November 27, 2017
For bass, swim jigs are pretty well accepted. A nose-forward eye on a bullet or fish-head style jig, a silicone skirt, and an action trailer. But the way it's fished is the key. It has universal appeal to predators of all sorts.
Swim-jigging is a technique more than a style of lure. A jig-plastic combo designed for swimming, tailored to the species at hand, sized and hued to match the forage of that species, catches everything: big pike, bass, crappies, brown trout, redfish, and more.
A walleye swim jig could be a hair jig, a jigworm, a soft-plastic swimbait weighted internally or externally, or just a plain plastic grub on a lead head from 1/16- to 3/4-ounce. Because it can mimic anything in color, shape, and motion, the walleye swim jig can be the most versatile tool in the box when casting is called for.
This is the program: Cast and reel. Okay, in some cases, the combo is allowed to sink to or near bottom before a steady retrieve levels it on a horizontal plane. In that case, begin reeling slowly—just fast enough to keep it off bottom, but not so fast that it rises. Around cover, the jig is heavier, the rod tip held high, and the jig is reeled quickly over vegetation or wood. The only trick is keeping the lure on a horizontal plane. It shouldn't rise or fall during the retrieve. The lighter the jig, the more patience is required because the retrieve is slow. You rarely have to remember what you were doing with the jig when a walleye bit. You were reeling steadily, thinking about where to stop to eat on the way home.
But artistry is involved. A jig that can't be kept off bottom is too heavy for the trailer or isn't being fished fast enough. Speed is something you have to think about every day; both drop speed and forward speed. When walleyes are nipping or not biting, a different jig weight can make a big difference. Often as not, walleyes respond to a change in speed, and going a little lighter or heavier can put fish in the net. Speed might be what separates the pros from the Joes most days, but differences in technique and jig styles arise even among the best anglers.
Snap or Swim?
Snap-rip-bomb. Jumping Jigging Raps, Shiver Minnows, jigs and plastics are the rage. But always the best approach?
"Just trends," says successful walleye pro Tommy Skarlis. "We forget sometimes to dance with the one that brung us. Tried-and-true tactics. I've watched crappie experts fill their boats with sandbags to keep their rod tips steady when they pull tubes. That steady horizontal swim is deadly for all species. Aggressive presentations catch walleyes, sure. But slow, swimming presentations catch a lot of walleyes, too."
Walleyes holding in eelgrass, cabbage, or woodcover expect minnows to swim casually past, Skarlis says. "Swim something slowly by that spot and walleyes charge out and hit it with aggression. It's like dragging livebait rigs. Sometimes a bait or lure making slow, steady progress is efficient because walleyes believe they haven't been 'made' as they creep up on their prey. If it hops, sometimes I believe walleyes feel their ambush opportunity is lost. I swim jigs by pulling them along with the rod tip as steady as possible at 0.3 mph. It takes a lot of patience to master the simple art of casting and reeling. But it works. Swimming a jig with a rod holder, just drifting, control-drifting, or pulling it slowly with the trolling motor works."
Skarlis flavors his softbaits with Berkley Gulp! Alive! or PowerBait attractants. "I like scent or PowerBaits when swimming because it stacks things in your favor," he says. "Sometimes they knock the rod out of your hands when they won't touch an unscented bait. The keys in dirty water are scent and the bigger the better. Displacing water is critical. Going from 3-inch to 4- or 5-inch plastics or from 1/8- to a 1/4- or even 3/8-ounce jigs pushes more water and gives them more to see and feel. But bigger it is, the heavier it is, so the faster you have to swim it unless you're tightlining and pulling with the trolling motor."
Swim it along the edges of vegetation or when trying to pull fish out of timber. It works from Wisconsin flowages to Dakota reservoirs. Walleyes are used to sitting in cover and seeing baitfish swim steadily past. Swim it at the correct speed and cadence and they rise to the occasion. I try to replicate what baitfish are doing when they don't think they're being seen. That's the key to swimming a jig.
Minnesota Guide Tony Roach is an advocate of what he calls power-fishing with jig-plastic combos and Rapala Jigging Raps—when that's what walleyes want. But he admits there are times when they don't. "There's a time and place for varied approaches," he says. "Around thick vegetation, I do a lot of steady reeling. Hit plant stalks, give it a sharp snap, clear it, and a lot of times you trigger a strike. And on rocks, steady reeling can be highly effective. Walleyes let you know. If you're snapping along and catching nothing, slow swimming often works. For walleyes in particular, l like to put the trolling motor down and pull a jig-plastic combo. I don't want to call it trolling, but it's a steady, horizontal technique."
Another reason to embrace a steady swim is a preponderance of snags and algae clinging to rocks. "When you don't want to touch bottom, steady retrieves work better," Roach says. "Keeps you in the water more, rather than picking mung. In tall cabbage stands with big pockets, I pick and choose spots where I can steadily retrieve through there about mid-water. Sandgrass, coontail, and eelgrass near bottom can be avoided by swimming lures from a few feet off bottom to just under the surface in heavy cover."
Roach emphasizes he doesn't always use softbaits. "Hair jigs can be great," he says. "I give them more body with a small chunk of plastic, threading it on the hook shank under the hair to bulk it up. That works well with a steady pull with the trolling motor. Small swimbait trailers also work well with hair jigs around thick cabbage. Pitching jigs with paddletails, ripping them through, but working the edges slowly and methodically tight to the edges entices strikes."
