Use these expert tips to "beat the bushes" to catch more walleyes this summer!
By Jim Edlund
Drop an underwater camera into submerged wood and the scene is often vibrant with life.
From wood-clinging brine shrimp to minnows to young-of-the-year perch, or alewives flittering about the branches of deep cottonwoods, wood-laden areas provide food and concealment for all kinds of aquatic creatures.
But there are devils in these woodpiles — predators with optimized visual acuity for feeding in low-light. You got it: walleyes.
FINDING GOOD WOOD
Chances are you've caught largemouth bass or catfish around visible wood like brush, stumps, dead-heads, and laydowns. And yes, many of these same spots can hold walleyes. But, more often than not, the best walleye wood is stuff you can't see with the naked eye.
So, what's the best way to find good walleye wood? Savvy anglers spend a lot of time surveying waters with today's high-tech electronics — some combination of advanced CHIRP sonar, down- and side-looking technologies, HD lake mapping, and new 3D sonar technologies. They're not only looking for the presence of wood, but it's relation to current, depth breaks, bottom hardness transitions, vegetation — and most importantly, the presence of bait.
The 2017 MWC World Walleye Championship winner, Tommy Skarlis, relies on tandem Raymarine Axiom units to locate fish-holding wood.
"I use my Navionics mapping to reveal creek channels and set my SideVision to look 30 to 60 feet out on each side of the boat. I'm looking for outside turns with harder bottom, sandy inside turns with slowly tapering flats, as well as points, intersecting creeks, and fence lines — all areas where you can find wood on rivers and reservoirs. SideVision is critical for finding the stuff you can't see. I'm looking for a combination of wood and baitfish — then I put my bait between the cover and the food. It's that simple."
Walleye guide Jason Mitchell is another angler who utilizes today's electronics for finding wood walleyes. Doctor Sonar map chips — which allow historical aerial photo overlays onto depth contours — help Mitchell survey once-dry areas now under water. Shelter belts, old farmsteads, and hills lined with brush are common targets.
"Then I look for the wood that creates the most shadowing on my Lowrance SideScan screen. The more shadows, typically the more walleyes there will be. Mix in a little rock, maybe weeds, and you've got a good spot," Mitchell says.
PITCHING JIGS & SLIP FLOAT RIGS
Despite hang-ups, jigging is an extremely effective way to catch wood walleyes.
"Too many anglers are worried about losing a couple dollars in jigs," says walleye pro Skarlis. "Too bad, they're missing out on a lot of fish."
Skarlis' recommendations? First, fish a "heavier than normal" jig in the 3/8-, 1/2- and 3/4-ounce range.
"If your jig gets stuck, a lot of times you can pendulum it out with a couple rod shakes. I also step up to 17-pound monofilament over braid. It doesn't saw into wood and get jig eyelets stuck; also it has the strength to get big fish out. Lastly, I pour my own jigs with Do-It Molds so I can use a light-wire hook and wire guard. If you don't want to pour your own, Hutch's Jigs are hard to beat."
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Tournament angler and guide Brian Woodward is another accomplished wood walleye angler who excels at extracting walleyes from skinny-water timber in the 2- to 8-foot realm.
"When water's coming up, the fish go shallow after the abundance of new life — bug life brings in bait, and walleyes in turn. If I have the option, I'm going to toss slip bobbers to the bases of trees, letting the leech fall slowly, spending 15 to 30 minutes fan-casting trees in a given area. Sometimes we'll tie the boat off on a tree when we find a pod of fish. And in some areas where the wind blows in, I'll utilize my Minn Kota Spot-Lock to stay put. And when water temps are up, I'll swim the slip bobber rig slowly back to the boat to cover more water. Especially when fishing with clients, nothing beats watching a bobber go down."
Regardless of depth, Woodward sets his bobber stop to keep the bait pinned a foot off bottom, whether he's in 2 feet or 10 feet. Rod-wise, Woodward prefers 7-foot medium-power, moderate- to fast-action spinning rods and reels spooled with 10- or 15-pound Sufix 832 superline with an 18-inch section of 6- or 8-pound fluorocarbon leader attached to the main line via a barrel swivel. To that, he ties a 1/16- or 1/8-ounce Northland Neon RZ jig head, typically white or firetiger, giving him both ends of the color continuum.
