Once a top-secret tactic known only to a handful of guides and touring pros, slow-death rigging has become a go-to presentation for anglers across the Walleye Belt. It's no surprise, given the uncanny ability of a slowly spinning bait to trigger strikes when other methods don't. You can also cover water, either in search mode or when syphoning up scattered fish. As the rig rose from obscurity, a number of manufacturers built hooks and rigs aimed at this market, giving anglers more options for giving their riggings a new twist.
"Slow-death rigging has been around awhile," says Minnesota walleye ace Chip Leer. "It was born on the Missouri River system as a way to find and trigger wandering walleyes, and initially centered on a half-nightcrawler threaded onto a kinked Aberdeen hook, causing the bait to rotate on a slow to moderate troll. While slow-death rigging started with just a hook, they're now used with spinner blades and in some cases spoons for added flash and vibration."
Leer sees the tactic as a great way to bridge the gap between livebait rigging and trolling crankbaits, and says it excels whenever you want to cover water, notably along tight contour lines and the edges of fish-holding cover. He says it dovetails well with recent side- and 360-scanning trends on the electronics front.
Leer, Northland Fishing Tackle's product manager, has used the company's Crawler Hauler lineup since its inception several seasons ago. The system revolves around the Crawler Hauler Hook, which features a VMC cone-cut point and reverse-barb bait-keeper midway down the shank. "You can fish the hook solo behind a bottom bouncer," Leer says. "But the addition of a buoyant body, like the Gum-Drop Floater in Northland's Gum-Drop Floater rig, raises the bait off bottom and allows slower trolling speeds. You also get more of a hunting action as the rig moves side to side."
When Leer wants to speed up while increasing flash and vibration, he ditches the floating body in favor of a spinner blade. His choice has been the Crawler Hauler Speed-Spinner, a pre-tied option with a Colorado blade. "But Northland's new Butterfly Super Death rig puts a whole new spin on things," he says. "The polycarbonate Butterfly Blade rides higher, trolls slower, and produces different flashes and vibrations than metal blades. And the rig's hook imparts an erratic, spiraling action with live 'crawlers and softbaits."
Washington-based Mack's Lure, maker of the mylar Smile Blade, has also tapped the popularity of slow-death rigging. "The presentation is a natural fit for a Smile Blade," says Bob Loomis, director of marketing, explaining that Mack's Lure first released the Smile Blade Slow Death Rig, followed by the recent introduction of the Smile Blade Super Slow Death Rig. The latter version features a larger Mustad Super Death hook with a deeper bend. "A larger bend lets anglers run a whole 'crawler and still get a full roll," Loomis says.
"Plus, its heavier wire reduces the chances of straightened hooks, which is always a concern of western anglers dealing with outsize fish, often in strong current."
Even with the stouter hook, Mack's Super Death configuration hasn't caught on everywhere. "The rig is still growing in popularity out here. In natural lakes and impoundments with light current, it's a hit," he says. "Folks on the Columbia River have been a little leery of it because you have a legitimate chance of catching a 20-pound walleye."
Lightweight blades that perform at slow speeds excel in finesse situations, though they're not limited to such applications. Loomis says the Smile Blade excels at speeds from .4 up to 3 mph. "At speeds faster than that, you run the risk of wadding up the leader if something goes wrong," he says. "But a Smile Blade is deadly in that range.
"You can fish slower than with a metal blade, so you can finesse-fish in cold water and other tough-bite situations," he says. "But the offset-shank, in-line spinner also moves whatever is behind it in a crankbait-like action." Both Loomis and Leer also note the near-limitless array of colors available in non-metal blades. "Due to the Butterfly's translucent material, you can create finishes impossible with metal," Leer says.
Loomis favors a 5-foot leader, though he often goes shorter in current and longer in clear lakes. Although pulling a Smile blade is similar to trolling metal blades, he recommends adding a bead chain swivel to the rig to eliminate leader line twist. "Clip the bead chain to the bottom bouncer and tie your leader to the bead chain," he says. "This is particularly important in current. You can get by with a swivel in still water, but the bead chain system reduces any chance of line twist because it's harder to foul with vegetation."
Loomis says Mack's Smile Blade Spin Drift Walleye is another great slow-death option. "It incorporates a Smile blade, a Cha-Cha pill float, and VMC Spindrift hook," he says. "It works at the same speeds as our Super Death rig, but with a more erratic action." Leer favors an L-arm bottom bouncer on weedy bottoms because it pushes thin vegetation out of the way, clearing a path for the rig. In most other situations, a sliding, stick-style bouncer gets the nod.
Another side of the slow-death revolution centers on what you thread onto the hook. "The biggest trend I see now is pulling more artificial tails," says walleye pro and longtime slow-death proponent Keith Kavajecz. "We started out focused on a half-crawler on a bent hook, but now have vast possibilities."
In choosing slow-death trailers, color, size, and shape are considerations, but Kavajecz says there's more. "A softbait's texture and stiffness affect the roll," he explains. "A stiff bait is harder for the hook to swing through the water than a flexible trailer.
"This is a big factor with smaller hooks," he says. "When Mustad introduced the UltraPoint Super Death hook, it opened the door to a wider variety of artificial tails, as well as the use of whole 'crawlers. The hook is a little larger and heaver with a more aggressive bend than earlier slow-death hooks."
Berkley's 3-inch Gulp! Killer Crawler is one of Kavajecz's favorite tippings. "It's made for slow death," he says of the bait's bent, hollow-core construction. "But the 3-inch Gulp! Fry is another top choice. It's fairly soft, so it forms to the hook and swims well. The end of the Fry sticks out to the side so it doesn't trail the hook as closely. This creates a larger, slower loop, giving walleyes a different look they sometimes prefer." Kavajecz also likes the 4-inch Gulp! Crawler. "It's a little longer bait than you typically use for slow death," he says. "It offers more of a corkscrew undulation and it takes the tail longer to spin around. At times such subtle variations can make a big difference."
