November 04, 2022
More than anything else in my fishing life, the hundreds of nights I have spent in waders, fishing for walleyes, has helped to define who I am and how I understand and look at the process of hardcore fishing for any fish species. I’ve written extensively about boot fishing, which I’ve been at for half a century.
So enter the scene a next-gen boot-fishing phenom, scientist, and tinkerer supreme, to kick it all up a notch and add some new blood to the mix. Dan Spengler is a Senior Project Manager in charge of hardbaits and terminal tackle development at the Berkley Lab in Spirit Lake, Iowa. He works with professional anglers and his counterparts at the Lab, creating and analyzing new lure designs and prototypes, primarily working on hardbaits.
That lineup of nine super-cool topwater lures introduced two years ago included the Bullet Pop and Choppo. His babies. And the Snap Jig, a winged jig that darts a softbait side-to-side like a Jiggin Rap. And many more, including the Cutter 90 Shallow and, most recently, the Spy and the Hit Stick, all of which play roles in this article.
In England, they call some of what we do “specimen” hunting—the life-consuming quest for large fish of a given species. Anglers so smitten, so consumed, aren’t shy about what tickles their fancy. They think and talk about little else. Along the way, they begin to deal in manic details as they attempt to fine-tune tactics, techniques, and tackle. There has to be a better way, a shortcut.
In the end, years pass, there’s always a better way, but few real shortcuts. Intricacies become part of straightforward tactics that produce success. The process often is easy, but just takes time. And, even when you’re doing things right, the final result often is a matter of percentages that play over time and depend, in part, on the quality and number of the fish available in the waters that you’re fishing.
Shore anglers are at the mercy of the waters they fish in other ways. We can only do so much to get at the fish. Many bodies of water don’t have areas close enough to shore that naturally attract walleyes so that we can get at them. We need a distinct point that sticks into the main body of water or into the main portion of a big bay. We also need legal access, which has become more difficult in a lot of areas. Meanwhile, the shallow bay patterns that once developed based on leopard frog migrations into natural lakes now often don’t happen.
In some shallow natural lakes, emergent weededges like rush beds attract walleyes that we can get at. In rivers, we can reach walleyes that move into tailwater areas. Or we find downriver areas near deep rocky pools where walleyes gather to feed. Walleyes also move into rivers connected to the Great Lakes, where they mill past piers. The best locales often are associated with current, especially necked-down lake, river, and reservoir stretches, for all shore patterns depend on baitfish being funneled into specific spots. When shore anglers get it right, there’s no better way to catch big walleyes.
Shorefishing fundamentals haven’t changed since I started years ago, but we have better lures, better lines, better rods and reels, better boots, better clothing. Today, given the tackle available, there’s no excuse not to soar in the process, whether you wade natural lakes, rivers, or reservoirs; fish tailwater areas; or fish from piers on the Great Lakes. Spengler’s favorite waters include a handful of glacial lakes and sloughs in Northeast South Dakota.
Rods—Up to a point, longer rods facilitate longer casts. Too, lighter rods, made from higher-grade carbon material, are better because we spend a lot of time with a longer rod in our hands; so comfort plays a role in sensitivity and overall effectiveness.
For most of the lures we throw, the rod should be medium-light or, more likely, medium power, and have a moderate or fast action with a fast tip. These handle monofilament lines in the 8- to 12-pound range, and lure weights from about 3/16 ounce up to 3/4 ounce.
These days, both Spengler and I have switched to what we also both consider one of the most outstanding lines of all time—Berkley FireLine Ultra 8—
a fused line that doesn’t stretch and thus is super sensitive. The 8-pound break strength is just right, although 10 is fine, too, especially if you’re casting lures on the heavy end of the spectrum. We both fish a 4-foot section of 12-pound Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon, connected with 4-wrap back-to-back uni-knots, at the end of our Ultra 8.
The 8-pound Ultra 8 has a break strength of more than 8 pounds and in combination with the fluorocarbon keeps you from snapping off lures when you load up for a two-handed cast. It also adds abrasion resistance and helps when you’re handling fish at the net. With the right lures, this combination offers giant casts. And the Ultra 8 is bulletproof in terms of wind knots and other problems, which is great after dark.
At a minimum, rods should be 6 foot 8 inches to 7 feet long. I fish with rods that are 7 foot 3 inches and 7 foot 6 inches, which, again, facilitate a little bit longer casts and let you keep a bit more line up off the water with your rod tip held high, which keeps lures running shallower in some situations. An 8-foot rod might be just right on a pier on the Great Lakes. On the other hand, the smaller lures that Spengler will note in a moment often fish just as well with the 6-foot 8-inch rods that he prefers.
Compared to the costs of maintaining a boat, boot fishing isn’t that expensive, so there’s room to spend a bit more on a high-end rod, given all the time you’ll spend one-on-one with it. Pick a favorite company, find a longer high-end stick with the actions we’ve noted, and don’t look back.
