September 18, 2017
In the 1967 film The Graduate Mr. McGuire advises a young and nervous Benjamin Braddock: "There's a great future in plastics. Think about it." Same could be said for walleye fishing. Like it or not, the future of walleye fishing is in plastics. The reality of invasive species has tightened livebait transport regulations, pushing anglers toward artificial options.
But the good news is walleye anglers are catching fish on soft plastics in ways we wouldn't have imagined a decade ago. And the proof is in the pudding: Walleye pros like 2014 NWT and MWC Champion Korey Sprengel are ditching meat and winning big.
"Once you have the confidence that plastics catch you as many—if not more walleyes—than livebait, you rarely go back to meat. Ninety percent of my game is soft plastics and other artificials," says Wisconsin's 26-year-old ace.
Success requires more than substitution and fishing the same old. "There's a learning curve, but once you learn the tactics and build confidence, a whole new game opens up," says top tournament pro Tommy Skarlis.
Solid advice comes from In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange, who's been on the cutting edge of the shift from natural to synthetic baits since the mid-1970s. "I always go back to Buck Perry's instruction and look at soft plastics the same way I do crankbaits," he says. "Concentrate on depth control first, followed by speed control and how you're working a lure. Then lure vibration and cadence play a role. Only after you get these factors in order do color, scent, and taste come into play. It's all part of the experiment we need to conduct every time we get on the water, trying to put together the perfect package that catches fish."
But with countless minnow-shaped softbaits filling baitshop pegboards, it can be overwhelming, perhaps one reason anglers keep filling the minnow bucket. Minnow-imitating swimbaits now include paddletails, fluke-style jerk shads, hybrids thereof, and other shapes just beginning to enter the scene from the bass drop-shot catalog, not to mention cool imports intended for species like zander, the European walleye look-alike.
It starts with bait profile, which can impersonate a range of walleye forage, including shiners, shad, smelt, alewives, perch, bluegills, crappies, or bullheads. Others mimic nightcrawlers, leeches, crawfish, and other aquatic critters.
When jigging, Skarlis recommends anglers simplify their choices by thinking in terms of "stand-alone," "double-decker," and "piggyback" baits. He starts by determining forage type to decide on profile, which can be gleaned from local anglers or walleye stomach contents.
"Any time I put a single plastic like a Berkley PowerBait Rib Worm, Ripple Shad, Twitchtail Minnow, or a big fluke on a jighead, that's a stand-alone, which I use when walleyes feed on slender critters like emerald shiners, fatheads, and smelt," Skarlis says. "A double-decker shape is where I thread a bait like a Twitchtail on the jig shank and a Twitchtail on top. Or I slide on a Power Minnow and add a Gulp! Minnow that I cut in half at a 45-degree angle so I can double up that shape and mimic the taller profile of shad, sheepshead, bluegill, or crappie."
"Piggybacking" a fathead or emerald shiner with a soft plastic like Berkley's Twitchtail Minnow on a jighead is Skarlis' recommendation for newcomers to soft plastics—or for negative bite scenarios. To keep the minnow on the hook, he adds a small chunk of orange or red Gulp!, which adds an additional scent and visual component.
"I used the first Mister Twister Tails while in my 20s, during the beginning of my walleye shorecasting years," Stange says. "Stand in the water for hundreds of hours spring or fall and you discover that some baits work, some don't. Curlytail grubs expanded my shorecasting arsenal beyond Countdown Rapalas and Floaters doctored with lead shot so they cast farther and were less buoyant. There weren't a lot of colors early on, so I took to cutting tails off one pattern and melting them on another with a lighter. But color wasn't the deal. After depth and speed, it was the rolling flash and vibration that came from the lure."
Then in 1978 or 1979 the Mister Twister Sassy Shad was introduced—the first paddletail swimbait. Fished on a 1/4-ounce jighead with a long shank, the slow wobbling lure produced as many big walleyes as did the Rapalas. "The puzzle started to come together as I began experimenting with swimbaits like the 6-inch Lunker City Salt Shaker, the Berkley PowerBait Swim Shad (now discontinued), and later the PowerBait Flatback Shad and Hollow Belly," Stange says. "Now Berkley also offers a PowerBait Ripple Shad and Havoc Sick Fish. And as of last spring there's also a bulky 4-inch swimbait with a rippled outer body and a big paddle tail, the PowerBait Rib Shad. It quickly became a hot number on spots like Green Bay and just about everywhere else I fished it."
