Five Sure Ways For Walleyes

In the course of his 30 years of successful walleye fishing, the author has distilled the tactics that work for him into these ... (February 2008).

Photo by Gerald Almy.

Walleye fanatics can argue about the intricacies of the perfect jig or the qualities that go into the ultimate leech. But over the 30-plus years that I've spent chasing this marble-eyed quarry, I've found that things really don't have to get that complicated.

Of course there's nothing wrong with that fanaticism and obsession with the minute details of the sport. But if you are a bit more relaxed about your fishing, I have five basic systems for you that will produce bountiful catches throughout the year. And they'll work on a variety of walleye waters -- from sprawling flowages to small neglected rivers, from manmade impoundments to vast natural lakes.

Learn to use three or four of them, and keep the required gear and tackle on hand; then, experiment on any given day on the water with a few of them. Chances are one or more of these proven strategies will produce-if not enough to limit out, at least enough to provide the main ingredient for a delicious fish fry.

First a bit of biological background is in order. This information will help you understand the walleye's behavior and feeding patterns and locate and catch it at various times of the year.

Walleyes eat plankton and tiny zoÖplankton when they are first born, followed soon by insects. Before they even reach the size of a pencil, though, this quarry is turning to smaller fish as its main prey. Once it starts that, minnows form the bulk of its diet through the rest of the walleye's life.

Early in the year, they swim into tributaries in lakes and move upstream in rivers to spawn. This occurs when the water temperatures range from 44 to 48 degrees. Key in on that temperature range if you're looking for spawning walleyes.

After the fish spawn, they drift back into deep pools in rivers and move back downstream from tributaries into lakes. From this point on, some of the best walleye fishing will occur on drizzly or overcast days. I've even had great fishing when it's raining hard, but heed the warnings and don't stay out if thunderstorms are occurring.

Walleyes are light-sensitive fish and they're wary of being in the shallows under a bright midday sun. Often, though, you can catch them even then by fishing deeper, where the light doesn't penetrate as much.

Fall often sees a pickup in walleye activity as waters cool and shorter days and frosty nights arrive. The fish may move back shallow again then while chasing forage.

Learning a thing or two about where walleyes like to hang out is also helpful. Look for the fish in bays and river mouths, around points, reefs, humps, bars and sunken islands. Yes, they do often simply roam in open waters, but walleyes also at times orient to boulders, logs, rock walls, islands and weedbeds. Dropoffs at river channel edges can be good. Inlets and outlets of lakes with current are also top spots.

Get a topo map of the water you're fishing, if possible, and then use a depthfinder to seek out prime areas to try. As a rule, sandy, rock or gravel bottoms are preferred to soft mud.

If there's a breeze blowing, hit the windward side of points, reefs and coves. That's where the fish will be hanging out, waiting for baitfish to be pushed toward them.

With these bits of biological knowledge and walleye hangouts in mind, you're set to begin your walleye search with one of the five tactics described below. Using one or a combination of them has proved effective for me on a variety of waters for three decades and counting.

TROLLING WITH CRANKBAITS

If a lake is one that's new to you or you've simply never figured out a good walleye pattern, this is a great tactic to start with. The method is almost universally effective because it keeps your lure down in the water in the productive strike zone for long periods. The only time it's not there is if you're checking it to make sure there's no debris on the lure or reeling in a fish!

Study a topo if available and watch the depthfinder to pinpoint both good structure and also bait and game fish. You can work a contour line or the edge of reefs, points or dropoffs and constantly have your lure down where fish see it.

For many lakes, simply trolling a crankbait on 8- to 12-pound line is the way to go. Choose your lure according to the depth of water you're probing. Silver, blue, black, gold, chartreuse and bright orange are top colors and a variety of shapes can be productive from fat to skinny.

If walleyes are in shallow water and are particularly spooky, use a side-planer board to carry your plug away from the noise and shadow of the boat. These also let you cover a wider swath with some of the offerings pulled behind the boat, others to the side.