Reels—Spengler uses a 30-class Abu Garcia Revo MGX, which is an upper-end reel, at $314.95; or the same class Pflueger Patriarch XT ($212.95). Meanwhile, my longtime workhorse reel has been the 35-class Pflueger Supreme ($104.95), but I also use a 35-class Patriarch sometimes.
For most companies, a 20-class reel is the smallest they offer, with each step up (30, 35, 40) indicating a larger reel—a bit heavier, but with a wider spool. Wider spools allow line to flow off the reel a bit better, which means longer casts—and smoother retrieves, because, all things being equal, line also winds back on the reel easier.
Lower retrieve ratios also mean smoother retrieves, with reels like the Revo MGX, at 6:2.1, about as fast as you want to employ. The Patriarch has a speed of 5:2.1, which seems to be just about right. Spengler and I both intend to try the Revo Winch, which runs at 4:7.1, this season. There are a few wide-arbor reels on the market, which in theory should work well. But I haven’t found one that I like.
Overall, we’re trying to balance reel weight (lighter is better), with your longer lightweight rod, but you might want to make a bit of a sacrifice in weight to get the bit longer casts facilitated by a larger reel. And, this is not a situation to use a “rocket reel” with a retrieve ratio of more than about 6:2.1.
In the end, success is a matter of where you fish and what lures and retrieves you choose to make the fish bite. Let me set the scene with what has been the status quo for me and other shore anglers I know. And then we’ll let Dan take over, using a new generation of lures, and a few retrieves that seem radical by my standards.
The status quo: Many anglers do serious big-fish duty with one of the Smithwick Rogues, or a #12 or #14 Rapala Husky Jerk. These are big lures that have serious wobbling action for attracting and triggering big fish after dark.
The Floating Super Rogue (5 inches, 3/8 ounce) does well for shallow fishing in, say, less than two feet of water (or when you have little distance between weeds and surface). It casts farther than the other floaters I’m familiar with, except perhaps the Cotton Cordell Red Fin, another option. Most anglers prefer the action of the Rogue for walleyes, though.
The Suspending Super Rogue (5 inches, 1/2 ounce) casts better than some of the other suspenders on the market, because it weighs slightly more. It also swims a bit deeper, into the 3-foot range, on a retrieve. The Suspending Rattlin’ Rogue, meanwhile, is a 5.5-inch bait that runs about the same depth. All the Rogues run shallower if you slow the retrieve and hold your rod tip high.
I’ve spent most of my time in recent years fishing with Husky Jerks. The #12 measures 4.75 inches and weighs 1/3 ounce. The #14 is 5.5 inches and 1/2 ounce. Because of the way they’re constructed, they both fish at about the same depth (from 1.5 to 4 feet). The #14 is, admittedly, a bit big for many situations. But it has its moments on big-fish water.
When it comes to retrieves, the percentage play has been with slow and mostly steady. Some nights, the addition of occasional pauses in a slow, steady retrieve triggers fish. I find that particularly true on nights when you have moonlight to work with, as walleyes can see better with a bit of moonlight.
So the fish see it, track it, and finally feel it at close range. If it looks good and finally feels good, they eat it. In theory, there’s more chance to feel and see a bigger bait at night. And when they attack a bigger bait, there’s more bait there for them to hit and less chance for error.
Next-Gen Lures and Retrieves
Spengler: “The Berkley Cutter 90 has been my jerkbait of choice for trophy walleyes. It has tremendous side-to-side flash and suspends perfectly, allowing extra time for the fish to reach the bait and react. I try to let the fish tell me how aggressively to fish the lure, so each night is an ongoing experiment.
“Many nights fish want the bait moving slowly, with an occasional long pause, while other nights, when the bite is fast and furious, I speed up the retrieve a bit and shorten my pauses to 3 to 5 seconds.
“The pausing is a vital part of the triggering process, so I experiment with that a lot. Overall, most nights I don’t pause for longer than about 10 seconds, but there are times when a 15-second pause does it—and a few nights when a pause of up to 40 counts does it. Again, I’m always trying to let the fish tell me what they want. And that can vary by night or even by different portions of a night.
“Windy nights aren’t comfortable, but they can make for great fishing, as the fish often are aggressive. One retrieve that works great is to cast out and reel the bait down a bit, then rip the rod tip up twice to 11 o’clock, like you’re setting the hook, then pause. So, rip-rip pause, rip-rip pause. After the second rip, before pausing, reel the line tight to the lure as you drop your rod tip to 9 o’clock. Pause from 5 to 10 seconds. This type of aggressive snapping makes the lure dart side to side more than a more laid back retrieve. It attracts fish—or calls them in—and the pause triggers them.
“A back drop to all this is that you want your lure riding high, not tracking along the bottom. These fish aren’t grubbing on the bottom, but looking up, silhouetting baitfish against the surface or the surface light.
