January 06, 2016
Am I a lucky guy? You better believe it. Living in the heart of Northwest Ontario's walleye country, I have 100,000 prime Shield waters within five hours of my front door. Many are just minutes away; places that make walleye anglers twitch with anticipation—Rainy Lake, Lake of the Woods, the Winnipeg River, Eagle Lake, Wabigoon Lake, Vermilion Lake, Lac Seul, Red Lake, and Lac des Milles Lacs. And I get to fish them, on average, five days a week from ice-out until freeze-up in late fall.
So, what baits, lures and techniques do I rely upon, to not only put numbers of walleyes in the boat, but double-digit fish as well?
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The Jig's Up
No surprise that I carry hundreds of jigs from 1/16- to a full ounce. Over the years, no other lure has keyed more walleye bites than a lead-head jig. They're versatile. You can power or finesse-fish a jig. Cast it, drag it, swim it, or fish it vertically with great effectiveness. Tip it with a vast array of live- and softbaits, alone or in combination.
Ten years ago, most of my jigs were standard multi-colored roundheads. Today, most sport a small willowleaf blade below the head, such as the ReelBait Flasher. Through years of experimentation, I've found there's rarely a situation where the blade reduces the number of bites. Many times, on the other hand, it adds scores of fish to the tally sheet.
Another conclusion: the next frontier in fishing involves sound and vibration. There's much we don't know about how these complementary senses influence walleye behavior. But I'm certain that a small willowleaf blade spinning below a jighead increases your chances of catching walleyes.
Talk to any walleye expert fishing south of the Shield where vegetation is abundant, and they tell you it's often one of the strongest locational patterns. Why, then, do most Shield anglers bypass grass? Indeed, the fact that vegetation is limited in Shield waters increases its attractiveness.
It's also why my bucktail box never leaves the boat. "A bucktail jig is the only thing I've found that doesn't constantly get clogged with weeds," says Big Jim McLaughlin, who ties the best commercial version I've used.
I use a 6.5-foot medium-power spinning rod with an extra-fast tip for ripping 1/4- and 3/8-ounce bucktail jigs through vegetation. I spool my 2500-series Shimano reels with 14- or 17-pound-test braid.
Any bucktail can work, so much the better if it's primarily black. "Black's my favorite, too," McLaughlin says, "especially in combination with a bit of red. I tie black and purple bucktails for a couple of tackle shops and they fly off the shelves. The other top design is a true-life perch pattern, with chartreuse hair in the middle. It looks like a bumble bee—and it stings."
Like so many of the best Shield patterns, there's nothing finesseful about the presentation. Make a long cast to the edge of a clump of cabbage, let the jig settle to the bottom, point your rod tip toward the lure, and pop it hard to rip it 5 or 6 feet off bottom. Pause, drop your rod tip so it points back toward the jig, retrieve slack, and repeat. Eventually, after you tighten up and attempt to rip the jig again, you slam the hook into a brickyard walleye. "It's scary how they hit it," McLaughlin says. "Don't be afraid to pop it hard."
Talking about how hard walleyes slam bucktails is the perfect segue to swimbaits, the bait that's put more double-digit Shield walleyes into the boat for me over the past 10 years than all other presentations combined. I learned the technique from In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange. Today it remains a mystery why so many anglers don't embrace such an amazingly effective system.
I won't repeat all the details because you can read them in so many past issues of In-Fisherman. But there's never a time on a Shield lake that I don't have at least one 7- to 7-foot 2-inch medium-power medium-action spinning rod on deck, spooled with 10- or 14-pound FireLine or Sufix Fuse, rigged with a swimbait pinned to a 1/2-, 3/4-, or 1-ounce jighead.
The Owner Saltwater Ultra Bullet jighead and the Kalin's Saltwater Bullet Head remain standards, but Freedom Tackle's new Hydra jig, with its ultra-realistic fish head, sonic brass echo chamber, and replaceable hook attachment is another great option. Berkley's Saltwater Swim Shad was the ground breaker, but it's given way for the PowerBait Flat Back Shad, the Hollow Belly Swimbait, -Basstrix -Minnow, X-Zone Swammer, and Bass Magnet Shift'R Shad.
Early in the season, when the weeds are still crisp you can fish swimbaits the same way we rip bucktail jigs, because they shed weeds well and walleyes crush them when they pop free. The rest of the season, and in grass-free Shield waters, swimbaits excel on traditional walleye structure, from rocky points and bars to boulder reefs. The key is making a long cast, letting the lure hit bottom, popping it up to get the paddletail kicking, then swimming it back to the boat briskly, keeping it close to the bottom, hesitating briefly during each lift and fall.
When we find a school of walleyes on a deep spot, rather than cast, it's better to drop a heavy swimbait over the side and let it fall to the bottom. If a walleye doesn't eat it on the initial drop, sweep the jig up to the 11-o'clock position briskly enough that you feel the paddletail vibrate, then pause before you let it flutter back down to the bottom, and repeat the process.
Even though swimbaits are my go-to big-fish presentation, I'm amazed at how hard 16- or 17-inch walleyes smack them. When I feel the school of fish I've marked doesn't contain any giants, I often substitute a Rapala Jigging Rap or Snap Rap for the swimbait and fish it only slightly less aggressively. These are the lures most winter walleye anglers rely on, yet rarely consider for summertime duty.
