Pitching Baits to Shallow Walleyes
March 09, 2018
The ice is gone. Baitfish are shallow. A jig drops softly to barely ripple the surface. A plop, not a splash. Something natural, like a leaping, panicked minnow.
Shallow walleyes, rather than retreating in panic, turn to investigate. What they should find is something natural, moving in a manner and at a speed their prey displays. Precise spots, direction of approach, distance from target, speed of presentation—all critical.
Walleyes in shallow vegetation or rock are there to feed and they expect things to swim slowly past. It's what they see all the time. It's natural. So pitch a jig-plastic combo and swim it slowly past typical ambush points.
Not so long ago, if you weren't trolling or rigging with livebait you weren't winning walleye tournaments. Things change. In 2016, Randy Gaines and Mike Rhoades won the Masters Walleye Circuit World (MWC) Championship on Green Bay pitching and snapping Rapala Flat Jigs. In 2017, Tommy Skarlis and Jeff Lahr won the MWC World Walleye Championship on Minnesota's Cass Lake pitching #7 and #9 Jigging Rapalas and Moonshine Lures Shiver Minnows. Gary Parsons, Keith Kavajecz, and a host of pros have won recent tournaments fishing minnow jigs and jigs tipped with softbaits.
A few years back, in an article called "Jekyll and Hyde Smallmouths," based loosely on the characters in Robert Louis Stevenson's gothic novella, I detailed a new wave in pitching tackle that has put as many walleyes in the boat as bass, especially early in the year. Dr. Jekyll represents a slim, mild-mannered, light-power rod and a delicate presentation with slippery new-age braids. Set a hook and the whole thing morphs into something more sinister—a bit more like Mr. Hyde. That's because 4-pound, silky-smooth superlines—like Berkley NanoFil or Sufix Nanobraid—are about 8-pound test in strength, yet thin as 1-pound mono. Traditional braids like Berkley FireLine, PowerPro, Sufix 832—any that offer 4- and 6-pound versions work fine, but maybe don't cast quite as far. Long, light sticks become shock-absorbing weapons with attitude when Hyde shows up.
Rods have been designed for braids this light, like the G. Loomis GLX TSR 791, rated for 3- to 4-pound PowerPro. Another favorite light-power rod is the 8-foot St. Croix Avid AVS80MLM2. That's Jekyll. Slim, almost weightless. With great panache and minimal exertion, it can put 1/16-ounce jigs into low orbit. Hook a walleye and Mr. Hyde puts it in the net. Fast, light-power rods, coupled with braid, have guts. Tipping mostly with 4-inch ringworms and soft swimbaits, we wreak havoc with the walleye population's peace-of-mind—and none of them are too big for these rods.
"Best day of walleye fishing I ever experienced," says Chris Beeksma of Get Bit Guide Service, after a day testing the technique, raking in multiple 5- to 7-pounders. "Swimming a ringworm on this kind of tackle is way more entertaining than trolling. This tackle feels too light at first, but it's so effective—and the feel is incredible."
A 3- to 4-foot leader of 6-pound Raven or Seaguar Flurocarbon tied in with back-to-back uni-knots provides stealth, abrasion resistance, and a bit of stretch. Jig selection includes 1/16-, 3/32-, or 1/8-ounce VMC Half Moon Jigs, Gopher Tackle Mushroom Head Jigs, Gamakatsu Round 26 heads, and Owner Ultraheads. The Case Plastics Ring Worm, Lunkerhunt Swim Bento Minnow, Strike King Swim 'N Shad, Berkley Havoc Beat Shad, Castaic Jerky J, Lunker City SwimFish, Storm GT 360° Searchbait, various hair jigs, and many similar products catch walleyes every day, sometimes right through fall. The Strike King and Storm baits are especially effective in cold water because their paddletails move at the slowest speeds with seductive action.
Target the tip of a rocky finger, weedy point, gravel bar, or any other bit of shallow cover or structure, cast well beyond it, let the jig sink a couple feet and start reeling extremely slowly with the rod tip down. Braided line floats, helping to keep it over their heads. If it touches bottom or vegetation, speed up a bit. Let it fall to bottom occasionally, snap it up, let it drop, and resume swimming. Strikes tend to be solid jolts. Set hooks immediately.
