Cruising through a green-walled neck between basins, we broke into the open and flew along the shoreline. The Midwest takes on the emerald shades of Ireland in May, which blurred past.
The spot we pulled up on didn't look any different from the miles of shoreline we'd just passed. But the boat belonged to Al Lindner. No doubt, this would be a special spot. And no doubt he chose it because I wouldn't be able to find it again (this was before GPS). He opened the baitwell, grabbed two fatheads and pitched one to me. He selected a light rod, not an ultralight, or a medium — a 6-foot 6-inch, light-power spinning rod. On the reel seat was a medium-light reel loaded with 4-pound Berkley Trilene XL.
Which seemed significant. Everybody else used 6- to 8-pound line in those days on lakes like that, where we could easily hook a 7-pounder, maybe even a 10 or bigger. Always a light-line enthusiast for steelhead and browns, I was intrigued. Al used a 1/16-ounce jig to swing or softly pitch small minnows to pockets and points in those early weedlines 4 feet down. And (as usual) he caught most of the walleyes.
A light rod that can handle 4-pound has been my favorite early-season pitching stick ever since — only mine is a tad longer. Many of you know I use the St. Croix Avid 80MLM2 ($225) with 4-pound line for small jigs with minnows, leeches, ringworms, and plastic grubs in the early season. Rich Belanger, promotions manager for St. Croix, will read this, slap his forehead, and moan, "not again." Hey — perfection is a rare thing for us mortals to find.
Its 8-foot length seems to increase sensitivity to light bites while driving a 4-inch ringworm on a 1/16-ounce head way out there. The tip isn't soft, but it's pliable enough to pitch a "cobra" leech 60 feet at least 20 times without having it rip free. Not that you should throw leeches that far. Just saying. After all these years, I remain amazed at how this light-power stick sets hooks at distance with 4-pound monofilament and doubles up on fun. It makes 2-pounders feel real and 10-pounders feel mesh. But I feel Belanger's pain, too: St. Croix builds quite a few impressive pitching sticks.
Wand Of The Skarlini
Tommy Skarlis, former champion of walleye and crappie circuits, loves to pitch with a 7-foot spinning St. Croix Legend Elite ES70MLF ($380). "I throw everything with it," Skarlis says. "Light or heavy cranks, jigs-and-minnows — anything you want to pitch you can do so with this rod. It doubles as a vertical jigging rod, but that 7-foot length allows you to swing things on the cast without ripping baits free. At times you may not feel a fish bite, but you sense it. I don't know if that makes sense, but you can feel bites with this rod you can't feel with others."
Skarlis says it's light enough to cast light cranks and heavy enough for heavier ones. And it can handle a 10-pounder. The fast tip is responsive enough to pop hooks home quick, but it has enough play to protect light line against monsters. When I'm pitching a jig-leech or jig-minnow, I can keep tension on a fish without having them drop it. Sometimes I want to know which way a fish is swimming, telling me where its face is so I can drag the hook-set back across the fish and get a positive set. This rod is limber enough to do that.
"The ES70MLF is a feather," he adds. "Far less fatigue. Yet when I want to rifle cranks way out there, this rod can to it. The balance of properties is right for casting things in all sizes and weights common for walleyes, and it loads up just right in that range of weights."
Guide Tony Roach rolls over basin flats at about one-third throttle, creating a grid with his GPS, looking for marks 2 to 5 feet off bottom. "Those are active walleyes," he says. "The ones most likely to chase."
When Roach spots a suspended target, whether a solitary soldier or a wolf pack cruising along off bottom, he pops the boat into neutral, snatches his rod, and makes a quick cast to the approximate spot in the boat wake where something appeared on the depth finder — usually about 20 feet back. While his 1/4-ounce jig-plastic combo or Rapala Jigging Rap sinks, he slips into reverse. When the bait hits bottom he pops it up 2 to 3 feet, sometimes setting hooks with the same motion. If a walleye doesn't take it on the drop, he reels down as the jig falls and pops it again, repeating the pop-drop retrieve until the bait is directly under the boat.
