If the fish are scattered over relatively shallow, warm bays, which feature scattered clumps of weeds and isolated rocks and logs, troll quickly and snap jig a 1/4- to -1/2-ounch bucktail jig. Credit: Greg Hargraves.
How to tackle trophies anywhere, any time, with the most versatile walleye lure of all
You can cast it, troll it or let it drift. You can fish it from an anchored boat or from shore. You can retrieve it horizontally or fish it straight up and down. It works wonders in lakes, rivers, reservoirs, pits and ponds. You can hop, pop, shake, swim or lay it motionless on the bottom. Tip it with live bait, feathers, fur or plastic and it’s usually the best lure you can use to catch numbers of walleye. Increase the size of your offering and it’s lights out for the biggest ‘eyes you can find.
No wonder the simple jig is the most versatile lure in your walleye tacklebox.
Jigs excel in the spring, they’re unbeatable in the summer and they may well be at their best in the fall. They’re even lethal under the ice. Jigs attract and trigger walleye at dawn’s early light, high noon and twilight’s last gleaming—-not to mention when it’s raining, snowing, hailing or windy. Indeed, if faced with the prospect of fishing for walleye for the rest of your life with just one type of lure, you had better pick jigs.
So what’s the downside to fishing with jigs? Ironically, it’s the name. For many anglers, the word “jig” conjures up the image of a boring, repetitive up-and-down motion, with no variations. But nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to fishing for walleye with jigs, as these five outstanding patterns reveal.
1. Pitching jigs
More frequently than most anglers realize, the bulk of a waterbody’s walleye population is in shallow water. It’s certainly true in the spring. After walleye spawn, they remain oriented to the shoreline for weeks, basking in the warm water around structure. You’ll also find them shallow in the summer, flooding the flats under the cover of darkness.
And let’s not forget about walleye that live in skinny, featureless, weedy lakes year-round. Some of these waters, such as Ontario’s Kawartha Lakes, are among the most productive in the country. But stillwaters aren’t the only places you’ll find shallow ‘eyes. Some rivers have more curves than Paris Hilton and Christina Aguilera combined, and the long, sloping shallow bends are walleye magnets.
The key to catching fish in these locations is to use a lighter-than-normal jig, and to pitch it rather than cast or troll it. Use a six- to 6 1/2-foot rod and a spinning reel loaded with six- or eight-pound-test mono. Attach a 1/16- to 1/8-ounce jig to the end of the line. To pitch the jig, pinch it between your thumb and index finger and gently pull back as you point the rod tip toward your target, such as shoreline rocks, fallen tree limbs or weed clumps. Then carefully release the jig and pitch it underhand. You’ll know you’re pitching perfectly when your jig sails just above the surface and lands quietly, which is important when the water is clear and the walleye are spooky.
Now, don’t rush to close the bail on your reel. You want your jig to fall vertically alongside the target and not swing back toward the boat. As you tighten up on the line after your jig touches bottom, always assume that a walleye has eaten it on the fall. Feel for weight, and if you sense any resistance, set the hook immediately. If you don’t have a fish, continue lifting your rod tip until the jig is floating up off the bottom and gliding back toward the boat.
When the walleye are fussy, slowly drop your rod tip and let the jig fall back to the bottom and rest for a second or two. To catch these picky fish, I like to tip my jig with live bait, usually a minnow when the water is cold (less than 10ºC), a leech when it’s tepid (11 to 20ºC) and half a crawler when it’s hot (warmer than 20ºC). But that rule is meant to be broken-bring all three baits and let the fish decide what they want to eat.
When the shallow ‘eyes are active, on the other hand, I prefer to pitch a soft-plastic dressing, such as a three-inch Berkley Power Minnow or Gulp Minnow, a four-inch Exude, Power or Old Bayside Grub or a three-inch Mister Twister Sassy Shad. I’ll swim this combo all the way back to the boat, dispensing with the pause. The key is to keep the lure undulating slowly, no more than a foot off the bottom.
Tip: A soft-plastic grub is normally attached to the jig so that the tail flap hangs down and won’t catch on the hook point. Instead, take the risk and rig it with the tail up. Now when you swim the jig back to the boat, it will quiver in an irresistible side-to-side manner.
2. Snap jigging
While pitching jigs is a wonderful technique for skinny-water walleye hanging close to cover, snap jigging is my preferred method when the fish are scattered over large flats, especially in the spring after they’ve spawned and drifted into warm bays to feed.
The best coves have sand grass (charra) or scattered clumps of cabbage weeds growing on the bottom. Isolated rocks, sunken logs and boulders are a bonus. These bays continue to be productive all summer long, provided they don’t get totally choked with vegetation. Main-lake shoreline flats are also prime spots, though often completely overlooked by the majority of anglers at this time of year.
