Walleye Fishing During Algae Blooms

Algae blooms are a fact of life this time of year on lakes across the Walleye Belt. Though dreaded by many anglers, they can create opportunities for some of the season’s finest fishing for all sizes of walleyes. Best of all, you don’t need to be a night owl or brave foul weather to pull walleyes from beneath the green curtain. You just need sunscreen and shades, because some of the fastest action occurs on calm seas under scorching sunny skies.

Veteran North Woods guide Jeff Sundin has been chasing summer walleyes across central and northern Minnesota for three decades. His fishing grounds include rivers and lakes of all shapes, sizes, and types, and if a pattern exists for putting hot weather walleyes in the boat, he’s tried it. To the surprise of many anglers, one of his favorite setups is a full-blown bloom on a walleye-rich, fertile fishery.

Jeff-Sundin-Walleye-Fishing-During-Algae-Blooms

»Guide Jeff Sundin slays blooming walleyes throughout August and early September.

“It looks disgusting when the water’s so green that you leave a hole on the surface when you drop your bait through it,” he says. “A lot of people take one look at these conditions and say, ‘Nope, I’m not doing this.’ But if you fish the right spots with the right tactics, algae blooms can produce some of the summer’s most consistent and enjoyable walleye fishing.”

I can’t argue with him on any of this. Years ago, while editing In-Fisherman’s Walleye In-Sider magazine and covering the company’s Professional Walleye Trail, I tailored some of the PWT pros’ algae bloom tactics to my home waters a short cast north of Minneapolis and struck walleye gold. Even though these lakes were within an hour’s drive of hundreds of thousands of anglers and offered ample public access, I had the spots—and the fish—all to myself. As a bonus, there wasn’t a water-skier or jet ski in sight.

Like most of my fishing strategies, the plan was simple. Find a promising rockpile, hump, or point where walleyes would likely feed at twilight in clear-water conditions and fish it during the midday hours when the lake greened up. Nothing fancy, either. I hovered my boat over the spot, jig-and-minnow in the sonar cone, and watched the fish react to various jigging cadences. Most days, this approach yielded a mix of walleyes and crappies.

As with most presentations and patterns, Sundin elevates the algae game to an art form. He begins by noting the link between blooms and good fishing likely extends beyond just the conditions created during the bloom. “The lakes we fish that have the heaviest blooms typically have expansive shallow flats and are warmer, more fertile, and more productive than deeper, clear lakes,” he explains. “So even if you didn’t have a bloom going on, these are better fishing lakes anyway. The bloom just accentuates it by concentrating aggressive fish in predictable locations.”

Finding those hotspots is the key to success when you’re faced with a sea of pea soup. Although Sundin keeps the search simple, he avoids classic summer structure, and ventures instead into areas where few fishermen tread. 

When a lake’s in full bloom, he focuses on weedy shallows shunned by most summertime walleye anglers. “You’d think shallow water would be too warm and the fish would go deep,” he says. “But a couple of factors combine to make the shallows attractive to walleyes. First, the depletion of dissolved oxygen below the thermocline limits how deep walleyes can go. So, on many lakes, the deep edges that held fish from late May into early July are now out of play.”

Walleye Fishing During Algae Blooms

Second, and equally important, he says, shallow weedgrowth offers a sheltering environment rich in oxygen and flush with forage ranging from large aquatic insects to crustaceans, minnows, and bite-sized panfish. “Throw in the added shade from an algae bloom and shallow weeds are hard for walleyes to resist,” he says.

Productive depths vary by lake, of course. “I spend a lot of time fishing 5 to 6 feet,” Sundin says. “But walleyes can slide into 3 or 4 feet of water and still be more comfortable than they would be in clearer, deeper water.”

While you’d think finding submerged weedbeds in such low-vis conditions would be challenging, he says just the opposite is true. “It’s an interesting phenomenon. The weedflats are shallow and the tops of the weeds practically break the surface,. You can see insects and small baitfish dimpling the surface. Hovering right over the top of the weeds, they’re a dead giveaway for where to fish.

“It helps that you’re typically doing this in flat-calm conditions, which, combined with hot, sunny weather, tend to produce the heaviest blooms and congregate the most fish in the shallow weeds you’re trying to find,” he adds. “Under these conditions, you can look around the lake when it’s calm and see the areas of activity. We could talk about using the latest in side-imaging sonar to figure it out, but you can find the best spots with the fishfinders on the front of your face.”

