March 10, 2020
By Doug Stange
No tactic in walleye fishing produces all the time. No lure or lures are a pipeline to success in every instance. The game we play is convoluted, a matter of calculation based on what we know from experience and what we’ve learned by reading about the fishing experiences of others and watching others in action. One can never dismiss a classic option like the Jigging Rap, or many of our classic spoons, without putting them to the test. That too is a challenge, because there’s only so much time.
The way it should go is like this: In-Fisherman videographer Chris Hoffman is assigned to shoot TV at Last Mountain Lake, Saskatchewan. Clayton Schick is an area expert and a longtime guide with considerable experience in many types of fishing. He and In-Fisherman Digital Editor Jeff Simpson will be doing the on-camera fishing. Before Simpson arrives, Hoffman, who also is an excellent angler, spends several days fishing with Schick.
They get on big fish. Hoffman catches his first 30-inch walleye and several other big ones. One evening he has a big mark come in on a Johnson Shutter Spoon. No go, so he switches to a PK Spoon, an option that has been producing a lot of success for them so far. A minute later, frustrated, but with the fish still on screen, he reels up and considers his options. He’s looking for something different than his presentations so far. Dropping a #7 Jigging Rap, a horizontal swimmer, as opposed to the vertical-falling spoons, he jigs once, the lure glides back into place, and the fish bites. This one is 29.5 inches and 12.4 pounds.
Many of the fish caught by Hoffman and Schick, and later by Simpson, respond to spoons worked right on bottom or just above it on middepth flats with scattered sand and gravel, and occasional boulders. Hoffman also notes how deadly the PK Spoon is for them over a boulder field where it’s impossible to work the bottom. He further notes the success of a nearby angler, working with lighter line—6-pound mono—and downsized spoons weighing 1/16 ounce. He too is working his spoons in traditional lift-fall-pause fashion off the bottom as well as pounding bottom and lifting.
Today, the world is filled with astute walleye anglers, as well as anglers just getting familiar with the process. Over the years we’ve defined lure categories that work and key lures within those categories. We’ve taught how to work those lures. It pays to keep things as simple as possible, but great anglers respond to ever-changing fishing conditions with an open mind and engaging and enlightened tactics.
Only a few of our articles are about fishing specific bodies of water. The cast of characters, from lures to anglers and bodies of water changes, but how to proceed, and your success, is determined by your ability to process input and appropriately respond to the ongoing experiment in action that is every day on the water.
Fundamentals from the Field
Longtime In-Fisherman Editor & now Digital Editor Jeff Simpson is a lifelong student of fishing for walleyes, especially on the ice, and, after visiting so many of North America’s greatest winter walleye fisheries, notes how similar the fishing can be. “The fundamental jigging strategies I grew up with reading In-Fisherman are always right on target to begin,” he says. “No matter the chosen lure—and that includes horizontal swimmers like the Jigging Rap and lipless lures like the Livetarget Golden Shiner—you lift and let it fall to attract fish. Sometimes they come right in and eat on the pause, which was once considered the main triggering maneuver. Most times, though, we add nodding to the pause.
“A nod should start just after a fish moves in and won’t respond,” he says. “Sometimes all it takes is the slightest movement beyond the barest movement already inherent in the pause.”
At that point, everything is an ongoing experiment. We toy with different lures. We toy with more aggressive moves, especially at first ice. We may also eventually temper back, using a deadstick with a minnow anchored on a jig in a nearby hole, as the jigging continues, especially as the season slides into midwinter.
Sometimes most of the fish seem to respond to the same general lures and presentation moves. Other times, each fish that comes in responds differently than the one before it. Still we’re always looking for patterns—and sometimes they develop and other times they don’t.
Simpson: “Nodding doesn’t require conspicuous movement of your hand or wrist; just squeeze the rod handle with the palm of your hand and fingers. If it’s obvious, it isn’t a nod, it’s a jiggle or a shake, more aggressive motions reserved for swimming lures like the Jigging Rap, or working spoons for active walleyes, typically during that prime-time low-light period just before dark.
“With a nod the minnow head on the hook, or just the dangling hook, barely dances,” he says. “Nodding also works as you slowly raise the lure about 4 to 6 inches, then stop. Then nod again. Any time you get fish to move up their mood becomes more positive. Those are the fundamentals and then we work from there.”
General spoon design determines general performance. On one hand, classic “straight” spoons like the Kastmaster lift and fall quickly and precisely, while “bent” spoons like the Custom Jigs & Spins Slender Spoon cycle more slowly because they lay on their side and shimmy and shake as they fall.