The reason I like snap jigging for walleye is that the technique appeals to inactive fish as much as it does to aggressive strikers. Few methods cover such a dramatic range of walleye moods. But here’s the trick. You have to match the right jig weight (1/4 to 1/2 ounce) to the depth of water you’re fishing (usually three to 15 feet) and the speed you’re trolling, which should be at least three times faster than the usually slow walleye shuffle. I mean, why waltz when you can rock and roll?
Bucktail and marabou jigs work well when snap jigging, as do jigs festooned with soft-plastic minnows, swim baits (Berkley Power Minnows, Power Pogys and Mister Twister Sassy Shads) and grubs (Power, Exude and Old Bayside Munchies). Just remember to superglue the dressing onto the shank of your hook to anchor it in place.
Cast the jig behind the boat, close the bail and hold your rod tip so that it’s pointing back about three-quarters of the way toward the lure. Using a sidearm approach, quickly snap the jig forward, drop your rod tip back to the starting position and throw slack into your line. Pause for a couple of seconds and repeat the procedure.
The walleye will try to rip the rod out of your hands as long as you pay attention to two key details: follow a specific depth as you troll and make sure your jig is occasionally touching bottom. If you feel it making contact too often, speed up or switch to a slightly lighter jig. If you rarely feel it bumping bottom, tie on a heavier lure. Whatever you do, don’t slow down your trolling speed. The secret to snap jigging is trolling quickly.
Long, 6 1/2- to 7 1/2-foot, medium-heavy-action spinning rods are perfect for this technique. With flimsy sticks, you can’t throw enough slack into your line when you drop back the rod tip and you can’t set the hook when a walleye strikes. It’s also important to use premium, abrasion-resistant eight- to 10-pound monofilament (Maxima Evergreen, Berkley Extra Tough or Rapala Tough) or a thin-diameter, no-stretch braid (FireLine or SpiderWire) because your jig will fall faster, make contact with the bottom more easily and appear much livelier.
Tip: When snap jigging, you can also tip your jig with a minnow-although I rarely do-provided you slide the point of the hook into the minnow’s mouth, out one of its gills and back through its body.
3. Go with extreme currents
One of the toughest challenges walleye anglers face is dealing with extreme current conditions, especially on big, brawling rivers such as the Ottawa, St. Lawrence, Niagara, Detroit, Rainy, Winnipeg, Red or Saskatchewan. Often times the flow is so strong in these rivers it runs from bank to bank with no visible eddies or current breaks in sight. When that’s the case, the best slack water fish-holding areas are on the bottom.
But how do you get a lure down there and keep it in the narrow—often only inches high—fish-holding zones without getting snagged? You use a heavy, highly visible jig with a long shank and a wide gap, such as Lindy Little Joe’s Aspirin-shaped Maxi-Gap, tipped with a visible firetiger-, perch-, pearl- or chartreuse/pink-coloured soft-plastic minnow, boot tail or grub, and a unique method of boat control. The hefty, aerodynamic design of the jig allows you to fish it vertically, and zap it into and out of every current-buffeting crack and crevice that might hold fish. And because you’re quickly slipping downstream with the current, the walleye have no time to mull over your offering. They crush anything that flashes into view. But you must execute perfect boat control while maintaining close-to-the-bottom contact to be successful.
If you’re fishing with a tiller-handled outboard, swing the back of the boat into the flow and constantly pop the motor into and out of gear so you float with the current while your line hangs perfectly straight over the side of the boat. If you’re using a powerful bow-mounted electric, on the other hand, point the nose of the boat into the flow and use the trolling motor to fine-tune your position. Just be ready on a moment’s notice to swing the boat around and run after your jig so that the line never sways from the mandatory vertical position.
This is rock ’em, sock ’em jigging. Choose a six- to seven-foot-long, medium-heavy-action spinning or baitcasting rod and reel spooled with thin-diameter, ultra-sensitive, no-stretch 12- to 17-pound superline, such as FireLine or SpiderWire, to handle the tough conditions.
Tip: The weight of your jig depends on the speed of the current and the depth of the water. For example, you would need a much heavier jig for a fast current in 25 feet of water than you would for a moderate current in 14 feet of water. The key is to have your line hanging straight down.
4. Work the waves
Remember the last time you laid out an anchor and jigged for walleye? I bet you can’t. Anchoring is a lost art, yet in many situations it’s the best approach for presenting a jig and catching enormous ‘eyes. That’s what walleye ace Ted Stewner did in October 2004 at the Walleye Championship in Pine Falls, Manitoba. The waves were gigantic out on massive Lake Winnipeg, but they were only half the problem—the other half was the wall of water rushing into the lake from the Winnipeg River. Stewner took care of that, though. He had welded so much additional iron onto his already substantial anchor that it took both him and his partner to drop it overboard. And it worked. He won the title.
