October 14, 2019
Vulnerable. Alone. Moving slow on a horizontal plane, it saunters over rock and gravel, past emerging weeds, in and out of shadows. Could be an unconcerned minnow, oblivious to danger. Like Pepe Le Pew, prancing along, eyes closed, humming a love song, its reflection appears in sinister, unblinking eyes in the dark. But the ‘eyes rushing from those shadows are the vulnerable ones.
The jigs I depend on for walleyes need to make plastics behave like that. Like Pepe Le Pew. Maddeningly vulnerable. Oblivious.Taunting. And dangerous (never rile a skunk). From the season opener into early July every year, slowly swimming soft plastics on light tackle puts walleyes in the net wherever I go, but better walleye warriors take the floor first.
If walleye fishing was an Olympic event, which jig would win gold? Apparently, it depends on who you are, how you fish, and where you live. We asked guides, pros, editors, and other major players what walleye jig they could least live without. Few mentioned the same jig. Things like environment and fishing style seem to drive preferences for one version over another.
Mike Kerempelis guides on Green Bay, one of the world’s true walleye treasures. “Year-after-year, a straight hair jig is a very effective tool and we rely on it most out here,” Kerempelis says. “I’m going to body-style jigs like the Moonshine Lures Shiver Minnow or Rapala Jigging Rap more and more, but a straight, quarter-ounce bucktail jig is very effective. We use both aspirin-style heads and mushroom-style heads. Aspirins are more efficient around rocks, and Green Bay has rocks to spare. Most are tied by local guys, not big companies. Straight bucktail is most effective, but sometimes a little Flashabou helps when the water clouds up. Dark colors always work best—black and purple especially. No need to tip them with bait. Livebait gets annihilated by gobies here.”
The technique is similar to snapjigging with Shiver Minnows.“With hair jigs, though, we want it to hit bottom on every drop,” he says. “Pop bottom and create a little puff of sediment. We use 7-foot medium-power Pflueger spinning rods with a fast or extra-fast tip. Ten-pound braided line produces better casting distance, a quicker drop, and better feel. A 5-foot, 10-pound fluorocarbon leader tied in with back-to-back uni-knots resists nicks from rocks and mussels. It’s a goby pattern. Walleyes are always full of gobies here, and the walleyes we’re catching are hunting gobies on bottom. A darker hair jig imitates a goby and it’s going to trend that way as long as the gobies hang in there.”
Try as we might to limit people to one jig, most had to mention at least two. “The Z-Man Ned Rig was good for walleyes last year,” Kerempelis says. “Everything else performed the same as previous years, but the unconventional 1/10- and 1/6-ounce Ned Rigs were crazy good. The bodies are unconventional, too, and I primarily stick to the 31⁄2-inch version TRD in green pumpkin and green-pumpkin goby. Same tackle, same technique we used with hair jigs but we mixed it up by dragging sometimes—pausing a little, then dragging it again. That was especially effective in shallow water. Most walleyes hit on the pause though a lot of bites occurred on the drop if you happened to put it right on their nose. Amazingly effective and snag-free in rocks—especially for people who don’t get the hair-jig trick right away. And smallmouths bite the stink out of it.
Tommy Skarlis, who recently surpassed every other walleye pro in tournament and championship wins, doesn’t have a second choice. He jigs almost exclusively with Do-it Molds Teardrops Wirekeepers. “I can slide a soft plastic onto it, or ‘crawlers, minnows, or leeches,” Skarlis says. “The teardrop shape, with lead in front of the eye and behind the eye, fishes with balance. It cuts current well, and you can jig vertically or pitch with a teardrop and it’s efficient either way. Sizes range from tiny to jumbo. It’s the most versatile jig I’ve ever fished. If you own that mold, you don’t need many other designs. I paint them with Pro-Tec powders or CS Coatings vinyl jig paints (available through Do-it Molds). On the road, I carry a lot of unpainted jigs and bring a torch with all the colors so I can paint them when I need a particular color.”
