Spinner rigs are a key element in walleye fishing. Remarkably versatile and effective, they combine color, flash, vibration, and scent at a controlled depth and speed.
Spinner rigs originated more than a century ago with individuals like John Hildebrandt from Logansport, Indiana. Hildebrandt is credited with pairing a metal clevis with a blade and a wire shaft to make it spin more smoothly. The blade and clevis concept is fundamental to spinner rigs. This rigging system has retained its fundamental elements but has been refined in many ways by today's top anglers. Hildebrandt blades are still among the finest available.
Vintage rigs manufactured by Ernest F. Pflueger of Akron, Ohio, and Erwin Weller of Sioux City, Iowa, consisted of a blade attached to a short fixed length of wire. There was generally a loop or snap swivel at the rear of the rig. Anglers could customize it by attaching a hook to the spinner harness or attaching a leader with a hook to the rig's snap. Lead shot was crimped on the wire leader or the line above the rig.
In 1959, DuPont revolutionized angling with Stren monofilament line, and the modern walleye spinner rig soon took form. Local and regional variations sprang up across the Midwest, including the Little Joe Red Devil Rig popularized by Joe Fadebo of Isle, Minnesota. Versions of this classic rig are still marketed by Lindy Tackle Company. Anglers such as Greg Bena of Sutherland, Iowa, made further spinner refinements with his Bena Rig. Fellow Iowa Great Lakes walleye pioneer David Hennings contributed to advancements in walleye spinner rigs nearly a half century ago and to this day ties some of the finest finesse rigs available under the Hennings Tackle LLC name.
The Spinner Story
Hennings recounts the early days of fishing spinner rigs on the Iowa Great Lakes and the unique bead patterns and colors incorporated into productive Bena Rigs. "Greg Bena preached the importance of color, and through my many years of experience on the water, walleyes continually reaffirm the importance of blade color and size," he says. "Much of our early success was a result of trial and error." Many of his rigs are on the small end of the scale, used out of necessity to catch fish during tournaments. They include his popular Mini Walleye Spins rig, consisting of a #0 blade, small spacer, and a #1 VMC long-shank hook.
"The Mini Walleye Spins evolution started several years ago on Mille Lacs Lake," Hennings says. "I was in a tournament and found the walleyes finicky. A popular option was a plain hook and 'crawler on a 12-foot leader. But walleyes kept dropping it and wouldn't commit. I tried a traditional 'crawler harness and couldn't get a bite so I downsized the spinner and threaded a 'crawler onto it. That was the ticket. They wanted just a bit of flash and the 'crawler to look natural. I continued testing it on Lake Oahe in South Dakota. There I tinkered more and found that the #0 blade spins more freely than the smaller #00 blade. I paired it with a light-wire VMC Aberdeen hook and 12-pound-test mono leader material. That hook has plenty of hooking and holding power, but when snagged, it can be straightened before the line breaks, saving money and time on the water.
"I use this rig with a 'crawler, minnow, or leech, depending on season, and run it behind a bottom bouncer. Early in the season when walleyes are keying on smaller baits, it excels at speeds of .8 to 1.2 mph. It also shines in midsummer after a big blow puts walleye in a negative mood. Due to their small blade sizes, the Mini Walleye Spins and Prop Spins can be the ticket when fish won't chase at higher speeds but you need to cover water." The Super Fin Spin also is designed for slow presentations with an easy-spinning smile-type blade. These Mylar winged blades spin freely with minimal force and produce flash without much vibration so they excel in clear water.
For more aggressive walleyes, Hennings suggests switching to a Death Prop Spin Rig with a Mustad Slow Death Hook for added bait action. He favors subtle finishes, such as pink, blue, and white in matching color schemes, but also ties rigs in bright contrasting colors for stained water and low-light conditions.
Under stable summer conditions, he upsizes to his Flasher Walleye Spins with a #3 Colorado blade and runs it behind a 2- to 3-ounce bottom bouncer on a rod in a holder. "I give my clients a quick lesson before we start," he says." I tell them to let the bouncer out slowly until it hits the bottom. Then let out three more feet of line to compensate for the speed of the boat. Put the rod in a holder and sit back. When a fish bites, let the rod load before grabbing it and giving it a slight sweep forward to firmly implant the hook. What could be easier?"
Mark Romanack is known for his books on precision trolling and his Fishing 411 television show. His guides provide dive curves for popular baits and rigs. He's spent a lot of time under water, observing how lures and rigs run. He reports that spinner rigs with #3 to #5 blades don't spin at less than 1 mph, requiring 1.2 to 1.6 mph to perform properly. Ultra-small blades spin at the slowest speeds, however. He recommends downsizing blades when walleyes refuse to chase a faster-moving bait. To make switching sizes and colors easy, he helped design Hildebrandt's Hammer Time Spinner Rigs with quick change clevises, in 18 color patterns.
Romanack considers #4 blades the big-water standard. "A #4 blade works well at a range of speeds," he says. "Tournament anglers often gradually upsize blade sizes to determine which one big walleyes are biting best. But if you run #5, #6, or even larger blades, you're limited on speed. If you pull them too fast, you get line twist. Big blades also can reduce bites but generally produce larger fish.
