The slow-death tsunami began almost a decade ago with a bent hook and half a 'crawler. The technique surfaced on walleye tournament trails with several notable wins, then gradually reached weekend anglers and has made an enormous impact. It all stems from the simplest of tweaks to classic walleye trolling techniques.
When a presentation peaks in popularity, it can seem bullet-proof. When nearly every boat on the lake is having success, changing gears seems dubious, but evolving techniques have always been an integral part of the walleye game.
Speed and Slow Death
Postspawn walleyes invade warming shallow waters and eventually slip out onto breaks and weedlines by mid-May and June. While colder water temperatures push some anglers to slow down to slow-death speed, Minnesota Guide Scott Seibert continues to use ever-faster spinner rigs. "I save a slow-death presentation for when mayfly hatches affect my success," he says. "Until then, I rely on traditional spinner rigs." While slow-death rigs often work best at 0.8 to 1.2 mph, spinners can be productive up to 2.0 mph, giving Seibert a boost in covering the large flats and gentle points of Leech Lake and Winnibigoshish.
Lowrance pro Shane Eustice from El Dorado, Kansas, also stays with spinners as long as possible. This tournament angler and multispecies guide doesn't rig for slow death until mayflies cover his camper and truck. Spring rains create runoff from fertile Kansas farmlands so spinner blades increase the visibility and vibration of the presentation above and beyond what slow-death rigging can provide.
Eustice provides some history, "Eight years ago, no one in Kansas used slow-death rigs," he says. "Soon, tournament winners touted slow-death rigs. Eventually, 90 percent of the tournament boats were using slow-death techniques and tournament finishes tightened up." That was when he studied other options.
Last season, the Kansas Walleye Association series was mired with dark water, weekend cold fronts, and even a tornado. These events further postponed effective slow-death rigging until late June. At an El Dorado Reservoir tournament in April, muddy water and cold rain stopped the bite dead in its tracks and even spinner rigs were too aggressive. Eustice focused on key spots with jigs and weighed one of the 13 fish caught during the event. Every technique has its limits and knowing when to locker the rods for a different option remains a key decision.
Sakakawea Reservoir presents classic slow-death territory. Shallow wind-swept waters filled with schools of walleyes lured the Cabela's National Walleye Tour to Garrison, North Dakota, last May. Skeeter pro Robert Blosser found larger walleyes 105 miles from the launch, requiring a long run and leaving only 90 minutes to fish. To quickly locate wandering walleyes, he started each morning trolling crankbaits on leadcore in 3 to 8 feet of water.
Blosser explains his choice of presentation, "Walleyes would move up and down the shoreline each morning so I needed a faster presentation to home in on the group. Even in shallow water, leadcore was key to accurately follow the irregular sand and rock points in the area." Sonar remains the primary fish-finding tool at boat speed of 5 to 20 mph, but in this case the shallow fish were difficult to graph. The next-fastest option was trolling crankbaits at 1.5 to 2.2 mph and that worked. But once he found a school of fish, the slow-death hooks came out.
He rigged three rods (one for him, two for his co-angler) but changed the presentation on the fourth rod. "I use 10-foot 6-inch light-action rods to spread slow-death rigs. This leaves room for lindy-rigging an oversized chub off of the back corner of the boat. Slow death remains a fantastic way to target bottom-hugging fish in reservoirs, especially when working specific points and drop-offs," he says. "But in a tournament, it often pays to upsize at least one presentation to lure the largest fish from the school."
The Slow Death March
Another limiting factor for slow-death presentations is the size of the spot. On small spots, Guide Nathan Zelinsky explains, "I only use slow-death and other livebait rigging presentations if the area is larger than four long casts or deeper than 20 feet." With the rise of swimbaits and rip-jigging reaction baits, this mental limit makes sense: Why drive over skittish fish and fuss with livebait when two anglers can thoroughly work an area with hardware?
The minimum spot size has grown in the past few years. A 5/8-ounce W7 Rapala Jigging Rap can be cast 60 yards, sinks quickly, and can be effectively jigged in the worst waves and weather. A second angler with a 3.5-inch Berkley PowerBait Ripple Shad on a 3/8-ounce head can do almost as well, especially in shallower water. Only during the tightest lockjaw bites would the jigging spot size shrink to the short pitches possible with a traditional jig-and-minnow presentation.
On larger areas, Zelinsky imposes another limit. "I break larger flats or long roadbeds into smaller sections. When a spot is over 8 feet deep, I drive over it at 5 mph and don't drop a line until I find several schools of fish on sonar. Lowrance Structure Scan can highlight larger pods of fish, but in many cases it can be just as effective to fish through the area. In the end, my goal is to connect with enough groups of fish to have at least one fish arch on my sonar at all times."
On featureless flats, he drops a buoy at the start of the school, drives until the group ends, and fishes back to the buoy. The old-school accuracy of this approach far outweighs the time spent picking up markers. "With a buoy out, everyone knows where we're headed and can focus. Throughout the day it's easy to see if the school moves one way or another. And over a week, patterns develop even in seemingly featureless spots."
When Zelinsky sees other boats fishing through larger areas he's even more motivated to pull up his lines every hundred yards, turn around, and rework a school of fish, avoiding the slow 1.0 mph, "death march" between biting schools some anglers associate with the presentation.
Putting Everything Together
Brian Ondrejka started the Kansas Angling Experience Guide Service three years ago to fill a void in walleye and bass fishing in northeastern Kansas. Clinton Reservoir provides a fine venue for after-work trips. His first week on the water after the spawn was devoted to pulling a jig-and-crawler rig at 0.5 to 0.8 mph. When guiding every evening and most weekends in a crowd of boats, every advantage helps. Over the next few weeks, spinners, slow-death, and livebait rigging all worked, but the Northland Crawler Hauler Speed Spinner rig, a slow-death-style hook fronted by four beads and a small spinner blade, outfished the rest.
