Vertical jigging is probably the most productive technique for walleye fishing, but high winds or rains that dirty the water can put the fish off the jig bite. When water conditions change for the worse, try trolling near bottom. Use a three-way swivel and tie a sinker on a 6- to 12-inch dropper, or use a bottom-bouncing rig and trail a floating/diving minnow. Troll upstream and cross-current.
Three-way swivels allow you to double your trolling offerings. Attach a deep-diving crankbait to a 2-to 3-foot leader tied to the bottom of the swivel. Then add to the top of the swivel a leader twice as long as the other and a floating/diving minnow-style bait or a light, thin spoon. When putting the baits out, drop the deep-diver in the water first and let it start diving before letting go of the second leader. This will keep them from tangling and ensure a proper presentation of both baits.
Trolling spoons is an effective way to catch walleye, but getting them deep enough can be a challenge. Use the same techniques that big-water salmon anglers employ to attain appropriate depth—downriggers, snap weights, in-line sinkers, diving planers or lead-core line. Walleye are often gear shy, so increase the length of the leader off a lead-core line or the distance behind the cannonball on a downrigger. Fluorocarbon leaders will help, but be careful, as they have no stretch.
DOWNSIZE THE BAIT
One of the toughest times to catch walleye is during a significant mayfly hatch. To increase your odds, use what guides call a mayfly rig—a small spinner with a portion of a night crawler on a small hook. Cast the rig out and count it down, then retrieve it slowly, experimenting with depth until you find the strike zone; walleyes often hit mayflies as they’re on their way to the surface to emerge. Keep the rig small; mayfly larvae are rarely longer than an inch.
The rule of thumb for jigging is to use minnows in cold water and night crawlers, leeches or soft-plastics as the water warms. BUT you’re making a mistake if you don’t take all types of live bait with you. Although leeches and crawlers may be hard to find in the fall, they’ll sometimes out produce minnows in cold water, especially if it’s dirty. Other times, even in the heat of the summer, fish want minnows more than other offerings.
HIT THE WHOLE COLUMN
Walleye fishermen usually concentrate on the bottom, but often the most active fish are suspended in the water column. When trolling, vary the depth of your offerings by changing your diving bait or adding weight to your lines if trolling with spinner rigs. Sometimes the ‘eyes are out on the prowl, foraging on minnows or shad that are schooled somewhere between the top and bottom. Watch your depth finder for clues to their whereabouts and fish accordingly.
JIG A PLUG
Spice up your jigging offering by substituting a chatter bait—such as a Rat-L-Trap—for a spoon. Cast it out, let it drop to the bottom, then yo-yo it back to the boat. Don’t snap it up as high as you would a spoon, as the hooks can foul on the line. Rattling baits fall more slowly than spoons, but you can fix that by adding a slip sinker to your line before you tie on the bait. The extra weight tightens the plug’s wobble on the fall.
WORK THE SHALLOWS
Most walleye anglers concentrate on moderate to deep water, but there are fish in shallow water that are generally ignored. This is especially true during periods of high water when the predators move shallow to forage. Jigs tipped with live bait produce in the weeds, often in water not much deeper than a walleye’s back. Jig spoons near cover. Night crawlers on harnesses with spinners work when cast around the edges and in cuts, but they’re tough to fish in thick stands of vegetation.
One of the toughest bites walleye anglers face is immediately after a weather front passes. With a high, clear sky, the fish often sulk in the depths. The key is to concentrate on deep water structure and fish with live bait, either slowly trolling or drifting around humps and break lines, usually right where the bottom begins to flatten out.
Planer boards that carry lures or bait away from the boat are especially important in ultra clear water. Anglers who troll many lines usually use large boards that are tethered to the boat, and they clip their lines to the tether line. Anglers in small boats can easily fish up to three lines per side with small in-line planers. The key is to set the far-running lines first and position those rods closest to the bow; set near-running lines last and toward the stern. Allow more line out before you attach the outside boards, so the baits trail farther behind the boat. That will let you reel in fish on an outside line without getting tangled.
LOWER A LEECH
Leeches are a terrific bait for walleyes, especially when presented on slip bobbers or jigs. To make them easier to grip, carry a rag or rub them against your pant leg to remove some of the slime. When hooking them, insert the point of the hook into their suction cup—this will let them swim freely instead of balling up on the hook. Keep the leeches in some sort of container in the live well to acclimate them to the lake temperature before you bait up.
LURK, DON’T JERK
Floating/diving minnow lures are known as “jerk baits” because they’re fished with a dramatic, erratic action. A quieter retrieve is often more productive for walleye, which tend to trail baits rather than simply lunging and striking. Neutrally buoyant baits are especially suited to walleye, as they sit still or rise ever so slowly when you stop working the bait. Walleyes take these lures during a pause in the action, so stop your retrieve often.
GIVE ‘EM OPTIONS
When it comes to trolling with artificial lures, increase your odds by adding soft-plastic trailers to your crank baits. Use small twister-tail grubs or short plastic worms. Attach a 2- to 3-foot length of monofilament to the back hook of the crank baits, tie on a hook and attach the grub. Make sure the hook is exposed, and if you’re using a worm, run the hook through at least three quarters of the soft-plastic; that way you won’t miss short-striking fish. Don’t add any weight to the leader or you’ll interfere with the crank bait’s action. And use opposite colors when trailing crank baits—dark grubs with light-colored plugs and vice versa.
TRY A NO-SLIDE BAIT
When jigging with live bait, try adding a piece of plastic to the hook shank. A body from a grub or a section of plastic worm helps keep the bait on the aft end of the jig and prevents it from sliding up the hook shank. That way, when a walleye grabs the bait, it’ll also get ahold of the hook.
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