Vertical Walleye Fishing
October 13, 2017
Walleyes seem genetically programmed to react to rising and falling prey. One of the easiest meals for any predatory fish is crippled or dying baitfish. They often dart upward erratically, only to lose momentum and drift downward. This up-and-down movement draws attention. For this reason, vertical lure motion is fundamental to walleye fishing.
Not every vertically presented bait draws a bite, though. It takes an understanding of various techniques and their subtleties to increase your catch. One of the more widely publicized vertical techniques in recent years is ripping lipless crankbaits. Lures such as spoons, swimbaits, jigging minnows, and tailspinners also benefit from these actions.
Ripping techniques are the most aggressive up-down presentations. Anglers often mistakenly think of them as tactics for warm water when walleye metabolism is high. But walleyes respond well to these techniques from ice-out to ice-up. Moreover, abrupt ripping techniques may perform best during the cold-water periods of early spring and late fall.
Most anglers fail to impart sufficient upward rod velocity to capture the essence of "ripping." Instead, they generally employ a less aggressive "pulling" technique. Each method works in various settings. But it's important to distinguish between them, know how and when each excels, and understand the equipment that works best for each technique.
Since the upward rod motion of ripping is so fast and lures need to be worked with such a fast cadence, larger and heavier lures work best. In ripping, each rip of the rod is as quick as the last. There's no attempt to deliberately follow the lure back down on a tight line or maintain bottom contact. The lure is worked in a frantic rhythm. Fish have no time to study the bait; they must pounce or it's gone in a flash.
Compact, front-heavy lipless crankbaits like the Rapala Rippin' Rap, Savage Gear Fat Vibe, Strike King Red Eyed Shad, and Booyah Hard Knocker are suited for ripping. They fall quickly, displace a lot of water on the upswing, and wiggle as they fall between each rip. Light lures fail at ripping. Lacking the necessary bulk, they blow out wildly on the rip and don't sink quickly enough to be in position for the next rip.
To get the correct action from lipless crankbaits, braided line in the 10-to 15-pound range is ideal. Monofilament stretches to much and fails to impart the abrupt upward rocketing motion to the lure. Braid also enables better hook-sets on fish that swipe at the lure and are often only felt as weight on the line during the next rip. For this reason, don't be underpowered on rod selection. A 13 Fishing Muse Gold Model MGS69M is my rod of choice for this technique. This medium-power 6-foot 9-inch blank has the muscle to move a 1/2- to 1-ounce lure in 20 feet of water at the end of a long cast. And it recovers instantly between rips and has the necessary forgiveness in the tip section to keep fish hooked.
When selecting lipless baits for ripping, pack several sizes and switch between them often. Even lures within the same family have dramatically different rise and fall characteristics. The largest #7 Rippin' Rap has a sloppier feel and wider wobble on the upstroke and a faster fall. The same is true with the larger 3/4-ounce Hard Knocker. In contrast, the slightly smaller #6 Rippin' Rap and 1/2-ounce Hard Knocker have tighter vibrations, cleaner actions, and slower fall rates. Be mindful of these slight differences as you rotate between lures. Smaller and lighter rattlebaits are preferred for less aggressive pulling techniques.
Any lipless crankbait that can be ripped can also be pulled, but not vice versa. Pulling involves the same up and down lure motion that walleyes respond to, but the motion is less aggressive. It's slower on the uptake and more controlled on the fall.
A standard yo-yo retrieve with a Bill Lewis Rat-L-Trap along an outside weededge is a classic pulling technique. The rod is swept from the 9:30- to 11-o'clock position and lowered on a tight line. Bites occur and can be detected both on the rise and the fall. If you contact vegetation, a quick snap of the rod frees the lure and the yo-yo process continues. Other standout baits in this category include the Livetarget Golden Shiner, Yo-Zuri Rattling Vibe, Matzuo Ikari Shad, and Yellow Bird Deep Diver. Each has a distinct sound, vibration, and fall rate that appeals to walleyes.