Whether in the form of the original Mister Twister or countless new options, walleye anglers still turn to curlytail grubs in the 3- to 5-inch range. "I grew up fishing walleyes with curlytail grubs on the Mississippi River," says Minnesota Guide Brian "Bro" Brosdahl. "I still use them today for jigging, ripping, or slow-rolling over the bottom on a standard jighead, a propeller-style jighead, or spinner. And a big, beefy curlytail on a 3/4- to 1-ounce jighead also makes the perfect dropper bait on a Dubuque rig."
Perhaps no walleye angler has more hours plumbing depths with a curlytail than Skarlis. Although he says it was a tournament partner who first introduced him to the Dubuque Rig years ago, Skarlis' tweaks have cashed checks. "We make 3/4-ounce jigs with Do-it Molds for the droppers on Dubuque rigs, a great tactic for pulling across the faces of wing dams," he says "So with a curlytail on the dropper I use a Hutch Fly tipped with a Berkley Twitchtail or Gulp! Minnow threaded on a #2 or #4 Daiichi Octopus hook at the end of the trailer. It might corkscrew like on a slow-death rig or simply swim along, straight and flat—both work. Gets rid of the nippers and nuisance species. It's one of my go-to meatless river tactics."
Another indispensable river soft plastic is the ringworm, an offshoot of the bass jigworm first put into rotation decades ago. Along the way, the bait has also caught scores of walleyes, especially when used to ply weedlines in natural lakes. "Fishing walleyes with curlytail worms is nothing new," Brosdahl says. "But now there's a whole 'ringworm' walleye bait category. From a drop-and-lift routine to dragging during the cold weather months on rivers, it can be the perfect match of profile and vibration to represent various forage: slender baitfish, a big leech, baby eelpout, or catfish, stuff walleyes eat. They're especially effective on busy river areas like the Mississippi at Red Wing, Minnesota, areas in Illinois, the Detroit River."
Along these lines, Detroit River locals favor a must-have bait called the "Wyandotte Worm." Rather than a curlytail, the Wyandotte has a flat, screwdriver tail. "You look at it and yawn, but put it on a heavy jighead and follow it downstream and you're going to catch big Motor City 'eyes," Brosdahl says. "Could also represent a lamprey or American eel, which you know walleyes are going to eat. But it seems like any river or lake that's attached to a large river system, like Winnebago, has a potential ringworm bite."
Case in point: Korey Sprengel's 2014 Cabela's National Walleye Tour Championship win this past September on Winnebago. "I was casting a 4-inch PowerBait Rib Worm on a 1/8-ounce jighead on 10-pound high-vis FireLine," he says. "The cover was snaggy with rebar and riprap, so I'd cast 20 to 30 feet over structure, let the bait fall, and then shake the rod tip as I lifted the bait 6 inches to a foot off bottom."
Sprengel's jigging cadence not only kept his bait nearly snag-free but introduced additional vibrations to the dance, alerting walleyes to his bait in turbid waters. "I was fishing next to a guy who was jigging the same areas with livebait. The first day he didn't catch a fish and I had my five in the first hour. With plastics, I could fish more efficiently. I wasn't getting snagged and I wasn't having to re-bait with a leech or a 'crawler after every cast."
Sprengel didn't waste time on tentative fish, either. "Walleyes don't nibble on plastics. With the action that most plastics have, if a fish wants to eat it, they inhale it."
Soft plastics also allowed quick changes in size, color and contrast, which he says often leads to more bites. "Contrast was a big deal on Winnebago," he says. "I use the PowerBait Blue Fleck with Pearl Tail Rib Worm (which is actually purple) on a Northland or Hutch's Tackle chartreuse/green or chartreuse/pink jighead. Not only does the bait have a profile walleyes can 'feel,' the color put the odds in my favor on the visual side with water clarity of only a few inches.
"On Winnebago it worked on rock humps, riprap, even shallow 3- to 4-foot coontail. Most of the time you have it rigged on a jighead, but I've also started fishing them on a slow-death hook. It provides spin and the curlytail flops around, giving the rig added action and vibration. This worked well on lakes Oahe and Winnebago, but no matter where I go, I'm always rigged with a ringworm—jighead, slow death, whatever. It's versatile."
"The paddletail is as fundamental a walleye bait as the crankbait," Stange says. "First, it appeals to a walleye's visual sense, and second, their lateral line picks up the bait's low frequencies. So the walleye sees it first, feels it, and then keys in on it. By the time the walleye is close, it's committed to eating it. The wobble and vibrations these baits produce are critical."
Brosdahl calls paddletails "rock 'n' roll baits," an ideal choice for calling out weed walleyes. "I like to cast paddletails to weed openings and ride the bait through the stalks or fish it fast enough that it just tickles the tops. Unless an angler lucks out and drops a slipbobber on its head, these are walleyes that seldom get caught."