"Then I pop it again," he says. "They often hit when the bait gets vertical, too. About a third of the walleyes we find off bottom like that bite." For several years, he's been using rods he designed for Wright & McGill for this tactic. He has a new favorite he designed last year, the Wright & McGill Tony Roach Signature WMW76MS1.
"A 7-foot 6-inch rod casts for better distance when you need it," he says. "But it also broadens the range of motions you can achieve when jigging or retrieving lures. I wanted a fast tip and good backbone, but this rod has great feel, too. Even if you downsize to lighter jigs, you can feel bottom and feel walleyes pick it up. The price is a crowd pleaser ($69.99). You can go light with it, but I designed it for jigs in the 1/8- to 1/2-ounce range. I use it to pitch Jigging Raps. This is my new favorite rod for that, and I can use it with football heads for smallmouths, too."
The Shiver Stick
"Bladebaits are a sleeping giant for walleyes right now," says Gary Parsons, one of the top walleye pros of all time. "I've won a lot of money in the last year and a half with blades and shiver baits, which require specific rods. I designed the Bass Pro Shops Walleye Angler Gary Parsons Signature Series WL70MS ($99.99) for these baits."
This rod has power that lends itself to a several techniques, but "for pitching, it's my favorite," he says. "It's more of a medium-power. It takes more than a traditional jigging rod to pitch blades — something a little stiff even for cranks. I pitch Moonshine Lures Shiver Minnows weighing 1/2- to 3/4-ounce with it, working them like spoons with big sweeps. You get bone-jarring strikes and if you don't have enough backbone, you miss fish. If you use the standard medium-light, it's like using a 5 wood where you need a driver."
Often bites come as a surprise with blades and Shiver Minnows, Parsons says. "It's either a vertical or semi-vertical approach," he adds. "Either slow drifting, slow trolling, or casting, which is the deadliest way to fish them. It's kind of the same action as the rod you might use to pitch jigs, but longer. Let the bait drop on a slack line then tighten up to follow that last 6 inches of glide. It's a lot like snapjigging. You need a little more power and a good, stiff rod to handle that kind of presentation. Sweeps are shorter and the hop is less aggressive, but the semi-slack line and rod action is the same used when snapjigging."
Four For Jigs
Walleye pro Chip Leer has served the fishing industry in many capacities, and now he adds rod designer to the list. He balked at choosing "just one" stick for pitching. "Gosh, it's hard to narrow it down," Leer says. "I use several 13 Fishing rods. Their first lineup of walleye models is called Muse Gold. If I had to pick just one to pitch with, I'd take the 7-foot 2-inch MGS72ML medium-light ($185). If you flip or pitch anything small, down to the tiniest jig for walleyes, this is it. It's soft enough in the tip that you're never going to throw off a minnow or leech, it's built for use with braid but performs very well with monofilament."
13 Fishing uses a unique rod-building process. "They call it Zonal-Action Technology — different wraps in different directions from the butt to the middle to the tip," Leer says. "Each section does what it's intended to do. Plenty of launch power in the tip, yet it produces a nice even swing as opposed to a snap. So many fast-action rods are too 'tippy.' This rod is my jig-pitchin' machine. When walleyes are on a 3/32-ounce jig hovering without falling, this is the rod that can pitch it out there and put it where you want it. It excels at hand-to-hand combat. A lot of rods present right but aren't forgiving enough to play a big fish and keep it hooked."
Tom Neustrom, one of the top guides in Minnesota, goes with a Daiwa Tatula 701MFS ($159). "I guide for everything, and this is a multispecies rod for walleyes, smallmouths, crappies, and a lot of light presentations," he says. "I pitch 1/4-ounce jigs and cranks with it. It has awesome backbone but plenty of power for cranks and forgiveness for livebait techniques and jigs tipped with plastic."
