October 19, 2016
By Dan Johnson
Anglers have been tweaking their riggings ever since the first crude hooks and lines were crafted. Enterprising walleye fans carry on this tradition today, refining and reinventing time-tested tactics such as spinner-rigging with improvisations — and even spicing up more straightforward disciplines like livebait rigging and jigging.
Longtime guide and tournament ace Mark Martin alters his spinner rigs virtually every time he hits the water. "You just don't throw out a bottom bouncer and spinner rig and go," he says. "You need to fine-tune speed, weight, and components to fit the conditions at hand."
When trolling around hazards such as rocks, brush, or rig-fouling sandgrass in shallow water, for instance, he often favors a short lead between the bouncer and spinner, to keep the rig from falling into harm's way. "In snaggy situations, 18- to 36-inch leaders work well," he says. "But you have to balance that with a speed that keeps the spinner from descending into the snags, while still triggering walleyes."
Martin reports that 1.4 mph is his favorite speed in over four decades of professional fishing. "But you can speed up to 1.8 mph on the fast side or drop it down under 1 mph," he says.
When slow speeds are the rule, he advises running blades that spin at the slowest possible pace, or adding a little buoyancy. "Size 4 or smaller Colorados like the Berkley Flicker Blade work well," he says. "Replacing a couple of your beads with a 3/4- or 11„4-inch Northland Tackle Cork Float also adds lift with standard blades. Or switch to smile blades and winged drift-bobbers like the Spin-N-Glo, which both excel at slow speeds."
Martin says that a spinner blade need not rotate continuously to temp hungry 'eyes. "Sometimes having the blade just wobble along at a steady speed and then make a complete revolution when you lift the rig is the best trigger." Sensitive mainlines help determine what your blade is doing. He prefers 10-pound-test Berkley FireLine. "Tied direct to my Northland "R"-bend Rock-Runner bouncer, it telegraphs whether the blade is spinning, rocking, or fouled, as well as when the sinker ticks a rock or drags in the grass," he says.
For the leader, Martin likes 14- to 17-pound fluorocarbon. "You can get a spinner to work at slower speeds on fluoro than mono, especially with a metal clevis rather than plastic, because plastic has more drag," he says.
Sinker weight varies, largely according to depth, but he errs on the heavy side. "I run as heavy a bottom bouncer as possible," he says. Ample ballast makes it easy to keep the line at a 45-degree angle to the water, or less, which helps him trace tight corners and place baits precisely.
When trolling in 10 feet with limited water clarity, for example, he opts for a 2-ounce bouncer. "I want a direct connection and ultimate control, just like a miniature downrigger," he says. "People think ultra-light bouncers are stealthy and sneaky, but I think they cost you fish because you can't work irregular contours, and the fish you mark on sonar are gone by the time the rig gets there. Another benefit of a heavy bouncer is that on hard bottoms you can 'knock on the door' to let walleyes know the bait is coming."
Another tweak: Martin uses artificial baits in many situations. "Softbaits like Berkley's Gulp! Crawler and Fry are great when undesirable fish like sheepshead, perch, and sunfish pick real 'crawlers off your hooks before the walleyes can get to them," he says.
There's an added benefit to softbaits, particularly on big-water systems like Erie, he reports. "When you get a pack of small white perch or other baitfish chasing your spinner, pecking at the artificial crawler because it smells and tastes good, you end up leading a parade that attracts passing walleyes. On more than one occasion, I've caught a walleye on one hook and a small perch on the other. I didn't realize the perch was there, but you can bet the walleye did."
Martin also offers this tip for livebait. "When you're pulling live 'crawlers, snip off the end of the bait half an inch behind the second hook," he says. "Trimmed baits put more scent in the water and catch more fish than pristine crawlers. In fact, beat-up 'crawlers that have been pecked by perch and already caught a walleye or two are some of the best baits you can put in the water."
Jason Muche alters rigs while guiding and tournament fishing both on his home waters of Wisconsin's storied Lake Winnebago chain and on big-water destinations like Lake Michigan's Green Bay. One of his favorite adjustments, which excels on post-cold-front walleyes across the Walleye Belt, entails pulling a modified three-way rig to kick up bottom sediments before putting a nightcrawler in front of the fish's nose.
"It works anytime walleyes are on the mud and nobody's catching anything during a tough bite, summer into fall," he says. Components include 10-pound-test monofilament mainline, three-way swivel, 18- to 24-inch dropper of 6- to 10-pound mono or fluorocarbon, and 1-ounce Lindy Rattlin' No-Snagg Slip Sinker.
"On the trailing eye of the three-way, I run either a 10-foot-long 8-pound fluoro leader with a red bead from a Thill Slip Bobber package and small Aberdeen hook or #12 treble, or a 6-foot piece of fluorocarbon tied direct to a 36-inch Old Guide's Secret 2-Hook Drift Rig, with a #4 hammered brass Indiana blade," he says.
"A long lead gets the spinner or modified Lindy Rig away from the sinker, which is key with tough-bite fish," he says. "But you don't want a completely silent presentation, either. It's also important to have a rattling sinker clanking and puffing along to attract fish.
