I've been fishing for walleyes on the edge of what's been happening in the sport since the early 1970s. Many memorable moments have transpired over the years. Today, many great anglers are spread out across ice country. But even today, one can also reach into some corner of the Ice Belt and find anglers just getting into this seriously.
I recall a trip with my late friend Toad Smith, fishing in an out-of-the-way part of Northeast South Dakota. It was in the late 1980s, and we spent the twilight bite near a group of local anglers who had never seen a Jigging Rapala. They were catching, but we were catching better and bigger — and Toad wasn't bashful about pointing that out — and as always when someone else is catching better, there is a need to know what, how, and where to buy this new tool that swims so beautifully to the side and triggers walleyes so well on the glide (and pause).
Before they left the ice that night it was settled law that one of them would the next morning make the 90-mile drive to Sioux Falls to stock up before another twilight bite passed. Is not this need, this absolute musta-gotta-have-right-now need for something that catches fish better not a defining trait among passionate anglers, heaven help us all?
A lot of musta-gottas have hit the scene over the years. Jigging Raps were popular among a handful of the best ice anglers in the Iowa Great Lakes Region when I began ice fishing seriously in 1971. Lauri Rapala, the man who fashioned the first Rapala Minnow in 1936, and his son Esko crafted the first Jigging Raps (called the Jigging Minnow) in Finland in 1961, and 7,000 were apparently in the U.S. that winter. I don't know how long it took to sell that first shipment. Sales didn't really take off until the middle 1970s, when they were written about in Fishing Facts magazine. I think I wrote the first of those articles but I'd have to do an archival check to be sure.
By that time we were fishing the second-generation Jigging Rap, which, although sleeker in design than the original, had a more tubular shape than the present-day rendition. I had a chance to give the original a swim in a tank once, although I've never fished with one. The original has a beefy body like a Countdown Rapala, but otherwise everything is about the same — plastic tail and single hooks snoot forward and tail back, the treble hook hanging below the center of the lure. Somewhere, in some vintage lure collection, one of the originals still exists, but I can't find one.
Weighted with lead to hang horizontally, the line tie dead center on top of the lure, this design is called a "balance jig" in Scandinavia. Several different companies, including Nils Master, have tried using that terminology to describe their balanced jigging lures in North America — Rapala tried too at first — but we think we know better than the Finns, and certainly the Swedes, and will have none of it.
The Nils balanced jig called The Jigger, became known simply as a Nils Master and never became a great seller even though it's a crackerjack lure that fishes similar to the Jigging Rap, but with a bit more profile at the head end.
Nils Master also introduced one of the best walleye lures, the Jigging Shad. On their website, they still have the following (you can almost hear the broken English): "In his 1998 article, Dough Stande of 'The In-Fisherman' stated that the fishing public needs a shorter bulkier design representative of shad and young-of-the-year bluegills and crappies." That's as true today as when I wrote it.
As I write this in September, Jigging Shads are available online at fishusa.com, to name one source. They remain a solid option in shad- and panfish-based waters. Rapala also offers a similar design, the Jigging Shad Rap, but it's a lighter lure that has not fished as well for me. HT Enterprises also sells a similar lure called the Quick Strike Minnow.
An interest I pursued after joining In-Fisherman was to trade fishing magazines with many European editors. It was easy to see that many of the ice-fishing countries had lure designs that were much different than our standard designs in North America. Yet there was almost no attempt to import those designs, although we did get several versions of Pilkie spoons — and of course the Jigging Rapala. Today, on panfish fronts we also have many tiny jig designs for panfish.
It's easier with the Internet today to see what's going on across the Atlantic. Nils Master is a brand name of the company Finlandia Uistin Oy (website: nilsmaster.fi/en/). Their "Rotinkainen" is a design that would murder perch here and trigger walleyes and pike at the same time. Meanwhile, the "Nisa" is balanced jigger with wings that give it a slow glide. Speaking of "slow glides."