But one must also consider the specifics of spoon design spoon by spoon. Typically, such evaluation works best in a tank or by watching with an underwater camera. The next best option is to watch how a spoon functions after you drop it down the hole a foot or two.
An example of how spoons seemingly from one general category often cross the line, so to speak, can be seen by looking at two popular spoons from PK Lures. The PK Spoon is a compact teardrop shape with a smooth mirror-plated finish on one side, and dimpling like a golf ball on the reverse side, producing contrasting flickering flash that blends color to become a hint of something. The spoon body is biased in the butt end with a slight bulge on the mirror side that adds weight so it settles butt first. The head of the spoon, which is thinner than the butt, cuts like a knife on the lift, while the butt gives off a subtle pulsing wobble.
It’s the same fundamental design as the Acme Kastmaser; but the unique design of the PK makes it tip on its side and shimmy and shake as it drifts down through the first half of the fall, at which point the butt takes control and settles the package like a rock, with only a little swing back into position from where it first drops. The PK is a compact spoon, a straight design, that fishes precisely yet crosses over into the world of flutterspoon.
In contrast, the PK Flutterfish is shaped like a flattened peanut, with a drawn-in waistline midway between each end, the stamped metal relatively thick and bent into a slight concaving arch. The thick stamping allows the spoon to fish heavy for its size and shape. Even the smallest version (1/8-ounce) coupled with light line fishes effectively in 30 feet. Most anglers fish the 3/8- or 1/2-ounce versions.
The unique concave elongated shape with the pinched middle makes the spoon lay on its side throughout the fall, shimmying, flashing, flickering, with the mirror side up, the divot-side down, as it also rocks left-right, right-left like a falling leaf. It’s a flutterspoon that fishes precisely.
Creating an Illusion
A spoon is an illusion. Often the illusion is little more than subtle delivery device for a tasty, aromatic morsel of something fishy, like a minnow head or a whole minnow. A little flash, a little vibration—a hint of color and something injured, something struggling (on the lift-fall). And then it hangs vertically, for all purposes disappearing on the pause, except for whatever you’ve tipped the spoon with, which can be critical, but at other times need be no more than almost nothing, which is to say bare hook.
At times the jigging process is like calling ducks or geese or turkeys or elk. When the critters haven’t been bothered and are looking aggressively for food or company, call boldly and often, often using lures that are a step or two more “outstanding” than a spoon. Other times, when they’ve been worked over, have become wary, or environmental conditions aren’t perfect, just hint at the presence of something. Touch off a spark of curiosity. Don’t let them find you easily—make them search. Or don’t show them something that’s obviously food—make them wonder until they have to sample to be sure.
With a spoon we’re hinting subtly at this and subtly at that by lifting and letting it fall. The illusion continues as the fish draws near. There’s no logic involved on the fish’s part. It’s reacting to simple cues. Something flickered and flashed, wiggled and fell. Based on past experience, it’s predisposed to think food.
We have to continue the ruse long enough to get the fish to sample, which at times also means using the described wrist movements after the spoon pauses to add life to our presentation. Once again it often works to slightly raise the spoon as you shake it, pausing again just above the fish.
With a horizontal swimmer like the Jigging Rap, the lift-fall action sends the lure up and a bit off to the side of directly below the hole. At that point it glides back into place below the hole and you give it a pause. As is true with spoons, with just the right wrist nodding you can make the Rap roll slightly side to side in place, giving off attractive vibrations and flickers 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 them. So it’s 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.
Just as with spoons, as you watch your electronics to see how fish are reacting, it helps to do the nodding cadence as you gradually lift the lure, taking it up and away if fish aren’t responding. Usually this is done slowly, but not always.
Another move is an even-more-aggressive nodding or shaking or pounding to get the lure to frantically roll side to side, giving off even more flash and vibration. This move rarely triggers fish on its own, but it can be used to call fish in. Use it in place of the lift-fall-pause routine or in combination with it.
An important part of the sound and vibration that goes with this move may be created by the snapping of the line 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, 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.
It’s a 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 during the next round of triggering movements, after another lift-fall. Sometimes you have to think a bit ahead, like a fighter using a move here and there to set up the next big punch.
The Jigging Rap has a sleek profile that cycles quickly through the lift-fall routine. The #9 doesn’t roll and flash so distinctly on the nod and shake. The #7 fishes well like that because it’s lighter, so I spend a lot of time fishing the #7, sometimes sliding down to the #5 for smallmouths or 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.
