March 12, 2015
By Dan Johnson
A walleye playbook amply stocked with proven presentations including basic rigging, jigging, and trolling tactics serves you well in countless conditions throughout the season. But perhaps your greatest walleye weapon is your imagination — coupled with a willingness to harness your creativity to fine-tune traditional techniques, blend existing methods into hybrid rigs, and craft new ways to put walleyes in the boat based on the conditions at hand.
To help spark your creative genius for the coming season, we offer a selection of examples where top guns in the touring and guiding ranks tweaked and tricked tactics to put more fish in the boat. We'll start with arguably the hottest hand in the walleye world right now, Korey Sprengel. Hailing from Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, the 26-year-old has scored a string of major tournament wins in the past four years, including the 2014 Cabela's National Walleye Tour Championship and 2014 Cabela's Masters Walleye Circuit World Walleye Championship (won with partner Derek Navis).
More than a few of his wins have been come-from-behind rallies fueled by tricks that boosted his catch rates. At the NWT championship, held in September on Wisconsin's Lake Winnebago system, he steadily scaled the leaderboard during the three-day event to topple front-runner Mark Courts and take the crown.
The accomplishment was even sweeter considering a frustrating practice left Sprengel scratching his head on the eve of the event. "Going into the tournament, I had no idea how it was going to go," he says. "It's basically my home water, and I had to relearn it on the fly."
He settled on a structural strategy centered on fertile main-lake humps rich in rocks, concrete, and rebar. "Scattered rocks were a bust," he says. "The walleyes were hanging in the thickest, gnarliest stuff they could find." Separating these fish from their harsh environs was no easy matter, and required a little savvy to avoid constant re-rigging. Rather than relying on a jig armed with a super-strong, tempered hook, he leaned on softer steel to carry the day.
"I cast an 1/8-ounce jig tipped with a 4-inch Berkley PowerBait Rib Worm onto rockpiles rising to 2½ to 3 feet, with a lot of 7-foot water around them," he says. "There were a ton of snags, and the fish were tucked into crevices. They wouldn't hit a crankbait or anything else swimming off bottom. You had to bounce, shake, and hop the jig across the top of the structure to get bit."
To keep from losing a jig on every cast, he opted for a Northland Gum-Ball Jig, the long-shank hook of which is forged from a fine, light steel that bends under serious duress. "The weaker hook bends instead of breaking," he says. "Using 10-pound Berkley FireLine mainline tied direct, I could often pull the jig free instead of breaking off, which saved time and tackle."
Largely on the wings of his rock-jigging pattern, Sprengel sacked 43.69 pounds over three days to claim the title, along with more than $84,000 in cash and prizes. For 2015, Northland replaced the venerable Gum-Ball with the RZ Jig, which should offer similar benefits.
Sprengel extends the soft-hook philosophy to hardbaits when trolling cranks in harm's way. Here, though, he swaps the stock trebles on his favorite baits for hooks offering a bit more flexible tines. "Having light-wire trebles is handy wherever you're dealing with a lot of snags, and especially when trolling industrial rivers like the Fox in Oshkosh," he says. One of his typical tweaks entails replacing the formidable Mustad Ultra Point trebles that come standard on a #7 Berkley Flicker Shad with 36242-BR Triple Grip Bronze hooks. "They're non-tempered, so they're not as brittle, and bend under pressure," he says.
As with jigging, stout line is a key companion to soft steel. At the 2014 MWC championship, held on North Dakota's Devils Lake in October, Sprengel and teammate Navis targeted walleyes feeding along riprap-lined sunken roadbeds in depths of 18 to 27 feet. To trip their triggers, they trolled #7 Flicker Shads 1.5 to 1.8 mph, using leadcore mainline tipped with a 15-foot leader of 20-pound-test FireLine. "Banging bottom was key to getting bit, and the FireLine leader was critical to reducing the number of crankbaits we lost to boulders and riprap," Sprengel explains.