Customizing with hook style has advantages, too. Do-it Molds accept a variety of hooks. “I can mold whatever hook I want into it,” he says. “I can put an Eagle Claw 570 bronze hook in there that can be straightened to get out of woodcover easily. Or I can use a premium Lazer Sharp hook that stands up to the giants in Lake Erie. I like the wire keeper for pinning minnows, ‘crawlers, and softbaits to the hook, but I can smash it down to tie on bucktail or marabou. For all the walleye fishing I do, I don’t need any other style of jig.”
'Eyes on the Blade
In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange is famous for his longtime, televised advocacy for big, soft swimbaits. “For me, the jig that immediately comes to mind is the Owner Saltwater Bullet Head,” Stange says. “It has long been my favorite jighead for coupling with 4-, 5-, and 6-inch paddletail swimbaits. I’ve used these combos to catch thousands of walleyes over the years, including lots from 10 to over 13 pounds, from the Columbia River out West, to the Bay of Quinte in the East, and dozens of spots in between.
“The jighead has a 3X-strong hook, a medium wide gap, and a Super Needle Point with a Black Chrome finish—a superbly built jighead that I started using to fish for tarpon almost 30 years ago,“ he says. “So, it was a natural to begin fishing in freshwater with big softbaits for muskies. And I began catching so many big walleyes in the process, especially along weededges and over rockbars, that I refined the process and never looked back.”
The hook lengths are perfect, he says, with a 3/0 hook on the 1/2-ounce jighead and a 5/0 hook on the 3/4-ounce version. “The 1/2-ouncer works with 4- and 5-inch paddletails in about 5 to 15 feet of water,” he says. “The 3/4-ouncer works with 5-inch bodies in 8 to about 20 feet of water. At times I use the 1- and 1.5-ounce heads to make long casts, searching for suspended fish roaming in open water—mostly with 5-inch bodies, but at times with a 6-inch bait. When combination catches of walleyes, pike, and muskies are possible, I sometimes use a 6-inch body on a 1-ounce head in shallower water, especially along weededges. For smaller fish and less-aggressive fish, it pays many times to temper back to paddletails running 3 or 3.5 inches, but that requires different jigheads with a longer hook shank.”
Stange’s second choice is an underspin. “The other jighead I would mention is the ReelBait Flasher Jig, usually coupled with a Berkley Gulp! Minnow. It’s a keel design with the addition of a willowleaf blade that adds flash and vibration. It’s one of the most productive jigheads I’ve found for fishing current in rivers.”
After years of relative obscurity, underspins hit the walleye scene hard several years ago. In-Fisherman Field Editor Gord Pyzer says, “This is an easy choice: the ReelBait Flasher jig, especially the tournament series with the Gamakatsu hook. The tiny willowleaf hanging below the jighead adds flash and vibration, even when you’re deadsticking it over the side of the boat. And on those rare days, when you don’t want the flash, you can snip it off.
“I love that they come with short-shank hooks for dressing with leeches and half ‘crawlers,” he says. “But they also have long-shank versions for minnows when you put the hook in the minnow’s mouth, out the gill plate, and then through the skin in front of the dorsal fin. The long shank is my favorite for soft plastics. Better still, the Flasher comes in every size and weight a walleye angler needs, in a huge array of perfect colors.”
Minnesota guide Brian “Bro” Brosdahl likes long-shanked hooks, too, especially on the new Northland Fire-Ball Sting’N Jig. “I jig year-round, not just in spring and fall,” he says. “The wide-gap, long-shank Sting’N Jig UV patterns work with bigger minnows. The hook is deadly sharp, and the UV experiments on my boat have proven to me that walleyes hit those colors better than any others. That jig is something I can’t live without. I use the 1/4-ounce versions most of the time, to bang bottom as hard as I can, unless I’m pitching to heavy rocks. There you need a lighter jig, but you can pitch the 1/4-ouncer farther, stay vertical better, and when it’s windy it keeps your line tight.”
