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Trolling bass-style spinnerbaits for walleye

Trolling bass-style spinnerbaits for walleye

For about a decade, Keith Kavajecz and Gary Parsons have been aware that a few talented smallmouth bass fishermen, such as Kevin Van Dam of Kalamazoo, Michigan, have been inadvertently catching significant numbers of walleye on spinnerbaits while pursing smallmouth bass. What's more, some of the specimens that Van Dam has allured to his spinnerbaits have been big enough to be called walruses.

Besides Van Dam, Dave Rose of Grawn, Michigan, discovered several years ago that he could consistently catch walleye on windy days by casting and retrieving bass-style spinnerbaits. Rose is a veteran multispecies guide, and nowadays casting and slowly retrieving a half-ounce or smaller tandem-willow-bladed spinnerbait across patches of submerged vegetation, such as coontail, cabomba and cabbage, or making parallel casts and retrieves along the outside edges of the vegetation is such an effective tactic that it has become a standard part of his guiding repertoire at the waterways in his part of Michigan. Although Rose's prowess at wielding a bass-style spinnerbait for walleye has been chronicled by some of the fishing media, Kavajecz and Parsons weren't aware of it.

The gist of what Kavajecz discovered was that Rowland and a few other anglers have been wielding spinnerbaits designed for bass fishing at McConaughy's walleye since 1999. These anglers were working the spinnerbaits around rocky and riprap lairs. They rarely caught hefty numbers of walleye on spinnerbaits, but they consistently caught an impressive number of hefty-sized ones.

Rowland and other McConaughy anglers have noticed that the spinnerbait does a respectable job of replicating an alewife, which McConaughy's walleye often forage upon. They arrived at that idea by watching a half dozen or more alewives occasionally follow a tandem spinnerbait as it was being retrieved and before it was engulfed by a walleye.

From 2002 to 2008, western Nebraska was waylaid by a nasty drought, causing the McConaughy's water levels to plummet. During the drought, cottonwood trees grew profusely along the lake's riparian borders. Since 2008, heavy rains and snows refilled the lake, covering the cottonwood trees with 30 to 40 feet of water. Nowadays many of the lake's alewives, gizzard shad and walleye inhabit the flooded cottonwood trees. And it was above the flooded cottonwood trees that Rowland and Sundstrom caught seven walleye that weighed 39.84 pounds and won the Cabela's tourney by trolling three-quarter-ounce and one-ounce Double Willow Booyah Blade spinnerbaits in white, chartreuse, and white-chartreuse hues. Besides a skirt, their spinnerbaits sported a four-inch grub and 1/0 trailer hook. As they trolled, Rowland and Sundstrom didn't allow their spinnerbaits to touch the limbs of the trees, and if they had allowed their spinnerbaits with trailer hooks to bang into the limbs, they would have become snagged incessantly. (A description of their methods can be seen at; this story also features David Rose's ways of wielding spinnerbaits for walleye on windy days in Michigan.)

After Kavajecz and Parsons deliberated and debated for a few months among themselves about the methods and successes of Rowland and other spinnerbait anglers, they decided that the bass-style spinnerbait might work in reservoirs that are graced with flooded timber and brush, and they were determined give it a serious whirl. In this undertaking, they were joined by Chase Parsons, who is Gary Parsons' son and Kavejecz's nephew, and Tom Kemos of Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. And their initial efforts at employing bass-style spinnerbaits commenced during the practice session prior to the National Guard FLW Walleye Tour event at Pierre, South Dakoka on Lake Oahe on August 25-27, and they continued their work at the AIM International Walleye Championship at Akaska, South Dakota on Lake Oahe on September 15 -17.

Almost straightaway on the first day of practice, they came to conclusion that they were -- thanks to the groundbreaking endeavors of Rowland, Rose, Sundstrom and a few other anglers -- part of a vanguard on a journey to discovering and refining a promising new way for inveigling walleye. Parsons even called it a new frontier, and he thinks that it might become one of the greatest breakthroughs in the history of walleye fishing. Several times in their illustrious careers, Kavajecz and Parsons have been on the frontlines of developing new ways of walleye fishing, and according to Parsons, this one might be more exciting than the others because it truly allures the proverbial walrus-size walleye, as well as a goodly number of big smallmouth bass and northern pike. For instance, Parsons caught an average of 20 northern pike a day at the Pierre tourney that weighed from eight to 25 pounds, and he also tangled with a few lunker-sized smallmouth bass. Kavajecz enjoyed a similar multispecies experience, as did Chase Parsons and Kemos.