Also consider using downriggers. These are especially useful when fish are suspended. Downriggers keep your lure at exactly the depth you choose. When a walleye strikes, the line pops free from its release and you fight the fish unencumbered on light tackle.

If fish aren't spooky you can run the lure 20 to 50 feet behind the cannonball. If they're wary and skittish, attach it 75 to 120 feet back.

Occasionally walleyes are tentative biters and don't snap releases well. If that proves to be a problem, switch to thin rubber bands. Simply half-hitch one end on the downrigger cable or a snap swivel just up from the ball and attach the other end to the line. The fish will likely snap the thin rubber band easily. But if it doesn't, you'll likely see the rod throbbing and bouncing and can lift it out of the holder and snap it yourself.

Be sure to calculate the additional dive of the plug into the depth you set on the downrigger to make the lure run precisely where fish are showing on the recorder. Try a variety of brands and sizes of crankbaits in the various colors listed earlier. Use fat ones as well as thin-minnow type plugs.

CASTING JIGS

If you want a proven walleye tactic to turn to, this is it. There isn't a lure made that mimics live fish better in the hands of a skilled angler than a jig crawling, darting and slinking through the water. I particularly like to turn to them on flowing waters, but they're great on lakes as well.

The optimum tackle for jig fishing begins with a sensitive rod of 6 o 7 feet, light to medium in action. You don't want too much f

lex in the rod because it will rob some of the lure action you try to impart to the offering and make it harder to sense strikes. A soft rod also makes it more difficult to set the hook.

Line test can be anywhere from 4 to 10 pounds. Jigs can vary in weight from 1/16 to 3/8 ounce, or even heavier in swift tailwaters. You can catch plenty of fish with just a plain round leadhead jig and plastic curlytail, marabou or bucktail dressing. Many innovative specialty walleye jigs are available and they'll draw plenty of strikes.

Suspended fish can be taken with jigs, but the majority of strikes often come from walleyes hanging close to the bottom. If you're not scraping rocks or gravel occasionally, slow down your retrieve.

If you make contact with the lake or river floor, lift the jig slightly with a sharp hop. Move it just a few inches, and then let it drop back down again.

A trick too many anglers overlook is tipping the jig with bait. Often you'll catch more fish with the plain jig. But if you know that you're showing your lure to fish that aren't cooperating, consider tipping it with a leech, a piece of a night crawler, a minnow or another natural offering.

VERTICAL JIGGING

Instead of casting your lure and retrieving it or pulling it along behind a moving boat, sometimes the best way to score on walleyes is to fish a lure in one of the most primitive ways of all: simply bounce it up and down underneath the boat.

Vertical jigging is a tactic that's often overlooked, but it can be deadly. It's especially effective when you have walleyes located on the sonar or are fishing a specific piece of structure and know you are likely working your lure right in front of the quarry's face.

Winter and summer are especially good times for vertical jigging. Not only are the fish often concentrated at these times, they're generally in deep water. That's where vertical jigging shines because you can get right over the quarry without spooking it.

One of the best lures for vertical jigging is a slab spoon such as the Hopkins. A good weight is l/2 to 1 ounce. Other offerings that can be used are specialty walleye jigs, lipless crankbaits and blade lures.

Once you are on top of a defined piece of structure or have fish located on the sonar, lower the lure down until it hits the bottom and then reel it up a foot or two. If the walleyes are suspended, lower the lure to the depth at which you've pinpointed them.

Lift the rod up sharply 6 to 24 inches, and then lower it down just fast enough so the lure falls freely but no slack forms in the line. Strikes typically come when the lure is falling, so you don't want to lower the rod too quickly or you'll miss the delicate takes.

Sometimes you may feel a slight tap or knock. At other times the line may simply stop falling or veer sideways. Then again, you may simply feel an odd weight. If anything like this takes place, set the hook with a sharp snap of the rod.

Fish an area thoroughly at several depth levels. If nothing strikes, move to a fresh location.