Minnesota guide Tony Roach says he grew up trolling, but now does it only when walleyes are widely scattered. "I've fished plenty of waters in many situations," he says. "Trolling is counterproductive in many of them. When I was a kid, we always trolled or vertical-jigged, rarely casting. When I got older, I found casting more fun and effective. Covering spots thoroughly is the reason. Sometimes we have to troll, but it's not my favorite method."
Super-light braids cut through water with little resistance. You feel even the lightest bite. Roach opts for 6-pound, high-vis Berkley NanoFil with 8- to 10-pound Vanish leaders on long, fast-action, medium-light-power rods. "I mostly use low-stretch line," he says. "Braid reacts. You see it jump when you can't feel strikes, even with slack in the line. I like to control my jig, too. When it's windy, I cast intermediate distances to maintain control of lure and line. But when walleyes go shallow, get the lure away from the boat with long casts. That's where thin braid pays big dividends.
"That's all I do in spring—pitch plastics and minnows on light jigs," he adds. "I start in 3- to 6-foot depths. Shallow fish are there to feed. But the water tends to be clear in spring. With no wind you have to move deeper, but softbaits still beat livebait. A jig and minnow works when the water's cold, fishing slowly on bottom. But as soon as you have to start fishing faster off bottom, plastics enter the picture. Minnows rip, tear, and fall off. Paddletails have a slower fall. You get better action and cover more water. I hate dragging livebait slowly when the fish tell us to fish faster. When you're not getting bit, speed is often the reason."
Roach embraced the Northland Impulse Paddle Tail Minnow when it was introduced years ago. "Pop it off bottom and keep the momentum going," he says. "I'm not snapping or ripping early on, it's a more subtle movement. Although they fall slowly, you fish faster with paddletails because you can swim them, pop it, or both—then reel faster."
North Woods guide Tom Neustrom retains the traditional approach most days, pitching short distances with live minnows—but plastics are gaining on him. "Shiners and rainbow chubs are the best baits early on," he says. "I use a light jig and fish slowly. I might fish a 1/4-ounce jig in 8 feet of water or deeper and work quicker when the bite is hot. Most days, though, I start with a 1/16- or maybe a 1/8-ounce jig. With just a ripple on the water, you need a 1/16-ounce jig. I like VMC Moon Eye Jigs with pill-shaped heads that fall faster. They have a great bait keeper for fishing softbaits, too."
Over the last decade, he's gradually added more softbaits to his game as the water warms. "I'm not associated with any manufacturers so I use many brands," he says. "I fish shad bodies and soft swimmers like the 3- to 4-inch Berkley PowerBait Ripple Shad. The new Storm GT 360° Searchbait is a favorite of mine because of its wobble, wag, and rattle. I prefer to glide plastics more than snap-snap-snap. People think they have to jig too fast."
Your rod-reel combo should be light and pleasant to fish over long days of casting. "The Daiwa Tatula 3000 is extremely light—easy on hands and wrists," Neustrom says. "It has a bigger spool for easy casting with a medium-light-power 7-foot or 7-foot 4-inch rod with fast action. I spool with 10-pound-test Sufix 832 with a 3-foot leader of 8- to 10-pound fluorocarbon."
Skarlis and Lahr won the fall MWC Championship by fishing Jigging Rapalas and Moonshine Lures Shiver Minnows in deep water. "We couldn't get them to bite vertically," Skarlis says. "A lot of guys aren't talking about casting to deep-water fish, but walleyes wanted the lure swimming instead of vertically jumping. Sometimes, casting beats vertical tactics even in water 40 feet deep." For shallow walleyes, Skarlis generally opts for bigger jigs, fatter plastics, and more bodacious presentations than most experts.
