March 26, 2012
When talk turns to walleye bobber strategies, some walleye hunters roll their eyes. Long associated with kids and cane poles, these no-frills bits of foam, plastic, and cork hold a nostalgic place among the most basic of fishing presentations. And I'm fine with that, because the more anglers ignore one of the deadliest delivery systems in all of fishing, the more walleyes are left for me.
Savvy sticks are all over the bobber scene, of course. Guides like High Plains walleye madman Jon Dircks and Northwoods icon Brian "Bro" Brosdahl savor the sweetness of a smartly fished slipfloat. So, when In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange asked me to pen a few thoughts on bobbering, I rang up the boys for a jam session on surefire slipfloat systems.
Heads For 'Tails
Dircks believes in bobbers. A guide on North Dakota's famed Devils Lake — and proprietor of Ed's Bait Shop in the town by the same name — he favors floats when more active presentations falter. "When the bite's tough, due to a cold front or other factors, floats put fish in the boat," he says. He points to a tournament last June when he came up empty casting cranks, then switched to bobbers and promptly pulled 17 pounds of fish over the rail, all in the same area. "It was like flipping the switch to walleye success," he says.
The secret, of course, is hovering a tantalizing bait in front of a walleye's nose long enough to make it crack. Just like you or I would succumb to the temptations of that last cookie on the plate — even though we weren't really hungry after eating the six before it — a properly presented crawler, leech, minnow, or softbait can eventually weaken even the most tightlipped walleye's willpower.
Since floats aren't exactly high-speed tools for straining water, Dircks dials in key areas where concentrated fish tip the odds in his favor. "I look for a 'structured spot' such as a point of trees, clump of flooded buck brush, or shoreline hump," he says. "Alleyways within submerged timber are good, too. One of the best ways to find a hot bobber spot is casting crankbaits. If you catch a fish or miss a few short strikers, you're probably in a spot worth bobbering."
Depths vary according to water conditions. When waves churn fertile Devils Lake to a froth, Dircks looks for 'eyes shallow — in a few feet or less of water. Similar situations arise on rock reefs and other prime lies in walleye waters across the continent. Calmer seas suggest a shift to deeper water, but not always. "In the right areas, around weeds or thick timber, walleyes stay shallow," he says. In clear lakes, top daytime bobbering areas may lie in depths of 15 feet or more, particularly when the wind dies, but shallow cover is always worth checking.
Along with a milk run of classic cover and structural sweet spots like those described above, some of the more overlooked options Dircks plies are cattail stands, which hold walleyes more often than most anglers think. "They offer food, cover, and very few fishermen — just what walleyes want," he says. Typically lacking in rocks or other firm substrate, cattail beds spring from featureless muck — offering a clue as to why many anglers pass them by. Yet they hold a smorgasbord of baitfish, shrimp, and other food items, and their tough stalks offer ample cover.
Rather than probe the interior of a bed, Dircks targets the easily fished leading edge. "Prime cattail beds offer an outside edge in three to five feet of water," he says. In windy weather, crankbaits and swim-jigs are lethal weapons for hungry 'eyes. But calmer (and post-frontal) conditions beg for bobbers. "I anchor a long cast-length away and position float rigs along this line, giving a float 10 minutes per spot before reeling in and recasting," he says.
Like 'eyes elsewhere, Devils Lakers feast on a variety of forage, including shrimp, leeches, and a multitude of baitfish including minnows and perch, bluegills, and white bass. When bobbering, Dircks says a jumbo leech sweetens the deal better than other options. "Hooked just under the sucker on a #6 or #8 hook, a big leech is hard to beat," he says. Dircks' go-to setup on Devils Lake is a small, thin-profile float riding 10/4 smoke-colored FireLine mainline, with a 1/4-ounce egg sinker above a small swivel. An 18-inch FireLine leader tied direct to the hook rounds out the rig. In clear water, he switches to mono leaders for reduced visibility.
"I'm often fishing timber, so I want superline all the way, so I can set hard and get the fish out of wood fast," he explains. With active walleyes, there's little waiting between the initial bite and the horsing-in phase. A tough bite, however, demands patience. "In a finesse situation, you might wait three minutes or more before setting the hook," he says. "Miss a few fish and you learn how long to wait."
Cattail walleyes aren't just a Devils Lake phenomenon. They're found in many other rising-water fisheries in the water-rich Dakotas. And I've seen similar scenarios on Minnesota's Mille Lacs and smaller lakes. While Dircks likes calm conditions, walleyes also turn on when wind funnels into necked-down areas or cups within cattail edges. Channels and open pockets within the cattails also are worth a look.