Ron Weber and Ray Ostrom imported Rapalas into the U.S. until a new era began about a decade ago. In a conversation with Ostrom long ago I asked about Lauri and his feelings about his Balanced Jigging Rapala. Lauri, I was told, thought the design was perfect, one of his favorites — just the right combination of size and shape per weight. The original is old school by comparison to today's design. Still, it had a nice swim, up and to the side in a comparatively slow glide.
By comparison, the second generation design fished faster than the first, the swim up and off to the side much more "darty-dart," the profile of the lure modestly reduced and more streamlined for a quicker total swim time during the up-down-to-the side-and-back cadence that I've always thought of as "a cycle."
Speaking of cycle time, most anglers don't associate Buck Perry's thinking with ice fishing but the fundamentals apply perfectly. He said depth control and speed control are the two most important variables in lure presentation.
Think about everything we do with our lures for a moment and all of it has to do with depth control first and speed control second. The Jigging Rap is considered by most anglers to be a more aggressive lure than most spoons. That alone is and has been fodder for many articles. Still, it's easy to see that fundamental lure design affects the working speed of an ice lure, although the angler also exerts control over the process.
You also see that a fundamental design change alone, given its affect on the speed at which a lure darts and glides is bound to affect performance. That's what I'm getting at with the changes in the Jigging Rap design; which leads to a larger discussion of how lure designs for walleyes developed over the years; and what's available and triggering walleyes today.
On the depth control side of things, I won't spend long, but for a moment consider some of the presentation options we've added to our repertoire — beyond the simple lift-fall-pause — that are affected by depth control. Perhaps the most important has been the realization that working a lure up and away from walleyes in order to get them to move up to get the lure often changes their attitude and, ultimately, gets them to bite. I would enjoy continuing in this vein, but not today; let stay focused on lure designs.
I said that the second generation JRs fished a little slicker than the first gen. The #9 of that second-gen Rap era was a big producer of big fish for me and other anglers who were not timid about fishing with bigger lures. The #7 was more typically a hot ticket for overall numbers of fish. The #9 in particular didn't look that realistic setting in your hand, but it had a beautiful swim and a nice profile once it came to rest.
Another important factor about the bulkier second-gen lure I discovered somewhere along the way — you don't always have to just lift-fall-swim the lure and let it pause to attract walleyes and get them to bite. With just the right wrist nodding you can make the lure roll slightly side to side in place, giving off attractive vibrations and flashes like a minnow about to swim off.
That move alone, after a fish has moved in, following a lift-fall-pause, often triggers it. So it was lift-fall-pause, nod-nod-nod-nod-nod-nod, pause. Then repeat the nod cadence — and perhaps repeat it again, before doing another lift-fall. Many times, as you watch your electronics in order to see how the fish is reacting, it helps to do the nodding cadence as you gradually lift the lure, taking it slowly away from the fish if it isn't responding.
Another move is an even-more-aggressive nodding or shaking or pounding — I've always called it shaking — to get the lure to frantically roll side to side, giving off even more flash and vibration. While this move rarely triggers fish on its own, it can be used to call fish in. Use it in place of the lift-fall-pause routine or in combination with it. I think an important part of the sound and vibration that goes with this move is created by the snapping of the superline in conjunction with the lure movement. So you might lift-fall, lift-fall, lift-fall-pause; then shake-shake-shake-shake-shake-pause; shake-shake-shake-shake-shake-pause, as an attracting maneuver.
This also works well at the end of the nodding process described above, adding it just before transitioning smoothly into another lift-fall-pause. So, something like this: lift-fall-pause, nod-nod-nod-nod-nod-nod, pause. Then another round of nods — so nod-nod-nod-nod-nod-nod, then immediately shake-shake-shake-shake-shake-shake, lift-fall-pause. This is an even more realistic rendition of the movement a preyfish makes as it begins to swim off. Again, this move rarely triggers fish on its own but it helps to predispose fish that aren't quite ready to bite to bite during the next round of triggering movements, after another lift-fall.
