Walleye Structure: Feast or Famine

Walleye Structure: Feast or Famine

On Eric Naig's home waters in northern Iowa -- the diametrically opposed West and East Lake Okobojis -- the former pro walleye angler now with Berkley has "issues." Structure issues, that is, affecting whether he zigs to one lake or zags to the other. You see, West Okoboji has tons of structure, while East Okoboji has virtually none.

"It's sometimes hard to fish with so much good-looking stuff," Naig says. "I'm always looking for precise spots. If I'm fishing a point, I fish the cup or the turn along the edge. Seven, eight, nine times out of ten, that's the place to look. On the other hand, with a whole bunch of nothing, you have to either rely on your electronics to find fish or just go fishing to find them. Or both."

Faced with a glut of structure -- weedlines, drops, deep rocks, and more -- Naig know that it pays to search for the best of the best. But when the water's bereft of underwater features, you must search with electronics or lures to find fish in the void. Either way, your work's cut out for you.

STRUCTURE-FEST


Ross Grothe, a walleye pro from Northfield, Minnesota, has a clever twist on an old theme that captures the premise of his preliminary research. "Usually when I approach a new body of water," Grothe says, "I roam in Rome with the Romans." This means that Grothe explores local patterns and productive areas for starters. After that, he branches out to search for similar areas on his own. Grothe bases this strategy on the premise that certain waters have their own characters. For instance, when the wind blows on Leech Lake (Minnesota), it's a signal to fish in 10 feet or less. Say what you want about local information, but such guidelines undoubtedly help narrow the search on a lake more than ten times the size of Manhattan.


Fleshing out a preliminary search strategy even further, PWT Director Chip Leer complements local information with a lake map that helps him break down Leech Lake info sections. It's an approach Leer learned years earlier from more seasoned guides on Lake of the Woods. "They taught me to break the lake into sections and tear it apart," Leer says. "That way, if you develop a pattern in one section, no matter where you go on the lake, you should be able to duplicate it."

Next in the plan of attack on a "structure-fest" is to look for prime pieces of main-lake structure. "In a summer pattern, I look to the deepest part of the lake within a mile or two of spawning areas -- rock bars and reefs in the middle of the lake," says Dan Plautz, PWT pro from Muskego, Wisconsin. "If the body of water has a ton of weeds, that's my secondary spot."

After exhausting prime structure (though that may be virtually impossible) or deciding upon a change of pace, Naig offers a viable Plan B. "Even with all the good-looking structure, we catch a lot of fish on flats. Classic structure can get beat up so hard that you should start looking for less obvious spots."


On deeper flats, Naig searches both with electronics and bottom bouncer-spinner combos -- efficient ways to cover water and catch fish at the same time. In deeper water, of course, the importance of electronics can't be underestimated. "Deeper than 20 feet, fish can't hide from your electronics," Naig says. "In depths less than 15 feet, you have to fish for them."

Drop Shot Rig

Dropper Rigs

These rigs can perform well for panfish, like crappies and perch, that are feeding near bottom. One rig is called the dropper-loop rig for the looped snells holding the hooks off the 6- to 12-pound-test monofilament mainline. Sinker size ranges from 1/2 to 2 ounces depending on conditions. Typically, one to three pre-tied snells are secured 12 to 18 inches above the sinker for presenting multiple baits simultaneously, state laws allowing.Drop-shot rig — The drop-shot rig is a type of dropper rig, often used in bass fishing. On a drop-shot-rig, the hook is attached directly to the mainline rather than on a loop or leader shooting off the mainline. Below the hook is a sinker fixed to the end of the mainline. The rig allows baits to be presented off bottom a set distance, and is effective with livebaits, as well as with artificial softbaits such as worm, grub, and minnow imitations. On a drop-shot rig, baits can be worked very still, or jiggled and twitched, to attract fish and trigger strikes.

Generic Egg Sinker Rig

Livebait rigging is used to drift or troll livebait on or near the bottom, with frequent pauses to give fish a good look at the bait. If a fish strikes, drop the rod tip toward the fish and feed a little line as it swims off. A sliding sinker reduces weight resistance. Heavier fixed sinkers risk spooking fish that strike the bait and feel unnatural pressure.

Generic Slip Rig

Livebait rigging is used to drift or troll livebait on or near the bottom, with frequent pauses to give fish a good look at the bait. If a fish strikes, drop the rod tip toward the fish and feed a little line as it swims off. A sliding sinker reduces weight resistance. Heavier fixed sinkers risk spooking fish that strike the bait and feel unnatural pressure.