Due to their crank-extraction abilities, they were able to ply tangled waters where other trollers feared to tread. "The pattern kept getting better as the tournament went on," Sprengel says. As a result, they rose through the MWC ranks at Devils Lake with progressively bigger baskets, notching 5-fish limits weighing 23-13, 29-06, and 32-10 for an impressive 85-13 total worth more than $22,000 in cash and prizes.
Another subtle line-related tweak entails swapping thick, abrasion-resistant monofilament mainline for thinner mono. While most walleye fans realize thin-diameter lines yield greater running depths on the cast and troll, few make the connection between other properties such as stretch.
"A lot of guys troll 10-pound-test Berkley Trilene XT, which is great stuff," Sprengel says. "Plus, many dive-charts are based on it, so it's easy to tell where your baits are running with various amounts of letback. But I often use 14-pound Trilene XL instead. It's the same diameter as 10-pound XT, but a little stronger. And it has more stretch, which is huge when trolling planer boards because it keeps the boards from surging, absorbs the shock of hard strikes, and gives you cushion when a big fish lunges or head-shakes at boatside."
Subtle line and hook temper tweaks can be important, but some of Sprengel's other adjustments break the mold completely. "I tend to incorporate bass-style presentations into walleye tactics whenever possible," he says. One such assimilation, which shines for the unenviable task of plucking persnickety fish from the depths of tangled woodcover in rivers, looks like a bass tactic. Like most of Sprengel's inventions, it was born of necessity.
"I was fishing a Great Lakes tributary in Upper Michigan with water clarity of about 6 inches on a good day, and the walleyes were holed up in corner logjams and main-channel laydowns," he recalls. "Standard jigs are textbook favorites in such situations, but they snag too much. Even weedless heads foul up."
Taking a page from the bass playbook, he tied on a 1/2-ounce VMC Rugby Jig and rigged a 6-inch PowerBait Lizard weedless on its 5/0 extra-wide-gap hook. The modified football head and flavored trailer slid through the timber as Sprengel pitched and probed small openings. "A casting rod spooled with 40-pound Trilene XT works well with this combo," he says. "The thick mono resists abrasion and doesn't dig into the wood and snag like superline."
Sprengel is also a confirmed tinkerer when it comes to fish-attracting scents. "On ice and open water, I experiment with Gulp! Alive! Marinade, mixing and matching flavors to match what walleyes want at the moment," he says. "Adding just two or three drops of Marinade to a bag of Gulp! baits totally changes the scent, allowing you to add hints of minnow, garlic, and other flavors."
In a similar vein, he doctors crankbaits with scented softbait tippings. "I always carry 1- and 2-inch Gulp! Alive! Pinched Crawlers for tipping baits," he says. "I'm convinced the added scent makes a difference, and here, too, you can tailor the Crawlers' scent to taste."
When sweetening large cranks that produce a powerful roll, he tends to tip on the back treble, favoring the lone tine riding the vertical axis — which either points straight up or straight down. A small softbait doesn't dampen a big bait's roll, he says, and actually adds action to the charade. "With shad-style baits, use the lowermost tine on the front treble or you kill the action," he says.
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Berkley Flicker Shad tipped with Gulp! Alive! Pinched Crawler
Lindy Fishing Tackle Lil' Guy
Northland Tackle Crawler Hauler Speed-Spinner
Northland Tackle Sink'n Jig
VMC Rugby Jig tipped with Berkley PowerBait Lizard
High Plains Tweaking
South Dakota walleye ace Paul Steffen refines and innovates when chasing 'eyes on Missouri River impoundments and a host of other waters across the Walleye Belt. A veteran guide on Lake Oahe and top touring competitor, he's no stranger to dealing with the challenges of flushing fish from flooded timber.
"Spinner rigs are deadly for walleyes in wood, but standard harnesses snag too much when you have to tickle the treetops," he says. "I tie my own rigs using a #1 or 1/0 light-wire Aberdeen hook on a 6-foot Trilene Professional Grade 100% Fluorocarbon leader. If the hook hangs up, pull it out, bend it back and keep fishing. It's an efficient way of fishing around trees and nicking the branches without losing all of your gear."