A long shank allows Brosdahl to fish a minnow weedless. “The point goes in the mouth, out the chest, and slips just under the skin in the back,” he says. “It kills the minnow, but this is aggressive jigging for aggressive fish. Watching walleyes for years, I see how they react. When a jig falls straight and hits bottom hard, just pause it there for a second or two. Give them a second to find it. When they smell the meat, it’s down the hatch. I like to rip it straight up—cause a commotion. It calls for a medium-power fast-action 7-foot rod. I use the St. Croix Legend Elite. The trick in vegetation is cadence. Jig up, sweep forward, and let it drop straight into the weeds again. Walleyes follow underneath. If you just jig, you’re encountering plant after plant. An aggressive, upward motion, followed by reeling in slack and letting it drop straight, keeps the jig clean.
Brosdahl uses Sunline 10-pound SX Braid and ties in a 2- to 3-foot, 8-pound fluorocarbon leader when jigging for walleyes about 90 percent of the time. “If they’re finicky, I go lighter,” he says. “In deep or clear water, I go to a 6-foot leader. It’s castable with back-to-back uni-knots. But the Sting’N Jig is the key. And in clear water or dark water, I get more bites with UV. There are times when they eat whatever goes past, but in every other situation, UV is noticeably better. And for plastics, that nice long hook is perfect. It’s a great design that I use for smallmouths, largemouths, pike, and other species.”
For vertical jigging in cloudy rivers, Brosdahl still likes the old-school Northland Whistler Jig, with its helicopter-style blade right on the shank of the hook. Hold it still and the current spins the blade to add flash and vibration. Together we used Whistlers to prick some giants on the Rainy River last spring. (I remember Al Lindner often opting for that jig in past excursions to several Canadian rivers as well.)
Veteran walleye pro Ted Takasaki often goes old school, too. He likes the standard Northland Gum-Ball jig. “It’s just a regular jig,” he says. “Roundhead jigs are the most versatile. As far as jig shape goes, about 75 percent of all jigs sold are roundheads. They come through vegetation relatively well, they pitch well, they fish around rocks well—you can use them anywhere. You might need specialty heads in some cases, but a roundhead jig is the most versatile.”
Having that long-shank option is crucial, Takasaki says. “I like medium- to long-shanked jigs,” he says. “I thread a minnow on hook through mouth out the gill up through the belly and out the top. The medium to long shank is best for that. The wider gap is right. I like thin-wire hooks, too, so I can use lighter line. I like paint that doesn’t chip and glow colors are important to me. I use them in all conditions. Even in bright daylight. It shows up in the shadows around cover and in deep water. The range of sizes is complete. I need them all. Drop speed is critical, so having incremental choices is important. The Gum-Ball matches well with every kind of bait—’crawlers, leeches, smaller fathead minnows and big shiners. For big shiners, you need a bigger hook, but it works well with plastics, too.”
For pitching plastics, I still like the Gopher Tackle Mushroom Jig, which is a lot like the VMC Half Moon Jig in terms of profile, presentation, and efficiency. The Mushroom allows the option of choosing thin-wire Gamakatsu hooks. The VMC Half Moon Finesse Jig incorporates thin-wire hooks as well. I use 4-pound Maxima Ultragreen and 8-foot, light-power St. Croix rods to make long casts and cover water. Sharp, thin, premium hooks are a must for setting hooks with thin, stretchy line and light-power rods. These jigs perform well with 4- to 5-inch ringworms, soft-plastic swimbaits, and grubs, which put dozens of shallow rock, sand, and sparse-weed walleyes in the net for us every year from season opener right through early July.
Speaking of VMC jigs, I know one pro who can’t talk about it because he’s sponsored by another company, but he uses VMC Moon Eye Jigs for both pitching and vertical jigging with minnows, ‘crawlers, and leeches. The Moon Eye is almost an aspirin-shaped head, making it more efficient around rocks. Twelve color schemes include five that are UV patterns. Super thin, super sharp, long-shank VMC hooks balance well with minnows, plastics, and light line. And the pro I mentioned believes the reflective, 3-D holographic eyes trigger a vicious predatory response from walleyes.
So many jigs, so little time. The market offers dozens of other viable, efficient, quality jigs we have no room for here. Which jig is best? Considering the criteria these pros, guides, and experts observe to choose jigs for the cover and environments they commonly face should answer that well enough.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw is a decades-long writer for In-Fisherman publications and veteran multispecies angler based out of the Brainerd Lakes area of Minnesota.