At Oahe, Kavajecz and Parsons quickly deduced that alewives weren't the primary factor in provoking walleye to engulf a spinnerbait. The shad and smelt are the primary piscivorous forage for Oahe's walleye, and Oahe's walleye didn't exhibit any hesitancy to attack a bass-size spinnerbait. Many of the walleye that they caught regurgitated smelt. From their perspectives, the primary factor was flooded trees in relatively deep water, and a bass-style spinnerbait was the best tool to use in such a snag-filled maze.

During their practice sessions and tournaments, the water levels of the Missouri River and Lake Oahe were dropping significantly after a spring and summer of extremely high water levels.

Even though the water levels were falling, a significant number of walleye were associated with the flooded trees and brush. To find the locales that contain the best concentrations of walleye, they used the DownScan Imaging feature on their Lowrance HDS-7 and HDS-10 Fishfinders and Chartplotters. When Kavajecz and Parsons came across trees that were inhabited with walleye and other species, the DownScan Imaging unit showed an abstract picture of the trees that looked as if they were interlaced with scores of Christmas tree lights.


These are two photos of Keith Kavajecz's Lowrace DownScan Imaging unit.

Throughout the eight days that they were afloat at the FLW event at Pierre, they would at times find some fish at the bottom of the big cottonwood trees, sitting in 30 or more feet of water. At other times some fish would be situated in the middle of the tree among the labyrinth of limbs, and then there periods when the bulk of the fish would be near the top and even above the top of the tree limbs.


They found that their best catches occurred when there was 10 to 30 feet of water covering the top of the trees.

But towards the last days of the AIM event on September 15-17, some of their most productive areas had only six feet of water covering the tree tops, and that adversely affected their trolling presentation of spinnerbaits. Kavajecz suspected that the noise from his small outboard motor and other boat-related sounds made the walleye wary and reluctant to strike the spinnerbait. As the water levels dropped, they continued to troll and didn't try casting and retrieving bass-style spinnerbaits to the trees, mimicking the tactics that bass anglers, such as Van Dam and Rose, might employ.

At the AIM and FLW events, Kavajecz and both Parsons used a pair of 8 ½-foot Bass Pro Shop Walleye Angler Signature Rods and a pair of 10-foot ones. The rods sported Okuma Stratamaster 30D line-counter reels that were spooled with 10 colored sections of 18-pound-test Bass Pro Shops Magibraid Lead Core Trolling Fishing Line. A No. 14 barrel swivel attached the lead-core line to a 15-foot leader that was made from 15-pound-test Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon line. The drags on the reel were tightened to their maximum, which put a lot of stress on the gears of the reels when there was a donnybrook with a big fish, making it a necessity to employ a well-made, heavy-duty reel. Moreover, they determined that a reel smaller than a No. 30 doesn't have the power to extract a hefty walleye, smallmouth bass or northern pike out of a tree.

They affixed one of the 10-foot rods to a rod holder on the starboard gunnel and the second to a rod holder on the port gunnel. The 8 1/2- foot rods were affixed to a rod holder at the rear of the boat. This spread allowed them to cover a 30-foot swath.

The strikes can be ferocious and powerful enough that rod holders can split and rods are pulled into the lake.

In order to prevent a hooked fish from plunging deep into the maze of limbs, Kavajecz and Parson said that it was necessary to have a stout rod holder that allowed them to remove the rod from the holder quickly. And once the rod was in the their hands, they had to use all of the power of the rod and reel to force the fish to move up and towards the boat, and they quickly discovered that it a chore to quickly horse a 20-pound northern pike away from a massive cottonwood tree. Both the strike and the ensuing donnybrook were so electric that Parsons declared that it was the some most exciting fishing that he has ever experienced.

Kavajecz and Parsons trolled a variety of three-quarter-ounce, one-ounce and one-and-a-half-ounce tandem-bladed spinnerbaits. They used white ones in the clear areas, which was when they could see a white spinnerbait in four feet of water. When the water was stained, they opted for chartreuse ones. They also used a chartreuse-and-white combo, as well as Kevin Van Dam's Sexy Shad hue. Willow-shaped blades proved to be more effective than Colorado and Indiana blades; the blades were gold and silver. They didn't use a trailer hook or a soft-plastic trailer.

By using a four-stroke 9.9 horsepower Mercury Pro Kicker as their trolling motor, they experimented with trolling speeds that ranged from 1.8 mph to 3 mph, and enetnually determined that a pace of 2 mph paid the most dividends. They also discovered that a hard-paced wind made it harder to keep the spinnerbaits moving steadily, and when a wave caused the forward movement of the boat to pause for a moment, the spinnerbait had a tendency to drop into the limbs of a tree and become snagged. Thus they preferred the wind to be mild-mannered. Another reason why they preferred the calm days was that the walleye tended to be stationed within the labyrinth of limbs when the wind didn't blow, and when the walleye were hiding in the tree, anglers who were using traditional walleye tactics had a difficult time catching them.

