There's a time and place when slip-bobbers are the most effective weapon in your arsenal. It's a great way to offer walleyes some meat!
Live bait presented at a precise depth under a slip-bobber is too much for walleyes to resist. Photo by Noel Vick
Fishing guide Brian Brosdahl tells of a trip when he challenged conventional wisdom and ditched the jig in favor of a float.
"We were catching walleyes in a trough between the facing sides of two humps," says Brosdahl. "The fish were stacked up pretty good, too, but they were spooky. I didn't mark a single fish, but we caught them anyway. Just the sight and sound of my boat passing over must have scared them, so we hovered away but within casting distance of the hot zone and pitched jigs and minnows.
"Trying to hold the boat in position got awfully tiring, though, so I decided to anchor upwind of the spot and throw from there. My clients continued to catch fish, but for the sake of experimentation, I switched to a slip-bobber and minnows - the biggest minnows in the bucket. The fish were all over those juicy redtails. After changing everyone to slip-bobbers we ended up with a 3- to 4-pound average. The fish just kept getting longer. And we topped the evening off with a 28-incher."
Brosdahl's story is mirrored by select others who fish floats in the fall, too. Commonly deemed a spring and summer presentation, slip-bobbers, applied aptly, are equally if not more effective when shoreline trees are turning from summertime green to flaming oranges and yellows.
The key traits of a slip-bobber presentation harmonize ideally with fall walleye behavior, especially "where" the fish elect to prowl. Fall finds walleyes in a box. In early autumn, the box is less defined, but its walls are escapable. As winter approaches, however, the walls begin closing in. Comfort zones are established. The surroundings become rather concise.
Through years of discovery, Brosdahl has been able to earmark tight-quartered and frequently inhabited spots. "Walleyes travel through these key spots, these feeding areas," Brosdahl says, "so you need to have bait there when they pass through. You can't always chase 'em. In the fall, it's smarter to let them come to you."
Brosdahl refers to these crucial positions as "cycling spots," basically kill sites where walleyes assemble and feed like vultures on carrion, and once satisfied, regroup and mobilize.
Brosdahl notches the coordinates of each and every "fishy spot" he happens into, and his handheld GPS teems with "food shelves."
"Food shelves are flat areas between two steeper grades where walleyes can slide up, or down, to feed, and blow out when the deed is done," explained Brosdahl. "Say a bar tops out at 12 feet and drops to 40 or 50 feet down its sides. Along one edge you find a 20-foot-deep step, a flat area. That's a food shelf. That's a restaurant with a Friday fish special."
The girth of a shelf can vary greatly, too. "Some are just slivers, making them tough to hit with anything other than a slip-bobber," says Brosdahl.
Saddles provide another practicable target for fall walleyes. Such dimples between two or more structures act as causeways for roving pods of walleyes. In the fall, Brosdahl often settles amid neighboring rockpiles, a point and a pile, a pair of islands, or any combination thereof.
Said funnels aren't necessarily eternal holding areas, either, but rather fly-by positions that are hit by multiple gangs of fish. With that in mind, it's wisest to camp on a promising or proven spot with a slip-bobber as opposed to tracking around the structure, playing "catch me if you can." You'll lose that affair.
Deep weedlines fashion another runway. Brosdahl gives special credence to "a good, deep edge of greens that has survived turnover." Typically on northern lakes, such weedbeds are composed of cabbage and/or coontail. It's not automatically the size of the pasture that dictates its capabilities, either. Brosdahl claims that positive results have more to do with "bushiness," or how foliated the weeds are. In fact, his most bountiful beds are often dwarfish and secluded clumps over an otherwise barren bottom.
It's been established that spots can be, and often are, strategic. Strikes must be surgical. Given that, there's no finer instrument for hitting a finite target than a slip-bobber. But accuracy isn't the package's only attribute. There's the depth factor. Whether your walleyes are on hellfire missions in the shallows or pinned to the basin, they're reachable.
