Forget jigging and trolling. Catch more and bigger walleye by casting lures
Gord PyzerIt’s a safe bet your favourite early-season walleye presentation involves trolling or vertical jigging. More than likely, you pull spinner rigs, crawler harnesses, crankbaits, jerkbaits or slow death hooks behind bottom bouncers, leadcore line and planer boards. Or, like legions of other anglers, you start—and finish—most days dropping jigs tipped with minnows, leeches, nightcrawlers or soft-plastics over the side of the boathere’s good reason to do all these things—namely, they work a lot of the time. The thing is, they don’t always produce, and that’s why you need to expand your repertoire to include casting. Before last summer was even half over, I caught more big walleye than in any five-year period, with 80 per cent of those fish caught by casting. There’s a whole host of reasons why casting for walleye routinely thrashes trolling and vertical jigging presentations, if you keep the following tips in mind.
Keep your distance
Parking a big, noisy boat a few feet above a school of walleye is sure to put the fish on guard, especially with the whirring livewell, pinging sonar units and whining electric trolling motor. At worse, it will spook the living daylights out of the fish and send them scurrying into deep water. The effect is exacerbated any time you find the fish in shallow or clear water.
Here’s a case in point. My most memorable day of walleye fishing last season happened during the last week of June, when the fish had fully recovered from the spring spawn and were greedily feeding in five to 10 feet of warm water. My grandson Liam (above) and I were stealthily cruising the shorelines, making long casts with Rapala X-Raps and Lucky Craft Pointers (below) for smallmouth bass, when the first of several 27-inch-plus walleye engulfed my lure.
As it turned out, the walleye were scattered along the shoreline, spread out in optimal 18°C knee- to waist-deep water in perfect low-light conditions, feasting on schools of finger-sized yellow perch. It was overcast and steaming hot and humid, and the water was dead calm. But by keeping our distance instead of trolling spinner rigs or crankbaits over the fish, they never knew we were there. We caught and released one gorgeous walleye after the other for the better part of an hour, with our best five fish approaching 35 pounds in total.
That’s a scenario that would play itself out more often than most walleye anglers think, if only they didn’t insist on moving in too closely to the fish to troll or vertically jig. If you hook a giant ’eye after making a long cast with a crankbait, jerkbait, swimbait or bucktail jig—I’ve even done well casting #4 Mepps spinners—why in the world would you put down your rod, move the boat on top of the fish and start trolling or vertical jigging?
Every fish you catch has a story to tell, and the one you just landed by casting in such a situation was informing you that he has buddies with him up shallow, and that they like the lure you’re throwing.
Work the wind
I should mention, too, that Liam and I found those easy-to-cast-to walleye under less than ideal conditions. For certain, the overcast skies and optimal early-summer water temperatures played right into our hands, but had there been a breeze blowing onto shore, we probably would have enjoyed a day of walleye fishing for the ages. Indeed, wind and waves roiling up the shallows is so important most days that it trumps every other factor. Even on the brightest, hottest days of midsummer, you can usually find shallow fish to cast to, as long as it’s windy.
Unfortunately, however, most walleye anglers are self-fulfilling creatures of incessant habit and miss out on such opportunities. Instead, when the day dawns bright and sunny and it’s unseasonably warm and windy, they envisage the bite to be tough. S,o they execute their game plan accordingly, fishing ever-smaller baits and lures in ever-deeper depths, on the protected, calm side of the lake. If only they’d let the wind push them to where they could easily reach the fish with a well-positioned cast.
That’s what I did with my good friend and Outdoor Canada food contributor Cameron Tait, along with his daughter Maddie, one sultry day last August. No self-respecting walleye angler would have deemed the conditions to be idyllic, but we knocked the walleye ball out of the park—thanks to the wind.
We started the morning casting half- and 3/4-ounce Freedom Hydra jigs tipped with five-inch Bass Magnet Shift’R Shad swimbaits (above) to walleye swimming overtop a series of offshore humps and shoals in 28 to 30 feet of water. At the second spot we fished, however, we let the wind blow our boats off the deep edge of a boulder pile toward the adjacent shoreline of a low, treeless, windswept rock island. There we discovered that for every walleye feeding in the deep water, there were three to five more up shallow, where most walleye anglers fear to venture.
Better still, while the deep walleye were listless, the shallow fish were lively, even at high noon on that bright sunny day. For that we could thank the ideal light-dimming conditions created by the waves crashing onto shore. It’s a winning pattern pro bass anglers have fine-tuned to perfection, yet most walleye anglers seem too terrified to try it.
So, repeat after me: Wind and waves are a walleye angler’s friends. There are worse things you could do than cast to shallow shoreline structures and cover on the windy side of a lake.