When they trolled at 2 mph, they found that 65 feet of lead core line and 15 feet of leader trolled the spinnerbait at the depth of 10 feet, 80 feet of lead core line and 15 feet of leader put the spinnerbait at a depth of 15 feet, 95 feet of line and 15 feet of leader put the spinnerbait at a depth of 20 feet. At times, when they were trying to allure walleye from base of the deepest trees, they had as much as 190 feet to 230 feet of lead core line in the water.

Kavajecz said that they preferred to troll the spinnerbaits slightly above the flooded cottonwood trees, which would allure some of the walleye that were milling about above the trees, as well as luring a few of them that were stationed within the upper portions of the trees, which was the trolling method that Rowland and Sundstrom employed at McConaughy. When that failed, Parsons said they had to allow the spinnerbaits to virtually plow into and ricochet off the limbs; at times they even tried to work the base of some of the trees, but it proved to be problematic. Besides trolling through the cottonwood trees, they discovered that trolling spinnerbaits over and through flooded willow trees and buck brush would at times allure respectable number of walleye.

It's interesting to note that this foursome nearly exhausted a $1,400 supply of spinnerbaits. When a spinnerbait became snagged in a tree, they didn't take the time to turn around and attempt to retrieve; instead they merely broke it off and tied on a new one. Parsons also noted that a considerable number of their spinnerbaits were lost when a big fish engulfed and immediately dove into the confines of a tree.

After the FLW and AIM events, Kavajecz and both Parsons participated at the National Guard FLW Walleye Tour Championship on the Missouri River at Bismarck, North Dakota on September 22-25, where the water level had dropped too much for them to be able troll bass-style spinnerbaits over and through flooded timber, and they didn't attempt to cast and retrieve them as Van Dam and others would have done.

From their many days of trolling spinnerbaits at Oahe, Kavajecz, Kemos and both Parsons are now certain that the flooded-tree phenomenon will catch walleye in reservoirs in several locales across the Midwest, such as Bull Shoals Lake, which lies on the Arkansas and Missouri border and contains many acres of flooded timber, as well as a respectable population of walleye. What's more, they are now eager to explore the submerged vegetation in the natural lakes across Minnesota,Wisconsin and Michigan, as Dave Rose has been doing when the wind howls in his part of the world. And at a Tracker Boat media event at Table Rock Lake on September 26-28, Kavajecz and Parsons spent a sizeable amount of time talking to Kevin Van Dam and seeking his insights about using bass-style spinnerbaits in the Lake Michigan for walleye; they also garnered his opinions about various configurations of spinnerbait heads, hooks, wires, soft-plastic trailers, etc.

They are also eager to begin designing and creating spinnerbaits that can be trolled more effectively through flooded timber than the spinnerbaits that bass anglers use. They want to experiment with spinnerbaits skirts and blades in traditionally walleye hues. They want spinnerbaits that have a different style hook than the ones that bass anglers use. They will experiment with spinnerbaits that are built with heavier wire so that they can withstand all of the abuses that comes from banging them into tree limb after tree limb, as well as the violent strikes and the need to horse the fish out of the confines of the limbs. Even though Rowland has caught a significant number of walleye at McConaughy by working on spinnerbaits along the bottom on rocky terrains, Kavajecz thinks that spinnerbaits are more effective when the walleye have to move up to engulf them; so he would like to develop a walleye spinnerbait that is designed to probe rocky terrains.

At this moment, Kavajecz and Parsons are having a great time, being once again on the cutting edge of new developments in the walleye world. In addition, they are planning to feature this tacit on the one of their television show in 2012; folks who are interested in viewing that program can look their website at for a listing of the shows that will begin airing in January.


More information about the FLW and AIM tournaments:

This website provides some details about Chase Parsaons' win, Keith Kavajecz's second place finish and Tom Kemos' third place finish at the FLW tourney at LakeOahe:


Chase Parsons with his first-place trophy. Photo courtesy of The Next Bite.

Even though Gary Parsons was catching the same quality and quantity of walleye that the Chase Parsons, Keith Kavajecz and Tom Kemos were catching, he finished in 21st place, catching 30-01 pounds of walleye during the two days that he competed at the FLW tourney. The reason for that disappointing finish was that he was an unlucky victim of the arbitrariness of the slot limit regulation. He suspects that if this foursome had been participating in an AIM Pro Walleye Series event with its Catch-Record-Release program, all four of them would have their names gracing the top four slots on the leaderboard.

This site focuses on the AIM tourney:

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