Korey Sprengle was one point out of first for Angler of the Year in the 2015 Cabela's National Walleye Tour (NWT) standings going into the championship at Devils Lake. Unlike most pros, he attributed much of his success to pitching plastics, and he says his strongest tool was the new Abu Garcia Veracity VERSW70-5.
"I use 1/8- to 1/4-ounce jigs coupled with a Berkley PowerBait Rib Worm or Berkley Ripple Shad," Sprengle says. "The Abu rod I like is a 7-foot spinning rod with medium power. I don't use livebait much. This rod has a forgiving tip, but the backbone is stronger than a bait stick. It's excellent for long casts and solid hookups at distance. Its length provides better distance with light jigs. The reel seat is thin — no cork or cushion. You can feel a fly land on the line. It's light-weight with micro guides so you can cast all day. I'm particular about rods, so I generally have a specific rod for everything. This is my jig-plastic pitching rod."
For plastics and bait with 1/8- to 1/4-ounce jigs and 6- to 8-pound line, my top choice is the G. Loomis Walleye Series GLX WPJR 821S ($405). Casting is effortless, the rod is light as a feather, but the sensitivity of high-modulus GLX construction is the draw for me. No stick I've used is better at picking up "follow bites," which describes walleyes closing their mouth on a swimming jig and moving with it. It feels like a feather brushing the jig, and many rods are incapable of telegraphing anything to your hand in that scenario. Loads up and launches 1/8-ounce jigs way far.
With this in mind, I'm excited to try Loomis' new walleye series in the IMX and E6X lineups that will be available soon. The IMX Walleye Finesse rods run $285 to $295 and are dialed into walleye applications. The 7-foot 1-inch 852S WRR is fast with medium power and should make a versatile pitching stick.
The E6X rods ($179.99 to $239.99) use Loomis' award-winning Multi-Taper Technology, which yields precisely defined rod actions with high sensitivity as well as durability. Twelve models cover rigging and trolling, as well as jigging and pitching.
Batson Enterprises sells only blanks — not completed fishing rods. "That's how G. Loomis started," says Mike Thorson, rod-design coordinator formerly in charge of design for St. Croix rods. "We're in Washington, too, but Batson has a lot of walleye models for jigging, slipbobbers, Lindy rigging, bottom bouncers — but just the blanks. You have to buy the blank and have it custom made."
With only a short time to work with it, I'd have to say Thorson is responsible for one of the better pitching blanks ever designed in the Batson IMMWS72ML-TC. "When I was designing this one, I was thinking of an all-purpose stick with a light tip that bends to swing and pitch jigs without snapping the bait off, long enough for slipbobbers, but is optimal for pitching light jigs between 1/16 and 3/8 ounces, and 1/8- to 1/4-ouncers are ideal. Braid or mono. It has a two-speed action a quick tip. Under load it slows to a medium fast, which protects light line in all phases of fishing.
"It protects 4-pound line and whips a jig-plastic combo way out there," Thorson adds. "I generally use a little stiffer blank when burying the hook in the plastic, as you might do around woodcover, but this rod excels with bait or plastic."
The stick that custom rod-builder Kris Kristufek of Lake Lady Rods (218/251-2626) built for us would sell for $395 (with fancy wraps and designs, it could have cost up to $449). "Custom rods are different from anything off the shelf — built to match your arm and hand measurements," Kristufek says. "With more guides there are no sharp angles when the rod is fully loaded. Manufacturers won't take the time to find the spine of the rod, but a custom builder will. The guides sit right above the spine to provide the best action and oscillate vertically when it is snapped — not in an oval. It's like your golf game. The projectile goes straight ahead when the shaft of the club oscillates vertically. I want to consistently brush a post when I cast to docks, not have every cast reach a different spot."
The joy of pitching is in the soft cast, accuracy of placement, feeling the bite, setting the hook, and playing fish without losing them. The right rod is light, feels comfortable, feels everything touching the lure, then protects both the catch and the line. Making the case for all these sticks is an easy pitch to make. â–
In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw lives in Brainerd, Minnesota.