As the universe of walleye hardbaits continues to expand, it's helpful to define the various categories and note when they work best. Admittedly, hard and fast rules are tough to impose on fishing lures, so I focus on their primary uses and provide insider tips.
Once water temperatures reach 50°F, shad baits should be a part of your arsenal. Whether cast or trolled, they're one of those almost "too good to be true" lures. Top producers include the Berkley Flicker Shad, Rapala Shad Rap, Yo-Zuri Sashimi Shad, Salmo Executor, and Strike King Lucky Shad.
Ace walleye Guide Tom Neustrom lists the Shad Rap as his go-to hardbait. "When I need a buoyant bait that backs up quickly after hitting bottom," he says, "the original balsa #5 Shad Rap covers the 9- to 10-foot depth range perfectly when trolled at 2.5 mph. As the water warms and vegetation grows down past 10 feet, I switch to a #5 Glass Rap. It's less buoyant, diving an extra 3 to 4 feet when trolled 150 feet back on Sufix 10-pound braid. My new favorite is the Scatter Rap. It trolls well both flatlined and on downriggers, but my favorite method is to cast it over submerged vegetation during late summer and fall. Its unique lip design gives it a built-in irregular action, which is great for my clients. They simply cast it out, reel in, and catch fish."
Twitchbaits like the Lucky CraftFlash Minnow, Bagley Bang-O-Lure, Salmo Sting, Rapala Floating Minnow and Flat Rap, and Jackall Jockie 120 are exceedingly effective when worked slowly over the top of shallow vegetation. They have thin profiles and small lips to keep them within a foot or two of the surface. They work best in calm conditions where a slight snap of the rod gets the bait to dive and flash before popping back to the surface. Long pauses on the surface are part of this deliberate process. Bites can occur at any point during the retrieve, but weed pockets and edges are high-percentage areas. To get a more natural and less abrupt action, many experts use monofilament instead of braid with these lures. Twitchbaits also excel when fished on three-way rigs in rivers. Their buoyancy keeps them off bottom and free of snags, while their slender profile appeals to early-season walleyes.
Multispecies Guide Steve Everetts fishes Smithwick Rattlin' Rogues throughout the season. "During early spring, I cast 4½-inch Rogues over shallow gravel runs to intercept walleyes on their upstream spawning migration," he says. "They have a strong wobble even at extremely slow retrieve speeds, which provokes strikes from lethargic fish.
"Rogues can be fished within inches of the bottom in the main river channel when trolled on heavy three-way rigs. As fish complete the spawn and move onto 8- to 12-foot flats, these baits also get the job done when fished 65 to 150 feet back on planer boards. Add snapweights to achieve greater depth from these wobblers. For night-trolling in fall, I use a 5½-inch Rogue.
"Color preference is notable with jerkbaits. At times walleyes repeatedly hit one color to the exclusion of others fished side-by-side. I pack a wide color assortment of minnowbaits, and I like the custom colors of the Smithwick Perfect 10 Rogues in clear-water conditions."
This category includes many other outstanding baits, each with an individual darting action or suspending attitude that fools walleyes, which are notably drawn to long, slender lures. Other favorites include the Lucky Craft Slender Pointer, Dynamic Lures HDXXL, River2Sea Ripper, Strike King KVD Jerk Bait, SPRO McStick, Yo-Zuri 3DS Minnow, Rapala X-Rap, Yamamoto Tenkuu, Osprey Spiritual Performer (O.S.P) Rudra, and Jackall Squad Minnow. A snap of the rod gets these baits to frantically dive and dart from side to side. Walleyes often bite on the pause as the lure suspends motionless. The colder the water or the tougher the conditions, the longer the pause should be. Add a feathered treble to the rear of the bait for extra appeal.
Jerkbaits aren't strictly cold-water lures, though. In summer fish them above vegetation, along riprap shorelines, or in open water. Professional angler Kyle Agre suggests expanding jerkbait use to shallow settings. "Early in the season when walleyes feed on small schooling baitfish, lures like the Livetarget Baitball Emerald Shiner and Glass Minnow provide a realistic imitation of multiple minnows darting and fleeing together. When cast onto shallow sandflats or over the tops of cabbage beds, they're incredibly effective. Try a slow steady retrieve or incorporate short pauses or jerks into the retrieve. Walleyes can be found in just a few feet of water this time of year, and throughout the season along windswept banks."
Deep Diving Minnows (Banana Baits)
Deep-diving stickbaits excel in trolling applications from ice-out to ice-up. Mike Orawiec, former president and four-time club champion of Walleyes Unlimited, has refined his techniques on the country's best walleye fisheries. "For big-water trophies, my primary method is to troll deep-diving minnowbaits, including Rapala Deep Husky Jerks and Reef Runners," he says.
"Lure choice is related to water temperature. When it's in the 40°F range or lower, Deep Husky Jerks offer a subdued rolling action walleyes can't resist. Above 50°F, I prefer the deeper diving and wider action of a banana bait like the Reef Runner, Bandit Walleye Minnow, Strike King Banana Shad, or Livetarget Smelt. I suggest upsizing the hooks by one size on all these baits. Use a good-quality, chemically sharpened hook that penetrates readily, even at trolling speeds of 1 mph or less."