This past year, northeastern Wisconsin Guide Bret Alexander began experimenting with the new wide and beefy 4-inch PowerBait Rib Shad, a unique paddletail swimbait with a big chest and a thin tail juncture that creates a large profile, displaces water, and produces distinct vibrations.
Impaled on 3/4- to 1-ounce Kalin's Ultimate Bullet Jig and tied to 20 inches of 14-pound-test fluorocarbon leader and 12-pound Berkley NanoFil superline, Alexander targeted reefs and points with long-distance casts, producing scores of walleyes in the high-20 and 30-plus-inch class.
"Basically, we position as far as we can off points and reefs and cast downwind to the windward side of the structure. In wind we're casting 5 to 10 feet up on top of the structure; and when the wind is down, into 15 to 25 feet. You even catch fish right on top after major winds when the water is still churned up."
"Let the Rib Shad hit the bottom and then start ripping it 3 to 4 feet at a time," Alexander says. "The tail kicks during those rips and keeps fluttering on the short fall as it dives toward the bottom. I hold the rod at a 45-degree angle and use my entire arm to make the sweeps toward the body, then let it drop back down. The key is not using the wrist, which imparts a whole different action." Alexander's Packers' Pattern begs experimentation on other waters, especially where walleyes congregate over reefs, rocky mid-lake humps, or points.
Another soft plastic that comes to walleye anglers from the bass crowd is the soft jerkbait, a paddle-less minnow-profile bait, typically with a split tail. The category's icon is Zoom's trademarked Fluke, although there are a number of contenders.
On recent MWC and NWT events on the Detroit River, Sprengel vacillated between a 4-inch Lunker City Fin-S Fish jerkbait and Berkley Ripple Shad paddletail, both of which eliminated the need for any livebait. "The Fin-S Fish is relatively thin, which gives it a unique action and it's packed with glitter. Seems like Detroit River fish just can't resist it, especially paired with blues and purples. Looks like a shiner."
He also fished 4- and 5-inch Fin-S Fish and Ripple Shads on custom, hand-poured 1/2- and 3/4-ounce jigheads with a larger 4/0 hook to accommodate the large profiles of both plastics. "I was snapjigging like you would in summer but it was April. I'd let the bait hit bottom and then pump it up a foot, foot and a half, then I'd pause it at the top and let it go back down to the bottom."
Brosdahl: "When you fish a fluke-style lure for walleyes it's rarely about ripping it. It's that lift, drop, lift, drop, just like jigging a live minnow. Especially on rivers, slipping the current and presenting one vertically looks like real food. Don't overwork it."
A SOFTER SLOW DEATH
Another overlooked application for minnow-profile soft plastics is on slowdeath rigs, a substitution born out of necessity as Skarlis fished a 2004 artificials-only tournament in Chamberlain, South Dakota.
"Gulp! had just been introduced and most of us were still having a hard time leaving our minnow buckets at the dock. We were losing a ton of jigs, so we switched to bottom bouncers and PowerBait Power Minnows and the bite lit up. Further refining it, I now take an Aberdeen-style hook and bend it into a boomerang shape and slide on a PowerBait Twitchtail Minnow. Or I take a #2 or #4 Daiichi octopus hook and thread the same bait two-thirds of the way through the body and up onto the hook so the bait is shaped like a boomerang or banana. The key is when you put it in the water it should spin. The big thing here is you avoid the nuisance species and having to re-bait all the time."
Similar story for Sprengel, who says minnow-profile softbaits out-fished live 'crawlers on slow-death rigs 10 to 1 at a recent tournament in Mobridge, South Dakota. "When the bite got slow, I tested live 'crawlers and missed a bunch of walleyes because they were tail-nipping. We boated every fish that hit the Twitchtail on the other rod because they'd eat the whole thing. The shape of a Twitchtail minnow is buoyant enough that you barely have to move it to get it to spin."
Just as there are endless softbaits on tackle-shop shelves, there are countless ways to fish them. Most bring a dynamic alternative to passive meat soaking. Through experiments with bait profile, vibration, jigging cadence, and rigging, you become a puppeteer, dancing a deadbait to life.
Skarlis adapts a Ratt song lyric: "You have to wiggle and jiggle it to make the bite complete." Or, in some cases, don't wiggle or jiggle it at all. The payoff? Epic strikes and the satisfaction that you've outwitted a worthy adversary.
*Jim Edlund is an avid multispecies angler and freelance writer who's written for In-Fisherman publications for several years.