Though sometimes overlooked, spoons are naturals for ripping in clear deep-water settings. Heavy ones like Acme Kastmasters, Hopkins Spoons, and Luhr Jensen Crippled Herrings offer superb casting ability, even into stiff winds. On big-water systems where forage consists of alewife, smelt, shad, or herring, these spoons get to the desired depth quickly and mimic these baitfish species. They can be fished with aggressive rips and fall quickly in a random path on slack line.
Heavier 3/4- to 2-ounce spoons require beefier gear to work properly. Choose a high-speed casting reel spooled with 20- to 30-pound braid, paired with a 6½-foot medium-heavy rod for added leverage when working these hefty spoons. When working 3/8- to 5/8-ounce spoons in water less than 20 feet deep, medium-power spinning gear matches 10- to 15-pound braid. In either case, use a 20- to 25-pound fluorocarbon leader to keep the spoon from tangling the mainline on the fall. The stiffness and density of fluoro also reduces the number of bite-offs from pike, where present.
Jigging spoons lack the triggering vibration and noise of a lipless rattlebait on the upward rip but deliver their attracting power on the fall where they flash and wobble erratically as they tumble down. A benefit of spoons includes their ability to be fished deeper and at higher speeds than other ripping lures. It takes confidence when first working big heavy spoons for walleyes, but the rewards can be huge.
Spoons also are deadly on walleyes suspended in the water column below schools of baitfish. Try to match spoon size to baitfish size and allow for adequate pauses between rips. Attach the spoon with a ball-bearing snap swivel to avoid line-twist and replace single stock hooks with dressed trebles for added color and flair on the pause.
Spoons like the Acme Little Cleo, Moonshine Lures RV Spoon, and Northland Holographic Forage Minnow Spoon have more curvature to them and are lighter relative to their size. This gives them more action when pulled upward and a slower fall, which makes them suited for less-aggressive pulling techniques fished tight to the bottom with 2- to 3-foot hops. Since these spoons were designed for casting, they also exhibit superior wobbling action between each rip and hop.
Where walleyes occupy cabbage beds in summer, the flutter and flash of a mid-size spoon often outfishes a standard slipfloat-and-leech presentation. Spoons fish faster to more efficiently cover water and draw walleyes from cover. Here spoons like the peanut-shaped PK Flutterfish or elongated Moonshine Lures Walleye Spoon and RJ Spoon can be pitched into pockets in vegetation or retrieved with a stop-and-go, rip-and-rest approach. When worked at slow speeds, tip these spoons with half a nightcrawler. Bites mostly come on the fall, so line-watching and hi-vis line are beneficial.
Winter tactics have come to the open-water scene with the surge in popularity of jigging minnowbaits such as Rapala's Snap Rap and Jigging Rap and the Moonshine Shiver Minnow. Last June's issue of In-Fisherman offers an insightful account on how pro Gary Parsons and others have refined tactics to win major walleye tournaments with the Moonshine Shiver Minnow, and how Al Lindner astutely casts and slow-trolls with Jigging Raps and Snap Raps to consistently catch walleyes from almost any body of water.
These lures offer distinct rising and falling actions during ripping and pulling techniques. The Snap Rap with its extended rear stabilizing wings has a pronounced forward gliding action. When worked with a pulling technique of snapping the rod from the 9:30- to 11-o'clock position, the lure rises on the snap and glides forward on slack line. Walleyes chase it down as it loses altitude on a controlled fall. In contrast, the Jigging Rap acts like a stunt plane on a quick pull that launches it upward. It then does a semi-circle descent on a horizontal drop. The Shiver Minnow does a loop at the top of its ascent and then goes into a nose-dive, due its forward weighting.
