March 25, 2022
By Dan Johnson
Few motivators spawn more walleye fishing refinements than competition, whether it's battling your buddies for a six-pack and home-water bragging rights or fighting for a $100,000 paycheck. For nearly two decades, legions of fans gleaned tips from hot sticks on the Professional Walleye Trail via the pages of In-Fisherman and Walleye In-Sider. With the closing of the PWT, our spotlights focus on other competitive venues, one of which I'm blessed to follow, from icy-good early jigging on the Illinois River, across the Great Lakes and High Plains, to a fall finale on the Mississippiâ€”the Cabela's Masters Walleye Circuit.
Over the course of nine qualifiers and a championship, I watch firsthand adaptations that allow teams to rise above their rivals in high water, low water, tough times, suicide bites, and everything in between. Even mundane presentations like the basic three-way rigging undergo refinements that make the difference between 1 fish and 20. These tips are from the trenches to help you ace the three-way game.
It didn't take long for three-ways to shine in 2011. On March 27, just two days into the 8-month season, veteran river rats Tom Brunz and Mark Meravy humbled nearly 250 fellow competitors on the Illinois River at Spring Valley, Illinois. Their weapons of choice? Three-way rigsâ€”towing shallow-running pink-and-white crankbaits anchored by 4-ounce weights. Their program was a study in precision trolling and teamwork. Meravy and Brunz countered strong late-winter winds by dividing the duties of fishing and boat control. While Brunz tended the team's four rods at the sternâ€”and their kicker outboard pushed them along at 1 mphâ€”Meravy steered their bow-mount electric, using a Lowrance X-15 to follow a key hard-bottom breakline dropping from 14 to 17 feet.
Lines were spread with 12-foot rods on the outside and 7-footers on the inside. Long rods were spooled with Berkley 100% Fluorocarbon, while the short sticks held 10/4 Berkley FireLine. While a sample of Brunz's sauger savvy was revealed in the October-November issue of In-Fisherman ("The Walleye's Quirky Cousin"), he and Meravy's secrets bear further exploration here. For example, their crankbaitsâ€”hot pink #5 Rapala X-Rapsâ€”were doused with Berkley Gulp! Alive! Spray to add attraction and encourage cold-water saugers (and walleyes) to hang onto the lures a split-second longer.
Brunz also is a fan of tandem rigging a brace of baits on the same leaderâ€”often a #9 Original Floating Rapala 18 inches ahead of a bit more active lure like a #7 Jointed Rapala. The baits are joined by snaps on both ends of the leader, linking the Original's tail split ring with the trailing bait's pull point. To give the presentation even more teeth, he swaps the sinker for a beefy jig, Dubuque Rig-style. Minnows are hard to beat on the dropper jig, but don't overlook a half-crawler or softbait.
These days, nothing is simple, even with a three-way rig. Line selection, for example, is complicated by countless options, which serious riggers weigh on every trip. "Superbraids are a no-brainer for my mainline," says Chad Maloy, who hails from Fargo but was weaned on walleyes in the mighty Mississippi near Minnesota's Lake City. "A thin-diameter low-stretch superline like 15-pound Northland Bionic Walleye Braid gives me a better 'Zen' for what's going on than mono, letting me feel changes in bottom composition, what the bait is doing, and if the rig is fouled.
"You can three-way rig with mono, but you're using a tree for a rod and setting the hook as hard as you can to compensate for stretch," he says. "Mono is no joke for the leader, though. When I'm fishing large chubs or other minnows in still water, like on the steep breaks of Minnesota's Cass Lake and other serious structure fisheries, I like a mono leader up to 6 feet or so. I rig the bait on a #1 Gamakatsu Walleye Wide Gap hook, and use a pair of regular swivelsâ€”as opposed to a standard three-wayâ€”so I can feed the fish line on the take, just like I would with a livebait rig. The advantage to the three-way is you can move along faster and cover more water, picking off active fish instead of spending all day in a small area."
Maloy's point on covering water holds water. I'll never forget a trip years ago, when famed Mille Lacs 'eyes were in a funk and anglers ridiculed the lake as the "Dead Sea." Despite an abundance of forage competing with our baits, I enjoyed a banner day trolling three-ways along structural sweet spots with Hall of Famer Dick "the Griz" Grzywinski. Nothing fancy, just single-hook spinner rigs tipped with a minnow, trailing pencil sinkers as they traced the outer edges of the lake's mid-lake flats.
Back to line. "In current situations," Maloy says, "I use Bionic 100% Fluorocarbon leader material, which is abrasion-resistant, has just a hint of stretch, yet good feel. And, because of its density, the line sinks, which gets the bait down to the fish." Indeed, fluoros have come a long way in recent years, so far that spoolable options such as Berkley Vanish, Sufix's Castable Invisiline 100% Fluorocarbon, and others are fishable as mainlines and leaders in many walleye applications. Still, Maloy believes in braid for his three-ways' main tether, with fluoro on the business end.
In a classic example of line being a matter of choice, veteran Mille Lacs guide Kevin McQuoid of Isle, Minnesota, begs to differ on braided three-way mainlines. "Mono works for meâ€”I swear by 10-pound Berkley XT," he says. "A little stretch is critical for fighting big fish. You might have better feel with superlines, but there's no shock absorber." To account for stretch when setting the hook, he allows the 7-foot rod to load until the tip almost touches water, gives the reel handle a trio of turnsâ€”then sets.
On Mille Lacs and other clear-water fisheries, the rig is rounded out by a three-way swivel, 12-inch dropper tipped with 1.25- or 1.5-ounce bell sinker, and an 8-foot leader of 8- to 10-pound fluoro such as Cabela's new X50 Fluorocarbon. He favors spinner rigs with hammered nickel or silver #3 Colorado blades; tippings include 'crawlers from early season through Fourth of July, and minnows after that. "When the bite gets tough, minnows turn on," he says, adding, "nothing fancy, fatheads are fine."