Lindy Rig

Livebait rigging is used to drift or troll livebait on or near the bottom, with frequent pauses to give fish a good look at the bait. If a fish strikes, drop the rod tip toward the fish and feed a little line as it swims off. A sliding sinker reduces weight resistance. Heavier fixed sinkers risk spooking fish that strike the bait and feel unnatural pressure.

Northland Roach Rig

Livebait rigging is used to drift or troll livebait on or near the bottom, with frequent pauses to give fish a good look at the bait. If a fish strikes, drop the rod tip toward the fish and feed a little line as it swims off. A sliding sinker reduces weight resistance. Heavier fixed sinkers risk spooking fish that strike the bait and feel unnatural pressure.

Rubbercor Rig

Livebait rigging is used to drift or troll livebait on or near the bottom, with frequent pauses to give fish a good look at the bait. If a fish strikes, drop the rod tip toward the fish and feed a little line as it swims off. A sliding sinker reduces weight resistance. Heavier fixed sinkers risk spooking fish that strike the bait and feel unnatural pressure.

Sinker Placement

Slipsinker Rig

Teamed with livebait, the slipsinker rig has accounted for more walleyes than any other presentation, but this versatile rig also is a favorite of catfish anglers and has taken many bass, pike, sturgeon, and panfish. The heart of this rig is a sinker that slides on the monofilament or braid mainline above a barrel swivel. For walleyes, for example, you might use a 1/4-ounce walking sinker, 6- to 10-pound monofilament mainline, and a leader of 4- to 10-pound monofilament or fluorocarbon, with an octopus style hook of a size appropriate for the bait. For larger fish, like big catfish, upgrade to line tests of 20 to 30 pounds or more. As with the split-shot rig, the length of the leader determines bait action and control. Use sinker weights appropriate for current and depth. Slipsinker rigs used in strong current might require sinkers up to 8 ounces or more.
The slipsinker rig can be cast and slowly retrieved, slowly trolled, or used as a stationary presentation, so the depth of the water, bottom terrain, and how fast the bait is being moved by the boat, current, or during retrieval, all play a part in determining the weight of the sinker. The sinker usually is a boot-shaped walking sinker or egg- or bell-shaped sinker for gravel and sandy bottoms, or a bullet sinker in weeds and wood. Beads or blades are sometimes added to the leader in front of the hook as an attractant.
Because the mainline slips through the sinker, anglers often find it to their advantage to let a fish 'run ' with the bait, fishing the presentation with an open spool and letting the fish pull line off the spool with the least resistance possible. This gives the fish more time to get the bait further in its mouth or throat, which can cause more — often lethal — injury to fish. If you can set the hook quickly, or fish on a tight line, it's often better to do so, especially if you intend to release your catch.

Slip Float Rigs

This is the rig that just about every angler fishing today started out with that first time they went fishing, although most were probably too young to remember. Nothing too fancy, just a float or 'bobber ' a couple of feet up the line from some split shot, and a hook baited with a worm below that. Works like magic on panfish.
There are two primary types of float rigs — fixed-float and slipfloat. The fixed float is just that, when the float is fixed to a certain point on the line, and is best fished in situations where the fish are feeding shallow, say four feet or less. The slipfloat rig allows the float to slide up and down the line so you can fish in deeper water. A small bobber stop is fastened on the line somewhere above the bobber to limit how far up the line the bobber can slide, determining how deep the bait is fished. When the rig is reeled in, the stop goes through the rod guides and onto the spool of the reel to allow for casting and retrieving.
While the fixed-float rig is a good way to target shallow fish like crappies, bass, sunfish, catfish, and trout, the slipfloat rig's ability to go deep broadens the potential species list to include pike, walleye, muskie, striper, and more. A longer light-to-medium action spinning rod, about 7 feet long, with a slow to moderate action, spooled with 4- to 8-pound monofilament, is a good choice for a float rig. Hooks should be matched to the bait, such as a #4 to #8 baitholder hook for angleworms and nightcrawlers, for example, although a jig also can be used.
Fishing a float rig often is a case of not doing anything at all, letting the bait do the fish-attracting work, as the float is slowly moved by wave action on the surface. Both rigs should be cast by gently swinging the rig sideways and behind you, then thrusting the rod toward the target with a slight upward motion as you release the line. You want to lob the rig to a specific spot as gently as possible. If the wind is blowing, or you're fishing in current, target your cast so that the wind or current moves the rig into your target zone. In other instances, a little bit of action added by quick twitches of the rod tip or even substantial pulls that move the bait up in the water column and then let it settle, induces strikes. The float signals when a fish is on the line, a visual experience that remains exciting to anglers no matter their age or fishing experience.

