February 13, 2014
In wavy seas, a side-finding sonar screen circles your face. Somebody has to stare at it. No lines out. Just watching. The boat path forms sine waves over a basin flat in a search pattern taking us off structure. Way off. No man's land.
"There's one," walleye guide Tony Roach says, as he seems to throw the boat into reverse and pitch back in the general direction of the mark at the same time. Fire drill. For me, standing and pitching at the same time — in waves — is hard enough. Roach is working a Northland Puppet Minnow. I have on a Rapala Jigging Rap. The two lures are similar in design, both noteworthy ice-fishing lures that also have application in open water while jigging for walleyes.
As the lures hit bottom, we rip them up several feet, let them fall, touch, and we rip again. No bait, and it's not a vertical presentation, which so many believe is imperative with these realistic jigging baits. But nothing happens.
"We'll get the next one," Roach says, as he sits back down and resumes the search pattern. "Most days we hit one of every three fish we see up off bottom like that." A .333 batting average? For walleyes? In August? Move over, Ted Williams.
The Power Game
"It's all about pitching and ripping," Roach says. "Most anglers who fish Jigging Raps fish them vertically, using the bow mount to swim them along slowly and methodically. I prefer to pitch to fish I can see up off bottom. Those are the active targets I focus on."
While I daydream, the boat rocks into reverse and Roach is setting hooks before I can stand up. "Power jigging works in a lot of different scenarios," he says while working the fish in. "But it's most effective when you have pods of fish scattered off distinct structure. Pitching jigs on top of the schools after you mark them is effective. Try to pick off the most aggressive biters then move to the next pod. Works any time of year when the water's open. But, as the surface temperature continues to rise, it seems to work better and better. By August, it's not just another way to catch walleyes — it's one of the two methods I use most often."
The power game is a search method interspersed with furious snap-jigging episodes. It follows that if you can't find walleyes on structure, they must be off it somewhere. Vertical jigging, indiscriminately pulling jigs around, or rigging with livebait on basin flats takes you through vast belts of nothing between pods of fish, wasting time and effort. Roach: "Power jigging lets me fish much faster, cover more water, and put more fish in the boat in short order."
When walleyes group in pods near bottom, power jigging is the way to go, according to Roach. "If they're all over the screen, up and down in the water column and scattered — that's a trolling scenario," he says, "especially during late summer. I let the fish tell me what to do based on how they're relating to the bottom or where they are in the water column."
Roach has two sets of rods strapped to the deck of his boat: Trolling rods with line-counter reels and leadcore, and power-jigging rods with spinning reels, 6-pound Northland Bionic Braid, and 6-pound Bionic Fluorocarbon leaders.
"If walleyes are grouped, I go right to pitching on them," he says. "I look for power-jigging opportunities whenever bugs are hatching in August, too. Hatches make walleyes vulnerable to power jigging, because you can go from pod to pod in the area supporting the thickest hatch and always keep your lure near fish."
Zig-zagging across a flat, keeping one eye on his GPS trails (creating a grid) and the other eye on his sonar screen, he looks for telltale marks up off bottom. When he spots one, he stops the boat and casts far enough to let the bait swing down to the fish. "I cast beyond the fish," he says. "The shallower you get, the more important that is. Letting it drop right down on their head in clear water doesn't work. In stained water — especially with these aggressive lures — it's best to cast just beyond them. Cast length is 60 to 90 feet, most of the time.
"Power jigging works two ways. One: You're pinpointing fish with electronics and keeping the bait on a catchable fish. Two: You're using the tactic as a search pattern, jigging quickly to find the most active fish in shallower water, where it becomes a search tool in itself."
Power jigging can be a mop-up tool with electronics. "You go back through a good pod of fish after trolling through them a few times when they stop biting," he says. Power jigging becomes a "search tool in itself" when he uses it to find fish without taking the boat over their heads in shallow water — like reefs and weedlines in less than 15 feet. "I position off weedlines, pitch just beyond the weededge, and walk the lure down the break from 30 to 75 feet away. Whenever the lure touches anything — a weed or bottom — I rip the rod tip up several feet. It's a weed-free method because every time you lift you're ripping weeds off the lure and line."
He works the bait to a vertical position right below the boat and snaps it again, in depths from 12 to 25 feet. "When you're power fishing and using it as a search tool, pitch shallow and work deep," he says. "Don't assume walleyes are anywhere in particular. You're searching because you don't know where the fish are. So cast in all directions and cover all depths around you."
Early in the season, he uses a jighead with livebait or soft plastic to do the same thing. "A baited jig works better in cooler water," he says. "Jigging Raps work best in warmer water. But even in spring you're working the baits back faster than the typical jigging methods, covering water quickly. It finds more aggressive fish faster throughout the course of the day."
