Minnows and leeches wiggle, have enticing profiles, flavor, and scent, and inhabit most lakes. Walleye softbaits can't duplicate these characteristics, but is absolute realism essential? Crawlers rarely are found in the middle of a reservoir, but walleyes often relish them wherever they find them. Anglers using nightcrawlers are not matching normal food.
Berkley PowerBait entered the scene 25 years ago. Berkley Gulp! followed 17 years later, and Gulp! Alive! has been with us for five years. Yum softbaits also are scent and flavor enhanced and have been on the scene for many years. Meanwhile, Northland Impulse and Trigger X also recently entered the equation. All have designs to replace livebait. And over time, guides, tournament pros, and local experts have learned to present softbaits in ways that bring out their advantages.
Many of the most obvious advantages fall into the category of efficiency. "When the bite's hot," Eden, South Dakota, Guide Joe Honer says, "artificial softbaits shine because you can get them back down faster to tempt the next fish. On slow bites, walleyes nip and pick at natural baits until they clean your hook. Softbaits stay on the hook and the second or third hit often gets the hook."
Guide and tournament pro Chad Schilling agrees. "When you use bait, the minnow eventually pops free and feeds the fish," he says. "With softbaits, they never win."
We can't cover all the aspects of fishing with softbaits in one article, but we can highlight some of things happening that can be quickly put into play by anglers looking to catch more fish.
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- The light-wire hook like the Lazer Sharp L18 in a 1/0 size pins Berkley Gulp! Crawlers in place and vastly increases hookup percentage when these softbaits are used on Lindy Rigging.
Couple a Berkley Gulp! Jumbo Leech with a hook like the #4 Lazer Sharp L1. The 5-inch Berkley Gulp! Jerk Shad works well on a #1 hook.
- Jason Mitchell's Snake Rig consists of a Northland Impulse Jig Crawler rigged as shown on a Northland Crawler Hauler rig. Northland also offers the Crawler Hauler Speed-Spinner, with a Crawler Hauler Hook, that's bent to provide frantic action to a Jig Crawler. The hook also has a unique plastic 'keeper ' barb to hold the Jig Crawler in place to catch multiple fish.
Lindy rigging remains the classic livebait presentation. A walking sinker keeps the bait in the strike zone and its slow pace ensures that fish see the offering. Colorado guide Nathan Zelinsky and other guides from Tightline Outdoors systematically compared various walleye riggings with livebait and Berkley Gulp! Alive! products. Their initial trips showed promise as the artificials registered the same number of bites. But the hook-up rate on Gulp! was about half of that on crawlers.
A few changes solved the missed-fish issue. The simplest was to a switch to a light-wire, straight-shank worm hook like the Lazer Sharp L18 in conjunction with softbaits like the 4-, 5-, or 6-inch Berkley Gulp! Crawlers. Those baits work well on a 1/0 hook and the bait-keeper pins a crawler in place to catch multiple fish.
In ultraclear Colorado waters, we were surprised that unnatural colors like chartreuse often produced well. Livebait color options are limited, while the color, profile, flotation, and flavor of artificials can be adjusted to suit conditions. Making lures more visible under water can mean more bites, even if it looks unnatural to us.
Using a single octopus hook like the TroKar TK400 or Lazer Sharp L1 with a Gulp! Jerk Shad or Gulp! Jumbo Leech also works well at times. When using a 3-inch Gulp! Leech, which has a thicker body than the Jumbo Leech, we slice it in half lengthwise. This produces a rippling action that walleyes love. Nose-hooking the Jerk Shad and running it behind a slipsinker also generates a lifelike darting action that walleyes can't resist at times.
In Lindy rigging we aren't replacing livebait, but using alternate presentations, with their own attractors and triggers. Livebait has long been a part of the walleye presentation puzzle, but often it's not vital. Success with soft artificials often hinges on presentation details.
Devil's Lake guide and TV personality Jason Mitchell spent the past few years working with scented softbaits, tinkering with different riggings until he found success. During field-testing, he always ran a traditional rig next to his artificials for comparison.
