Bass pattern walleyes: nontraditional ways to catch more 'eyes.
"IT'S ANOTHER WALLEYE!" CANADIAN ANGLING ACE ALEX KESZLER LAMENTED, AS HE LANDED THE LATEST IN A STRING OF INCIDENTAL MARBLE--EYES. I WAS WITHIN EARSHOT AS WE SEARCHED SHALLOW STRUCTURE FOR SMALLMOUTHS DURING AN EARLY-SEASON BASS TOURNAMENT IN NORTHWESTERN ONTARIO. ECHOING ACROSS THE WATER, HIS WORDS OFFERED YET ANOTHER REMINDER OF HOW DEADLY TRADITIONAL BASS PATTERNS CAN BE FOR WALLEYES ON MANY WATERS THROUGHOUT NORTH AMERICA.
And there's no better time than the present to tap the "bass bite." Predictable early-season walleye movements in most systems lead them to shallow water where the fish are more susceptible to artificial baits and, in many cases, bass techniques, than any other time of the year.
In fact, as water temperatures climb into the mid-50[degrees]Fs and beyond, posts-pawn walleyes begin to put on the feedbag, and you can take advantage of some of the season's hottest bites using tactics developed for largemouths and smallies.
Such methods shine in situations that commonly hold walleyes during the postspawn time frame. On natural lakes, the first weeds to pop up are walleye magnets. Often, these are clumps of cabbage (broadleaf pondweeds).
Points and bars leading out of main spawning areas are also worth checking. On rivers, walleyes often avoid the wrath of heavy current in the main channel and hole up in protected areas that offer clear water and plenty of forage. In such situations, the following bass techniques excel for early 'eyes.
Traditional thin-bodied walleye crankbaits like the Rapala Shad Rap, Tail Dancer, and Cotton Cordell Wally Diver are solid performers--but right now is a also great time to fish fat-bodied baits more at home in a bass angler's tacklebox. Members of the Rapala DT (Dives-To) Series, plus Rapala Fat Raps, Salmo Hornets, and Lucky Craft Flat CBs, are just a few of the many tat cranks that catch walleyes in shallow water.
Longtime In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail (PWT) pro Tom Kemos of Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, believes these beefy baits are an overlooked option for river walleyes now, especially in shallow water.
"I cast lures like the Rapala DT06 when I'm fishing wing dams, closing dams, and shoreline riprap," he says. "They deflect nicely off snags, which is important in river fishing: they do a good job of emulating shad and crayfish; and they cast like missiles on baitcasting gear--typically 14-pound Sufix Siege monofilament with a 7-foot St. Croix Legend Big Cranker rod. Fat baits also displace more water than thin baits, which helps walleyes zero in on them in low-visibility river situations. Most have internal rattles, too. further enhancing their attraction."
Fellow PWT veteran Scott Fairbairn is also a DT fan. especially in systems where shad are the main entree on the walleye menu.
"Shad Rap-type lure designs border on having the right profile in these fisheries." he says. "But stepping up to bass baits like the DT series or Fat Raps can produce more strikes thanks to the extra vibration. I've had good bites on crossover baits, too--namely the DT Flat series, which have a shad profile but are a little bit thinner than the DT baits. Their profile and action are unique and can provoke strikes from walleyes that have watched a parade of more traditional cranks."
Keszler, of Winnipeg, has been extraordinarily successful in bass and walleye tournaments throughout his home province of Manitoba and across northwestern Ontario. He remembers the first time he put a DT Flat series bait in the water while prefishing a walleye tournament on the Winnipeg River at Minaki.
"Right off the bat I said, 'Now, there's a bass bait that will catch walleyes' and boy was I right," he recalls. "These coffin-lipped baits get down fast and are extremely efficient at fishing precise spots. You don't have to worry much about snagging, either, because they're designed to lift at the rear when they contact bottom. This does two things: It prevents snags, and leads to better hookups on fish.
"I know we're talking about casting here--and they excel at that--but they're also good trolling baits," he adds. "Because they dive so fast, you don't have to let out much line, and this enables you to troll with precision over drop-offs or along a weededge. I like to fish these baits on 10-pound FireLine, which further enhances their diving capabilities."