The present generation of Jigging Raps has a sleeker, thinner profile that cycles a tiny bit faster through the lift-fall routine. It fishes great but it fishes slightly differently than the second-gen design. The main difference is that the present-gen #9 doesn't roll and flash so distinctly on the nod and shake. The #7 still fishes well like that because it's lighter, so I spend a lot more time fishing the #7 than I used to, sometimes sliding down to the #5 for smallmouths and largemouths, trading up to the #9 for pike and lake trout, and using the #9 on big-walleye waters that also have big pike or pike and lake trout.
The Jigging Rapala has long been my favorite all-time ice lure, the Nils Master Jigging Shad a close second. I also spent several winters fishing the Northland Puppet Minnow, a similar design. It fishes fine.
With all these balanced jiggers, unless I'm on the ice to catch smaller fish for the table, I don't tip them with minnow parts — and, indeed, I typically remove the treble hook. If you're working these lures properly bigger fish and even smaller fish are going to try eat the thing head first or tail first. The treble is just a distraction.
Several years after the new-generation Rapala introduction, I suggested to several manufacturers that there was a need for another balanced jigging design. I suggested keeping the present designs (they filled a solid niche), but also noted the need for a lure that cycled slower — something with a slow glide on and after the lift-fall.
Rapala didn't move in that direction until they introduced the Jigging Shad, but others did, the first noteworthy option designed by In-Fisherman Photographer and Digital Director Jeff Simpson, who whittled his way to a prototype that became the Salmo Chubby Darter. He showed me half a dozen different renditions over the course of a year. He worked with Gary Snyder, who once ran Jig-A-Whopper, to name just one company. At that point Snyder was heading up Salmo in the U.S.
The Chubby is a major design change that catches walleyes wherever they swim. It's a comparatively light lure with a shape like a war club, treble hooks hanging forward and at the tail, line tie anchored in a position dorsally on the head so the lure shimmies and shakes on the lift, then swims with a slight wobble off to the side as it drops slowly and finally circles slightly and drifts back below the hole. Rip it hard for more vibration and a more pronounced circling downward swim. It fishes best in straight lift-fall mode, but you can also add nods during the pause. Because it cycles so slowly it's one swimmer that walleyes hit at times on the glide from the side back to below the hole. Most lures are attacked after they settle back in place.
The recent introduction of the Lindy Darter adds another option to Chubby category. The Darter swims in the fashion of the Chubby, but it's heavier so it cycles faster and also has one of the loudest rattle chambers on the market. If I were in charge at Lindy I'd also do a model that's silent. The Chubby is silent and, no surprise, one option or the other — rattle or silence — can be better at times.
Anglers have been fishing lipless crankbaits like the Rattlin' Rap for walleyes for decades, but I don't know of one part of North America where that lure and others became a popular part of the winter presentation process — until the recent lipless phenomena took hold starting about 5 years ago.
The lure that started it all on Lake Winnipeg for Roger Stearns, one angler due credit for spurring the process, was the LiveTarget Golden Shiner. It sounds like a bucket of bees on the lift, yet swims with a slow-gliding wobble on the fall; so there's intense vibration, sound, and flash at play on the up stroke, and less-pronounced vibration (a light wobble), little or no sound, and a bit of flash involved on the fall — a relatively slow cycle time.
Next season we're due another in-depth article on this class of lures. We've learned much about how, where, and when to fish them, but, on many fronts, we also remain in experimental mode. Most anglers seem to group these lures based on the sounds they make, but I divide them into two categories based on cycle time. Lure speed and depth control are the paramount factors at work. Sound can be important but often isn't paramount.
The first category has already been mentioned — lures like the LiveTarget Golden Shiner do a slower swim on the fall and have a slow cycle time. The other category is characterized by cranks like the Rapala Rippin' Rap, a lure that falls almost like a slab spoon; so, no sound, some flash, some knuckleballing, but no swim — on the fall. So, with the Rippin' Rap, lots of vibration, sound, and flash on the lift, and then a straight fall with a bit of knuckleballing to it — a fast cycle time. The Rippin' Rap fishes like a lipless crank on the lift and a spoon on the fall.