DRIFT-FISHING

WITH LIVE BAIT

One of my favorite tactics for catching walleyes in lakes is drift-fishing with live bait. Use this tactic on points, reefs, flats, bars and sunken islands. It can pay off handsomely in slow sections of rivers as well.

The Lindy rig is a time-proven live-bait setup. It consists of a specially designed sinker that slips on the main line ahead of a swivel, followed by a leader and a small hook with bait on it. That can mean a leech, night crawler or minnow. The leader can vary from 3 feet to 8 feet, depending on how spooky the fish are.

If you know that you're showing your lure to fish that aren't cooperating, consider tipping it with a leech, a piece of a night crawler, a minnow or another natural offering.

Sometimes instead of using a plain bait hook, it pays to use a floating jighead to attach your offering to. This keeps it suspended off the bottom behind the sinker where it's more visible to the fish. You also can buy rigs with a small float threaded on the leader but separated from the hook to suspend the bait. Still another option is to use a worm blower to inject air into night crawlers.

Drifting is the simplest way to present this offering to walleyes. Simply let the breeze push you along, adjusting the amount of weight you need according to the depth of the water you're fishing and the strength of the wind.

At times, though, the wind speed won't be just right. It may be too strong or not blowing enough. That's the time to try backtrolling. Use the electric motor in reverse and work over dropoffs, weedlines, points, flats, reefs and other likely walleye hangouts.

Using the motor in reverse lets you control the boat precisely and keeps the speed slow so you can present your offering at the snail's pace walleyes usually prefer. Make sure the sinker maintains bottom contact and even shift into neutral or turn off the motor every now and then to allow the bait to pause, which can often trigger a strike. Use a marker buoy if you hook a fish, then re-troll or drift through the pay dirt zone.

SLIP-BOBBER FISHING

Sometimes when walleyes don't want a trolled lure, vertically-jigged offering, cast jig or even a live bait drifted on a Lindy rig, it's time for the final ace in the hole. A little-used but deadly walleye technique, slip-bobber fishing is the ultimate finesse tactic for marble-eyes.

Use a free-sliding float and small plastic bead plus an adjustable stop on the line that's small enough to go through the rod's line guides. This way you can adjust the float for any depth and cast it easily -- even if fish are hanging 18 feet deep.

On the terminal end attach a small split shot and size 2 to 6 bait hook with a minnow, night crawler or leech. Alternately, you can use a 1/16- to 1/32-ounce jig tipped with one of these offerings.

It's easy to make your own bobber stop. Simply tie a knot or two on the monofilament with a small rubber band or piece of Dacron and clip the ends. Alternately, you can buy bobber stops from walleye specialty companies.

Use enough split shot so the float barely suspends above the water and finicky walleyes can sink the bobber with the slightest nibble.

The reason slip-bobber fishing is so deadly is that you can leave your offering over the spot where you know walleyes are for a long period until you entice them into striking. It's a terrific method for points, reefs, flats and the edge of islands and weedlines where fish are stacked up tightly but not in an aggressive mood. It's also a good tactic to turn to when snags are a problem, since your bait hovers off the bottom above the potential hook-snaring brush and rocks.

A bit of experimenting may be requir

ed until you get the right depth so the bait is hanging just off the lake floor for optimum results. Adjust the stop until the float sits on its side, indicating it's on the bottom. Then move it down a few inches until it just barely floats the bait. That's usually the payoff zone, but sometimes the fish will suspend and you may need it 5 or 10 feet above the bottom. Experimenting is the key.

This is a technique best reserved for spots where you know walleyes are going to be concentrated or where you've seen them on the sonar. It's a slow method and you want to be sure you're presenting your offering in front of fish before devoting a lot of time to the tactic.

Drift the boat over the potential areas carefully until you've probed every likely hangout. You can even twitch the bait occasionally if you feel fish are there but just not striking. Adding that extra movement is often enough to get a stubborn walleye to smack the offering.

* * *

Keep these five ploys in your arsenal and I'll wager at least a couple of them will produce on any given day on your favorite walleye waters.

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