November 25, 2019
“That might work up there where those guys were fishing, but it sure won’t work on my lake,” was the common refrain. Fast-forward and the most recent trend in walleye fishing is casting, trolling, and vertically jigging heavy, hard-bodied minnows like the Rapala Jigging Rap and Snap Rap, Moonshine Lures Shiver Minnow, Acme Hyper Glide, Northland Puppet Minnow, and Freedom Lures Turn Back Shad (hereafter referred to as jigging minnows)—during the open-water season. I can’t tell you how many walleye anglers I’ve fished with during the past couple seasons who have admitted to knowing about the technique, but never trying it. And some of these folks have been walleye rock stars.
Small Lures that Fish Big
“I started experimenting with these lures about five years ago,” says Jason Mitchell, host of Jason Mitchell Outdoors television series. “I thought you had to fish them vertically over small pieces of structure, because if the spot was big, it made more sense to troll. But I’ve since learned that they’re more versatile.
“There’s also a triggering aspect that intrigues me. I initially thought a big chub, for example, was the ultimate way to catch walleyes in the fall when you find them on structure. But now I mix in jigging minnows to catch walleyes that won’t respond to any other presentation. I also drag and cast them and have had great success in shallow as well as deep water.”
The early buzz around the technique wasn’t lost on 2005 PWT Fox Chain Champion John Butts, who says he was tipped off to the effectiveness of rippin’ Jigging Raps by friends on the National Walleye Tour. Though Butts is retired from tournament competition (he’s the Business Manager for Kingfisher Boats), he still fishes in local events and was runner-up at the 2018 Central Walleye Trail (CWT) tournament on Lake of the Woods.
“Casting heavy jigging minnows over expansive flats is a great way to cover water,” he says. “If I find walleyes schooling and active, I use the technique over almost everything else. It’s so productive and you tend to catch the biggest fish first.”
His observation about trophy walleyes devouring jigging minnows is a strange phenomenon that I’ve noticed as well. I say “strange” because for many years I worked for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources out of the same office as Dr. Peter Colby, who wrote the biological synopsis on walleye for the United Nations and headed up Ontario’s walleye research unit. Colby was fascinated by the way walleyes would selectively target forage fish based on their body size. In other words, the bigger the walleye, the bigger the baitfish it wanted to eat. Much bigger than most anglers imagine. It’s why I believe big walleyes find large paddletail swimbaits so appealing. But, if this is the case, why do the same stout fish go gaga over relatively small compact horizontal jigging minnows? I think that it’s because they’re small lures that fish big.
Like Mitchell and Butts, Manitoba walleye pro Mike Davey, who won the 2018 CWT Lake of the Woods event, says the biggest mistake he’s seen walleye anglers make is presenting the lures too passively. “The best success my partner and I have had has been by working the lures aggressively,” Davey says, who, like Stange, urges walleye anglers not to fish swimbaits in a namby pamby manner. “Most walleye anglers also don’t let jigging minnows hit the bottom, for fear they’re going to snag and lose them. But some days you have to pound them into the bottom.”
“Of course, they shine when you find walleyes stacked under the boat,” Mitchell says, “but I like to cruise and cover water, looking for pods of fish with my electronics. When I find them running in packs, I hit Spot-Lock. The advent of Spot-Lock anchoring feature on trolling motors has coincided with this tactic.
“If walleyes are scrolling across the sonar screen, on the other hand, I like to use the electric motor to drag my lure past them,” he says. “If I drag it through the school, or get off my last waypoint, I cast back to the fish. Or across them if I see them on side-scan. I like to fish from the back of the boat if I’m using side-scan, so I can cast at a better angle.”
Vertical’s Always an Option
Just because casting and trolling jigging minnows have become more popular for walleyes in open water, it doesn’t mean you still shouldn’t vertically jig them. I especially like to “ice-fish” for summer walleyes when I find them bunching up tightly along the shady side of structure and cover—a pile of boulders, steep drop-off, shoal, or weedline—located in moderately deep or deeper water. The other place they excel is in rivers and flowages with current. Their unique size, shape, weight, and profile let you drop them quickly to the bottom where moving-water walleyes spend most of their time and maintain a perpendicular presentation in which your lure isn’t swept uncontrollably downstream.
Shorten Your Lead
Like Mitchell, I’ve enjoyed good success strolling and snapping jigging minnows as I work between waypoints using the iPath and cruise-control features on my Minn-Kota Ultrex, which is linked to my Humminbird Helix. Any time I spot a tightly grouped school of walleyes, I hit the Spot-Lock and Circle features and cast to the walleyes.
With other anglers in the boat, I’ve noticed that they typically catch fewer walleyes initially and snag more frequently because they trail too much line behind the boat. As soon as they adjust the size and weight of their lure, shorten the lead, and keep the angle between their rod tip and lure at about 45 to 50 degrees, they match me fish for fish.