Each of these lures, along with others like the Acme Hyper-Glide, Northland Puppet Minnow, and Custom Jigs & Spins Rotating Power Minnow, require constant rod movement to get them to dance from side to side, travel upward, then erratically crash down. When working them, it's important to use a light rod that offers enough play in the tip to allow lures from 1/4- to 1/2-ounce to be manipulated in various ways.
JT Custom Rods makes 6-foot 9-inch and 7-foot 1-inch models in its JTX-Mag series that are well suited for these presentations. They have high-end recoil guides and zonal carbon-fiber construction that make them incredibly light, responsive, and nicely balanced with a 2500-size spinning reel. A balanced outfit allows you to maintain the rod in the proper 10-o'clock position between upward strokes. This aids in feeling any tick on the bait and allows instant hook-sets. Heavier setups cause fatigue, which can cause loss of concentration and the rod being out of position for the hook-set.
River anglers have favored bladebaits for fishing vertically while slipping with the current, using a steady lift-fall presentation, or cast onto flats beyond the channel edge. In these situations, blades often outproduce jig-and-minnow combos without the fuss of livebait. Match lure size and weight to the current and water depth. Present bladebaits with a controlled, tight-line vertical presentation within a few inches of bottom.
Bladebaits are an underutilized option in lakes. Here, compact blades like Johnson Thinfishers and Vibrations Tackle Big Dudes and Echotails, are an essential early-summer option when preyfish are small. Walleyes of all sizes are intrigued by these small morsels that can be worked at various speeds in an up-down fashion. Unlike rivers, where most walleyes are nose to the bottom and blades are kept within that limited range, in lakes, try a sporadic big rod sweep to get the blade jumping 4 to 5 feet up in the water column.
When fishing small bladebaits, concentrate on large flats devoid of heavy vegetation and slightly away from structure where walleyes can spot them from a distance. A 7-foot medium-light power, fast-action rod and spinning reel spooled with 10-pound-test Berkley NanoFil allows long casts and extra sensitivity for detecting light bites. NanoFil has the slickness and suppleness that allow effortless casts. Its ultra-thin diameter increases sensitivity and precise control of small lures. A rod like the Fenwick HMG 69ML-FS delivers more bounce and produces a unique lure action that's lost when using a heavier rod. To alter the action of these lures, occasionally snap the rod before the lure reaches the low point of its descent, which gives it an additional kick on its upward path.
For giant mid-summer walleyes, snapjigging with large paddletail swimbaits often outproduces everything else by a wide margin. Walleyes can see these large offerings from greater distances as they fall through the water column and they appeal to trophy walleyes seeking a big meal. When walleyes commit to these lures, strikes can be savage, more closely resembling those of large pike. It's as though walleyes know it takes extra force to kill these big baits and deliver a corresponding strike.
Focus on 4.5- to 5-inch paddletails like Kalin's Sizmic Shad, PowerBait Rib Shad, and Keitech Easy Shiner, rigged on a 3/4- to 2-ounce Kalin's Bullet Jigheads. Jig weight depends on water depth. Heavier jigs not only allow longer casts, but also sink faster and can be worked up and down more aggressively.
Given the wild swinging and hard thumping action of swimbaits, effective retrieves vary greatly. A simple cast and horizontal retrieve with the occasional pop produces fish around vegetation, but to trigger more bites in open areas, allow the lure to hit bottom at the end of a long cast. Give a quick snap of the rod, as you retrieve slack. Follow the lure back down on a semi-tight line until it again makes bottom contact. Prior to snapping the rod upward again from the 9- to the 11-o'clock position, pause, and feel for the strike.
Walleye frequently pin a lure against the bottom prior to the next snap. After several snaps and pauses, swim the lure horizontally for a few cranks of the reel, prior to repeating the snap-and-pause process.
The ups and downs of walleye fishing center around understanding how, when, and where various lures and presentations excel and how proper equipment aids this process. Getting the jump on walleyes starts by getting down with the correct gear and tactics.