"Put the rod in a holder and let the sinker puff along in the mud — not dredging, but ticking. If the sinker drags, it reduces the angle of the dropper and the bait gets too close to bottom. Keep the bait just above their eyeballs."
When bites are light, especially in clear water, Muche replaces the three-way swivel with two barrel swivels. "Thread one of the swivels onto your mainline and tie the other one the end of the line," he says. "Tie the dropper to the free-sliding swivel and either the lengthened Lindy Rig or spinner harness to the fixed swivel. That way, when a fish hits, it can swim off with the bait and not feel resistance from the sinker.
"I've used this setup from Green Bay to Mille Lacs and Leech lakes, running a bowmount with the rod in my hand, pumping the sinker. As soon as you feel a fish, let it run with the bait — start at 15 seconds and adjust the count depending on how well the fish are hooked, or if you're missing them altogether."
When walleyes are transitioning between feeding habits and fail to show a preference for livebait rigging, spinners, or crankbaits — or when the fish are besieged by legions of anglers towing a particular presentation — veteran Guide Jon Thelen plays the hybrid card.
"Hybrid rigging blends the best of all worlds," he says, adding that his weapon of choice the last two seasons has been Lindy's Lil' Guy — a hard-bodied hybrid that brings a blend of all three tactics to the table.
"The rig is basically a two-hook crawler harness with a small, hard body in front of it," he says. "The body produces side-to-side movements, while the 'crawler adds to the action, along with scent and meat. And it runs at speeds from .3 to 2.5 mph, so you can fish it from a crawl to a burn."
He says one of his first encounters with hybrid rigging occurred on the deep gravel and mud of Mille Lacs Lake. "Everyone else was pulling spinners," he recalls. "But when everybody on the reef or bar is spinning blades, a rig that comes along at a different speed, with different flash and vibration, can get the attention of walleyes."
Lindy originally offered the Lil' Guy in just one size, but the company added a downsized version for 2016. "The smaller size is perfect for year-round use, and further expands hybrid rigging options," Thelen says.
His rig trickery doesn't end there. "I often adjust Lindy Rigs to fit conditions," he says. "When the fish are off bottom, for example, I add a Lindy Snell Float to an original rig, or switch to a Lindy Floating Rig to get the bait up above their heads. All I have to do is touch bottom with the walking sinker, reel it up to the level I'm marking walleyes on sonar, and let the float raise the bait just above the fish."
He also takes a more aggressive approach to rigging than many anglers. "I cruise along, watching my Humminbird Helix for fish just off bottom, then slow down and park over them, letting the bait do its thing," he says.
Getting tricky to catch more walleyes extends beyond rigging. Scott Glorvigen tweaks his jigging portfolio to turn lookers into strikers wherever leadhead jigs are a factor.
"I've been experimenting with Northland Tackle's Swivel-Head Jig, which has an articulated swing-head," he says. The Swivel-Head uses a swivel to couple a football-shaped jighead with one of Northland's frantic-action Crawler Hauler Hooks. "The free-swinging hook provides the unfettered bait action of a slipsinker rig, with the control of a jig.
"For slowly crawling the jig over rocks or gravel, I prefer lip-hooking a minnow, which maximizes natural movements," he says. "It's similar to tail-hooking a minnow on a livebait rig, but with more control."
For working across bottom a bit faster, as well as vertical jigging in current, he runs the hook in the mouth and out the top of the head. You can work it similar to a standard jig, with the addition of twitches and shakes while the head is resting on bottom. Current imparts additional action on the pause.
A third option is hooking in the mouth, out the bottom of the gill, and back through the side of the minnow. "This shortens the presentation, puts the hook farther back, and works well for swimming and lift-fall applications," he says. "When you pitch out and swim it along, you can see the minnow moving up and down on the jig, complementing rod tip movements as it swings on the swivel."
He also rigs nightcrawlers on the Swivel-Head. The hook has a keeper that helps hold the bait. He's fished a full 'crawler and never had it slide down the hook, even when perch and bluegills were pecking the daylights out of it.
He uses artificial softbaits, too, and says the Swivel-Head works with a variety of shapes. "You get more bait action than with a fixed-hook jig, whether you're skittering it over deep gravel or pitching shallow rocks, weeds, or wood," he says.
Guide and In-Fisherman confidante Tom Neustrom is no stranger to creative rigging, either. One of his favorite tricks when walleyes play hard-to-catch is an old-school adaptation he calls stealth split-shotting. "It's the perfect solution when walleyes won't bite, often after they move off the top of structure after a front passes," he says. "There can't be much wind, though, because it's definitely a touch-and-feel deal."
His setup includes a soft-tip spinning rod loaded with 6-pound fluorocarbon, with a 3/16-ounce split shot pinched 30 inches above a #4 or #6 VMC 9299 Octopus hook. He tips the hook with half a nightcrawler, keeping the rig as vertical as possible.
"I fish right under my Humminbird ONIX transducer and watch the fish come up and eat," he says. "It's a subtle presentation, right in their face, and consistently produces tough-bite walleyes that won't hit anything else."
When the soft rod begins to load, he drops the tip and sets the hook into another marble-eyed beauty, proving once again the power of adaptation for conquering whatever Mother Nature, fellow anglers, and the 'eyes throw your way. –