April 12, 2022
Spring walleye fishing often means large numbers of fish concentrated in small areas. The typical scene consists of boats packed tightly into community fishing holes, anglers slowly jigging or slipdrifting livebaits. The jigging cadence is consistent among the anglers. So long as fish are being caught, morale is high and the presentation continues unchanged. What goes overlooked, however, is that a faster presentation of pullin' baits that create thump can elicit more strikes by targeting aggressive fish and covering more water.
Rattlebaits: Instead of rippin' a #7 Rippin' Rap across a flat for walleyes in 40°F water, scale back to the #6 and work it more deliberately. The #6 Rippin' Rap has a slower fall rate and creates more vibration when pulled slower. At 1/2-ounce, the #6 still has enough heft to maintain its action and track true, even in areas with moderate current.
When working slack water less than 15 feet deep, consider pullin' small lipless cranks like the Dynamic Lures HD Ice and Sebile Action First Vibe Machine. The HD Ice measures just 2 inches and 1/5-ounce, with a tight nose-down wobble on the pull, while the Sebile Vibe Machine comes in 3/4 and 2/4 inches, weighing 1/8 and 1/4 ounce, respectively. These lures are ideal for pullin' as they sink relatively slowly, with a slight shimmer on the fall. They vibrate wildly on a fast pull and maintain a good swimming action on a steady retrieve.
After casting, wait for the lure to hit bottom before commencing a pullin' retrieve with the lure being drawn forward 2 to 3 feet at a time. The lure occasionally makes bottom contact between rod sweeps. Follow with a straight retrieve for several feet to get the lure swimming. Allow it to contact bottom again, and give it a few aggressive hops as it approaches the boat. This change in cadence helps determine the activity level of fish.
Fishing these lures on superlines like 8-pound-test Sufix 832 Performance Braid or 6- to 10-pound Berkley NanoFil maximizes feel of the lure's action. Tie a 30-inch leader of 8-pound-test Sufix Fluorocarbon to the mainline with a double uni-knot. Fish can inspect the lure on pauses between pulls and the fluoro leader helps fool discriminating fish.
Bladebaits: Compact bladebaits like the Wolf Big Dude, Vibrations Tackle Echotail, and Johnson Thinfisher in 1/8- to 1/2-ounce sizes offer the right amount of thump and vibration when pullin' for early spring walleyes. They are among the most versatile lures along the entire rippin', pullin', and pokin'-around spectrum. Bladebaits are fished in the same manner as lipless crankbaits, with a few variations. Because of their thin body, blades fall faster and are more effective in current. They can be cast cross-current and allowed to swing downstream before being gradually retrieved upstream. Walleyes react differently to lures depending upon what direction they're presented, so varying retrieve angles can help identify patterns.
In rivers with minimal snags, blades can be walked downstream to fish that are laying nose-first into the current. Pullin' gives the lure action. A quick pull raises the bait 6 to 18 inches off the bottom before it drops back downstream a foot or two each time the rod is lowered. As the rod is raised, strip a couple feet of line off the reel to cover more territory downstream. Eventually, bottom contact is lost in fast current, or the bait stalls in slow current. Repeat the process as soon as you lose contact with the lure or it stops thumping strongly.
For more thump, fish a Vibrations Tackle Echotail with a 3-inch curly- or paddletail added to the built-in bait keeper. Trimming the body of the softbait by about an inch allows greater lure control. Too large of a plastic dampens the lure's vibration. For tighter action on a quicker retrieve, attach the line with a snap to the front holes of the lure. For a wider action on a slower pull, attach the snap to one of the back holes.
Blades work equally well in lake and river settings and are excellent search lures. They cast like a bullet and can be fished quickly at any level in the water column. They also take on a different action, depending on whether the rod is worked in an up-and-down jigging motion or swept to the side between cranks of the reel handle.
Pullin' options with softbaits are limitless. The technique is similar to fishing bladebaits or lipless crankbaits—variations depend on rigging options and softbait body styles. Some of the better early-season pullin' plastics are in the 3- to 5-inch range and have limited bulk and maximum thump. Good options include the Zoom Swimming Super Fluke, Berkley Havoc Beat Shad and PowerBait Hollow Belly Swimbait, and B Fish N Pulse-R Paddle Tail and Moxi. These can be fished on a 1/16- to 3/8-ounce leadhead jig, but the magic comes in matching specialty jigheads with soft-plastic bodies based on fishing conditions.
The Zoom Swimming Super Fluke has enough weight for pitching into flooded cover. At 4 inches long, it has an exaggerated kicking action delivered by its wide swinging paddletail. Coupling it with a Northland Jungle Jig Loc in 3/32- and 1/8-ounce makes it more effective in cover. The Jungle Jig Loc has a corkscrew bait collar that is integrated into the backside of the jig's cone-shaped head. The line tie at the tip of the jig helps reduce fouling by weeds or debris, and the oversized hook accommodates any plastic bait. It also leaves adequate hook gap for sticking big walleyes.
