"Foul weather is what separates the men from the boys," says walleye pro and Devils Lake, North Dakota, guide Johnnie Candle. "When bad weather shows up at tournament time, it can eliminate half the field. You have to keep your head in the game."
But the same applies to the rest of us avid anglers, too. There's nothing like bad weather to test our skills, gear, and common sense. Like my retired fighter pilot father was fond of saying, "Don't get your skill and courage confused." Lightning is a sign to get off the lake ASAP. And big waves and wind—well, that depends on your boat and boat-control skills.
Besides storms and post-frontal conditions, there are scenarios that can make walleye fishing tough: cold weather, heavy precipitation, flat-calm conditions, low- or high-water levels, high air and water temperature, algae blooms, and water clarity extremes.
So what's the best way to crack a tough bite? According to Lake of the Woods Tourism Executive Director and Minnesota Tournament Trail angler Joe Henry, it comes down to trial and error. "I usually go either with subtle finesse or aggressive tactics in a post-frontal or other tough-bite situation," he says. "Finesse might mean anchoring and soaking a jig/livebait combo. Aggressive might mean covering water with a big-bladed 'crawler harness or burning crankbaits, looking for reaction bites. From there, I adjust up or down.
"Here's an example: The mentality is that when the water's cold in early spring or late in fall, jigging is the way to go. I'll never forget the time I was anchored and jigging on the Rainy River and catching a fish here and there. I saw two Ranger boats with Iowa tags burning crankbaits and catching lots of walleyes. I yelled over to them, 'You can't be pulling cranks now, the water's too cold.' The Iowans laughed and yelled back, 'Yeah, tell that to the fish!'"
Whether you lean toward power or finesse, boat control is critical. In walleye world, wind and waves are a fact of life. These days, most pros run fiberglass steering-wheel console boats with full windshields. But today's aluminum hull designs are better suited to wind than ever before, like Lund's IPS hull technologies. Even mid-sized aluminum boats can be rigged with accessories and a little know-how to provide excellent boat control in wind. That can include the latest and greatest, like today's GPS-enabled bowmount trolling motors with electronic anchoring. But don't dismiss the value of old-school boat-control devices like driftsocks, and a self-releasing, wide-fluke anchor like a Lake of the Woods brand Fluke or Digger Anchor. Should trolling motor batteries run down or wind and current make holding on a spot or following a contour difficult, an anchor and/or driftsocks can save the day.
Besides controlled drifts, 'socks help achieve precise trolling speeds and minimize bow movement in strong winds. While Lake Erie/Detroit River guide Lance Valentine's PolarKraft WT200 boat is outfitted with all the bells and whistles, he still uses driftsocks regularly. "I run small Amish Outfitter driftsocks close to the boat, as far forward as I can get them on cleats set on Traxstech tracks. I put a 24- or 30-inch driftsock on each side to prevent the boat from bobbing up and down. They also help me achieve precise trolling speeds while staying on a track or following a depth contour," Valentine says.
Better boat control in wind is also made possible by GPS-enabled trolling motors. Valentine runs a 36-volt MotorGuide Xi-5 with Pinpoint GPS electronic anchoring, not only to stay put in certain scenarios, but also to follow precise, pre-programmed trolling paths. "I have the Xi-5 networked to my Lowrance graphs, so before I even leave the dock I can program it to make 30 S-turns 100 yards apart at 30 degrees, for example. Then we run out three miles, and I turn it loose. I also program in a U-turn and it sends me back to my starting point. It makes trolling paths a no-brainer so I can focus on speed and depth adjustments." Most days, Valentine uses all the tools at his disposal for precise boat control, whether he's guiding on the Detroit River, Lake Erie, or Saginaw Bay. "I might use combinations of the kicker, electric trolling motor, and my Suzuki outboard with Lowrance AutoPilot and Digital Troll."
What does this have to do with tough walleye bites? "Everything," he says. "Speed is the biggest factor in getting negative to neutral fish to bite. Sometimes it comes down to .1 mph. I have a full walk-through windshield and I know that closing my windshield adds .1 mph. I also know that having my big motor in neutral is another .1 mph. I can scrub off .1 mph by opening my windshield or by putting my motor in gear. I'm constantly thinking how can I gain or reduce speed. Most guys just fire up their kicker and try to get their speed right. When walleyes are biting, it doesn't much matter, but other days it's critical."
Minnesota guide Brian "Bro" Brosdahl hums a similar tune. "The difference between a so-so bite and a great bite comes down to boat control and correct speed. I use my Minn Kota Ulterra bowmount more all the time. I approach structure slightly diagonal to the wind, get the bow forward, and use the Ulterra to keep a varying amount of thrust into the wind so I can keep a precise angle on the contour, structure, and fish, whether I'm pitching or drifting. For precise contour trolling, I use both the Ulterra and my big Evinrude in neutral to track straight."
Power, Speed, and Probability
Generally speaking, anglers fall into two camps: power and finesse. The former speed up to trigger bites, while the latter slow down and apply subtle presentations to tentative fish. Come tournament-time, however, more pros are gambling on speed and the laws of probability—guys like North Dakota walleye pro Johnnie Candle. "Speed becomes a huge factor during post-frontal conditions because the number of biters is reduced," he says. "I troll crankbaits at high speed, trying to pick off the most active fish. Rather than sit over a pod of 10 or 20 walleyes with a livebait rig and wait for them to eat, I cover water at 2.5 mph or faster, presenting the lure to scattered fish, trying to get a reaction strike. When walleyes hold on confined structure, I make repeated casts with a Rapala Jigging Rap or Rippin' Rap, or a Moonshine Lures Shiver Minnow. Repeated retrieves through the area often get walleyes to bite. From what I've seen, once you get the first fish to eat, the rest fire up, and you might catch 3, 4, or 5 in short order."
