When it comes to fishing tactics, Manitoba walleye ace Roger Stearns is never satisfied with the status quo. Even if he’s catching fish hand over fist, it doesn’t matter—he’s always focused on developing new and better ways to improve his success rate.
Case in point: Some years ago on frozen Lake Winnipeg, Stearns was possessed to tie on a lipless crankbait, drop it down a hole and start vigorously ripping it. The tactic may have gone against every rule for catching sluggish winter walleye, but it worked. Today, it’s a presentation staple for catching big fish through the ice.
With such a stellar track record for tinkering, you can understand why I was intrigued last summer when Stearns told me he’d developed a new open-water presentation combining two of the most popular walleye baits of all time: spinners and soft-plastic swimbaits. “Whoa,” I remember saying. “That’s an interesting combination.”
“It is,” Stearns confirmed, adding that he caught an eight-pound walleye the very first time he put the combo in the water and started trolling it behind a bottom bouncer. “I didn’t go a hundred feet before the fish whacked it.”
Then he showed his new trick to a friend. “He phoned me back a few days later and I could barely make out what he was saying, he was so ecstatic,” says the expert walleye guide. “Turns out he was catching seven fish to his partner’s one. Then his buddy tied on one of the rigs and proceeded to match him walleye for walleye.”
By now, I bet you’re also intrigued. Naturally, I had to learn precisely how to rig up and fish Stearns’ revolutionary new spin-and-swim system—and now you can, too.
1. The Spin
Stearns fashions his spinner-and-swimbait combinations by first tying a quality ball-bearing swivel to the end of a three-, four- or five-foot-long leader of 14-pound-test monofilament or 15-pound-test fluorocarbon line. He uses the shorter leaders for precision trolling around snag-filled structures, reserving the longer ones for fishing the trouble-free, open-water flats (see “The bouncer”).
Next, Stearns adds a fast-change clevis so he can experiment with different-coloured spinner blades over the course of the day. What he never varies from using, however, is the specific model: a #5 Tommy Harris Spider Blade. He says this large, custom-painted Colorado blade creates the perfect blend of flash, noise and vibration to attract even the most stubborn walleye.
Below the spinner, Stearns slides on four six-millimetre red, yellow, white or other coloured beads before knotting on a 4/0 or 5/0 Mustad flippin’ hook. The big, strong hook may come as a surprise, but it comes into play to help the swimbait from spinning out of control.
2. The Swim
“I was pulling out my hair at the beginning,” Stearns admits, “because some of the swimbaits I tested swam wonderfully, while others spun out of control as soon as I put them in the water. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what was causing that to happen.”
By carefully studying different soft-plastic paddletails in the water alongside the boat, however, he finally solved the riddle. “Most folks think the paddletail on the end of a six-inch swimbait is there solely to pulsate, wobble and vibrate,” he says. “I discovered it also functions as a keel or stabilizer.”
As such, Stearns also discovered that if the tail is too rigid, the bait will spin as soon as you start to troll. “When the light finally went on, I could tell just by looking at the taper to the tail and feeling the texture of the plastic if it would troll properly or corkscrew,” he says.
The ever-cordial Stearns is careful not to cast aspersions on any particular make or model of swimbait, saying that many of the more rigid soft-plastic boot tails work well when pegged to a lead-headed jig or fished weightless, rigged Texas-style on an extra-wide gap hook. It’s only when he trolls them quickly and aggressively as part of the spin-and-swim system that they fail to paddle properly.
Instead, Stearns uses pliable swimbaits with split bellies. He says the slit up the middle means there’s considerably less plastic to navigate with the hook point when you’re attempting to rig it perfectly straight. That brings us back to the large flippin’ hooks he prefers—they’re immensely helpful in keeping the six-inch paddletails swimming properly instead of spinning hopelessly in circles.
“The big hook acts as a keel,” Stearns explains, “but you have to take your time and align everything perfectly straight. That’s why the split bellies are a little easier to work with. They have the recessed pockets for the hook.”
Even if your paddletail doesn’t have a split belly, you’ll likely be able to see the seam down the centre of the bait where the two halves were compressed and melded together during the manufacturing process. Simply use it as a guide, running your hook point through the middle of the line on the underside of the bait and straight out along the line on the back.
If you think Stearns is obsessed with rigging his soft-plastic swimbaits arrow straight, you’re right. He says it’s essential for trolling the spin-and-swim between 1.4 and 1.8 mph, which is much faster than most walleye anglers are accustomed to fishing. “The spin-and-swim is all about power trolling,” he says.