Not that you need such nightmarish conditions for this technique to be successful. All you need is moving water in the form of wind, waves or current. And the technique works just as well in the spring and summer as it does in the fall. Simply anchor upstream from the spot where the walleye are concentrated and cast out a properly weighted jig—one that will quickly fall to the bottom and just barely lie there without being swept away—tipped with a minnow or soft-plastic. Indeed, when you’ve picked the properly weighted jig, every time you slightly lift it off the bottom, the current will cause it to flutter, tremble and tumble downstream.
In currents like this, walleye are normally glued to the bottom. They also lounge around any current-buffeting structure and cover they can find, such as the rim of a depression, an isolated rock or a submerged tree. And they almost always position themselves so they’re facing into the current. Now, imagine what must go through a walleye’s mind when it spots a jig tipped with a minnow or soft-plastic slowly quivering and tumbling toward it. The fish can’t believe its good fortune. It simply opens its mouth wide and clamps down hard.
A standard six- to 6 1/2-foot, medium- or medium-heavy-action spinning rod rigged with eight-pound mono is ideal for this presentation. If the current is particularly heavy, though, use FireLine or SpiderWire because the smaller diameter line cuts through the water better, and gets the jig to the bottom easier.
Tip: When anchoring, most anglers typically opt for minnows as the bait of choice. However, soft-plastics are often a better option in faster-moving water; they impart more action in quicker current, while live bait is often overpowered.
5. Keep it simple
Right now, the hottest walleye presentation—bar none—is swimming a 3/8- to 1/2-ounce jig dressed with a four- or five-inch saltwater, soft-plastic swim bait, such as the Berkley Inshore Swim Bait, Power Pogy or large Mister Twister Sassy Shad. While it works well on hard-bottomed, main-lake walleye structure, the jig-and-swim-bait combination works even better-indeed, excels-in and around weeds, especially in midsummer when everyone is lamenting the scarcity of walleye.
Find a deep weedline, the edge of a grassy point or scattered weed clumps with open lanes between the clusters, then back off so that when you cast your jig it lands just inside the ragged edge of vegetation or down one of the corridors. A five-inch boot tail teams up nicely with a 1/2-ounce darter head, while a four-inch swim bait perfectly complements a 3/8-ounce, ball-shaped jig.
The way to retrieve such combinations is simple. After you feel the jig touch bottom, keep your rod tip pointed up and reel in line at a moderate clip so that your jig is swimming a foot or so off the bottom. Just be sure to pause momentarily every once in a while so the lure hesitates and tumbles slightly. That’s usually the trigger for a following walleye to hammer it.
You need a stiff rod and the right line to properly perform this manoeuvre. The ideal combination is a seven-foot-long, medium-heavy-action spinning rod and reel spooled with 15-pound FireLine and a three- to nine-foot-long, 15-pound fluorocarbon leader. The small-diameter, low-stretch, highly sensitive line is important because it not only aids in getting a good hookset, but it also slices, dices and cuts through the weeds.
Tip: Don’t worry if you snag a weed while retrieving a swim bait. Just keep your rod tip pointed skyward as you tighten up on the line and snap the lure smartly. And as a bonus, a walleye will often pounce on the lure when it pops free.
Where the walleye are
Spring: Mouths of inflowing creeks, streams and rivers; at the base of waterfalls and dams; areas adjacent to rapids; shallow, bouldery shorelines exposed to wind; back bays and coves; necked-down channels with current
Summer: Deep weedlines, especially in shallow lakes that lack structure; boulder-lined shoreline flats next to deep water; classic structure, such as long, underwater points, sunken humps, reefs, bars and saddles; the edges of deep pools and holes in rivers
Fall: Deep structure in lakes and rivers; necked-down channel areas with current, especially after sunset; mouths of large rivers where they merge with big lakes; rock piles, saddles and bars in large rivers; below dams, waterfalls and major river obstructions
Winter: The same deep, main-lake structures (points, bars, shoals) where you left the fish in the fall; the base of structure, where the point or shoal merges with the lake basin; deep holes or pockets in otherwise flat, featureless, shallow lakes; the closest structure adjacent to the main-lake spawning areas, particularly in late winter; mouths of inflowing creeks, streams and rivers
Many walleye anglers have difficulty deciding whether they should dress a jig with a soft-plastic minnow, grub or worm, or use the real thing. As a general rule, when walleye are demanding a tediously slow presentation and/or when the water is cold, clear and moving slowly or there’s no current at all, live bait is generally the ticket. But when the fish are actively feeding, the water is warm, slightly stained, weedy and/or there’s plenty of current, soft-plastic dressings often work better. Soft-plastics also give you a much greater range and variety of dressing sizes, profiles and colours. And while some anglers still find it hard to believe, fish find that the new scent-impregnated plastics smell and taste better than the real thing. Still undecided? Then mix and match. For example, there’s nothing stopping you from lip-hooking a lively minnow on a jig dressed with a colourful twister tail. In fact, many days when I can’t find a bait shop selling large minnows, I’ll do this to give my jig the size, shape, profile and colour I want.