Walleye Lures: A Shade Beyond Convention
September 18, 2019
It’s not every day you get shots at big schools of hungry, heavyweight walleyes. If you’re blessed, it happens often enough each season to give you the opportunity to experiment with something new and maybe even a bit crazy presentation-wise. I’m lucky to live near a lake where, in good years, numerous 8- to 10-pounders are the subjects of my experiments and, at times, prove crazy ideas have value.
Special waters like these often give us a place to develop confidence in new presentations. This lake is where I developed a love for fishing for walleyes in vegetation. It’s also where I fine-tuned my skills with a Jigging Rap. And where many crazy lures have found their way into the mouths of large walleyes.
Jigging Minnows Go Shallow
Most of us have learned to pitch Jigging Rap-style lures (hereafter referred to as jigging minnows) to fish that show on sonar. The next step is to experiment with them in shallow water. Walleyes attack these lures, and it’s become clear that what compels them to bite—no matter the presentation or the fish’s location—is a rapid, random, and unpredictable burst of movement.
The most instructive observations I’ve seen from many hours watching walleyes react to lures and livebaits on an underwater camera is that they follow and bird-dog potential food for long periods, often without biting. Almost without exception, what induces a strike is a sharp, sudden dart of the lure in another direction, imitating the flight response by forage fish.
I’ve struggled to consistently connect with walleyes swimming along in 1 to 5 feet of clear water, fish you can see with polarized sunglasses. Certainly, you’ve got to get a bait to them before they detect you. But the other key is the ability to fish lures that dart, juke, and slash in unpredictable ways.
A key pattern that unfolds early each season involves pods of fish in shallow water, often within a short flip from shore. Walleyes paddle along inner edges of vegetation, and subtle near-shore drops, or sharper lips where depth quickly drops 1 to 3 feet. During the last several springs, I’ve worked numerous groups of 5 to 10 walleyes as they’ve milled along shallow enough to pass beneath boat docks. Puttering along shorelines with quick access to at least 5 to 10 feet of water, particularly with some current, you can sunglass several hundred yards of shoreline before spotting a bunch of white tails fluttering in all directions.
You can catch some of these fish with a leech under a float, and certainly at night. But, the masses of panfish in these same areas present a problem. What we figured out while moving along these shorelines is that you can fish a neutrally buoyant jerkbait like a Rapala Shadow Rap Shad above the vegetation and trigger a few walleyes from each pod. Stop, slash, and hover. Slash again and stop. The cadence is compelling to walleyes as well as bass, with strikes that often jar the rod nearly out of your hands.
Last May, after fishing this pattern for several days, we started observing most of the fish clustered at the tail ends of little cuts or mini bays off the main lake, concentrated in clean sand areas near vegetation. Even more productive than a jerkbait in these areas were two lures I’ve written about previously, mostly for ice fishing.
The Maiko, a sort of jigging minnow/jerkbait hybrid, was originally designed in Japan, though it’s currently manufactured by Lucky John, a subsidiary of European tackle giant Salmo Latvia—and available at tackle outlets like Thorne Bros (thornebros.com). It’s a wonderful lure, with design dynamics I don’t fully understand.
Weighted half as heavy as a similar-sized lead Jigging Rap, the Maiko has a solid, ABS body and an up-turned glide tail, rather than the down-angled style on traditional jigging minnows. I believe the combination of reduced weight and up-turned glide tail are what allow it to skate so far laterally during a pause in the retrieve. The Maiko shimmies as it descends—an arrhythmic dance on the drop. Likewise, when you rip it, it wobbles tightly as it slashes in random directions, reminiscent of an Original Floating Rapala.
The combination of unpredictable slash action and slow, sinking dance make the Maiko an effective shallow-water tool, at times. Unlike the neutrally buoyant Shadow Rap, which hovers, the Maiko slowly descends to the bottom, where it creates a small puff of silt—a trigger in itself. It also rests in a natural posture, head turned slightly up. So, you can creep and hop it slowly across sand if you’re working reluctant fish, or stitching a tiny clearing where fish are gathered.
Or you can tie on a Berkley Snap Jig and fish it cleanly, even through sparse vegetation. Professional walleye angler Korey Sprengel calls the Snap Jig “the missing link in the glidebait category. It’s that lighter, more weedless darting bait we’ve wanted for years. Unlike traditional gliding minnow baits, you can fish the Snap Jig in shallow water and around vegetation.”