Park Rapids, Minnesota, guide Jason Durham has found similar success with fat-bodied bass baits, and justifies their use because of the large panfish populations on many of the waters he fishes. "I've often thought such baits emulate small sunfish or crappies because of their squatty profile, but I rarely see these species in the bellies of walleyes I clean--so maybe the bites are generated by the heavy vibrations. Personally, I like Salmo Hornets, which have a compact profile and a sweet wobble. They also do a good job of running through sparse early-season weeds without fouling."
I spend a significant amount of time guiding for walleyes on the Canadian side of Lake of the Woods early in the season--so I can cover my entry fees to fish bass tournaments all summer--and have enjoyed predictable bites in recent years using the DT series baits as well, specifically the DT06.
One pet pattern hinges on weeds and wind. On typical Canadian Shield waters, beaches are a dead giveaway for locating cabbage--often a key to walleye location in late May and early June. If you get the right breeze blowing into the beach, casting crankbaits will out-produce everything else. It's worth noting that the right tackle is critical. I like the 14-pound Sufix Siege that Kemos suggested, spooled on a 5.0:1 Shimano Curado 200 reel with a 7-foot medium-light CRSCX70ML Shimano Crucial Crankbait rod. The rod's soft action lets walleyes suck in the bait, and helps keep hooks from tearing out during the fight.
Several years ago I watched In-Fisherman Field Editor Gord Pyzer give a seminar, and he told the large crowd to try tubes for walleyes. I listened intently as Pyzer convinced the crowd that tubes are not just for bass, but can be effective walleye baits as well. Later, as I recalled all the walleyes I'd put in my boat on tube baits while bass fishing, I vowed to give tubes a fair shake the coining season. When I did, the results were even better than expected. Small wonder. Tubes are versatile and can be used to emulate many types of walleye forage, from crayfish to baitfish to small invertebrates like freshwater shrimp.
Guide Matt Johnson of the Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, area needs no convincing. He's enjoyed success on a variety of tube presentations--but remembers one pattern in particular. "My clients and I were using 1-inch Berkley Power Tubes for panfish one day," he says, "pitching them into pockets along a weedline. We happened into a pod of walleyes feeding on carp fry, and the small tubes were the perfect imitation. It was one of the hottest walleye bites I've seen."
Durham's a tube fan, too. "They mimic the appearance of a crayfish tucking in its claws and swimming backward to escape predators," he says. "When walleyes are feeding on juvenile crayfish, I rig a Northland Slurpies Panfish Tube on a 1/16-ounce jighead," he says. "You have to tune it by removing tentacles where necessary, to make sure the jig is aligned. If you don't, the tube twists your line. Windy conditions call for a bit larger baits, like the 3-inch Berkley Power Tube."
While looking for off-the-wall walleye bites on Lake Erie, Kemos has experimented with tubes as well. So far, the results are promising. "Walleyes eat gobies just like smallmouths do, and tubes are probably the best goby imitators," he says. While Kemos has nailed a fair number of walleyes on tubes, he admits the pattern needs further exploration--watch for updates.
The main reason many of these techniques are generally referred to as bass tactics is because of the ban on livebait in bass tournaments. Anglers are forced to be creative in how they present artificial baits, and have fine-tuned each of the following rigs to put their presentations in the strike zone. Fortunately for walleye anglers, each of these delivery options also produces white-tips.
Drop-shotting--Although the tactic has not seen widespread use in the walleye world, there are some exceptions. Says Fairbairn, "In places like Devils Lake, North Dakota, where it is legal to have two baits on one line, drop-shotting can be deadly. At Devils, which experienced a dramatic rise in water levels in the 1990s, a significant amount of flooded timber hosts large numbers of walleyes. While slipbobbering is probably the most common method for fishing the wood, some walleye anglers combine drop-shotting with bobbers--using a heavier jighead as the weight--so softbaits can be presented in two different positions."
Keszler agrees that in waters where the law allows two separate hooks on one line, drop-shotting is a top option. "Replace the drop-shot sinker bass guys typically use with a leadhead like a Northland Fire-Ball or Whistler Jig," he advises. "Usually a 1/4-ounce jig works best, but I bump up to 3/8-ounce when I really want to dissect a particular weed pocket--the heavier jighead gives you more accuracy." Keszler keeps the jig 2 to 3 feet below the hook, typically a #4 Gamakatsu Aberdeen. "This lets me fish different baits at different depths simultaneously," he says. "I usually rig a Gulp! Minnow or Nightcrawler on the jig and a Gulp! Leech on the hook." Keszler favors 10-pound Berkley FireLine Crystal mainline with 100 Percent Fluorocarbon leader--8--pound test in open water and 10- or 12-pound in weeds.