Emerging from his workshop is a unique "snake rig," a Northland Impulse Jig Crawler hooked on a standard Northland Crawler Hauler rig. The front of the crawler is hooked traditionally through the nose, but the rear hook goes through the bait's paddletail. A live worm would create a "U" in the water when rigged this way, but the Impulse plastic is firm enough to generate a side-to-side snaking action that adds vibration to the package. Mitchell also found that smaller fish usually hit the traditional livebait rigs, while the biggest usually go for the snake rig.
Berkley's Gulp! Alive! 7-inch Spinner Crawler is designed to naturally undulate and produce vibrations in conjunction with spinner rigging. This bait has a distinct bend that, when hooked traditionally, produces a roll that appeals to walleyes. One workable rigging has been suggested by In-Fisherman's Doug Stange, who ties in a swivel just ahead of the double hooks, to reduce line twist while it allows the Spinner Crawler to do it's thing just behind the beads and spinner blade. He uses a similar rigging to facilitate the slow-death roll created by using the TroKar Re-Volve hook in conjunction with the Berkley Gulp! Killer Crawler or a 3- or 4-inch portion of Spinner Crawler. Both these rigs are pictured in "Thumping Walleyes," another article in this Walleye Guide.
Most softbait crawlers, as well as leeches, can be used effectively in place of live crawlers in spinner rigging. At work once again, beyond their simple appeal to walleyes, is their efficiency in action. One artificial crawler may at times be used to catch multiple fish, while a natural crawler rarely lasts through one fish and may quickly be pecked beyond recognition by panfish before it has a chance to trigger a walleye.
Professional angler and guide Brian Brosdahl casts jigs to weedlines all summer, rarely using livebait. Softbaits like the Northland Impulse Minnow stay on the hook far better than the real thing. "Softbaits often work best around weedgrowth when you fish them fast," he says. "Pitch them into pockets and along edges. Dart them through the vegetation. When you hang up on a weed, a rod-tip snap usually frees the combo and let's you keep fishing. The motion of the jig snapping free often triggers fish."
In a similar vein, professional anglers Marty and Scott Glorvigen helped to popularize a form of snapjigging with a heavier jig in conjunction with a softbait like the Berkley Gulp! Jerk Shad. There's no finesse involved in ripping a 1/2- or 3/4-ounce jighead and a 5-inch Jerk Shad through weededges. The stiff and tough Jerk Shad is perfect in this scenario. It's impossible to do this with livebait.
Doug Stange upped the ante on this approach several years ago by using the 7-inch saltwater version of the Jerk Shad on either a 3/4- or 1-ounce head. Stange: "After a decade of slinging big paddletail swimbaits on heavy jigheads and catching a ton of big walleyes from one end of North America to the other, I'm not hesitant to use big baits. You should give walleyes a chance to tell you how much they love big baits at times.
"You need at least a 7-foot medium-action rod and a larger reel like a 40-class Pflueger Supreme loaded with 14-pound Berkley NanoFil, a no-stretch fused line, so you can rip through weeds. You get a rhythm going — snap-drop, snap-drop, snap, snap — without having to watch your line for a bite as the jig falls. The fish are just there on one of the next snaps. I've used this technique successfully on Green Bay and Leech Lake, and we shot a TV segment using the technique on Mille Lacs this past June."
About a decade ago, professional angler and TV personality Keith Kavajecz began rigging two 3-inch Gulp! Minnows on a jighead. Thread the first one on, then nose-hook the second above the first, creating a larger profile with added action. To accommodate two baits, the jig hook must have a wide gap. The three new Berkley Jiggheads designed especially for fishing Gulp! products, with a reversed keeper that firmly holds this slippery product in place, offer such a generous gap. The Bait Delivery System head has the largest gap and is designed to sink to depth as it holds the softbait combination perfectly horizontal. The Minnow Head is a traditional jighead, while the Darter head is for fishing shallow water.
Adding to the efficiency theme that has developed here, is the fact that minnows come in fairly standard sizes for baitfish like the fathead, shiner, and chub — and natural colors are the only options. Softbaits are available in a host of colors, sizes, and designs, with the options for paddletails, split-tails, and curlytails to add vibration along with changing visual pictures.