But throw an upcoming tournament into the mix and everything changes.
"When pre-fishing I don't even mess around with live bait. I'm using soft plastics to cover water faster. And over the years I've transitioned from 1/8- to 1/4-ounce jig heads, which I can fish more aggressively and target active fish. You can cover more water with the heavier jig. I keep the Power Grubs pretty straight-forward — variations of white or chartreuse."
His other mainstay is pitching paddletails like a Berkley Havoc Grass Pig or Zoom Swimmin' Super Fluke on 1/4-ounce Northland Neon RZ jig heads. "There again, white or firetiger are my favorite jig head colors," he said, "and in the plastics I like Zoom's white ice or pearl blue...white for the Grass Pigs."
He pitches into small openings, casting underhand from the boat bow. "Most of these spots look like alley-ways in the wood. Some are literally flooded game trails or underwater camp spots. A lot of times, you've got fallen timber and weeds and patches of willow bushes in front of these spots. With twister tails I'm letting the bait drop, then swimming it with occasional lifts. I fish paddletails with more of a vertical pop and short hops back to the boat that mimic how baitfish feed, dropping to the bottom and swimming back up."
Woodward swears by light mono even in thick cover. "I like 6-pound Stren mono in high-vis gold. I get a lot better feel — sometimes the fish are sucking it in and running with it. The advantage of the high-vis gold is you can see the line bounce before you ever feel a bite. They'll be swimming toward the boat, so you have to reel and set the hook at the same time. The line really increases the hook up and landing percentage. And I don't mind losing jigs; they're cheap. You either break off or go in and get it. I catch a lot more fish by being able to see line movement and having a good bit of mono's stretch."
Robert Blosser: Go-To Search Bait for Walleyes
Walleye guide Mitchell says that while it's hard to beat slip bobbering or pitching swimbaits for numbers, he catches bigger walleyes on deep-diving cranks, by crashing through timber looking for big reaction bites.
The routine requires stout gear: a 7-foot medium-heavy to heavy, power flipping stick and baitcaster combo spooled with heavy braid and a 12- to 14-inch section of 35-pound Knot2Kinky nickel-titanium leader.
"I tie my main line directly to the Knot2Kinky loop knot so I can reel right up to the crankbait and yank it out of wood if I can't pop it out," Mitchell says. "Also prevents pike bite-offs."
To reduce snags, Mitchell removes the stock trebles from No. 6 H6F Salmo Hornets and No. 6 Salmo Super Deep Runner Bullheads, his "go-to" baits for crashing timber. He leaves the front hook off entirely and sizes up the rear two sizes with heavier Gamakatsu trebles, which resist bending and breaking in heavy cover and allow Mitchell to literally flip walleyes into the boat.
"Once I feel bottom or cover I crawl the crank to avoid snagging. Then, if I do lose bottom, I snap the rod tip down again and keep feeling my way through the wood," he explained. "Mentally, the hardest part is sticking to a slow roll. If you bump into something, let the bait float up a bit, and if it snags, pop it. Kind of like bass guys fishing square bill cranks — this is when you're going to get bit."
Do yourself a favor and spend some time fishing walleyes outside the comfort zone this season. Forget what you did last year, last week, yesterday — and survey some new areas of your favorite walleye rivers, reservoirs, and lakes. Study your maps and get out and survey, dropping waypoints on brush, submerged timber, and other woody areas. In some places you won't even need electronics — just a pair of polarized sunglasses!
Also make sure to monitor rainfall and check out newly-flooded areas. High-water river walleye fishing can be extraordinary — and just as effective from the bank. For example, flooded willow bushes are a baitfish and walleye magnet. Don't overthink it — a slip bobber rod and some live bait, a pitching stick, some jig heads and soft plastics, and you're in business!