"Up shallow in spring, walleyes favor murky water," he says. "It's warmer. If you can see walleyes, they can see you and they aren't good fish to pitch to. In clear, shallow water, most people pitch with the wind, but I often work with the wind quartering or even in my face because the noise is reduced. Turn off your electronics in shallow water; noise reduction is key. I go by GPS or chart alone and stay a distance from the fish. It requires a slick line. I prefer braid, but NanoFil comes off the spool smoother."
With big plastics, increase jig weight by 1/8 ounce for every 5 feet of depth, Skarlis says. "I use 1/8-ounce heads to 5 feet. From 5 to 10, I go with 1/4-ounce jigs, and so on. Berkley's 5-inch Ripple Shad, Kietech's Fat Swing Impact—big paddletails are my-go-to baits."
Experimentation reveals the best presentation. Do they want a steady swim just off bottom? Do they want it snapped and dropped quickly? Test various retrieves. I typically lift the rod to create short hops and let it drop slowly on a tight line. Most of the time they want it slow. The colder the water, the slower you should move a bait. In the 40°F-range, you have to move it painfully slow. Sometimes you let it sit there and eat a sandwich. Walleyes stare it down then suddenly suck it off bottom."
Skarlis likes Hutch's Tackle-style bullet heads he makes with a Do-it mold. "I put bigger hooks in it for fat swimbaits," he says. "The St. Croix Legend Tournament Walleye Series MLXF 76 and Avid X 68MLXF can handle large lures with 12-pound NanoFil and 14- to 17-pound Trilene XT leaders that slow the drop in cold water. The warmer it gets, the lighter my line gets."
And the lure that's swept the bass world by storm has not been lost on Skarlis, a multispecies maven. "Walleyes love Ned Rigs," he observes. "They're awesome in spring with Midwest Finesse heads from Do-it, usually in clear water from 6 to 20 feet deep. Spray it with little WD-40, drag it, let it sit, eat a sandwich. They take their time with it, but you can set immediately when walleyes pick it up."
Neustrom says pitching is a game of positioning the boat rather than blindly blanketing an area with casts. "The Minn Kota Talon is a great tool," he says. "I can be far more mobile than with an anchor. I can be on the move in two seconds, move 20 yards, drop the Talon and we're casting again. It's far more efficient."
He likes, "wind-swept stuff and pocket fishing—inside turns and pockets in vegetation or structure that funnel wind-generated current to create a smorgasbord. Walleyes favor areas where current is accentuated around rocks, gravel mounds, or vegetation. Look for areas that are a little more turbid in shallow water early on."
Neustrom doesn't go for the long ball. "I like moving the boat more and making short casts," he says. "Long-casting gets overemphasized. Target specific spots and make casts of 20 yards at most. I can make more short casts than someone casting to distant targets. I hold the boat with the Talon and make casts at every angle to specific spots, then move on. It's more accurate and you get fewer snags."
Skarlis looks for tributaries in spring. "Tannin-stained, flowing water is great," he says. "Or check where the wind has been beating the shoreline and creating cloudy water." Roach agrees. "A larger river or feeder creek, windy shorelines, and shallow rock reefs are key spots early," he says. "In spring, look for emerging vegetation, creek mouths, current areas, and sandy shorelines inside slack-water areas. And look for places where wind is blowing in since walleyes move there and hold shallow. Set up to work these areas with medium-length casts. Where current or warmer water converge on timber, look for the timber near current in the warmest water. In spring and fall, it's particularly important to check water temperature. Look for warmer water in those colder times.
"Set the hook immediately with plastics," he adds. "When fishing minnows in spring, walleyes grab them in the middle instead of inhaling the whole thing. You find a head left on the jig. With softbaits, they almost always eat the whole thing. I think fish feel a sense of urgency when we fish faster. They feel the need to overtake it and engulf it quickly."
After years of showing clients that plastics can outfish livebait in most situations, Roach still sees some reluctance. "Most anglers in northern Minnesota still scoff at the idea that plastics can catch more walleyes than livebait in cold water," he says. "But it's true." Especially with Jeykll and Hyde on board.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw is an avid multispecies angler who specializes in matching rods, reels, and line combos to various fishing situations.