The Lowdown on Walleye Hardbaits
May 28, 2019
The range of walleye hardbaits encompasses multiple categories and a dizzying number of lures. Instead of being overwhelmed by the vast selection of available lures, dividing hardbaits into their various subcategories, and examining how and when to use each style, helps simplify the selection process.
Eighty years ago, when Lauri Rapala whittled his first hardbait in Finland, he didn’t have walleyes on his mind. Instead, he was looking to put food on his family’s table by designing a lure that replicated the action of a wounded baitfish and caught all manner of gamefish. As a balsa lure, the Rapala Original Floating Minnow has a natural action, unique buoyancy, and quiet swimming motion well suited for all slow presentations during the Coldwater Period. Prime applications include casting quarter-downstream and slowly retrieving the lure upstream. Alternatively, the lure can be held in place along current seams and allowed to wiggle and roll off to the side with each surge of water. Simple yet deadly presentations.
The slender profile and buoyancy of the Floating Minnow make it ideal for slow-trolling on three-way rigs on rivers and creek arms for prespawn walleyes. The lure rides high, free from bottom snags. Other balsa baits to consider for these applications include the Bagley Bang-O-Lure and Salmo Minnow.
As the water warms, the noise from BBs in hard-plastic twitchbaits, such as the Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnow, Yellow Bird Short Bill Minnow, Bomber Long A, and Rebel Minnow, proves effective when worked over the top of shallow vegetation. These lures have thin profiles and small lips to keep them within a few feet of the surface. They work best in calm conditions where a slight snap of the rod gets them to dive and flash side-to-side before quickly popping back to the surface. Pause the lure on the surface and work it slow and deliberate. Bites can occur anywhere during the retrieve, but weed pockets and edges are high-percentage areas. To get a more natural and less-abrupt lure action, use monofilament instead of braided line.
When water temperatures reach 50°F and walleyes have completed their spawning cycle, shad baits should be a part of your walleye arsenal. They’re effective cast or trolled. They have a taller body profile and tighter vibration than minnowbaits. Some selections include the Berkley Flicker Shad, Rapala Shad Rap, Bagley Balsa Shad, Yo-Zuri Sashimi Shad, Storm Smash Shad, and Livetarget Shad Crankbait.
Shad baits are go-to hardbaits in summer for many guides. Each make and model has its own attributes. Within the Rapala lineup, there are multiple options and applications for each. When you need a buoyant bait that backs up quickly after hitting bottom, the original balsa #5 Shad Rap covers the 7- to 9-foot depth range during early summer when trolling at speeds of 1.8 to 2.4 mph. As the water warms, vegetation becomes established and walleyes move deeper. In this situation, switch to the less buoyant #7 Glass Rap or Berkley Flicker Shad that dive an extra 3 to 4 feet deep when trolled 150 feet back on Sufix 10/4 braid.
As water temperatures climb into the mid-60s, the erratic action of the Scatter Shad Rap is ideal for casting wind-blown shorelines. They have a hunting action, occasionally kicking off to one side or another during a steady crank of the reel or while trolling. This action triggers more strikes from following fish.
When wind and wave action has reduced water visibility, the loud sound chamber in the Storm Smash Shad can be the ticket. These lures are also available in UV finishes. If water is clear and long casts are needed to prevent spooking fish, lures with internal weight-transfer systems such as the Yo-Zuri Hardcore Shad and Livetarget Shad work well. They allow for longer and more accurate casts, but also have natural reflective finishes not available on other brands. These finishes are especially effective in clear water and when attempting to reflect any available light during nighttime outings.
Flat-sided cranks can be top producers during the Summer Period when walleyes are feeding on small panfish and shad. They have great action out of the box and a straight retrieve gets them to diving depth. Add Storm Suspendots to make them neutrally buoyant in fall, when panfish take refuge in standing weeds and walleyes feed on them during low-light periods.
Lures with high profiles offer more visibility and tighter wobbles for more vibration, effective attributes when targeting sight-feeding walleyes. Good options include the Bagley Flat Balsa B, Rapala DT Flat, SPRO Little John, Bandit Flat Maxx, Yo-Zuri 3DS Flat Crank, and Livetarget Sunfish. Choose models based on available prey size and desired working depth.
When pursuing nighttime walleyes that prowl for small panfish along shallow, inside weededges, the Yo-Zuri 3DS Flat fits the bill, with a running depth of 1 to 2 feet. It’s shovel-shaped diving lip also helps it to deflect off cover and reduce snags. For best success, keep retrieves steady when night-fishing.
If a deeper-diving crankbait is needed, the SPRO Little John series comes in multiple sizes including a 50-mm that dives 7 to 9 feet, a 60-mm size for depths of 10 to 12 feet, and a 70-mm size for 16 to 20 feet. They have a weight-transfer system containing soft tungsten balls for casting performance and a subtler noise. Premium Gamakatsu hooks also ensure good hook-sets at the end of long casts or when slow cranking in deep water.
Square- and Coffin-Bill Cranks
Crankbaits excel due to their ability to quickly dive to their prescribed depth and then maintain their action at various retrieve speeds. Commonly associated with bass fishing, they also can work well for summer walleyes. When waters warm into the 60s and 70s, walleyes are opportunistic, feeding on a variety of foods from insects to crayfish and tadpoles to bullheads. These prey items are commonly found in dark-bottom bays with scattered wood that heat the water more quickly. Once spooked, these prey items scoot along the bottom looking for cover and leave a trail of sediment that gamefish key on.