Offered in 3/16-, 1/4-, and 3/8-ounce sizes, I initially thought the Snap Jig was too light to fish in the 15- to 30-foot zone typical for jigging minnows. Mostly that’s true, as it lacks weight for the fast, up-and-down punch of a heavier Jigging Rap. The first time I tied on a 3/8-ounce Snap Jig and dressed it with a Z-Man Slim SwimZ, I caught a 4-pound walleye that exploded through the surface after eating it in two feet of water.
The 3/8-ounce size has worked best for me in shallower water, particularly when dressed with a 21⁄2-inch Slim SwimZ or a 3-inch Berkley PowerBait Pro Twitchtail Minnow. You can also transform the jig and give it a subtler glide with flat-tailed baits like Berkley’s PowerBait Pro Jig Worm or 31⁄2-inch Z-Man Trick ShotZ. Z-Man baits are durable and you can often fish an entire day or more on a single bait.
The action (and color and profile) of a Snap Jig changes depending on the softbait shape you thread onto it. The jighead’s shape is pointed and tapered, too, so it pulls through vegetation fairly well, and can even be rigged weedless—or Texas style—with certain baits. Moreover, the base of the glide tail has an eyelet to which you can affix a split ring, small treble hook, or tiny flicker blade for extra flash and vibration. I haven’t found it necessary to add a treble hook, as walleyes mostly inhale the entire package, though I like the idea of adding a little #1 willowleaf blade for stained water.
“Very little rod movement is needed to activate the bait and move it along,” Sprengel says. “I like to walk the dog with it, twitching the rod tip to give it an erratic darting action. Work it with a series of small snaps or sweeps, just like a jerkbait.”
The Clunk Factor
Beyond the random, slashing action of many effective walleye presentations, there’s something appealing about a large, heavy lure that crashes into bottom, particularly for big fish. The largest, heaviest jigging minnow I know of is Akara’s Ranger, a 4-inch, 1.35-ounce minnow with 2/0 hooks head and tail, plus a small beaded treble under the belly. By comparison, the #9 Jigging Rap is slightly under 4 inches and weighs about 0.9 ounces. The Ranger also has a bulkier profile, though if you’re comparing it to a crankbait it still looks smaller than a #9 Original Floating Rapala.
This all suggests how easily our perceptions of big versus small lures can shift, some of which relates more so to lure weight than physical size. The Ranger is intimidating at the end of your rod tip. But nothing clunks bottom with so much sound and force, while also moving with a fast, random slashing action that makes gliding vertical jigging minnows alluring. Many times when you’re on big fish over hard-bottom structure, especially in fall, walleyes respond most viciously to big, heavy baits that plummet fast and punch bottom hard.
The Ranger fishes with so much power that I prefer to throw it on medium-power casting tackle—7-foot St. Croix Legend X, Shimano Curado 70, 30-pound PowerPro braid, and a 4-foot leader of 20- to 25-pound-test Seaguar AbrazX. You need a heavy, semi-rigid fluorocarbon leader to keep hooks from fouling on the line when you rip it, and to withstand the pounding of the big, heavy bait. Don’t fear the size and heft of the Ranger, as it’s an almost-perfect match for the size of the shiners, perch, and other baitfish regularly found in walleye stomachs.
Leaning on another walleye trigger—vibration—bladed jigs have found a legitimate place in our arsenals. The connection is obvious when you examine what these jigs do in the water.
I starting picking up on whispers from sharp sticks in the Dakotas who were catching fish on bladed swim jigs, such as Z-Man’s ChatterBait. But longtime fishing writer Mort Bank has been on the cutting edge of this trend, recently telling me about his fondness for ChatterBaits during spring and summer on Devils Lake, North Dakota.
“I’ve caught just about everything that swims on ChatterBaits,” Bank says. “Which is why I first tried them for walleyes several seasons ago. They’re effective in spring and fall when walleyes are in 10 feet of water or less. I like casting to structure that has a gravel or rock bottom, and vibrating jigs work well in these areas. ChatterBaits are also a great lure when I can retrieve them just over the tops of emerging vegetation. I let the lure sink to within a couple feet of the bottom before beginning a slow to moderate retrieve.
“I believe one of the reasons they’re effective is that walleyes haven’t seen anything like the action of a ChatterBait,” he says. “It combines the flash and heavy vibration of the chatter-blade with the wobbling, rocking action of the jighead and soft plastic.”