Cast the Swimming Fluke into flooded cover and allow it to free-fall to the desired depth. Then pull it back to the boat with 1- to 2-foot sweeps of the rod held low to the water. Strikes vary from weightless as a walleye inhales the bait, to a definitive strike when a walleye hits on the pull. Hook-sets should be deliberate to drive the hook home and to pull fish out of cover.
When walleyes are holding on the face of wing dams, ring worms and other softbaits like the Berkley Havoc Beat Shad can account for quick limits. The Beat Shad's narrow, tapered body enhances thump and side-to-side action of the boot-shaped paddletail. It offers a small profile unless bulked up with a sizable jighead.
From an anchored position upstream and off the outside edge of a wing dam, fish a 4-inch Beat Shad on a Gulp! Bait Delivery System jighead for a more natural horizontal presentation. The pointed jighead allows the Beat Shad to be pulled in current without rolling as it swings across the face of the wing dam. Compared to lead, the lighter composite material of the Bait Delivery System jig increases the size of the Beat Shad presentation without adding too much weight that would kill the bait's action.
Cast toward the intersection of the shoreline and wing dam. On a tight line, allow the bait to swing away from the shoreline and tick across the rocks as it works out to the tip of the wing dam. Visualize the lure's location as it swings in the current, and occasionally pump the rod to speed the bait forward before allowing it to fall back with the current. With each cast, work a different depth or portion of the wing dam. Try various combinations of jig weight and Beat Shad color. Wing-dam fish are generally aggressive and a quick pullin' approach works well.
In small rivers with a lot of submerged wood, rippin' lures with multiple treble hooks, or pokin' along casting standard jigs isn't an option due to snags. Here, pullin' with thumping baits can rule the day. Snag-free jigs like the B Fish N's Draggin' Jig allow ring-worm style baits to be cast directly downstream from an anchored position and pulled upstream with a sweeping rod action. The snag guard and narrow head design of the Draggin' Jig deflects and slips over woodcover. Using baits like B Fish N 3.25-inch Pulse-R Paddle Tail and 4-inch Moxi curlytail, the presentation is compact and maintains depth between rod sweeps.
For downstream-to-upstream presentations, use a jig that's heavy enough to maintain bottom contact as the bait is walked upstream, but not too heavy so as to drag and hang up on the bottom. Between each rod sweep, the lure should rise off the bottom several inches and suspend for a few seconds with the tail thumping as the rod tip is raised. Lower the rod tip to make bottom contact and repeat the process.
A 5-inch PowerBait Hollow Belly Swimbait fished on a Kalin's Ultimate Saltwater Bullet Jig is a versatile option. For added thump, rig the Hollow Belly on an Owner Flashy Swim rig. The Flashy Swim consists of a 1/0- to 3/0- extra-wide-gap hook, with an 1/8-ounce to 3/16-ounce keel weight on the hook shaft and a small willowleaf blade secured with a 1.5-inch wire to the underside of the rig. The swimbait is secured with a twist-lock keeper and rigged flush on the hook. This bait casts well and runs true with the keel-weight design. The package emits considerable flash from the blade and thumping vibrations from the wide paddletail.
This combination works best using a horizontal presentation. There's no pokin' around with this combo. Fire the bait out on a long cast and count it down. Watch for hits on the fall. Start with a quick snap of the rod to get the blade spinning. You should always be able to feel the thump of the bait. Whether fished with a constant swimming retrieve, or with a jerk-and-pause retrieve, the bait is kept off the bottom, searching for active fish.
Other jig options to enhance thumping action of softbaits include the Northland Thumper and ReelBait Flasher. These jigs come in a range of sizes are equipped with blades. The Northland Thumper emits considerable thump with each pull. With a double-attachment collar, baits hold on the jig when fished aggressively, so you can make larger sweeps of the rod to capitalize on the jig's spinning blade.
The ReelBait Flasher is designed to present baits in a stand-up position. The blade flutters freely on the fall, with the flash and thump mimicking a distressed minnow. Pair these jigs with a Gulp! 3-inch Shaky Shad, 4-inch Swimmow, or Northland 3-inch Impulse Paddle Minnow, each with built-in scent for added attraction.
Next time you find yourself pokin' around for walleyes with limited success, consider more aggressive pullin' approaches. Pick up the pace and select lures that deliver more flash, thump, or vibration. You might find that a simple change in presentation is the best way to stand out from the crowd.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan is an avid multispecies angler and contributes to all In-Fisherman Publications. He lives in Des Plaines, Illinois.