The best way to avoid snags when you’re casting is to position your boat in deeper water, if it’s available, off the side of structure, so you’re casting up to the walleyes and retrieving the lure downhill. Try to rip it up the slope, especially over a rocky bottom, and you pay the price in lost baits.
Rigged and Ready
A medium-power spinning rod with a moderate parabolic tip and balanced reel spooled with 10-pound superline and an 18- to 36-inch, 8- to 10-pound fluorocarbon leader is a good outfit for casting, trolling, and vertically ripping Jigging Rap-style lures for walleyes. Most anglers also use a small barrel swivel to connect the leader to the mainline, although back-to-back uni-knots also work well. On days when he’s catching walleyes with braid and the fish are coming unpinned, Jason Mitchell switches to 6- or 8-pound monofilament.
Unlock your Cadence
As with most new techniques, when jigging minnows transitioned from the ice to the open-water season, most walleye anglers used a similar jigging action and cadence to catch fish. They snapped the lure up, paused briefly, and then let it plummet back down to the bottom, where they paused momentarily before repeating the process. Now that we’ve learned more about the appeal of these lures to walleyes in many different environments, unlocking your cadence opens up the livewell.
“Getting locked into one jigging method is a mistake,” Mitchell says. “The general cadence many anglers make is to pump or sweep the rod with a snap and chase the lure back down, but you can ramp it up or tone it down. You can also let the lure hang or glide. Some of the lures, too, seem to respond better to a specific snap or sweep. You have to experiment with each lure just like you do with a jig. If you can see walleyes on your sonar, keep changing your rhythm and alter the angle as you go over them until you start getting bites.”
Fishing such dissimilar conditions as the muddy Red River, north of Lockport, Manitoba, and the nearby and much clearer Winnipeg River and Lake Winnipeg, often on the same day, has taught Davey how water clarity and lure size guide his presentation. “I first learned about the lures from an old-timer who consistently caught big walleyes in the Red River in winter,” he says. “He typically used the largest firetiger-colored Jigging Rap. He would sit on a pail with a rod in each hand and alternately jig each lure up about 21⁄2 feet before letting it fall. Often, he would slow the descent by keeping his line taut. He caught giant muddy-water walleyes this way.
“When I began experimenting with the lures in open water, I learned that I could catch fish the same way casting, drifting, and vertically jigging to walleyes that I marked below the boat. On the second day of the St. Georges Voyageurs Walleye Classic out of Pine Falls last October, I caught two slot-sized walleyes, helping my partner and me anchor our four-fish, 20-pound bag for a seventh place finish.”
Like the muddy Red River, my home water, Lake of the Woods, is dingy and algae-stained from midsummer on. I’ve discovered that most days using a lure one size larger than conditions would otherwise suggest, ripping it less aggressively, and pounding the bottom as often as possible to create clouds of debris, attracts and triggers more fish. It’s amazing some days how walleyes zero in on the silt cloud and t-bone the lure as soon as it touches down while you begin the next sweep.
“Walleyes snap at these lures when trolling or rigging,” Mitchell says. “It is an explosive presentation that can put fish in the boat fast and change your day like a light switch.” Butts: “I was fishing one of my favorite big walleye waters using Slow Death this summer, when I decided to change to a Jigging Rap. It was like a switch went off and the walleyes smashed it. Not only did I catch more fish faster with the Rap, they were bigger as well.”
Upsize the Treble
You increase the number of walleyes you catch with jigging minnows by upsizing the treble hook one size larger. But be careful twisting the hook hanger as it will snap. The best way to open it up is by bending it gently to the side with a pair of needlenose pliers.
The Evolution Continues
We’re only at the beginning of the learning curve for using jigging minnows in open water. “I’ve caught walleyes on all of the classic jigging minnows,” Mitchell says, “but I’ve also experimented with rattlebaits like Rippin’ Raps, Livetarget Golden Shiners, Salmo Zippers, and others.
Another lure that doesn’t get mentioned often, because it’s lighter and has to be fished slowly, is the Salmo Chubby Darter. “The Chubby Darter suspends behind the boat more and takes longer to get down,” he says. “But it hangs off the bottom and is deadly in snaggy locations, especially around zebra mussels. I’ve also cast and snapped Chubby Darters through shallow water like the Jigging Rap, but with a slower more pronounced cadence and have done well.”
Davey, on the other hand, has fallen in love with ripping a 21⁄4-inch Sebile Vibrato in pinkescent color. He says the Johnson Johnny Darter, with its built-in rattle, is another “difference maker”, especially in the Antifreeze Perch color.
“We’re not done learning,” Mitchell says. “I think there might be applications for snapjigging the lures quickly behind the boat, as well as trolling them with a bow-mounted electric motor, using line-counter reels and periodic snaps.”
Jigging minnows, traditionally winter walleye baits, are equally effective on open water. It’s another step in the journey to walleye nirvana. About the only mistake you can make is being too slow off the mark to embrace it.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Gord Pyzer is a decades-long contributor to In-Fisherman publications.