The chill and change of fall also provokes bigger fish to accelerate feeding, including those blobby females we love to catch and release. They tend to dine more, choosing larger fare, too, but aren't willing to fin fast to capture it.
Brosdahl is keen on the way "a big minnow lumbers under a bobber," and so, too, are his walleyes. They like the meatiness and ease of ensnarement of them, not to mention the minnow's down-to-earth realism in the demanding crystalline waters of autumn.
Brosdahl is partial to fat minnows. He likes a burly and animated redtail chub, creek chub, sucker, shiner and even a fathead if it's fair-skinned and exceptionally large.
In most instances, he lip-hooks - chin to snout - the minnow with a No. 4 circle hook. Lip-hooking yields the minnow a little swim range. The circle hook is a progressive fishing tool that, as Brosdahl says, "minimizes gut-hooking and eliminates the guesswork of when to - and not to - set the hook."
If experimenting with a circle hook isn't your bag, simply substitute a No. 4 salmon- or octopus-style hook.
In certain situations, like during an oppressive cold front, the bite can evaporate in a twinkle. If it does, downsizing is in order. Brosdahl scales back to a No. 6 hook and smaller minnows. And instead of lip-hooking, he reverts to a single pierce beneath the dorsal fin. If that's still too much of a meal, he'll "hobble" the bait by clipping its tail fin.
The minnow's "liveliness" can also be governed by how the sinkers are spaced. With large and forceful minnows, like redtails or suckers, Brosdahl pinches shot only four to eight inches above the hook to limit the bait's freedom. The same goes for minnows of all breeds and bulks when the walleyes aren't cooperating whatsoever.
Some folks employ a jighead instead of a plain hook, thus integrating minnow restriction and attractive colors and/or patterns into the business end. Brosdahl usually doesn't, though. By isolating the weight and hook, he's able
to handpick a sharp hook of the exact size and style that circumstances warrant. Plain hooks are also easier for a walleye to inhale and are less likely to be spit out.
There are means for adding dashes of appeal to an otherwise "brown bag" minnow. Brosdahl uses painted shot, like Northland's Hot-Spot Split Shot. Threading a couple of colored beads on the line before tying up adds pizzazz as well. In lowlight conditions, miniature Kailume glow-in-the-dark sticks can summon walleyes like moths to a floodlight.
Slip-bobber selection is pretty subjective. Historically, though, mid- to large-sized pencil-style floats are preeminent in walleye waters. The slender physique helps carve through waves, holding the presentation in place for prolonged periods. The supplementary height improves visibility in oft-choppy autumn conditions, too. And fear not the float's overall size. Even a monstrous float can be weighted to plunge under the pressure from a small walleye.
As a rule, use a little more weight when it's flat and lessen the load when the wind whips up. If you don't, that slip-bobber is going get swamped, making it impossible to visibly detect a strike. Keel-weighted floats are a viable option, too. Today's Tackle builds the Wave Buster Bobber, which is a weighted pencil-style float that's specifically engineered to buck waves and be cast for distance.
Brosdahl concludes the conversation with a discourse on boat positioning. Being a guide who often anchors up with a boatload of clients, he understands the importance of proper boat placement.
"If you don't own large and multiple anchors, do so," he says while pointing to the 20-pounder in the bow of his vessel. That hunk of oxidized steel is tethered with 100 feet of rope and teamed with a less considerable anchor, which is situated in the stern. The rear load helps keep the boat from swinging like a pendulum.
Brosdahl anchors upwind of his objective - if breezes exist - and saddles up as close as possible. In deep water, say over 15 feet, he secures the craft no farther than 20 feet from the target, camping directly overhead if it's 25 feet deep or greater. Conversely, in shallow water, Brosdahl remains at least 40 feet away - 50 or 60 if fish seem especially unnerved by his presence. In autumn, the water can be very clear, which flies in the face of stealth.
Oh, and I left out what some might consider the finest quality of slip-bobber fishing. It's a relaxing activity. During an interlude marked by waves that cup and curl, and icy gales, fishing from a fixed position is a welcomed notion. Your fingers and toes will thank you.