I especially like to vertically jig winter baits when the water is calm enough that I can see the lure and the walleyes on my front sonar screen. The key is to drop the lure, always keeping it just above the fish. Often you see a walleye break from the school and shoot up to intercept it on the fall, well before it appears on the screen. If a fish doesn't strike on the initial drop, rarely do you need to pop it up more than once or twice before you feel a thump.
Slow Death Rigs
If I rely on swimbaits to put giant walleyes in the boat, I dig out my slow-death rods to produce constant action and numbers of fish. Developed by South Dakota Guide Dave Spaid for the tough summertime bite on the Missouri River, the rig is basically a #2 Tru-Turn Aberdeen hook with a unique 45-degree kink in the shank. Thread on a live- or softbait scented nightcrawler, giving it the distorted shape of the shank, and pinch off the trailing end so only a small nub hangs off the back. Pull the rig behind a bottom bouncer at moderate speed.
"The weight of the Tru-Turn Aberdeen is critical," Spaid told me years ago after winning back-to-back Governor's Cups using the technique. "It's light and it spins at any speed." Since Spaid's pioneering days, several companies including Mustad, Matzuo, Eagle Claw, Northland, and VMC also offer versions of the hook. Versions from Matzuo and VMC have a tiny swivel attached to the eye of the hook for increased spin and reduced leader twist. They all work, especially during mayfly hatches that routinely plague anglers on Shield waters in late June and early July.
With so many nymphs crawling on the bottom and emerging to the surface, walleyes become fat, selective, and lazy. But a corkscrewing crawler chunk on a slow-death hook is more than they can stand. The best way to present it is with a bottom bouncer with a stiff wire arm that has a good snap swivel to connect to your leader so it doesn't twist.
When selecting bouncer weight, I adhere to the 10-foot rule. One-ounce bouncers are ideal in waters up to 10 feet deep, 2-ounce models at the 20-foot level, and 3-ounce weights work to 30 feet and beyond. I use 8- or 10-pound-test Maxima Ultragreen mono for my slow-death leaders, rarely using one longer than 3 or 4 feet. I've found that longer leaders (especially fluorocarbon) tend to pick up muck off the bottom, reducing the action imparted to the whirling worm. I prefer 7- to 8-foot medium-power and medium-action baitcasting outfits for this presentation, spooling with either 10- or 12-pound-test Maxima Ultragreen or 10-pound-test Sufix Fuse.
As Spaid said years ago, "the thing about slow death is anyone can do it. Simply drag the rig behind your boat, wait until you feel a fish, pause a split second while the walleye turns with the worm, and set the hook."
Few techniques can compete with swimbaits for the biggest walleyes. But crankbaits are one of the contenders. I cast them whenever I find fish shallow, especially in the heat of mid-summer when the wind is blowing onto a prime structure and I've intercepted a school that's feeding. I also like trolling crankbaits out off the edge for suspended walleyes. And like the walleyes I hope to catch, the crankbaits—Rapala Tail Dancers and Reef Runners—are large, at least 5 or 6 inches long. They catch big walleyes throughout summer and fall.
Years ago, when I worked with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, I worked with some of the brightest minds in the world of walleyes. One colleague, Dr. Peter Colby, headed the province's walleye research unit and wrote the seminal scientific paper, "The Synopsis of Biological Data on Walleye" for the United Nations.
I listened to him explain how walleyes target a specific size prey, based on its own body size. The size of the food walleyes prefer is substantially larger than most anglers think. By the time a walleye reaches 17 inches, it can eat 5- and 6-inch baitfish. Extrapolate for a 30- or 32-inch walleye and you see that it can readily devour a 7- or 8-inch lure.
I often troll crankbaits, running a traditional longline behind the boat, with baitcasting outfits spooled with 10- or 14-pound Berkley FireLine or Sufix Fuse. I prefer to use leadcore line because you can troll much more accurately with it. Leadcore follows the path of your boat. When you slow down or speed up, your crankbait "adjusts" somewhat gradually to the new speed. Snapweights, bottom bouncers, and in-line sinkers, on the other hand, have a tendency to respond right away, so if you slow down, they crash to the bottom.
It's not just for deep water. I often troll a Jointed Rapala Minnow or Storm Thunderstick in 10, 12, or 15 feet across the top of reefs using an 8- to 10-foot medium-light-action trolling rod with a line-counter reel with spool capacity of 90 to 100 yards of leadcore. I start by letting out only one or two colors of line, but when I hit the edge of a structural break, I let out more line so that I'm trolling over open water for suspended walleyes hanging off the edge.
A trick walleye ace John Butts taught me years ago is to always use an 8-foot leader of 14-pound-test Berkley FireLine or Sufix Fuse. Those lines don't stretch, so they complement the soft properties of the rod. The tip vibrates wildly, relaying every subtle nuance of the lure. You can even run a crankbait within inches of the bottom and not constantly hang up. If your lure picks up even the slightest piece of debris, the tip stops vibrating. When a walleye bites, you'd have to be asleep to miss it. And when it comes to Shield walleye waters, bites are what you're going to have plenty of.