As for hook size, Kavajecz chooses a #2 for half a live 'crawler and smaller softbaits, but upsizes to #1 with the 4-inch Gulp! Crawler. "Even with the larger hook and more aggressive bend, the roll is still slower, thanks to its longer, stiffer tail," he says. "Nothing spins faster than a real 'crawler or Gulp! Killer Crawler. The Fry spins a little slower and wider, while the 4-inch Crawler is slower yet." He looks forward to testing different lures, including Berkley's PowerBait Rib Worm. "It's longer, softer, and has a twister tail on the end. There's a lot of room for experimentation with softbaits."
He tailors trolling speed to the hook and bait. "It's all about the spin," he says. "Early in the season, troll just fast enough to get the bait to turn. As summer progresses, you can speed up a bit to cover water. A faster pace also gets you past small walleyes, white bass, and perch. Since everything eats slow-death rigs, the durability of artificial tails is a benefit because they stay on the hook and in one piece better than the real thing.
"Some anglers are pushing the envelope on where to fish slow-death rigs, too. At first they were meant to be fished just off bottom, but more anglers are using them for suspended fish. When fishing high, use a Bass Pro Shops keel weight or spoon as an attractor, and shorten the snell to about 18 inches. When fishing on bottom with a traditional bottom bouncer, a 4-foot snell is a good all-around choice." Whether you're fishing high or low, Kavajecz recommends a fluorocarbon leader. "With any slow-death rig, fluoro's added stiffness helps transfer the rotation from the hook up to the swivel," he says. "Softer lines are more prone to twisting."
In the past decade, young pro Korey Sprengel has impressed the walleye tournament world with wins on the National Walleye Tour, Masters Walleye Circuit, and Cabela's National Team Championship. He's a slow-death fan and says the tactic catches walleyes virtually everywhere. "Wherever we go — lakes, rivers, reservoirs — it ends up working," he says. "That slow, methodical turning is irresistible. If you need to put walleyes in the boat, drop a bottom bouncer with a slow-death rig and you'll catch them, guaranteed."
Sprengel says that some tricks and tweaks can make the system more effective. "The hook is the heart of it," he says. "I like Berkley's Fusion19 Slow-Turn, which was designed for softbaits. It has a large keeper that holds nightcrawlers in place but is also great with Gulp! products, which tend to slide on the shank. It comes in four sizes and the largest, 1/0, is great for larger baits."
Like Kavajecz, Sprengel sees promise on the softbait front. "They all spin differently, offering lots of options," he says. "But I think color is important. Artificial tails offer so many more choices, you can get picky about patterns. As with crankbaits, those with a lot of contrast often work best. A Watermelon Pearl Gulp! Fry or Crawler, for example, gives off contrasting dark and light sides as the lure rotates. This 'strobe light' effect is great for attracting fish from a distance in clear water."
That's not to say slow death is limited to gin-clear surroundings. "For such a subtle presentation, it can be amazingly productive in dirty water," Sprengel says, noting that he prefers live 'crawlers or scented Gulp! baits in low-vis conditions. Color becomes a factor with 12 inches or more of water clarity.
Spoons serve as excellent attractors ahead of a slow-death hook, though relatively few anglers use them. Veteran tackle crafter Tommy Harris offers the pre-tied Spoon Deville and Spoon Zilla. Each comes with a #2 Eagle Claw TroKar Revolve hook and 4- to 5-inch leader of 17-pound fluorocarbon. He also makes a two-hook harness strung on 40-pound braid.
The Deville option features Wolverine Tackle's 2¼-inch Silver Streak Jr., while the Zilla has the slightly larger Mini Silver Streak. Harris custom-paints his spoons before adding his trademark spiderweb styling. "Instead of boring fish scales and an eyeball, I prefer a spiderweb and spider," he laughs. "It's a different look that stands out under water.
"They first caught on out west, with anglers who fished them on leadcore in sunken trees in Nebraska's Lake McConaughy and Devils Lake, North Dakota, because it's easier to get a spoon through the branches than other setups. Now they also have a following on the Great Lakes, particularly Green Bay and Lake Erie."
Harris believes his spoons' design contributes greatly to his rig's success. "Knock-offs don't cut it," he says. "Wolverine spoons have the right bend for a nice wobble, and can be trolled up to 2 mph without spinning out. That means you can pull them in the same spread as crankbaits, showing the fish two different presentations in one pass."
Tired of losing walleyes on slow-death rigs in tournaments, Nebraska anglers Bill McGannon and Brian Hunke of Walleye Nation Creations added a treble hook and heavy-duty swivel in front of a slow-death hook to make the Double Trouble Harness. "We wondered whether the trailing hook would spin with the treble in front of it, but it did — and the rest is history," McGannon says. "We almost never lose a fish, and half of our walleyes are hooked on the treble."
New in 2017, production models of the Double Trouble Harness are available with a Colorado blade or spin float, and you can also purchase the hook setup separately. They all have a #8 Matzuo treble and 2/0 Matzuo slow-death hook designed for Walleye Nation.
"We fish both the Colorado blade and spin float models from .8 to 1.3 mph," McGannon says. "Since the spin float rides at or above the level of your weight, it's great for fishing over cover. For example, we use it behind a bottom bouncer on Lake McConaughy, letting the bouncer tick the treetops while the float trails along just above the treeline."
With growing angler interest and expansion of tactics, slow-death is far from moribund. As Sprengel sees it, "Slow death works too well to go away. With more companies coming out with rigs and baits, it will live forever."