, walleyes usually hang on to the bait. When you're ready, tighten the drag and set the rod back into a rod holder, moving forward slowly with your trolling motor. When the board dips low, or the rod is loaded, pick the rod up and start reeling, keeping constant pressure on the board until a partner can remove it from the line.
The winners of my wildest baitfish contest are ciscoes, which biologists have called "the liveliest of all our fishes." Alewives and rainbow smelt from the same lake you're fishing can also be nearly as dynamic on a hook. When I first used a cache of live 5- to 8-inch ciscoes from a local baitshop, I was amazed by the energy of this preyfish, as if each one had been injected with a shot of espresso.
A friend and I launched the boat and bee-lined for Unholy Point. In the baitwell swam the species so savored by the big walleyes in this extraordinary school. It was immediately apparent that these fast-swimming ciscoes were too energetic when fished on a standard long leader. To subdue their swimming, while also prodding baits to shake on the hook (the magical move), we loaded drop-shot rigs with 1/2-ounce drop-shot sinkers and 1/0 Gamakatsu Drop Shot hooks set 24 inches up the line. It was the best of walleye times — the finest fishing we've ever had on that wicked spot.
Ex-guide James Holst has spent many hours observing how walleyes react to baitfish with a MarCum camera. On a recent ice-fishing trip to a clear lake in Ontario, he caught and captured underwater footage of numerous 5- to 10-pound walleyes taken with live baitfish rigged on deadsticks. The video revealed that when minnows exhibited little or no movement, walleyes swam right by. Yet any time a baitfish gave a kick or became agitated in its movements, the walleye would unhesitatingly engulf it with a lethal snap.
Walleyes didn't have to see the movements to detect and track the minnows. In-Fisherman has long taught about the importance of vibration in fishing. On Holst's footage I watched a walleye that was facing in the opposite direction suddenly turn 180 degrees and crush a struggling baitfish. The walleye couldn't have seen the minnow's moves, but had detected its vibration with its lateral line.
Livebait Walleye Fishing
Cory Schmidt is an In-Fisherman Field Editor who lives near Brainerd, Minnesota. He's worked with the In-Fisherman staff for more than 20 years.