"Don't underestimate the importance of color, including UV and glow patterns. Walleye preferences can change hourly. Copper is a must-have color on the Great Lakes, while gold often dominates on inland lakes. Adding a bit of color on the inside cup of the blade can increase bites, too. The quick-change clevises on Hammer Time rigs allow anglers to quickly change blades until a winning combination is found."
His general rule when fishing tight to the bottom is to use a 1-ounce bottom bouncer in 10 to 15 feet of water, a 2-ouncer in 15 to 25 feet, and 3-ouncer to fish even deeper. He wants occasional bottom contact while keeping the line at a 45-degree angle from the rod to the water. He adjusts the length of leader from 60 inches in clear water without snags to 36 inches or less when trolling through cover.
When targeting suspended walleyes, anglers can try various devices such as bead chain keel sinkers, Jet Divers, Offshore Tackle Tadpole Divers, and leadcore line to present spinner rigs precisely above suspended fish and spread multiple lines away from the boat with in-line planer boards. Romanack's Precision Trolling App is helpful in determining the exact depth of baits and rigs trolled at various speeds and lengths of line.
Moving from big water to smaller inland settings, famed Minnesota guide Tom Neustrom goes to extremes to present spinner rigs around and above scattered shallow vegetation. "People are surprised how many walleyes occupy shallow vegetation for most of the summer," he says. "Pitching jigs or using slipfloats works, but they're relatively slow techniques that don't cover much territory. Spinner-rigging is an active approach for finding and catching fish."
Neustrom favors clumps in 6 to 12 feet with several feet of clearance over the top and plenty of open pockets and lanes. While coontail often holds walleyes, nothing compares to green cabbage. These broad-leaf plants hold baitfish and draw walleyes from early summer through late fall.
To make rigs as snagless as possible, he ties rigs using a bullet sinker in the 3/16- to 1/4-ounce range. He uses a single 1/0 VMC long-shank hook with a #2 gold blade and keeps leaders between 3 and 4 feet. When fishing water less than 10 feet deep, he trolls with a 3/16-ounce weight at speeds of .9 to 1.3 mph. Along weededges in 10 to 12 feet of water, he upsizes to a 1/4-ounce sinker and increases speed to 1.4 to 1.7 mph. He studies his side-scan sonar to mark walleyes, baitfish, or structural elements like rock ridges that intersect the weedline.
Shallow vegetation is alive with fish, including bait-stealing panfish, catfish, and rough fish. For this reason, he generally fishes half a 'crawler on rigs but quickly switches to Berkley's Gulp! 3-inch Killer Crawler if nuisance fish become a hassle. To get more action from artificial baits, use specially designed hooks such as the Mustad Super Death or VMC SpinDrift, which has a swivel at the eye of the hook. It also has a barb on the shaft to hold baits securely and a tactical bend that allows the bait to spin, even at ultra-slow speeds without twisting the line. Mustad's Super Death hook is the second-generation version the Slow Death hook, with a more aggressive bend than the original. This shape imparts more action to artificial trailers that are more rigid than real 'crawlers.
Professional anglers Bill McGannon and Brian Hunken developed the Double Trouble Rig to target outsize walleyes. When they could no longer keep it secret, they elected to market it under the brand name of Walleye Nation Creations, which includes a full line of walleye rigs and baits. The pair worked for more than six years to get the Double Trouble Rig where it is today. It's designed to catch big walleyes so it's tied on 17-pound mono with a series of beads and a #4 Colorado blade. It has a lead treble hook with a swivel affixed to it, followed by a slow-death-style hook. The spacing between the treble and single hook is less than an inch.
McGannon and Hunken hadn't been satisfied with the landing percentage of standard spinner rigs. They surmised that the flex in popular slow-death hooks resulted in larger fish becoming unhooked. They experimented by incorporating a treble hook into their rigs and came up with a design they feel hooks and lands fish at a much higher rate. McGannon says about 70 percent of their fish are hooked on the front treble as the trailing single hook functions more as a bait holder.
The pair also devised the Double Trouble Spin Float Harness, which replaces the spinner blade with a spin float. The spin float adds lift to the Double Trouble rig when fished on a bottom bouncer through trees or across zebra mussel colonies. They have taken their concept further by eliminating the leader in their Death Jig. It resembles a thin, tall jighead with a helicopter style blade at the rear of the head. The Double Trouble rig is attached to the clip and baited with livebait or an artificial offering. It can be drifted or trolled like any other traditional spinner rig but without the hassle and clutter of a bottom bouncer. The rear clip on the Death Jig makes it easy to swap components. The blade can be removed readily and a leader added so the jighead functions like an in-line trolling weight. It comes in two sizes, 3/4- and 11/2-ounce.
The head of the Death Jig has a baitfish profile and a rocking action when trolled, making it ideal for suspended walleyes in shad-based fisheries. McGannon and Hunken flatline Death Jigs and also run them behind planer boards. They counsel anglers to always fish above the fish and to set rods in holders and allow them to load prior to grabbing them and setting hooks.
Spinner-rigging can be one of the most productive presentations throughout the season in many locations. Walleyes all over North America are drawn to flash and vibration with scent for good measure. With the insights and ingenuity of expert anglers and tackle tinkerers, these systems become even more effective.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan, Chicago, Illinois, is an avid walleye angler. He contributes to many In-Fisherman publications.