Jigs with bait are standbys of the early season -- heck, they're stalwarts for the entire year. with a minnow or a crawler tipped on the back of the jig, walleyes eat regardless of a green head or a blue. They snatch it when it's falling, moments after casting. In other words, jigs with bait are fundamental to walleye orthodoxy for a reason -- they work because of, and in spite of, themselves.
The jig gets livebait to the fish zone, and often the fish eat it even if the color or the jigging stroke isn't quite right. Why would they want anything else?
Increasingly, however, walleye anglers are wanting for bait on a less than all-bait, all-the-time basis. The reason is soft walleye plastics and other softbaits, which have come a long way in recent years, inspiring confidence and acceptance.
"Compared to three years ago, there's much more of a comfort level using soft plastics," says In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail (PWT) pro Gary Parsons, Glidden, Wisconsin. "With on-the-water time and what plastics are capable of doing, I'd say they're being accepted by far more people -- maybe 80 to 90 percent of them. That would have been totally unheard of just a few years ago."
One reason is the conventional wisdom at the time: Use livebait until the water reaches 50F, then consider switching to plastic.
"It was absolutely, completely backward," says PWT pro Scott Fairbairn, Hager City, Wisconsin. "The thing about plastics, like crankbaits, is that you must be fairly precise with action and color."
Precision with action and color is one emerging area of expertise. Also becoming apparent is a wider range of times and places -- more than a simple rule of livebait till 50F -- for plastic's utility. Here are the new rules of no tipping from Parsons, Fairbairn, and fellow PWT pro Mark Courts (Harris, MN), all of whom give plastics a wider range of latitude than ever.
Action is paramount to the new discipline of plastics, so let's discuss the three applicable categories. First is low action -- baits most effectively fished slowly, generally with straight or uniformly shaped tails. Next is moderate action -- examples such as Berkley's 3-inch Tournament Strength Walleye Power Grubs, as well as shad bodies. Finally, high action -- here, Power Grubs with a bigger profile and thicker consistency that fall outside the Tournament Strength Walleye category.
That said, according to Fairbairn, a single plastic tail can cover all three categories with nuances of retrieve, providing the tail is soft and has good movement -- an accomplishment sometimes hard to find among plastics, since many of them are fairly inflexible and, correspondingly, not quite as effective. A lift-and-glide motion is low action. A lift-and-drop is moderate. Aggressively snapping, indeed, is high action. "The Berkley Power Minnow is a good crossover bait for figuring out what the fish want," Fairbairn says.
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Jig Baitless (cont.)
If the Power Minnow is a soft plastic that covers all action categories, let's examine some places to fish it, as well as several methods for doing so.
* Places where lots of fish are concentrated in a small area. The greater the competition, Parsons says, the greater response to plastic. "They don't pick at a bait when their neighbor is going to get it," he says.
* In the shallows for aggressive fish. When walleyes are in a foot or three of water, it's possible to get more bites with plastic when you can work through them more quickly, rather than fiddling with bait.
* Wherever you want to catch bigger walleyes (who wouldn't?). PWT pro Gerrick McComsey of Fort Pierre, South Dakota, once told Parsons, "If I can't catch them with plastics, the fish aren't big enough for me."
"In rivers, plastics work 24/7, 365 days a year," says Courts, who amends the old rule (water above 50F, on rivers) with greater, more year-round applicability. His specifics: Fishing tailraces by vertically jigging, or bombing a jig toward the dam and letting it bounce back toward you in the current; on riprap and around flooded timber and individual logs, where you can fish plastic more aggressively and cover more water than with bait; and on wing dams, where a plain plastic tail produces on the dropper of a three-way rig, or tipped onto a jig and swinging with the current. (Both are productive since aggressive walleyes move to the front edge of wing dams to feed.)
An excellent plastic option for rivers is the 6-inch Berkley Power Crawler snipped back to about four inches. It works on the Illinois River for saugers, the Detroit for Great Lakes-run walleyes, on the Mississippi for walleyes and saugers massing below tailraces, and elsewhere.
* With wind, even on lakes where a livebait mentality prevails. Lake Mille Lacs, Minnesota, is a case in point. From opener till fall, it's possible to rip plastics -- in particular, the Berkley Sinking Minnow -- on reefs and points. It's an option as well in the Dakotas, particularly the pearl-silver color when fished around smelt. In either case, don't go after them too gingerly. "The No. 1 thing most people lack with plastics is fishing them aggressively," Courts says.
* Around weeds. Inevitably, livebait will rip or be mutilated by panfish. Plastic is an answer. (Just try to fish a live crawler through all the perch on Minnesota's Winnibigoshish. D'oh!)
BASS AND BEYOND
Further options? In addition to the slim plastic minnows in the Berkley PowerBait family, many designed specifically for walleyes, some plastics made for bass or for all species cut the muster in specific situations. Among them are the 4-inch Lunker City Fin-S Fish, another slim-minnow imitation, and the 3-inch Zoom Fluke. Baby Bass is a good color, and walleyes like it when you dip the tail in fluorescent dip made for doctoring, well, bass plastics.
Mister Twister's Sassy Shad, in 3- and 4-inch offerings, is a venerable producer on the Detroit River and even on the Mississippi, where shad and other baitfish are larger than your garden-variety shiners. Meanwhile, a classic bass bait, Kalin's 5-inch grub, does the job on a heavy jig on the bottom of a three-way rig -- again, without bait.
One of my personal favorites is the Bass Pro Shops 4-inch Squirmin' Worm with a pumpkin body and chartreuse tail, which catches walleyes on every natural lake where I've tried it, from my home waters on Lake Leelanau, in northern lower Michigan, to Michigan's Upper Peninsula, to Mille Lacs in Minnesota. And it has worked for aggressive jigging from ice-out till ice-up, even with water temperatures well below 50F.
Nowadays, livebait in water temperatures below 50 and plastics in everything above, seem a little limited. When you get right down to it, plastics work because, not in spite, of themselves. There's a little tip for you. Hah!
*Dave Scroppo, a freelance writer from Traverse City, Michigan, often covers In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail tournaments for Walleye In-Sider.