Watch most walleye anglers when they pull up to a spot to check it out—they’ll slowly cruise over and around the structure, monitoring their sonar units for fish. With the spin-and-swim system, you can still scout for fish, but at the same time you can speed troll the spot. “Many times I’ve caught a walleye while checking a spot with my sonar unit,” says Stearns. “It’s the best of both worlds.”
Tip: For years, anglers have been pulling hard-plastic Rapala-style minnowbaits behind bottom bouncers and three-way rigs to catch walleye. But that tactic is first and foremost a sight bite, producing best when the water is clear and the fish can see the lure. Roger Stearns’ spin-and-swim system, however, combines the ultra-realistic size, shape, colour and profile of a large baitfish with the flash, vibration and throb of a spinner. This not only attracts the fish in clear water, it also triggers them to bite when the water is cloudy, stained, dingy or muddy.
To make the lure even more attractive, Stearns also adds scent to the equation. If you look closely at the tail of most soft-plastic swimbaits, you’ll see a hole left behind from the manufacturing process. He fills this opening—as well as the body cavity if it’s a hollow swimbait—with his favourite walleye scent. As well as looking, sounding and feeling lifelike, the lure now smells and tastes good to the fish, too.
To polish off the spin-and-swim system, you need a heavy bottom bouncer. The reason is simple: the big, cupped Colorado blade is designed to create lift, much like the wing of an airplane; ditto the paddletail at the back of the six-inch, soft-plastic lure. Consequently, the spinner-swimbait combination is constantly trying to lift up off the bottom.
To keep the rig down where it belongs, Stearns relies on heavy three- and four-ounce bottom bouncers, even when he’s trolling in relatively shallow 10- to 20-foot depths. And rather than spook the fish, the big bouncers actually attract them. “They don’t care about the big bottom bouncer crashing around in the boulders,” he says. “In fact, I think it’s the first thing they see and hear. It piques their interest.”
A key consideration is to keep the line as vertical as possible at all times, never trailing behind the boat at more than a 45-degree angle. If the bouncer is too light, you’re going to be continually letting out line, feeling for the bottom. And the more line you have out, the more likely you’re going to get snagged.
Using a heavier bottom bouncer also means you have much better control over your spin-and-swim, so you can keep it throbbing over specific depth contours and weaving through tight inside turns. This ability to precisely troll the rig into tight, snaggy locations—where most walleye spend the bulk of their time—is another highlight of the system. And here’s where the length of the leader comes into play.
Whenever Stearns finds fish scattered over a relatively flat area—such as the basin of the lake or the top of a large structure—he’ll run a four- to five-foot-long leader if there aren’t a lot of rocks, logs and other snags. But when he’s fishing a tight, snaggy inside turn, he switches to a three-foot leader. He also uses the shorter leader when trolling out of deeper water. “I had problems snagging bottom when I first started experimenting, coming out of 25 feet of water into 15 feet,” he explains. “I solved that issue quickly when I switched to the shorter leader.”
Using a properly balanced rod, reel and line combination also helps Stearns to weave his spin-and-swim magic. Since he’s typically trolling his heavy bottom bouncers in windy conditions, he favours a stiff, 7′ 10″ medium-heavy-action baitcasting rod that won’t buckle beneath the load. He balances it with a level-wind reel sporting a flippin’ switch, which allows him to let out more line with the flick of his thumb. This is important when he slides into deeper water and needs to fine-tune his presentation, and when he’s running a contour or checking an inside turn. And he spools his reels at all times with low-stretch, 15- to 17-pound-test braided line.
“The rod, reel and line complement the system,” says Stearns. “Like the heavy bottom bouncers, variable length leaders, big blades, stout hooks, soft taper-tailed swimbaits and aggressive trolling speed, they’re one more part of the total package.” Even at that, he maintains he still has a lot to learn in terms of further refining his spin-and-swim presentation.
As I said, even if Stearns is catching plenty of fish, he continues to search for the next best thing to entice more and bigger walleye. This time, however, he just may have topped himself.
Tip: The combination of a heavy bottom bouncer, big pulsing blade and six-inch throbbing swimbait lets you power troll your lure into tight snaggy spots that walleye anglers have traditionally feared to go. Although a key highlight of the spin-and-swim system, it doesn’t mean you should reel up your line as soon as you leave the structure and troll out over much deeper water. Quite the opposite—walleye expert Roger Stearns has had great success fishing for suspended open-water walleye using his spinner-and-swimbait combination. In fact, he says he relishes the chance to “breeze over the top of a structure with speed and catch the fish out off the edge.”