Capt. Max Bornemann is a fishing guide on Green Bay with a knack for unraveling the mysteries of big-water walleyes. He's a fan of the Berkley Flicker Minnow. "I received my order just in time for cranking summertime walleyes on Green Bay," he says. "While the original Flicker Shad puts thousands of walleyes in the boat for our customers every year, Flicker Minnows filled a void for open-water suspended walleyes during late summer. As the alewives migrate north in late July and August, schools of giant walleyes follow them across Green Bay. The large profile of a Flicker Minnow was deadly on these vast suspended schools of fish. My best results came on the large #9 model, as it matched the size of the alewives. But in cold-front conditions, the smaller #7 scored well."
Depending on where in the water column Bornemann marked fish, he could get Flicker Minnows to run from 15 to 28 feet deep by varying the length of lead between the board and lure. Other deep jerks to stock for this season include the Savage Gear Manic Prey Minnow, Bomber Long A, Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnow Deep Diver, DUO Realis Jerkbait 100DR, and Jackall DD Squirrel.
When water temperatures warm in summer, jointed lures sometimes deliver more action and better results than one-piece hardbaits. Jointed options have more than doubled in recent years to include the Sebile Swing Tail, Cotton Cordell Jointed Grappler Shad, -Livetarget Jointed Perch and Smelt, Rebel Jointed Minnow and Fastrac Minnow, Rapala Jointed Shad Rap and BX Swimmer, Salmo Frisky, and Yo-Zuri Sashimi Jointed and Crystal Minnow, among others.
Tournament angler Chad Maloy spends a lot of time on Devils Lake chasing walleyes and explains their application: "Devils Lake is full of yellow perch. As vegetation matures in summer, weededges become key areas for walleyes. That's when I turn to the Livetarget Jointed Perch. It has a tail-kicking action that walleyes seem to crave. The Jointed Perch tracks true and its substantial weight is beneficial on prairie lakes where wind seems unceasing. I can cast it accurately, important when fishing flooded fields with cattails, brush, and trees. To get the bait deeper, we troll leadcore, which can get the Jointed Perch down to 30 feet or more."
In-Fisherman has extensively covered ripping techniques with lipless crankbaits for both ice fishing and open water. Choices for this incredibly effective technique include the Rapala Rippin' Rap, Yo-Zuri Rattl'n Vibe, Savage Gear Fat Vibe, Livetarget Shiner, River2Sea Ruckus, and XCalibur Xr 50. The family of lipless rattlebaits is as broad as any, and so is the number of applications for catching walleye with these lures.
Long before anglers were ripping them, they were yo-yoing Bill Lewis Rat-L-Traps and Cotton Cordell Super Spots for summertime walleyes. More recently, anglers have capitalized on lipless rattlebaits that sit upright with their nose on the bottom at rest. These baits, such as the SPRO Aruku Shad, Strike King Red Eye Shad, Jackall TN70, and Sebile Lipless Seeker, are great for targeting walleye on sandflats. Cast the lure out and allow it to hit the bottom to create a small puff of sediment. Pop the lure off bottom and let it come to rest again. Wait for fish to inhale the bait on the pause. Braided line helps to detect these hits and delivers solid hook-sets.
Savvy walleye anglers like David King have used trolling techniques with Bill Lewis Rat-L-Traps to locate fall walleyes spread across weedy flats. This approach works best when the water temperatures are less than 50°F. King begins by making a long cast behind the boat, keeping boat speed between .7 and 1.2 mph with the trolling motor. "Keep the rod tip around 10 o'clock and perform regular pulls forward to 12 o'clock," he says. "After you draw the bait forward, incrementally 'step' it back from the 12 o'clock to the 9 o'clock position. Nearly all bites come on the back drop. Once you feel a slight tick, lower the rod tip to let them suck it in, then hammer 'em!"
Mark Martin is one of the most decorated and innovative walleye pros of all time. His latest trick is using the Rapala Snap Rap and Jigging Rap, widely acclaimed for ice fishing, as open-water lures. "In the clearer water filtered by zebra and quagga mussels, we find fewer walleyes camped on reefs waiting to whack crankbaits," he says. "Instead, I rely on my Lowrance side-imaging sonar to mark small pods of fish away from the boat. Then I make long casts to them with a Snap Rap or Jigging Rap. On 6-pound-test FireLine, they cast like a bullet, sink fast, and have a darting action that resembles a fleeing goby that walleyes pounce on."
Martin recommends resisting the urge to fish these lures like a jig with constant bottom contact. Instead, he suggests getting into a cadence of snapping it, allowing it to glide on the fall (occasionally giving a shake of the rod), before snapping the rod again and repeating the process all the way to the boat. Other options in this category are the Hali Aatu, Northland Puppet Minnow, River2Sea Glassie Vibe, Rapala Jigging Shad Rap, Salmo Chubby Darter, and Lindy Darter.
Having so many lures to try sounds like a perfect excuse to go fishing. Take advantage of the new crop of walleye baits, or try new techniques with old favorites. Jumbo walleyes await, from the lakes of Vermont to the deep channels of the Columbia River.