Unless I’m on the ice to catch smaller fish for the table, I don’t tip Jigging Raps with minnow parts. If you’re working this lure as described bigger fish and even smaller fish usually eat the thing head-first or tail-first. Most of the time, dressing the treble with a minnow part is just a distraction.
Thumping Bottom for Walleyes
Tickling or thumping or dancing bottom for walleyes was covered in In-Fisherman in the 1980s, as well as in Ice Fishing Secrets, the first comprehensive book about ice fishing, released in 1991.
With a lure like the Jigging Rap, start with the lure from 3 to 12 inches above the bottom. Lift the Rap sharply about 1.5 feet and let it swim and fall all the way back to the bottom, causing bottom material to puff up when it lands. Keeping a tight line to the lure right on bottom, nod your rod tip to quiver the lure in place—or be more aggressive and shake the lure in place. A bite is noted by line movement as a walleye touches the line as it eats the lure on the bottom; or it’s noticeable for sudden slight slack in your line. If a fish doesn’t respond to your bottom maneuvers, lift the lure slightly above the bottom and work the lure there, before thumping the lure back down again. This process works best with a smaller Jigging Rap like the #5 or #7, as opposed to the #9.
Or thump a spoon into the bottom several times, then go tight line to the lure on the bottom. Lift the head of the spoon off bottom, keeping the butt in contact with bottom. Jiggle the rod tip to make the spoon dance in place. Sometimes skipping the lure up an inch or two up off bottom gets fish interested. Or, with a spoon that falls erratically, jig it to make it land off to the side of directly below you, then with a tight line to the head of the lure, jiggle your rod tip to walk it back into place below the hole.
We can rely on Simpson once again for expert testimony on working lipless lures like the Livetarget Golden Shiner or the Rapala Rippin’ Rap. Both lures have noise chambers with BBs that produce a distinctive rattling. We don’t know how well walleyes hear these sounds. The Golden Shiner cycles less quickly than the Rippin’ Rap, meaning it does a slower swim back into place after being lifted and allowed to fall. Lures from each category may work better at times.
Simpson has been part of the developing trend over the last decade or so, regarding the use of lipless lures on Lake Winnipeg, working with top local anglers like Roger Sterns to keep track of the fishing.
Simpson: “Of course, to begin you’re lifting the lure a foot or so and letting if fall back into place. The south basin of the lake isn’t deep, so work at the level that you’re seeing fish. I usually begin with my lure a foot or so above bottom. As soon a fish moves in on sonar and starts to approach the lure, I pull the lure up away from the fish at the same pace as the fish is moving in on the lure. This usually keeps fish moving in until they overtake the lure and eat it.
“If a fish is charging in, I kick it up a notch, too, raising the lure even faster. The predator sees the escaping prey and chases it down. If you can get the fish to chase, it’s usually game on. Often the fish are moving up and fast enough that your line goes slack as the fish takes.
“Another good move is to work the bottom. Drop the lure and nod it right in place. You can see fish go tail-up and nose-down on the lure on sonar. If they don’t take, I slowly lift the lure off bottom, giving it an occasional nod as it goes.”
He points out that other anglers work a bit differently. Sterns uses slower or “softer” jig strokes, even if at times they’re big strokes of two feet or so. When a fish comes in he often sticks with whatever he was doing to get the fish to come in to begin. If the fish isn’t having any of that he might also lift and nod to take the lure away from the fish.
Simpson: “Roger often uses a move consisting of three to five nods as he does a series of short lift-falls—so, lift-fall, nod-nod-nod-nod-nod, lift-fall, and repeat. The Livetarget Shiner has a lot of flotation in the tail, so it doesn’t take much movement to make it look alive.
“That’s a snapshot of how to use a lipless lure. These days, after so many years of anglers using lipless lures, we also use big spoons when the fishing gets tough. And whether anglers are using lipless lures, spoons, or anything else, it works to fish a dead rod next to your more aggressive approach. Tipping spoons with a T-boned salted shiner also triggers fish at times.”
Those are the fundamental rules of the road for walleyes. No tactic works all the time; no single lure is a pipeline to success. Whether it’s spoons, lipless lures, or a horizontal swimmer like the Jigging Rap, it’s all about triggering fish with the flick of a wrist and sleight of hand. It’s all about the “big tease.” And it’s a calculated process that can be learned.