To aid in precision depth control, he keeps his line near-vertical. A beefy bouncer and thin-diameter mainline help accomplish this. "Line-counter reels help measure letback and manage running depth, but you can accomplish the same thing by marking the line," he says. "This works well with white superline such as Berkley NanoFil. Alternatively, you can run pre-marked lines like Trilene Tracer Braid."
Spinnerbaits are also deadly in timber, especially when walleyes descend into trees. "It's combat fishing when the walleyes are a third to halfway down the trunk," says Steffen, who savors hefty options in the 1- to 2½-ounce class, sporting double willowleafs. "Stock baits like a 1-ounce Booyah Blade are great," he says. "I make a lot of my own, too."
He runs spinnerbaits at 1.8 to 2.5 mph on 18-pound leadcore mainline, capped with an 8- to 10-foot leader of superline such as Trilene Braid. "The bait hanging up, then surging free, often triggers strikes," he notes. As an added attraction, he bulks up his spinnerbaits with softbait trailers. "Paddletail designs like the PowerBait Ripple Shad are deadly," he says. "Thread them on the hook just like you'd put one on a jig, making sure the tail has a free range of motion."
Veteran Mille Lacs Lake Guide Mike Christensen bobs and weaves whenever his favorite quarry demands something different. From pulling hybrid rigs over emerging vegetation and mudflats in midsummer to tossing slipbobbers onto shallow rockpiles in fall when everyone else is trolling cranks, he often scores epic catches by bucking conventional wisdom.
"I won't argue that spinner rigs are effective," he says. "But when everyone else is pulling them over summertime flats and bars, I can often trigger fish that pass on blades by showing them something different."
One of his standout oddball rigs is Lindy's Lil' Guy. A combo platter sporting the best features of a crankbait, spinner rig, and Lindy rig, it sports a two-hook harness trailing a small, hard body. "The body gives it side-to-side action, while the crawler adds scent and bulk," he explains. "It runs from .3 to 2.5 mph, so I can dial in speed to match a variety of walleye moods. If minnows are in order, ditch the rear hook."
It's easy enough to fish on deeper flats, along contour lines, and over shallower greenery behind a 1½- to 3-ounce bottom bouncer, depending on depth. To liven up the presentation, Christensen often imparts sweeps and pauses. He says the 36-inch, 14-pound fluoro leader lifts the rig about a foot off bottom.
Decorated touring competitor and longtime In-Fisherman friend Scott Glorvigen favors even shorter tethers when pulling spinner rigs in tight places. "People assume you need long leashes, but that's often not the case," he says. "Back in the In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail days, guys like Norb Wallock and Rick Olson did well casting and trolling short in-line spinner rigs like the Blue Fox Strobe. Such rigs were versatile and deadly, as are newer wrinkles like the Northland Crawler Hauler Speed-Spinner."
Speed-Spinners sport a single blade swirling around a stainless wire harness, tipped with a bent-shank #2 VMC Crawler Hauler Hook. "Just like Strobes and custom-tied short rigs, Speed-Spinners can be fished in many ways, in situations where longer snells would snag," he says.
When working river channel edges, Glorvigen often likes to troll up and down the break, using a heavy bouncer and short spinner rig of 12 inches or less. "Long snells drag bottom when you come over channel edges, which often hold fish," he says. "Blades on short rigs keep spinning, and are far more effective for working sharp contour edges."
He endorses Speed-Spinners and other short-leader options on the cast or troll, in weeds and other tight quarters. "You can fish them behind a variety of weighting systems, from bouncers to bullet sinkers and split-shot," he says. "Same thing with tippings. Softbaits, leeches, crawlers and minnows are all fair game." Such versatility engenders experimentation, in turn fueling further refinements, tricks, and tweaks for putting more fish in the boat, given the conditions at hand.
*Dan Johnson of Harris, Minnesota, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and director of All Creation Outdoor Media. Guide contacts: Mike Christensen, 320/266-0397; Paul Steffen, 605/280-7448.