While most bladed swim jigs have a silicone skirt, Bank and other walleye anglers replace it with a soft-plastic tail. He prefers a 4-inch white or chartreuse shad-bodied paddletail. Z-Man’s DieZel ChatterBait is one option that comes pre-rigged with a 4-inch DieZel MinnowZ paddletail bait. The available 1/4-ounce size fishes well on medium-power spinning tackle and 15- to 20-pound braid. I’ve frequently bulked up to a 1/2-ounce Original ChatterBait, dressed with a 5-inch Grass KickerZ, RaZor ShadZ, or Baby Castaic Jerky J Swim, for working through deeper vegetation such as cabbage. Picasso’s Aaron Martens Undressed Shock Blade is another option, packaged without a skirt or softbait.
Retrieving a bladed swim jig keeps you constantly engaged, as its strong vibrations remind you a walleye could eat it at any moment. The blade thumps and pulses, driving the jighead and softbait to shimmy in a subtle side-to-side motion. A steady retrieve, like that of a crankbait, produces strikes, though frequent pauses seem to induce even more bites from following walleyes.
Designing innovative variations on existing lure themes has been Wyoming angler Pat O’Grady’s calling card for decades. The former fishing guide and founder of PK Lures, O’Grady began working on his Spin-A-Jig over three years ago. The little blade jig has become a fish producer, particularly for anglers on western reservoirs. The idea and presentation has equal merit beyond the mountains and prairies.
“Early on, we’d troll the Spin-A-Jig at 2 to 2.5 mph and catch 6- to 8-pound rainbow trout,” O’Grady says. “We’d tip the jig with half a nightcrawler and pull it behind planer boards. Those big trout just whacked it. This past season, I fished Seminoe Reservoir in Wyoming a bunch of times with my grandson and started slow-trolling it with the electric motor for walleyes. Mostly, we used the 1/4-ounce size, dragging it along bottom in 25 to 33 feet of water. My grandson discovered that lifting and dropping the rod tip triggered more bites. You can cast it in shallower water, too, and it shines when you dress it with a paddletail.” He also recalls fishing with the jig at Tobin Lake, Saskatchewan, one winter, tipping it with a live minnow and crushing big walleyes through the ice.
The Spin-A-Jig employs a willowleaf-shaped blade, bent diagonally at roughly a 45-degree angle. A barrel swivel runs through the center of the blade, which flashes as it spins like a propeller on the shaft as opposed to the back-and-forth wobbling motion of a ChatterBait blade. Any forward motion at all—even ultraslow speeds—activates and propels the Spin-A-Jig blade. It’s easy to envision the jig being a winner in rivers, as well as stained water lakes such as Lake of the Woods.
Another bass lure, the pivot-head jig, has proven itself a worthy walleye presentation. Northland Tackle offers the Swivel-Head Jig, and VMC makes the Swingin’ Rugby Jig, both designed around football-shaped lead heads and longer shank hooks for dressing with soft plastics.
My favorite pivot-head jig for walleyes is Freedom Tackle’s Zodiac Ball Jig, a winner for vertically jigging as well as casting in 7 to 15 feet of water. Freedom Tackle lures have a removable hook feature, allowing you to use different hooks with the same head. The Zodiac comes packaged with both a long-shank worm hook for soft-plastic rigging and a short-shank bait hook for tipping with minnows or other livebaits. The jighead houses a brass echo chamber for sound attraction.
A stand-out attribute on the Zodiac is the free-swinging connection between jighead and hook. When you pull it along, the hook and bait undulate, yielding a livelier, more fluid look than you get with a solid hook-head connection. When the jig touches down on hard bottom, the hook and bait swing to the sides in random directions, showing fish a tantalizing, non-mechanical presentation. Moreover, the free-swinging hook means fish can’t use the jig as leverage to shake free.
Triggering big fish is all about putting something down there that moves like animals walleyes eat—something that wants to get away, something less predictable and mechanical. Random, unexpected action is where it’s at. If you happen to dip into the worlds of bass or saltwater, or tap lures from Latvia , Russia, Finland, to get there, so be it. Walleyes have no notion of what embodies a traditional lure, or even a crazy idea.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt, Brainerd, Minnesota, writes for all In-Fisherman publications, often reporting on emerging presentation trends and tactics.