“On calmer nights, I slow things down a bit. I jerk up to 11 o’clock a bit less aggressively (it’s more of a distinct pull than a snap) and after the second snap I reel down to the lure and, before pausing, I drag the lure steadily up to the 11-o’clock position. Again, I experiment with the length of the pause, but usually it’s 3 to 5 seconds. Essentially, the lure is moving aggressively with the pulls, then swimming steadily into a pause. I used this retrieve to catch eight walleyes from 27 to 29 inches one night, my best night ever boot fishing.”
The Berkley Spy 70
Spybaits are all the rage in some bass circles the last four years. They have a hard plastic body like a jerkbait, but without the lip. They have a small spinner at the head end and tail end. They’re meant to be fished slow and steady, riding with the head end up slightly. So the props are turning and the body of the lure is wobbling slightly. On a pause, they also wobble and the spinners spin as the lure sinks and swims.
Spengler: “As we worked to develop the Spy 70 in the lab, it didn’t take long to realize that it was a walleye bootin’ wonder waiting to happen. I haven’t fished it in fall at this point, but I got it into action this past spring in cold-to-cooler water conditions. On a night I was struggling a bit with jerkbaits, I tied the Spy on and caught a quick limit of fish. Several other trips produced great results, with fish up to 28 inches.
“Fishing the Spy is a lot like fishing a curlytail plastic on a jighead. The action is so subtle that you don’t feel a wobble. Indeed, you don’t feel anything. Still, even though you can’t feel it, there’s plenty of action going on.
“The Spy 70 sinks relatively quickly, so keep your rod tip at 11 o’clock to make your retrieves. This helps the bait to ride higher. Retrieve slow and steady for the most part, although a sweep-pause also works well at times. With the head riding up, the belly of the lure pushes water as the plug moves forward, spinners spinning and the body of the lure pulsing back and forth like a slow-swimming minnow. Then on a short pause the lure flutters and fluffs its way toward the bottom. It’s irresistible to walleyes at night. We’ll know more this fall.”
The Berkley Hit Stick
Spengler considers the design of the Hit Stick his best work to date. Five years in the making, the design team, including walleye pros Gary Parsons and Keith Kavajecz, worked through 24 different version of the 9-cm lure, experimenting with several body shapes, pull points, and bill designs and angles.
Spengler: “This is the best stickbait we’ve ever created. It’s a hard-plastic lure, with size options from 3.5 cm to 15 cm, but it fishes so distinctively that it’s almost like dealing with balsa—yet you get the long casts that you can’t get with balsa.”
“I fished the #9 and #13 Hit Sticks a bit last fall and extensively this past spring with great success. The slow rise of the Hit Stick creates a different presentation than with suspending sticks. Overall, though, I fish the Hit Stick much the same way as I fish the Shallow Cutter—same retrieve options. The lure was especially deadly as the water warmed last spring, so perhaps the lure will fish best during early fall, and the Cutter and Spy 70 will do better as the water cools. I can’t wait to get on the water and see.”
Paddle swimbaits fished on a leadhead jig are the other class of lures that works well for walleyes at night (and a few prerigged options). The 3-inch Mister Twister Sassy Shad, introduced in about 1979, was about the only thumper available at the time—the forerunner of the dozen of options on the market today. The Sassy Shad still fishes well, so let’s let Doug Stange take a quick look back.
Stange: “Most of the jigheads we had in the 1970s had hooks too short to match well with the Sassy Shad, especially when they started offering a 4-inch option. The wedgehead jigs used to fish Reaper bodies worked with the 3-incher. And then for the 4-incher, Mister Twister introduced a unique jighead with a longer hook and a ‘lead keeper arm’ extending from the back of the top of the jighead—only one option in 1/4 ounce, which was mostly just right. I don’t remember the name of the jig, but it was a revelation coupled with the 4-inch body. My biggest bootin’ fish—12.75 pounds—was on that option on a night when I first fished it in a current area on a lake in the Brainerd, Minnesota, area after moving there in 1981.
“If I’m after bigger fish today, I still opt for at least a 4-inch swimbait body. Five-inchers work great, too. On most waters, the Berkley PowerBait Ripple Shad or PowerBait Power Swimmer are outstanding. But there are a lot of options, including the Berkley PowerBait Rib Shad, a bull-bodied swimmer that pushes a lot of water and thumps big and bold, a great option all around the Great Lakes.”
Boot anglers soon find that you don’t go anywhere fast with waders on, so just settle in and enjoy the process. The pace is a little slower after the sun sets. I still carry a thermos of coffee and a big oatmeal-raisin cookie or a cheese sandwich. Most evenings they’re a nice interlude, sitting there in the light of the moon after a couple hours of casting, especially if I’ve already caught a fish or two. And yes, I miss my bootin’ buddy Gary Rosenberg, who passed on some years ago.
I suppose it’s taken me all these years to get right here, right now, which is somewhere pretty important to me, though it may be only a step from where I was when I first started night fishing, many years ago. The nice thing about the process is that it isn’t costly and it isn’t complicated. It just takes time. Soon enough I’ve been surprised to find it’s just about a lifetime. But if the fish are there, and they still are, the rolling thunder of each new generation will slip on waders and slip into the night.