When it comes to catching wary spring walleyes, the ace in your hand is the jig-and-minnow combo. Here's how you can use this tested tactic to put more marble-eyes in the boat!
Experimenting with jig color and minnow size can help you catch walleyes. This brute smacked a purple jig.
Photo by Kenny Darwin.
Fishing for spring walleyes can be like gambling — one day, the action is red-hot, and the next, your hand is cold. That's when wise spring anglers rely on a jig and live bait minnow combo to guarantee success. It's like stacking the deck, almost guaranteeing fishing success and coming up aces when you ply bottom with the "tried-and-tested" jig and a live minnow.
From early April until May throughout North America, walleyes are shallower than most anglers think, making spawning migrations in rivers, streams and lakes in search of gravel bars with ideal pebbles for laying eggs. When spawning peaks, the activity finds walleyes more crowded than gamblers surrounding the craps table as females, sides bulging with roe, are brushed by males spewing milt during courtship. Most spawning takes place soon after ice-out, when water temperatures rise to the 40-degree mark. This is cold water, and although fish are lethargic, walleyes are on the prowl for an easy meal and fall prey to the seductive swimming action of a lip-hooked minnow. When water temperatures rise to the 50-degree mark, it is time to replace the minnow with a live crawler or plastics.
Fundamental to solving any fishing situation is to pick a jig that matches the water conditions. It must move along bottom at the right speed or retrieve. The trick to catching limits is working bottom at the correct speed and dancing the jig with the correct cadence. Walleyes are hugging bottom, many times so close to sand, gravel or rock that their fins are touching the loosestrife. Hot luck awaits savvy anglers that keep jig offerings within inches of bottom. Limit catches come to those who swim, dance and twitch presentations off the hard-bottom structure. There is something powerfully attractive about a minnow pulsating along bottom, twitching upward and falling to bottom with a solid thud that sends a cloud of sand or bottom debris upward, that mimics a baitfish feeding on bottom. The movement, sound and attractive colors draw cold predatory fish like a magnet. In water, use a slow jigging style with a long pause between lifting the rod tip about 6 inches, but as temperatures warm, you can use a more aggressive rod twitching action. Once you hit on the correct cadence, you can tinker with switching colors, jig sizes and retrieve speeds to further improve your catch.
One common situation in shallow lakes or reservoirs, rivers and streams is that walleyes push up close to shore to spawn and feed. Best shorelines are lipped, instead of having a gradual slope from shore to deep water. Walleyes patrol within 60 feet of the lip but are often on top of the lip in 5 or 6 feet of water during late evening, morning and during overcast weather.
Fish tend to concentrate over rock or gravel bars at night. Catching shallow-water 'eyes requires a stealthy approach. Sneak along the shore or use an electric motor to get within casting distance. Use relatively light line, 6- to 8-pound mono on a medium-action spinning outfit, tipped with a 1/8-ounce jig and live minnow. Cast the offering past the spawning fish, so the plop of the jig hitting the calm surface does not spook them, and hop the jig along bottom by lifting the rod tip a foot and reeling slack line. The idea is to place the live minnow within kissin' distance of cold-water bottom-hugging walleyes and evoke solid strikes.
"The great feel and control you get with jigs is important in all water types," says tournament walleye World Champion Mark Martin. "Consider water clarity and the ability of jigs tipped with minnows to work on a walleye's visual sense in stained to clear water conditions. Most anglers don't realize how well walleyes can see, and jigs provide enough action to trigger strikes because sight plays a major role in feeding."
"One deadly spring method is vertical jigging with jigs," explains Martin. "You use an electric motor to keep jigs straight below your boat as you bounce minnow presentations along bottom. This tactic is deadly in deep rivers, along windblown points or stained water where the boat does not spook fish.
"I've used vertical jigging to catch walleyes along steep dropoffs, near river outlets, around sunken islands and to work riprap or rock-covered bars and along boulders. Jigs are the perfect presentation where there is current near dams, spillways or in deep rivers," said Martin. "My favorite way to place a minnow on a jig is to go through the mouth with the hook, thread through the gill, push the minnow up the jig until the mouth is at the round ball, turn the hook point and run it up through the belly until it comes out the back."
Perhaps the most critical facet of live-bait fishing is to use lively minnows. Keep them in fresh, aerated water to maintain their color. Dead minnows lose color (and) texture and, most importantly, lack the critical body movements that attract walleyes. A struggling minnow on a jig gives off flash, vibration and enticing twitches that mimic a struggling forage fish that is easy prey.
Try anchoring and casting for shallow fish. Place your boat above likely river hideouts and cast 1/8- to 1/4-ounce jigs tipped with minnows downstream. Allow the jig to reach bottom and move the rig upstream in short hops, about 1 1/2 turns of the spinning reel handle. Walleyes see the presentation darting upstream and will slide behind the offering, get a smell of the minnow and their instincts take over, causing savage strikes. Other times, you can anchor in a lake and cast to the shallows, work dropoffs or bounce jigs through rock-strewn habitat.
The debate rages on regarding which minnow is the hottest bait for April walleyes. Some anglers prefer perch or crappie shiners, while others want a blue, gray, red tail or spottail. Those using a slow presentation cherish fat heads that stay lively under almost any condition. Smaller minnows work in clear-water situations and can be a good match with 1/8-ounce jigs. The average walleye bait needs to be about 3 inches long, although those hunting trophy fish tend to use minnows as long as 5 inches. It is a solid bet you will catch more fish using minnows native to your local waters.
Walleyes love brightly colored jigs. The hottest color going is chartreuse, with lime green coming in second place. Glow can be the ticket after dark, and silver is perfect for bright, sunny weather. If fish are spooky, try switching to more neutral colors like brown, green or pumpkin with black.