While his tactics are often aimed at getting clients' fish over the rail, McQuoid has an enviable resume of wins and top tens on the MWC and elsewhere. In fact, back in 1988â€”while in high schoolâ€”he topped a 240-boat MWC field on Mille Lacs fishing with his father, Terry. Almost lost to the ages is the fact that at the event, young Kevin mistakenly tossed back a 17-inch keeperâ€”but later redeemed himself by landing a fat 19.5-inch 'eye that lifted them to victory by less than half a pound.
On Mille Lacs and elsewhere, he favors three-ways for surgical strikes on high-percentage structure, such as transitions from gravel to mud, and sharp breaks on mudflats. "Three-ways let you target precise areas, while moving faster than Lindy Rigs," he says, noting that his favorite speed is 1.2 mph. On calm days, every nook and cranny of the underwater landscape is in play, while windy weather calls for zeroing in on edges lying parallel to wave direction.
Twin brothers Joe and John Giuliani, of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, forgo the standard three-ringed swivel in favor of a simple barrel, tying both the leader and dropper lines to the trailing loop. It's proven particularly effective when targeting bottom-hugging fish lurking in current breaks in the swift flows of the St. Mary's and Garden rivers.
Veteran river rats who learned the ropes from their fatherâ€”an Italian immigrant and avid angler who settled in the region for its fishing opportunitiesâ€”the Giulianis have a lifetime of experience plucking walleyes from the St. Mary's swirling depths. And they say that three-way rigs shine at the Soo for their ability to probe fish-holding depressions, eddies and other hotspotsâ€”as they do on other river systems across the Walleye Belt.
A prime example is in late summer, when juvenile lampreys leave their headwater nursery grounds and migrate downstream toward Lake Huron. Areas where a tributary hits the main riverâ€”such as the Garden River entering the St. Mary'sâ€”are especially good. "Lampreys come down the Garden River and hit the main river and are swept along with the current," says Joe. "Walleyes wait in current breaks much like steelhead do, grabbing lampreys as they wash by."
The mouth of the Garden, he says, has rocks of various sizes, from 2- to 4-foot boulders that offer current breaks, to a carpet of smaller stones. "We use our Lowrance HDS sonar to mark both boulders and fishâ€”which show up differently," he says. "Fish show up more as blobs, while rocks are a bit different color and appear fixed to the bottom."
With lines at a 45-degree angle to the water, the Giulianis target the walleyes they mark by drifting downriver at or just slightly slower than the speed of the current. "This is key, to give the walleyes time to grab the bait," Joe says. A small 'crawler (say, 3 to 4 inches), the darker in color, the better, can be a deadly lamprey imitation.
"A short dropper is key to working the bait through the rocks," says John, who's a steelhead guide on this legendary fishery. "With a traditional three-way swivel, you wouldn't believe how many times you tangle up around the third post." Rigging both lines on the same swivel eye helps eliminate that headache, allowing the brothers to finesse their baits in front of hungry 'eyes. While jigging is another option for targeting these fish, there are times when the rig beats all other presentations. "At times, there's just something about the way it worksâ€”jiggers can't compete with it," he says. "You can present the bait more slowly. Even though a jig is a slow presentation, there's still a pop in the triggering phase. Not so with a three-way rig."
Last August, the Giulianis rode their "two-way three-ways" to victory against more than 120 anglers from eight states and their home province in the MWC's East Division season finale on the St. Mary's. Their go-to setup: drifting the dainty livebaits downstream in 20 feet of water at the intersection of the Garden and St. Mary's rivers. "We ran 2-ounce pencil sinkers on 6-inch droppers and 4-foot Berkley 100% Fluorocarbon leaders with a 1/0 hook," says John. It produced 17.27 pounds on Day One and 21.61 pounds on Day Two for a 38.88-pound total that put them more than 5 pounds ahead of their nearest rivals.
Pencil sinkers are key for their resistance to snagging. "Roll them along the bottom, just like you would for steelhead," says Joe, who uses an 8-foot steelhead spinning rod with ample backbone complemented by a tip sensitive enough to telegraph bite and bottom information. Superbraid mainline also aids sensitivityâ€”they prefer 8-pound diameter (30-pound) PowerPro. "Hits feel like extra weight on the line, but different than snags," he says. "I wait until I feel a second pump, when the walleye repositions the bait in its mouth to swallow it, to set the hook."
Sometimes the delay is a few seconds; other times, patience is golden as the walleye swims along bottom 10 or 15 feet with the bait halfway in its maw. "If the fish are really finicky, I may open the bail and feed them line," he says. "But I prefer to keep a tight line to the fish, so I can feel when they take in the bait that second time."
While the Giulianis won the Soo drifting downriver, they acknowledge that there are many different ways to use their setup. "We also anchor and cast it behind the boat into a current seam, then slowly drag it upcurrent past the walleyes," says John. "We also troll it upstream and cast it." Versatile, deadly, and worth a try whenever you want to snake baits through rocks or other gnarly surroundings.
Three-way rigs might not be the flashiest of presentations, but they remain a hot option in plenty of situations. These tidbits from the tournament trenches are meant to spur your own experimentations, and help make 2012 your best walleye seasonâ€”times three.
Dan Johnson of Harris, Minnesota, is the former editor of In-Fisherman's Walleye In-Sider, and the director of the Cabela's Masters Walleye Circuit, masterswalleyecircuit.com. Contact Kevin McQuoid at Mac's Twin Bay, 866/670-8709, macstwinbay.com. To reach John Giuliani and Northern Fishing Adventures, call 705/942-5473, or visit worldsites.net/riverfishing.