As a side note, I also divide spoons, which we won't discuss in this article, into similar categories — on one hand, spoons like the Acme Kastmaster, with a quick up-down cycle time, compared to spoons like the Custom Jigs and Spins Slender Spoon, which lays on its side as it falls, slowing the fall. Fast cycle time. Slower cycle time. As I've said, depth control and speed control are the paramount parts of the experiment. Lure size, vibration, sound, color, and other factors are secondary overall.
A few ice cranks in the slow-cycle category include the LiveTarget Golden Shiner, plus their Bluegill, Pumpkinseed, Gizzard Shad, and a new Crappie. Yo-Zuri offers the Rattlin' Vibe in a variety of patterns. It performs in the tank much like the LiveTarget Shiner but has an even lighter swimming action on the fall. I've never fished it, but it's beautiful in the tank. Same with the Sebile Flatt Shad, which has intense flash and vibration along with medium sound on the upswing and then falls back with a slow swim. Another new one is the Storm Rockin' Shad, which sounds like the LT Golden Shiner and has a tight, wobbling swim on the fall. The Northland Rippin' Shad also has a buzzing-bee-like sound chamber and does a slow swim on the fall; while the Salmo Zipper has a similar sound chamber and does a slow circling — no wobbling swim — on the fall.
Besides the Rippin' Rap, in the quick-cycle category I'd add the Clackin' Rap, which falls in a quick glide without a swim on the fall. It's one of the noisiest options on the market on the upstroke. The Salmo Zipper, with its circling fall might also fit in this category. And perhaps new-age bladebaits like the Sebile Vibrato should be placed here too. Long-time In-Fisherman writer Cory Schmidt loves this new option. I haven't fished it, but it's beautiful in the tank, providing intense flash and vibration on the up stroke, before falling with a quick, flashy wobble.
Keeping it simple, and not getting deeply into the presentation process, I carry a few lures from the "slow-fall" category and also carry Rippin' Raps in two sizes; the smallest the #5, at 2 inches and 5/16 ounce; and the medium #6, a 2.5-inch lure weighing 1/2 ounce. If I fish big water like Lake Winnipeg, Lake Erie, and Lake Michigan, where fish roam widely and often need to be drawn in from a distance, I also pack the largest Rippin' Rap, the #7, a 2.75-inch lure that weighs 7/8 ounce.
I caught enough walleyes on the Rippin' Rap last season to be confident in recommending it as an option in any situation where you might also choose spoons. Then, on the slow-cycle side of things, I don't have enough experience to make recommendations, one option versus another. A ton of fish have been caught on Lake Winnipeg by anglers using the LiveTarget lures; but since other lures have come into play there, some of those others have also been producing fish. And, as I've said, lures like the Yo-Zuri Rattlin' Vibe, the Sebile Flatt Shad, and the Storm Rockin' Shad have likely never yet been fished.
Lipless cranks aren't just primary swimming lures for walleye, they also work well to bring them in, at which point the fish might be better triggered with other options. I commonly fished the Rippin' Rap last season in conjunction with a deadstick set nearby. It's a tactic little different than how I've long fished, using either spoons or a Jigging Rap as my primary triggering and attracting lure, also in conjunction with dead sets. Primary dead options include either rods set on buckets with the line tightlined to a minnow anchored in reverse on a light leadhead jig; or the same livebait-and-lure-and-rod option used in conjunction with a HT Rigger setup.
My intent has been to offer an overview of one side of the presentation process. I haven't talked about spoons and bladebaits. The main point is that cycle time factors greatly into accomplishing depth and speed control, which play fundamental roles in our experiments on ice. As the experienced among you know, lots of presentations can work at the same time. But in any given situation — and in ever-changing situations throughout day and over the course of a season — there always are options or an option that are better than the rest. We've come a long way. There's still a lot to learn. For many of us, that's part of the fun.