Forty years ago," recalls Tom Neustrom, veteran fishing guide and avid multispecies angler, "my dad taught me to look for dark water adjoining weededges, indicating a drop-off to deeper water. We focused our efforts along the boundary where broadleaf cabbage weeds mysteriously dissipated into open water, and caught loads of walleyes. Back then, our lures of choice were L & S Minnow Lures or River Runts, or perhaps livebaits like chubs or shiners dangled beneath a bobber. But once we discovered the effectiveness of Doll Fly Jigs dressed with hair or feathers, tipped with a half-crawler, it was all over. I've been a jigger ever since."
Neustrom, like many anglers who learned to fish in the weedy natural lakes of the Upper Midwest, also discovered that points, pockets, and turns along those edges concentrated walleyes and other gamefish in predictable areas where you could tickle the fringe of the weeds for relatively active walleyes. Or, as an alternative, probe farther inside the weedgrowth for those that were in a more neutral or negative mood. "During the day," Neustrom postulates, "walleyes positioned well inside weedbeds are often deep down near bottom and somewhat inactive, while those that remain nearer to weededges tend to be more active and catchable. It could be inside edges, outside edges, even visible open pockets formed by bottom changes within weedbeds that I like to call 'circles of doom.' Pitch a jig along irregularities in weededges and you'll find fish, often walleyes."
Most of the time, Neustrom uses either a round ballhead jig like a Northland FireBall for average weed conditions, switching to a pointier-nosed jig like a Fire-Ball Stand-Up when the green stuff is tough and thick. The idea is, you want the jig to hang up just enough to help interpret the weed type and thickness, without fouling the lure. In brittle weeds like sparse cabbage, an open-hook round or mushroom head jig is easy to fish along edges; if it settles on the growth and hangs up slightly, give the rod a quick wrist snap to break the stalk or leaf and send the jig sailing free, which often triggers a strike. In softer and denser weeds like coontail, however, more weedless jigs designed to slide through weedgrowth without snagging tend to excel; hang up too much, and you uproot the whole stalk when you try to pop the jig free.
"Standup jigs also add a little action," Neustrom notes. "Pull 'em a little, and a plastic tail waggles more. Plus they stand up at rest, letting the fish see your lure. Plain round heads tend to fall on their sides when the line's not under tension.
"I like phosphorescent glow green or glow orange jigs if the water has a bit of color, to help fish locate the lure. In clear conditions, however, I'll often just use plain old lead for subtlety. And we always use a small Luhr Jensen file to keep hooks sharp for better hooksetting. Tie direct; no wire leaders, even if you get cut off by the occasional offending pike. You don't want to deter walleye strikes with a leader. Pike and walleyes are compatible, and you often catch them in the same areas -- which is a bonus, rather than a nuisance.
"A lot of the time, my clients and I simply tip the jighead with a half-crawler. Just thread it on through the broken center, nice and straight. I like to use the back half of the crawler [many anglers prefer the front half]. I feel the front end of the crawler is meatier, while the tail end is softer and has more action. This is particularly good when swimming the jig with a soft, undulating, up-down motion through areas of relatively open water. When in weeds, however, let the jig come to rest as it sinks, then wiggle or pop it free. Walleyes often strike as the jig falls, so be sure to let it reach bottom before finally retrieving it back to the boat.
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Weededge Walleye Pursuit (cont.)
"I think the fish take a half-crawler better, and that they often rip you off when attempting to fish a whole crawler in weeds. Most anglers just want to get bit, and a half-crawler does the job. If you want to target bigger walleyes and switch to plastic tails, 3- to 4-inchers also catch a lot of fish and stand up to the abuse of fishing in weeds; you don't lose your bait as often. Larger tails -- 5-inchers -- may catch you a few bigger walleyes but, in the end, I think they reduce your number of bites.
"The downside is," Neustrom continues, "I think it requires a better-skilled angler to fish plastics to their full potential. You don't just drop the rod tip on the strike and then set at your leisure like you do with livebait. Instead, working and reeling a jig-and-plastic combo with your rod tip held near the 10 o'clock position, you sometimes only sense a tick or spot a slight sideways swim in the line, and must set the hook right away before the fish drops the lure.
"I like to use either 10-pound-test Trilene XT or FireLine when fishing jigs around weeds, teamed with a 6' 6" Berkley Techna AV 66 MF medium spinning rod. It's a balanced and effective combo, just right to allow me to cast lightweight 1/16-, 1/8-, and 1/4-ounce jigs far enough, interpret weeds, and sense light bites, with sufficient muscle to pop jigs free with a wrist snap, instead of having the rod bend too much to impart force and uproot rather than cleanly break the weedgrowth.
"While the outside drop-off edges of weedbeds tend to be your best bets, keep on the lookout for other options. Sometimes, for instance, weedlines are irregular and lie farther up on the flat, away from the drop-off [particularly in dark water]. On cloudy or windy days, walleyes may even penetrate in good numbers to inside weededges lying in only 4 to 6 feet of water, where we've often pounded fish while watching others unsuccessfully trolling the outer drop-off. And, of course, watch for those open 'circles of doom' within weedbeds that I mentioned earlier, often indicated by a telltale lighter bottom color indicating a sandy or rocky open area within the weeds. Find those, and you have a secret hot spot for life."
Are these the only ways to catch weed walleyes? No. "We'll sometimes substitute a Beetle Spin for a plain jig and let the tiny blade flutter the jig slowly downward," Neustrom advises. "It's especially good when you want to swim a jig and crawler above weedtops, such as when the fish become more active near sundown and rise higher off bottom in the weedbed, cruising for forage. Or we might even backtroll a bullet-sinker rig with a 3- to 4-foot snell baited with a leech, tickling an inside or outside weededge when the fishing gets really tough. If so, I use crane swivels rather than barrel swivels, since cranes tend to pick up fewer weed or moss fragments and foul less frequently."
In the end, you do whatever works, and for Neustrom, that usually involves a jigging approach of some sort. One of the fringe benefits of experience.
*Tom Neustrom (218-327-2312), now-retired deputy sheriff, Grand Rapids, MN, fishes, guides, and promotes angling full time. Wish we had his job!