On Lake Erie and Saginaw Bay, Valentine starts trolling between 2 and 2.2 mph, then incrementally speeds up, even if he catches walleyes right away: "I speed up in .2-mph increments, moving my lure up a foot at a time until walleyes won't touch it. There are a lot of days when we catch fish going 2.2 mph with the lure 4 feet above the fish and keep moving faster. Sometimes at 2.8 mph, with our lures 8 feet above the fish, we start filling the cooler. A lot of guys catch a fish at a certain speed and maintain it. I constantly adjust, seeing how fast I can go and how high I can run my cranks. Speed is the easiest thing to change. You don't have to pull boards or adjust lines, merely boost speed and the whole spread goes a little faster. A lot of my summer trolling on Saginaw Bay is at 3 to 3.5 mph. If I'm trying to triggering non-aggressive fish—fast might be 1.8 to 2.25 mph while everybody else is going .6 mph."
Spoonin' Short Biters
1. 1/4-ounce Northland Tackle Tungsten Silver Spoon with two Mustad Fastach Clips
2. 3/8-ounce Northland Tackle Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon with split-ring chain
3. 1/4-ounce Custom Jigs & Spins VertiGlo Demon Spoon with #10 Pro Finesse Drop Chain
4. 1/4-ounce PK Lures PK Spoon with Mustad Fastach Clip
Power and speed don't always trump finesse. While tournament anglers and guides typically fish to the best odds of a payout or satisfied customers, sometimes slower fishing—like jigging or rigging—is more suited to a body of water or angler preference. After all, pulling bouncers, leadcore, and boards can turn into a snoozer. What angler doesn't love to feel that thump when fishing walleyes on light tackle? Here are a couple tough-bite tips for the finesse crowd.
"There's a tendency for walleyes to short-bite during bad weather of all kinds," Brosdahl says. "When the barometric pressure rises, or there's full sun, with lots of anglers around, walleyes often grab your jig and minnow, leaving just the head." Over the years, he's refined a technique to get short-biters in the boat that involves tweaking ice-fishing spoons—including Northland Buck-Shot, Glow-Shot, Tungsten Silver Spoons, and others. "I add a Mustad Fastach Clip or make a chain of split rings, then attach the treble, like an ice-fishing dropper rig. It's the law of physics—the lightest piece goes into the walleye's mouth when he gulps. If you're missing fish, use just a minnow head or tiny minnow. The dropper adds subtle noise and it hooks up nicely when they're short-biting."
Brosdahl's typical program is to locate fish with side-imaging sonar, drop a waypoint, back off the spot, deploy Spot-Lock, and pitch downwind to the fish from the stern. "This technique works for tough fish in all seasons and depths from 8 to 40 feet," he claims. "I can hop it over sand, sandgrass, wood, or rock. Besides pitching, the technique also works on a controlled drift or for jigging vertically. I often locate big pods of walleyes I could troll through, but this is just as effective, if not more so—and a lot more fun. And in clear-water situations I don't have to worry about spooking fish, which trolling can do." He fishes the spoons on a St. Croix Legend Xtreme 5-foot 9-inch medium-power, extra-fast action rod with Shimano Sustain 2500FB reel with 10-pound braid and an 18-inch section of 5- to 5-pound fluorocarbon.
Dead Stickin' Jigs
Third-generation Minnesota guide Ty Macheledt goes "hands-free" with an uber-finesse technique when post-frontal walleyes get finicky. "What started by accident last year has become something we routinely try when the bite gets tough," Macheledt says. "When walleyes are neutral to negative, rather than jig with the rod, I set it down between the graphs at my tiller position. This kind of deadsticking often catches walleyes 3-to-1 over holding the rod."
This routine plays out especially well after successive days of bad weather and big winds, like a trip he took this past October to Lake of the Woods. "Although fish were starting to move into the Rainy River, we concentrated on breaks around Nine Mile Reef," he says." There wasn't a lot of wind and the fish were neutral, right on the bottom. The days prior had been producing a great jig bite, but they shut off when the wind died. Just like deadsticking in winter or setting trolling rods in holders can produce more fish, setting the rod down was the key to getting bit."
Depending on depth, Macheledt drops a 1/4- to 3/8-ounce short-shank Lindy Live Bait Jig (gold or glow perch) to bottom and reels up slack, letting minor boat movements move the jig-and-shiner combo just off bottom. "With rod holders, it takes too long to grab the rod and set the hook. I set the rod between my graphs with the butt by my legs and wait for the rod tip to load up, then grab it. We do the same thing on Devils Lake with jigs and leeches. It's amazing how well it works when normal jigging doesn't."
His go-to deadstick finesse rod is a St. Croix Avid 7-foot medium-light power fast-action, with 6-pound Stren mono, which he likes for its stretch and neutral buoyancy, especially with light jigs. "Jigs and minnows seem to have a more natural rate of fall with mono," he adds.
Whether by power or finesse, most tough walleye bites can be cracked with precise boat control and speed adjustments once you've dialed in preferred depth range. Don't be intimidated by daunting conditions, as the first step out the door is the hardest. Once you start catching fish, conditions switch from challenging to enjoyable.
*Jim Edlund, Becker, Minnesota, is an avid angler and freelance writer. He frequently contributes to In-Fisherman publications.