Shallow-water situations aside, casting also works well in deep water, with many of the best locations being the same places where you already jig and troll. A good friend and I, for example, once located a nice school of walleye on the edge of a moderately deep reef. I marked the location with an orange buoy, then backed the boat away to a comfortable casting distance. After waiting to let the school calm down, we proceeded to make wicked walleye hay.
It all ended, however, when a passing inboard full of inexperienced anglers spotted our bright buoy (below) and mistook it as an invitation to join us. They almost swamped us with the enormous wake they threw up, motoring so close we had to shorten our casts so as not to hit them with our jigs. The ruckus immediately scattered the school and shut down the bite. (Thanks to that incident, I now carry a white seagull decoy—nicknamed “Fooler” by grandson Liam—to mark my fishing spots on busy weekends.)
At least finding that nice school of 18- to 24-inch walleye highlighted why it often pays to cast to your favourite walleye spots, rather than troll over them or vertically jig for them. The fish were not tightly bunched up, concentrated or confined, but rather spread out over an area roughly the size of a house.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: It sounds like the fish were primed for a trolling presentation. But they weren’t, because the physical layout was too short. Simply put, by the time you would have made a pass and pulled your lures in front of the fish, you would have had to turn around and troll back over them. That’s neither an efficient nor effective use of your time. Plus, you risk spooking the fish by never giving them a chance to calm down, even in deeper water.
We also would have risked spooking the fish if we’d parked the boat on top of them and vertically jigged. That would have been a great approach if the walleye had been more tightly concentrated, but when you find the fish scattered, you simply can’t put your jig in front of enough of their faces to make ideal use of your limited fishing time.
So, if the school was primed for anything, it was for casting the same jig most anglers would have used if they were vertical jigging. In such a scenario, my favourite presentation is to cast a 3/8-, 1/2- or 3/4-ounce Reel Bait Flasher Jig (above) tipped with a live bait or soft-plastic dressing, the weight of the jig depending on the water depth. I prefer this specific jig style because the willowleaf blade spins below the lead head.
When you cast it out and let it settle to the bottom, then slow-roll it along the bottom, bouncing off any rocks or logs, it’s the best of all possible walleye worlds. And when you cast the flickering jig to the edge of a scattered school of walleye, you can retrieve it in such a way that it flawlessly mimics a trolled crawler harness or spinner rig, even though it’s the same lure you would use for vertical jigging. Along with being able to choose the size, shape, colour, profile, vibration, smell and taste of the offering, there’s never a moment during the entire retrieve when you’re not in control of the depth and speed.
Get in position
Simply put, don’t be sloppy about the way you position your boat or make your cast. In water less than 10 feet deep, a shallow-water anchoring system driven into the bottom will hold the boat perfectly still and in position. If you don’t have one or two Talons, Power-Poles or similar on the back of your boat, however, this is when the GPS feature on your bow-mounted electric trolling motor becomes essential to lock you onto a spot.
Once you’ve found a school of walleye off guard, don’t spoil all your hard work by running your big motor or pulsing your bow-mounted electric on top of them. Instead, you want to make the least amount of noise possible, so point the nose of your boat into the wind, then dial in your electric trolling motor to a constant, steady setting that keeps you hovering in one place. Whatever you do, don’t let the wind push you back, forcing you to turn up the electric motor, surge forward and blow out the spot.
When you intercept a school of belligerent walleye in shallow water, they’re almost always feeding. In that case, position yourself and your co-angler up front in the bow so you can both accurately cast to the fish. In deeper water, I rely on my Minn Kota Spot-Lock GPS function even more to hold me in the proper position. I also throw out a marker buoy, and sometimes more. With multiple markers, you can visually define the extent of the school, as well as highlight any key physical features, such as isolated boulders, high spots on the structure and precipitous breaklines.
Using marker buoys in tandem with your graphs is an effective combination of old-school tactics and new-school technology. No matter how well you can see the bottom of a structure on your Star Trek-like chartplotter, nothing beats tossing out a few marker buoys to put the area into perspective. And let you know exactly where to cast to catch those trophy walleye.
Outdoor Canada’s fishing editor Gord Pyzer is a true walleye wiz.
Few walleye baits excel better than crankbaits such as the Rapala Shad Rap and Storm Wiggle Wart (above) when you call them up for casting duty. There’s one key detail you need to remember when selecting a crankbait, however, and that is to pick one that runs deeper than the depth you’re fishing. If you’ve pinpointed a school of walleye swimming in six to eight feet of water, for example, choose a crankbait that dives 10 feet. When you do this, you can bounce the lure off anything lying on the bottom, such as logs or boulders. Nothing entices a walleye to bite more than deflecting a bait off an object and letting it rise up and over the obstruction.