Standard Three-Way Rig

An alternative to the set rig is sometimes called the bottom rig or three-way rig. While this rig can be used from the boat, slowly trolled, it also works well as a stationary presentation. Instead of attaching the mainline to the sinker, the mainline is attached to a three-way swivel, with a dropper line to the sinker, and a leader and hook. This adaptation allows the bait to move a little higher off the bottom.

Weedless Bullet Sinker Rig

Livebait rigging is used to drift or troll livebait on or near the bottom, with frequent pauses to give fish a good look at the bait. If a fish strikes, drop the rod tip toward the fish and feed a little line as it swims off. A sliding sinker reduces weight resistance. Heavier fixed sinkers risk spooking fish that strike the bait and feel unnatural pressure.

Split Shot Rig

A hook tied on the end of the line with a sinker pinched on the line above the hook might be one of the best-producing panfish presentations of all time, but it works for bigger fish, too. Most often fished with live­bait like nightcrawlers, angle­worms, minnows, or maggots, this rig can work with some softbaits, like smaller worms and curlytail grubs. The beauty of this rig is that it lets the bait swim free to attract fish with its natural movement. The closer to the hook the sinker is placed the less movement allowed; the farther away the hook and sinker are separated the less control you have and bites can be missed. The number and weight of the sinkers is determined by depth, current, and size of the bait. You want just enough weight to keep the bait freely moving and in the strike zone.
Due to the light weight of this rig, it's usually fished in water shallower than about 20 feet, and most often shallower than 8 feet, with a 6- to 7- foot slow to medium action, medium-light power spinning rod with 4- to 8-pound-test monofilament line. The split-shot rig can be gently cast and slowly retrieved, fished stationary, or allowed to drift. Follow the drift with your rod tip to be sure it drifts naturally and doesn't snag.

Coninued - click on page link below.

STRUCTURE-FREE

Most of the time when fishing structure-free zones, that's precisely what you have to do to locate walleyes -- fish for them. While doing so, pay attention with lures and electronics to the slightest change in depth. A six-inch change extending for a quarter mile can be a break -- and essentially the structure -- on an otherwise nondescript stretch of bottom. You might feel such a change with your sinker or spot it on electronics.

Simply catching fish helps decipher the lay of the underwater land. Say you're fishing jigs or rigs and you nail a walleye. Pitch out a floating marker or punch in an icon on your GPS. Return to the spot, fish it, and circle it, paying attention to the depth and bottom content. Did the depth dip a tad or did the bottom change from soft to hard? If so, you're on the right track.

Spinners tipped with livebait are efficient search tools as well. "I'm not a patient angler," Leer says. "I tend to move fast to hunt for fish. One reason I like spinners is that you don't necessarily even have to catch a fish to find out if they're down there; if the skin on your minnow is pulled back, that usually indicates a walleye. Turn around and go back through the spot again.

"To me, spinners demand a reaction. We're forcing fish to make a decision. All we're looking for is one fish to say, "Stop. Fish here."

For his part, Naig is partial to crankbaits on dishpan-shaped lakes. Here the fish could be high off bottom, out of the range of electronics, or scattered almost anywhere. Most of the time, though, Naig says the walleyes are in the upper half of the water column. With crankbaits positioned behind planer boards, Naig trolls across the open basin, kicking his speed up as high as 3 mph. To keep track of where you've been and to continue covering fresh water, watch the plotter screen on a GPS unit.

Which crankbaits you choose are a function of lake style, water temperature, and forage. During summer in warm prairie lakes that typically are devoid of structure and full of small panfish and bullheads as food sources, Naig likes short, fat cranks such as the Berkley Frenzy. Shad-shaped baits are excellent choices as well. Look to perch, chrome, and bluegill colors -- better yet if the bait has a splash of orange.

One way or another, you must go get 'em. Whether it's searching out precise spots on structure-fests, or fishing to find walleyes in a structure-free zone, deploy the respective plans to trigger a response. Fish are, after all, where you find 'em.

Lakes with an abundance of classic structure offer fish numerous holding places: points and turns in the contour, humps, changes in bottom composition, perhaps weedbeds, and other options. In the midst of plenty, seek out distinctive spots that concentrate fish. Such areas are often present in the form of depth changes that are clearly visible on electronics.

Lakes with an absence of classic structure offer subtler general holding areas where fish may spread loosely across slow-tapering depth changes, variations in bottom content visible on electronics, or other subtle fish attractors. In some cases, the presence of fish life detected on electronics betrays walleye location despite an apparent lack of anything to attract and hold fish.

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