"Clinton Reservoir isn't clear, but it's not dingy either," he says. "Plain 'crawler rigs often go unnoticed, while full-size spinner rigs can create sensory overload. A small #3 spinner brought the flash needed this spring to catch walleyes and saugers." His use of slow death ended when late-June rains scattered the fish across large mudflats. In this situation, slow death was too slow and Ondrejka switched to trolling leadcore with crankbaits.
Few anglers agree on how slow-death presentations should be rigged. While both Blosser and North Dakota Guide Jason Mitchell prefer baitcasting setups, Blosser uses 10-foot 6-inch rods and Mitchell uses 6-foot 6-inch rods. Similarly, some anglers prefer a braided mainline while others use monofilament. And some place rods in holders while others lean toward hand-held presentations. Clearly, many setups work, but key refinements have been made in the past year.
Mitchell's Elite Series rods are designed to cover multiple pulling presentations. "I designed the 6-foot 6-inch medium-power baitcasting rod (10804) for slow-death presentations," he says. "It has a slow tip similar to a rigging rod, but more backbone to handle heavier weights and the drag of pulling at faster speeds. I hand-hold slow-death rods and adjust my hook-set to conditions. In colder water, I drop the rod, then sweep forward to hook the fish. When waters warm and fish are more active, I let the rod load before making a sweep-set.
Siebert favors Mitchell's 8-foot 6-inch telescopic trolling rod (JM861GMLH). Its flexible tip sets it apart from other trolling rods, and it fits in any rod locker. The search for a flexible tip inspired Eustice and other Kansas walleye anglers to use B.D. Ehrler custom rods.
Zelinsky helped design the Fenwick Elite Tech Walleye Rigging spinning rod (ETW72M-FS), as he favors a medium-power over medium-light. He often must fish deeper in Colorado reservoirs, requiring more weight. He uses a three-way rig designed to put the bait 3 to 5 inches above the bottom. To accomplish this, he uses 4- to 12-inch droppers to half-ounce weights, with dropper length depending on speed. Trolling at 1 mph works well for active fish, while slowing to 0.7 mph matches walleye moods later in the morning or during cold fronts. The bait spins in a smaller circle at slower speeds, requiring a shorter dropper to stay in the strike zone. Longer droppers would pull a slow-moving bait too high off bottom and reduce bites. When faced with spring cold fronts and finicky fish, he lengthens leaders to 6 feet and lengthens droppers to 12 inches.
Options abound for reels as well. Blosser uses line-counter reels even in shallow water. Smaller line-counter reels such as the low-profile options like Okuma's Coldwater 350 and Daiwa's Lexa LC300H are ideal. The Daiwa Sealine SG-3B and Accudepth Plus-B in the smaller LC17 size and Abu Garcia's Ambassadeur 5500LC are not much larger and balance well with longer rods. On traditional baitcasting reels, a flipping switch is helpful. Today, only the Quantum Accurist PT and the Abu Garcia Silver Max reel offer this option.
For these techniques, choose spinning reels with a high gear ratio that winds a lot of line per turn. Slow-death rigs generate slack with a bottom bouncer so retrieve speed helps you keep contact with the rig and hooked walleyes. For example, the Pfleuger President reel retrieves 25 inches per turn in the 3000 size while the President XT collects 31 inches. In the Abu Garcia line, the Orra S winds 26.5 inches, the Revo S 30, and Revo Rocket 37.
For successful slow-death fishing, the weight of the hook, the alignment of the crawler, and the speed of the boat must be in harmony. Mack's Lure recently released a stouter hook option on their Super Slow Death rig, a response to Columbia River anglers straightening hooks on double-digit beauties. The stouter hook also has a more aggressive bend and needs to be rigged carefully. The other hook in the heavyweight division is the Berkley Fusion19 Slow-Turn. Its aggressive V-shaped bend and heavy wire was also designed for larger fish and works great with the Gulp! Killer Crawler and Gulp! 4" Crawler.
It's a good idea to standardize your rigs on each line. Using one brand of hook increases the likelihood that all of the baits are spinning similarly. The original Mustad Slow Death hooks are on the light end of the scale, while the Matzuo, Trokar, Northland, VMC, and Mack's Standard Slow Death rig options have a medium heft. A #2 hook is the most common for walleyes, with larger sizes better suited to plastics or whole 'crawlers, and tiny sizes better for perch rigs.
An ongoing trend is to add bling to the front of the rig. The Northland Crawler Hauler Speed Spinner is the largest overall rig, with a Worden's #14 Spin-N-Glo that also adds lift to the system. Mack's Lure Smile Blades and a few beads provide a burst of color, flash, and vibration, as does the stamped metal propeller on the JB Lures Slow Death Plus rig. Even the most conservative anglers add a single red or orange bead in front of the rig or go with a red hook. Replacing a natural 'crawler with artificials like the Northland Impulse Crawler or the Berkley options helps ward off bait-stealing catfish or perch while adding different colors.
Clever anglers continue to tweak tackle and push the limits of the system. And debates about tackle preference will continue. There's plenty to be learned about how weather and lake conditions affect walleye rigging preferences. But the slow-death system often works so well, there's almost no wrong way to do it.
*David Harrison, Lawrence, Kansas, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications. Contacts: Scott Seibert, sksguides.com, 612/759-0845; Shane Eustice, hookemguide.com, 316/323-0010; Nathan Zelinsky, tightlineoutdoors.com, 720/775-7770; Jason Mitchell, fishdevilslake.net, 701/662-6560; Brian Ondrejka, kansasanglingexperience.com, 913/484-9055.