Welcome To The Jungle
When we think of walleye fishing on classic natural lakes, it's easy to envision a flotilla of boats drifting livebait rigs over sandflats or trolling bottom bouncers along steep rocky breaks. These are accurate depictions of the masses. But there's more to the walleye story, and veteran guide Brian "Bro" Brosdahl knows a few bobbering chapters other anglers overlook.
One is targeting 'eyes in nasty, gnarly weedmats that are virtually impenetrable and unfishable by conventional walleye tactics. "Thick stands of coontail, milfoil, and tall cabbage, particularly in deep water — 10 feet or more — hold walleyes, but most fishermen avoid them," he says. "They forget that even though the top of the weed plume covers most of the surface in a tangled mat, below it is a more open forest of stalks, where 'deepwoods' walleyes grow fat and sassy feasting on a variety of forage."
Slipfloats, Bro says, are perfect weapons for fishing the jungle. "Most of the few anglers who work weeds pitch jigs," he says. "This works, but you only get the initial drop — and it's all over so fast that unless a walleye was right under the falling jig, it doesn't have time to move in for the kill. Bobbers give me time to attract fish from the nearby area, and thoroughly work each spot without snagging or losing my bait."
Let's start with the rigging. Standard slipfloat setups call for a small swivel separating mainline from leader. This has various benefits, from reducing line twist to keeping the bobber from sticking to the jig or hook on the cast. But when bobbering the jungle, Bro forgoes the swivel. "Pinpoint casts into small openings in the canopy are key," he says. "And it's a lot easier to hit your target without the rig windmilling around thanks to the swivel. If the bobber sticks to the jig, add a small bead between the two."
For virtually all bobbering, Bro chooses 1/8- to 1/4-ounce jigs instead of plain hooks, for their added heft and bulk. His favorites include Northland Fishing Tackle's venerable Fire-Ball, Gum-Ball, and Slurp! jigs, though options abound including VMC's Hot Skirt Glow Jig and or Lindy's new bug-eyed Lindy Jig. "Short-shank jigs like the Fire-Ball are great for leeches, half-crawlers, and nose-hooked minnows," Bro explains. "Longer shanked leadheads let you double-hook livebait, while Slurp!-style jigs allow the addition of softbaits for a beefier profile, to which you can piggyback livebait."
Tied direct to castable fluoro, high-performance mono, or — in low-vis conditions — fused or braided superline, the jig is deftly dropped into small openings, then allowed to freefall down to the strike zone, which is typically near bottom. "After the jig lands, let it settle for a few seconds, then jig it in place," Bro says.
Such locomotion can be achieved by tipping — using your rod tip to pull the mainline and tip the bobber, then let it right itself, and repeat — or by hopping. The latter tactic involves raising the rod tip to lift the line through the float without tipping it over. "You can raise the jig almost to the surface, then let it fall again, or simply hop it in place six inches to a foot — whatever it takes to attract walleyes and trigger strikes," he says. In an ideal world, the float slides up against a weed top, which holds it in place while you dance the jig below.
Unlike strikes on livebait fished on plain hooks, jig bites tend to be more aggressive. "When a walleye hits a jig, it takes the leadhead in its mouth," Bro explains. "There's no need to wait." Another tip: Don't wait for the bobber to sink and move off. "When the float twitches, pops, or moves in any other manner not imparted by the rod tip, set the hook," he says.
Cattails and slop are two examples of often overlooked areas for fishing floats. Brosdahl can rattle off a list of other situations, including sunken logjams leftover from the logging era, marina mouths, and the perimeters of docks with pilings made of crated or wired field stones. In walleye-rich Great Lakes tributaries, the edges of decrepit concrete or wooden shipping docks can also hold fish.
"Bobbers are great for suspended walleyes, too," Bro notes. "Set the jig slightly higher than the level of the fish and fancast floats, either letting the wind and waves move your floats around, or slip-dragging the rig yourself in calm conditions." Just another tip for catching more fish on floats this season.
*Dan Johnson of Harris, Minnesota, former editor of In-Fisherman's Walleye In-Sider, is director of the Cabela's Masters Walleye Circuit, masterswalleyecircuit.com. Contact Guide John Dircks at 701/662-8321, edsbaitshop.com; Guide Brian Brosdahl, 218/340-6051, brosguideservice.com.