Both anglers like to swim hair jigs. "I swim Hutch's Tackle hair jigs," Skarlis says. "I thread on a rib worm to create a buck-n-rubber jig. Hair fluffs out around the plastic and bulks the profile. A grub or soft jerkbait makes the hair flex on the swim."
On shallow flats, Roach approaches inside weedlines by pitching a 1/16-ounce jig tipped with a swimbait 60 feet back and trolling at 1.4 to 1.6 mph. "I use these jigs like a shallow crankbait," Roach confides. "It's much more weedless than a crank. I like a Northland 3-inch Impulse Paddle Tail for that. On shallow flats with sparse vegetation I did more of that kind of trolling last summer than anything else and we did extremely well. That's not typical for me because I do a lot of open-water trolling, but it's simple for clients. You don't have to do much. Just hold on and wait for a bite."
Whether casting or "just hanging on," Roach uses the same Wright & McGill, Tony Roach Signature, 7- or 7-foot 6-inch (WMTRW76C1T) spinning rods. "I like long rods with a little heavier power," he says. "You can use a baitcaster, too. I like to feel every weed, every tick, and to make sure you're not fouled, so I use 6- to 10-pound braid with a 10-pound fluorocarbon leader.
"Matching jigheads with softbaits is critical, too. Northland Slurp swimbait jigs have a heavy hook shank that restricts the action of a ring worm. Conversely, if you use a thin-gauged hook with a thick swimbait, you don't get the proper action, either. Jig weight and wire thickness are critical. When you rig a softbait, it has to be dead center or it may start to spin. Rig it properly and the jig runs true."
For example, a Case Ringworm swims nicely on a Gopher Tackle Mushroom Head Jig with a long-shank, 2/0 Gamakatsu Hook. The same lure won't balance with the heavy shank on a Picasso Smart Mouth Plus Jig, which matches a Keitech Swing Impact swimbait.
"Worms and soft jerkbaits work fine on light, long-shank jigs," Roach says. "Not a small crappie jig, but a long-shank, 2/0 to 3/0 bass jig. A 4- to 5-inch softbait requires a longer shank. The resistance of the tail and the thickness of the plastic determines the thickness of the wire. Some clients— climb aboard not knowing how to rig plastics. Once I show them how to do it properly, their confidence level rises. I use ring worms a lot. You can swim them slowly, yo-yo the jig, troll, castvery versatile."
In murky water, Skarlis favors 10-pound Berkley Trilene Braid or FireLine tied directly to the jig. "In clear water I tie a 4-foot, 8-pound fluorocarbon leader to the braid," he says. "I use a St Croix Legend Extreme 7-foot medium-fast rod. If I need to chuck long distances I use the 7-foot 6-inch St. Croix Eyecon EF76MLXF. With light jigs in clear water, I go with 6- to 8-pound Trilene XL in low-vis green."
Skarlis likes to cast swimbaits on underspins, too. "I like the new Berkley PowerBait Pro Shad," he says. "You barely move it and the tail wiggles. And Berkley Gulp! Minnows on 1/4- to 3/8-ounce Blakemore Awesome Walleye Runners are a great match. The ball-bearing swivel allows the blade to turn at slow speeds. When swimming is the way to go, slow is key most days. When I have to go super slow, I use the Awesome Walleye Runner. The blade provides lift on the swim and you can get away with heavier heads."
Forward speed and drop speed are factors you have to study every day. "In spring, it's slow on bottom with more pausing and dragging," Roach says. "As the vegetation develops, I do more combination retrieves with ripping. In fall, I slow back down as water temperatures drop to 50°F. I fish more slow, steady retrieves again. What I like about softbaits is you can fish a lot of different ways and be weedless. You can fish slow or fast, much faster than with livebait, covering water, picking off aggressive walleyes."
Skarlis likes Berkley Rib Worms with a little curly tail when "less is more," he says. "The clearer the water, the faster you should move it and the more subtle everything has to be in terms of size, color, and action. That's when ring worms shine. Walleyes don't want bright colors or glow in clear water. You can troll it behind a planer board at 2 mph and I've seen a lot of trolling bites where they won't hit a crank but take a jig-plastic combo. In darker water, go bigger, with more action and a slower retrieve. Give them time to find it."
The effectiveness of colors like green pumpkin and watermelon can't be undersold in clear water. Plastics traditionally considered "bass colors" or bass styles can put numbers of walleyes in the boat when visibility is 3 feet or more. Natural representations of perch colors can outfish firetiger patterns. Many anglers believe walleyes always want bright colors, so manufacturers give them what they want. Even in slightly murky water, a natural pattern like baby bass or Tennessee shad (green back/white belly) can trigger more strikes than a bright or fluorescent bait. Having it on a bright head is another matter. Most days jigheads with a color accent, just a splash of orange or chartreuse, provoke more attention than plain heads or bright-color ones.
The vast array of sizes and patterns available today allows us to tailor colors to match predominant forage species. Select sizes according to the seasonal stage that forage is in. Tailor jig size for speed to match the mood of walleyes and access depths that approach the feeding stations they occupy. The walleye swim jig is as versatile as the kaleidoscope of jigs and bodies. It becomes a multi-faceted chameleon. The only common thread connecting all its disparate incarnations is horizontal progress.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw, Brainerd, Minnesota, contributes to all In-Fisherman publications.