October 05, 2017
By Dan Johnson
If you're looking for a revolutionary, headline-grabbing new walleye tactic that's sure to raise eyebrows this season — this isn't it. But if you're interested in refining a time-tested presentation that easily and efficiently puts fish in the boat under a wide range of conditions, consider the following observations on spinner-rigging carefully.
The science of spinner-rigging for walleyes is no flash in the pan. It's actually more of an ever-changing art form that dates back to the late 1920s and, according to In-Fisherman research, was most likely first practiced on Minnesota's mighty Lake Mille Lacs.
Early spinner rigs were primitive. They incorporated heavy, June bug-style spinners on wire leaders, and were often delivered to the strike zone via crude three-way rigs weighted with clunky, homemade bell sinkers. But boy, did they catch fish.
By the time World War II was winding down, anglers not embattled in the trenches fueled a trend toward lighter spinners on wire rigs, such as the Mille Lacs Free Spin and Prescott Pike Hook #2. Another new twist hit the market in the early 1960s, when Little Joe unveiled the first spinner rig marketed with a monofilament leader — the now legendary Red Devil. The Red Devil matched a 30-inch, 25-pound mono leader with a trim, easy-spinning, high-quality blade, and was wickedly effective on walleyes in a variety of situations.
While wire diehards thought the mono concept heresy, the idea caught on and continues catching fish to this day. The Red Devil also persisted and remains an integral part of the Little Joe lineup, available outfitted with a variety of blade sizes and colors, in single- and two-hook options. In a nod to spinner-rigging's roots, there's also a Heart-Of-Steel option that features a snell spun from nylon-coated steel.
Thanks to the Red Devil's success, further spinner refinements followed, with an emphasis on small, light, free-wheeling blades that twirled at slow trolling speeds. By the turn of the century, the creative floodgates had opened, leaving walleye fans with an amazing variety of blades large and small, components, and pre-tied rigs at their disposal. Likewise, enterprising anglers were applying the tactic in situations once deemed off limits to spin doctors.
Today, spinner-rigging is as strong as ever. "Of all the fads that have come and gone in the walleye world, pulling spinners remains a staple presentation," says Jon Thelen, longtime guide, tournament angler, and host of Lindy Legendary Fishing Tackle's "Fish Ed" television. "And I think it's safe to say it will still be around as long as there are walleye fishermen."
Spinner blade options range from tiny #0 and #1 blades, which are best suited to dainty flicker snells or livening up a slipsinker rig, to behemoth #7 and #8 blades. Thelen rarely dabbles on either end of the size spectrum, instead favoring mid-range choices from #3 to #6.
When choosing spinner blade size, he advises striking a balance with the environment and what's on the walleyes' menu. "When making surgical strikes at walleyes concentrated on structure, like we see on so many natural lakes across the Midwest, matching the forage base is important," he says. "Where relatively large baitfish are the rule, upsizing from a standard #3 to a #4 or larger can be deadly."
Beefier blades also get the nod for alerting and attracting large walleyes in clear conditions on the Great Lakes. "A #5 or #6 can help you grab their attention and get fish to charge in from a distance," he says, noting that big blades can be a deal-sealer when trolling open water on smaller systems as well.
As for blade style, he keeps it simple, typically switching between standard Colorado and Indiana shapes. Deep-cupped, hard-thumping Colorados have the widest rotation — with a revolution angle around 45 degrees — plus the most distinctive flash and slowest rotation of the two. Indiana blades are highly versatile, offer good flash and vibration, and excel at medium speeds in fair to high-visibility conditions.
"Both Colorado and Indiana blades do a great job of creating vibrations and turbulence that lead walleyes to believe they're dealing with a fleeing baitfish," Thelen adds.
He lumps willowleaf blades into a miscellaneous category with plastic choices. "Willowleafs made their name emulating large baitfish on the Great Lakes," he says, noting that the narrow rotation, generally around 20 degrees, minimizes vibration while maximizing flash. "Willows like Lindy's Old Guide's Secret 2-Hook Willow Rig are a great choice for attracting fish in open water, or when you're looking for that one big bite."
Lightweight plastic options such as Worden's Spin-N-Glo and Mack's Smile Blade enjoy cult-like followings in some circles. Such blades spin at slow speeds and can be used for slow-trolling finesse rigs or incorporated with metal blades. Smile Blades in particular have also been creatively adapted into Slow Death riggings.
"No doubt plastic blades pull slower," Thelen says. "But there's no way they make the thump, flash, and vibration of a #3 Colorado, either."
Though he advocates metal options, Thelen offers a case where both plastic and metal came into play. Back in late June of 2008, he recalls, when the In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail visited Bull Shoals Lake, Arkansas, a tactical battle erupted between competitors using Smile Blades and metal fans fishing traditional spinners.
"The water was clear and walleyes were holding in and around flooded treelines," he says, remembering how record high water levels coupled with merciless heat and humidity set the stage for an epic test of spinner strategies. "Anglers pulling Smile rigs did well tight to the timber, while I was sliding off away from the branches a little farther, looking for bigger fish and triggering them with metal blades."
When the dust settled, metal held its own. Bill Ortiz topped the leaderboard with 45.84 pounds, thanks to a go-to rig that included a #3 hammered silver Colorado blade with a 'crawler, towed behind a three-way sinker, through the branches, at depths of 27 to 33 feet. Thelen finished a respectable 6th with 31.95 pounds.