Drop-shot rigs shine for fishing isolated structure like small rockpiles and weed clumps in lakes, or wing dams on rivers--basically any tight spot walleyes relate to early in the season, where they can be tempted to bite by hanging a bait in front of them for long periods of time.
Texas-Rigging--The most famous of all bass rigs, this setup can also pry walleyes from the weeds. Kemos, who used to fish bass tournaments before he became a touring walleye pro, has used them to exploit weed walleyes on some of Wisconsin's most heavily pressured systems.
"In lakes with heavy vegetation like milfoil, coontail, and cabbage, Texas rigs are an effective way to deliver plastics in a weedless presentation," he says.
The secret to it, he notes, is remembering that you are no longer finessing the fish. "I peg a l/2-ounce bullet sinker to a light-wire 1/0 VMC Wide Gap Riggin' Worm Hook (#7316) and thread on a 5-inch leech imitation, or cut a 10-inch ribbontail worm in half," he says. "A 7-foot medium-heavy baitcasting outfit spooled with 20-pound Sufix Performance Braid works well. I cover water quickly and probe as many pockets as possible to locate fish; once I get bit, I cover the area more thoroughly.
"The heavy weight quickly pulls the leech-imitator to the bottom, even through dense vegetation," he adds. "When it touches down, give it a couple of pumps and hang it about a foot off bottom for a few seconds, then reel up and try the next pocket. Remember, you're using plastic here, so set the hook right away when you get bit--there's no need to let them take it. That said, I've been impressed with Gulp! products for this technique; fish hold onto them longer than traditional plastic baits. Normark's new biodegradable, scent-enhanced Trigger-X softbaits are also an option."
ON THE DOCKSIDE
The walleye-loaded center section of Lake of the Woods has an abundance of exotic rusty crayfish. Abundant "rusties" have eliminated much of the vegetation, apparently leading walleyes to find other types of cover and structure early in the season. As a result, docks often hold big numbers of walleyes throughout the early summer period.
I happened onto this pattern while chasing smallmouths, but have since used it to my advantage with walleyes. They may not get way up under docks like bass do but relate to them nonetheless, especially the old crib-style docks popular in most Canadian waters. Cribs offer solid structure and attract many forage species walleyes prefer.
Be forewarned, every dock won't hold the mother lode. But in a line of, say, five docks along a shoreline, one will consistently attract walleyes. Experimentation and time on the water reveal the subtleties on which docks are most productive on a given lake. Factors ranging from the amount of human use to bottom content, depth, and proximity to drop-offs, points, or tributaries can all play a role. I pitch the edges of docks with a l/4-ounce Northland Mimic Minnow Jig tipped with a 3-inch Slurpies Swim'N Grub on the business end. White shad is my go-to color.
Kemos and Fairbairn have experienced firsthand the power of docks during their years on the tournament trail. Kemos acknowledges not all docks hold fish: "A dock is considered cover, and the shoreline the dock is connected to is considered structure. Find the right dock on the right piece of shoreline, and you hit the jackpot. For example, docks that cross a bottom transition or weedline are often better than nearby docks that don't. Windblown docks can also be productive. I locate prime docks by pitching jigs or cranks around the edges; when I find a good one I anchor up and let the current carry a leech or crawler, suspended under a float, underneath the dock."
Fairbairn concedes that docks are generally considered bass territory, but offers one significant exception. "When water levels rise to flood stage in river systems like the Mississippi, one of the best locations to begin a search for walleyes is in a marina," he says. "The raging waters of the main river can frustrate even the best walleye anglers, but marinas typically avoid the brunt of turbidity and excessive flow, while providing good walleye structure and, often, a baitfish buffet.
"Fishing docks along a marina's riprap banks can produce fish under extremely tough conditions," he continues. "In addition, marinas usually have drainage outlets positioned at various points, which usually provide an influx of cleaner water that attracts and congregates walleyes looking for a break from the dirty, flooded surroundings of the river." Yet another bass pattern that can put more walleyes in your boat this season.
BY JEFF GUSTAFSON *
* Jeff Gustafson (807/466-7102, gussyoutdoors.com) is a guide, competitive angler, and outdoor writer from Kenora, Ontario.
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|Article Type:||Cover story|
|Date:||May 1, 2009|
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