Roach uses a 6-foot 8-inch Tony Roach Signature Power Jigging Walleye spinning rod from Wright & McGill (WMTRW68MLPJ1) that he recently designed. The medium-light power and fast action provide balance for casting jigs this size (#7 Rapala and the largest Puppet Minnow), ripping them with authority, and setting hooks. "It's the only rod out there designed specifically for power jigging," he says.
"When casting and ripping jigs back to the boat, braid doesn't slow you down with stretch like mono does. Braid also allows a jig to come out of the weeds clean with a snap of the wrist. I use 6-pound Bionic Braid, tie it to a barrel swivel, and add a couple feet of 6-pound fluorocarbon leader below that, tying directly to the jig."
Roach doesn't use fluorocarbon for stealth so much as for its low stretch. "Mono works, but fluorocarbon's a little stiffer," he says. "You're ripping these baits. Braid is so limp that if you tie direct to it, the lure often rolls over and tangles itself. Fluorocarbon won't let that happen as often. Obviously, it also provides some separation between the opaque braid and the lure." A jigging lure maintains a horizontal posture longer with a stiffer leader when it's being snapped, too, which probably looks more natural. But the lure is going to spin and roll sometimes. The swivel eliminates line twist.
When you're really moving and snapping the bait, walleyes aren't seeing the line. The problem can be strength. Ripping jigs stresses light line, and the warmer it gets, the faster he rips the lures. At that point he switches to 8-pound fluorocarbon, instead of 6.
The idea is to anticipate the jig hitting bottom, as you get a feel for the timing. Lift, fall, thunk in June with a baited jig becomes lift, fall, kiss-and-fly in August with a baitless jigging lure. "Artificials outproduce livebait in the summer," he says. "In May and June, livebait can work great. In July, August, and September, it gets grueling out there with livebait. I don't buy it during those months anymore."
Continued after gallery...
Northland Impulse Paddle Minnow
Northland Impulse Smelt Minnow
Softbaits and Summer Heat
August is like a prism for walleyes. So many forage options, so little time. Power jigging works wherever they go — with a few modifications. "Walleyes shift back into the rocks when the crayfish molt," Roach contends. "At times they go to riprap in extremely shallow water. They go to weedlines, mudflats, and points. They're all over the map in August, and this works everywhere. And because it's such a great search tool, you find walleyes in places where you don't expect them. I've found walleyes in 2 feet of water at 80°F in the middle of the day."
Visiting Rathbun Reservoir in Iowa last year during August, Roach found lots of walleyes in water that shallow. The surface temperature was 85°F. "That's where the gizzard shad were, and shad are the primary forage on Rathbun," he says. "I found them because I've learned to look where I don't expect them to be. They can be all over the place no matter where you go.
"As the water warms, I fish faster so they can't get a good look at it. Livebait slides down the shank or gets foul hooked when you fish really fast and hard. The faster you rip the jig, the more erratic the action becomes. Soft plastics start to greatly outproduce livebait jigging presentations because I can fish much faster, and get the desired action out of the artificial."
Livebait on a jig, by contrast, goes askew, the hook reentering the flesh of the bait to create a corkscrewing, odd-looking mess. Ripping through stiff cabbage weeds, as soon as livebait hits the weeds it begins to twirl, as opposed to the desired effect with soft plastic. With the bait doing stunts at speed, a symmetrical package with a tail that follows the head in a straight line tends to look more natural. And appealing.
Paddletail grubs, augering grubs, ringworms, and shad bodies were some of the shapes mentioned. "I fish Northland Tackle jigs like the 1/4-ounce Gum-Ball or 3/8-ounce Slurpies Swimhead with plastics," he says. "If they want a smaller package, I downsize to a 1/8-ounce FireBall — getting better hookups that way with the shorter 2- to 3-inch plastics. The Impulse Paddle Minnow is great for that."
Softbait colors allow mimicking predominant forage or going entirely with bright colors for attraction. It depends on the body of water. The more stained the water, the more he goes with bright whites, fluorescent chartreuse, or glow orange, because he wants fish to see it when he's fishing fast. In clear water he fishes fast and barely lets it hit bottom before ripping it again; so he goes with white, silver, gold, gold-perch — natural baitfish colors. He lets the bait sit on the bottom more in rivers or in stained water. But in clear water, he never lets it pause. You don't want them to get a good look at it in clear water.
"Walleyes buried in weeds won't come out for much of anything," he says. "But rip plastics through the zone they're in and you wake 'em up. The Jigging Rap is more like a crankbait. It wakes them up out on the flats. I doubt they're actively feeding in water that warm at midday, but they follow and crush a Jigging Rap or a Puppet Minnow in those conditions. It's like an alarm clock to these fish."
So. You want walleyes? Make them act like you in the morning, reflexively swatting at the snooze button.