Spinner blades come in every color of the rainbow, and then some. Along with painted and holographic patterns, metallic finishes offer additional options. Here, too, Thelen keeps it simple by matching color to water conditions, then experimenting as needed.
"In very dirty water or when there's substantial cloud cover, I go with bright, solid colors painted on both sides of the blade," he says. "You're not reflecting much sunlight, so the flash of metallic finishes isn't as big a factor as having chartreuse, firetiger, lime-yellow, chartreuse-orange, and other high-visibility colors working for you, whether fish are following the rig or approaching from the side."
In clear water with clouds, blue-and-white or holographic patterns that mimic primary baitfish colors are top choices. Under sunny skies with calm conditions on a clear lake, he switches to gold and silver metallics. "These finishes don't stand out from their environment like painted patterns, but reflect light like baitfish," Thelen explains. "The more light penetrates to the depth I'm fishing, the more I lean on metal."
In extremely bright conditions, he moves to a hammered gold or silver blade. "The dimples scatter the light and throw it in different angles," he says. "Non-hammered metallic blades, by comparison, give off more concentrated flash."
He says that forage base is the deciding factor for when to use gold or silver. "Gold is great in perch-driven fisheries, while silver or nickel finishes excel where shiners, tullibees, and other silver-sided baitfish are the predominant food source," he says. "Copper-colored finishes can be deadly, too, especially in clear water," he adds. "But it seems like gold covers the spectrum better and, overall, picks up and reflects more light."
Special situations can be mitigating factors. "When pulling a spinner within 5 feet of the surface, such as for high-riding suspended fish or when trolling weedtops, I don't want the fish to get too good a look at the blade — just notice it going by and come rushing out to crush it," he says. "This is a great time to run a hammered gold or silver blade up to 2 mph."
Gray areas exist where scenarios overlap, and walleyes aren't afraid to break the rules. "Combination blades painted on one side and metallic on the other have their moments, and there are also times when an old-fashioned red-and-white spinner trips walleyes' triggers better than anything," he says. "So you have to experiment. When fishing with other anglers or where multiple lines are legal, testing different color patterns and finishes — plus throwing an oddball blade color in the mix here and there — can help determine if the fish are following the color chart.
Before leaving the color discussion, Thelen points out how he assesses water clarity. "It's important to have a baseline for judging water conditions," he says. "But don't over-complicate the process. For example, I use my outboard. If I can see my stainless steel prop, I call the water clear. If I can't see it at all, it's dirty. And if the prop is partially visible, I'm looking at medium conditions."
Blade considerations are certainly important, but hooks seal the deal when a walleye takes the bait. Hooks must also balance with the rest of the package — including blade, bait, and bead sizes — to spin properly, present livebait in an effective, natural manner, and hook striking fish. Miss the boat on any one of these accounts and you won't need a net.
Matching hook size to your bait is arguably the most important step. In most situations, Thelen favors a #2 octopus hook with a #3 Indiana or Colorado blade for minnows, 'crawlers, and leeches.
"I use a single-hook rig with minnows and leeches, and double-hook setups for 'crawlers," he says. "Seldom do I run a 'crawler on a single hook. When I do, I pinch it in half.
Usually this is when trolling at slower speeds, when I know the fish it going to get a good swipe at the bait. For speeds of 1 mph and faster, the trailing hook becomes a bigger factor."
Three-hook systems have been around for years, but Thelen rarely ties one on. "Many old timers swear by three-hook rigs like the Old Guide's Secret 3-Hook Harness, but such rigs have become more of an old-school option, as the majority of anglers have moved to two-hook rigs."
Nothing against Slow Death-style spinning configurations, but he sticks to the time-honored practice of keeping his 'crawlers in a straight line. "One of my biggest concerns is making sure the 'crawler is straight," he says. "When hooking, allow slack between the two hooks, so when the bait stretches out under water, it doesn't start spinning out of control."
Snell length is another consideration. "Water clarity and speed largely dictate length," Thelen says. "At normal speeds in dirty water, a 2½- to 3-foot snell is fine. In clear conditions, I may stretch it out to 6 feet of fluorocarbon. Longer snells have their fans but the spinner falls to bottom more easily and it's harder to reel fish close to the boat. Because short leads offer less opportunity for the blade and bait to sink, they can be a godsend over snaggy bottoms or vegetation. Floating rigs, like Little Joe's Floating Worm Harness, are great whenever you want to slow down and keep the bait up. They also add bulk and color, which can be triggers themselves."
More On Speed
Thelen counts speed control as one of spinner-rigging's most critical variables. "Day in and day out, my speeds fall between .8 to 2 mph, with higher speeds used more often as the water warms and fish become more aggressive — or whenever trolling over weedtops," he offers. "I experiment with different speeds, in minor increments, because walleyes often show a strong preference for a particular speed one day, and the next you can't get bit unless you slow down or speed up."
Thelen says that advanced electronics and trolling motor systems have aided the pursuit of precision speed control. "GPS-driven systems like the Minn Kota i-Pilot Link setup on my boat allow fine-tuning speed by 0.1 mph, not to mention the ability to trace key contours without touching the foot pedal to steer," he says. "This is light years ahead of the old days of spinning the thrust-control dial with your toe and hoping for the best."