Square-bill and coffin-bill cranks have the added benefit of bouncing off cover when running across rocks or through submerged wood. They also leave a sediment cloud as they dredge across the bottom. Retrieve them at a brisk pace to get them to maximum depth. Then, slow the retrieve speed slightly and allow these lures to careen off cover.
Use long rods and 8- to 10-pound braid to make the necessary long casts to work these crankbaits to their maximum depth and to cover as much water as possible. Thinner line helps achieve greater diving depth for ticking the tops of vegetation or rocks. Top-producing coffin- and square-bill walleye cranks include the Berkley Wild Thang, Bagley Pro Sunny B, Norman Thin N, and Storm Arashi.
Suspending minnowbaits shine from opening day until the last day of the season. During early spring, cast 4½-inch Smithwick Suspending Rattlin’ Rogues over shallow gravel runs to intercept walleyes on their upstream spawning migration. It has an effective wobble at slow retrieve speeds to provoke strikes from lethargic fish in water 3 feet deep or less.
Suspending minnowbaits also can be presented within inches of the bottom in the main river channel when trolled on a three-way rig for walleyes that have yet to move shallow to spawn. As walleyes complete the spawn and move onto flats, larger suspended minnowbaits like the Smithwick Elite 8 and Perfect 10 Rogue are good options. Position lures 65 to 100 feet back on in-line planer boards to achieve a diving depth of 8 to 18 feet. Add snapweights to achieve greater depth. For night-trolling, consider using Suspending Super Rogues in glow colors. Other standouts in this category include the Yellow Bird SP115S Minnow, SPRO McStick, and Sebile Puncher.
The Bagley Minnow B, Strike King KVD Jerk Bait, Lucky Craft Pointer, Berkley Cutter, Rapala Shadow Rap and X-Rap, and Duo Realis Minnow 80SP are all models more closely associated with bass than walleye fishing, where they perform equally well. Jerkbaits have a more erratic action than suspending minnowbaits. They work better for daytime use and in clearer water, where walleyes can visually track a lure better.
A forceful snap of the rod gets these baits diving and moving randomly in the water. Suspending the lure motionless is often the trigger for walleyes to bite. The colder the water or the tougher the conditions, the longer the pause. Jerkbaits, however, aren’t strictly coldwater lures. They can be used throughout the season fished above vegetation, along riprap shorelines, and close to cover. Try adding a hair or feather-dressed treble hook to the rear of the lure for extra appeal on the pause.
When water temperatures warm in summer, a jointed lure delivers more action and often better results than non-jointed hardbaits. Jointed-lure options have more than doubled in recent years and now include the Cotton Cordell Jointed Wally Diver, Livetarget Jointed Perch and Smelt, Rebel Jointed Minnow and Fastrac, Rapala Jointed Minnow, Shad Rap and BX Minnow, and Yo-Zuri Sashimi Jointed and Crystal Minnow.
On flooded lakes and reservoirs such as Devils Lake in North Dakota, top anglers use jointed lures to target walleyes holding tight to flooded trees, cattails, and brush. Models with more heft and weight-transfer systems, such as the Livetarget Jointed Perch, can be cast more precisely in windy conditions common to Prairie states. The hard, tail-kicking action transmits enough feel through the line and rod tip to detect debris fouling lures.
Deep-Diving MinnowS/Banana Baits
Deep-diving stickbaits excel in trolling applications from the Postspawn Period onward. After spawning, walleyes often move offshore and feed on suspended open-water baitfish, where trolling multiple lines spread out on in-line planer boards is an effective method.
Options include the Rapala Deep Husky Jerk and Tail Dancer, Reef Runner, Bandit Walleye Deep, Berkley Flicker Minnow, and Livetarget Smelt. Choosing between slender, straight models with less action and wider, curved banana-style baits depends on water temperature. At water temperatures in the 40s or lower, the Husky Jerk, Bagley Diving Stick, and Livetarget Smelt are effective due to their side-to-side rolling action. At water temperatures of 50°F and above, wide-wobbling banana baits, like the Reef Runner, Tail Dancer, Bandit Walleye Deep, and Flicker Minnow, often are more effective. On all these lures, I upgrade stock hooks with Owner ST-35 wide-gap hooks for quick hook penetration at slow trolling speeds and increased hook gap for greater holding power.
For anglers who like to actively work lures and appreciate a versatile lure that can be used all year, lipless crankbaits are ideal. Rippin’ and pullin’ techniques have become popular in recent years for targeting prespawn and post-spawn walleyes spread out over large flats. Some good options for these techniques include the Rapala Rippin’ Rap, Bagley Rattlin’ B, Yo-Zuri Vibe, Savage Gear Fat Vibe, 13 Fishing Pro-V, River2Sea Ruckus, and XCalibur Rattle Bait. The family of lipless rattlebaits is as broad as any lure category, and so is the number of applications for catching walleyes on them.
Long before anglers were ripping rattlebaits, they were yo-yoing Bill Lewis Rat-L-Traps and Cotton Cordell Super Spots through weedbeds for summer walleyes. More recently, anglers have capitalized on rattlebaits designed for bass, that sit upright with their nose on the bottom at rest. Examples such as the SPRO Aruku Shad and Jackall TN70 are great for targeting walleyes on sandflats. Cast and allow the lure to hit the bottom. Pop it off the bottom and let it come to rest again. Wait for fish to inhale the bait on the pause. Braided line helps to detect bites and deliver solid hook-sets.
So many lures. So little time. So many presentation strategies. It’s the perfect excuse to buy more lures and experiment on the water. Walleyes await a properly presented hardbait of your choosing.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan fishes extensively throughout the Calendar Periods for walleyes. He contributes to all In-Fisherman publications.