All vegetation isn’t created equal in the eyes of walleyes or savvy anglers, and Sundin perennially steers for specific species of vegetation. “You may find walleyes in any decent patch of green weeds,” he says. “But the best, at least in my area, are patches of cabbage growing on shallow flats. Walleyes swim right past coontail and other weeds to get to them. That being said, if your lake doesn’t have cabbage, they use other vegetation types as long as they provide cover and produce oxygen. Don’t shy away from thick vegetation, either. Sometimes the best beds are so dense you can only fish the outskirts of them.”

Location can also play a role in a weedbed’s promise. “Another trick to making this program work best is to focus on patches of vegetation that grow closest to a steep break near the shoreline,” he says. “So if you have a big wide flat with weeds all over, look to the corners of the bed close to a shoreline break—as opposed to the center of the greenery. I’m speculating as to what the walleyes think, but I believe they like being able to hold in the weeds one minute and dart out into deeper water the next.”

Soup Tactics

Once Sundin settles on a likely area, he breaks out standard jigging tackle. “The same pole you’d use for virtually any jigging application is fine,” he says. “I like a 6-foot 3-inch to 6-foot 9-inch light to medium-light spinning rod with a fast tip, that handles line weights from 4 to 8 pounds. I typically use 6-pound mono on all my rods. Simple and easy to fish, yet effective.”

Walleye Fishing During Algae Blooms

»For vertically probing pockets in vegetation, Jeff Sundin likes a compact jig like the Lindy Live Bait Jig.

Jigs are his weapon of choice, and he isn’t shy about tying on leadheads with enough heft to take the bait straight to bottom in heavy cover. “Too light a jig is a deal-breaker,” he says. “Even in five feet of water, I use at least an 1/8-ounce head and sometimes 1/4-ounce is even better. The goal is to drop the jig straight down into small openings in clusters of cabbage or coontail, briefly hold it in place, then pull it straight up and out. If the jig starts moving horizontally at any point in this process, you might as well be dragging it across your lawn, because it’ll get stuck on every blade of grass.”

To reduce snags yet provide solid hookups, he favors relatively short and stout jigs like the Live Bait Jig he designed for Lindy Fishing Tackle. “The compact jig helps prevent hangups,” he says. “It also allows you to rig minnow so the hook is coming out the top of the skull and the minnow’s mouth is pushed tight against the jighead. There’s no extra space between the bait and the jighead for weeds to get wrapped up on, like there is with long-shank jigs.”

Sundin’s jig color palette covers the spectrum. “I experiment with bright patterns like chartreuse yellow, but also go to the opposite extreme with black. I probably tie on black more than anything else,” he says. “Keep in mind, the water may be green at the surface, but you don’t have to get down very far before it clears up, so the fish still have fairly good visibility.”

While it’s tempting to dance a jig, Sundin is adamant about no animation. “No jig action is key,” he says. “Lift the jig just off bottom, hold it still for 15 to 30 seconds, then lift it up and pick the next pocket.” He also cautions against running, gunning, and flights of wild fancasting. “The object is to slowly pick your way through these little patches of vegetation,” he says. “Done correctly, it’s like bass fishing—flipping and pitching into holes and open pockets in the canopy. Although you’re not casting, you’re literally dropping the jig from the end of the rod tip at boatside.”

Strikes are hard to miss. “Walleyes hit and you smack them right away,” Sundin says. “There’s a very low level of finesse involved in this technique. Most people enjoy it once they get the hang of it. There’s plenty of action, because bonus crappies, perch, and pike are common catches along with walleyes of all sizes.”

Sundin’s bloom jigging isn’t exactly a laid-back affair. “You’re so focused on getting your jig down through the weed and pinpointing it in one spot, it gets intense,” he says. “You’re not sitting back in a chair, relaxing. After a while the back of your neck gets tight and your eyes bug out, but it’s worth it.” 

As a bonus, anglers who dial in a happening weed bite in one spot can often enjoy similar success elsewhere on the lake. “It’s a repeatable pattern,” he says. “A school of walleyes don’t go to one spot like they might gather on a big rockpile. They spread out in little groups, so you’re more likely to find three or four walleyes per small weed patch.”

Solid midday action is common during algae blooms. “It’s possible to be too early for the weed bite,” Sundin says. “In the morning, when the sun is low and the algae isn’t in full bloom, walleyes are scattered. You need calm, hot, sunny conditions and algae development to concentrate the fish in the weeds.”

On the flip side, a strong summer wind can shut down the algae pattern in a hurry. “This isn’t a windy day deal,” he says. “A strong wind that stirs things up definitely moves the fish out of shallow vegetation. If you’re in the middle of a day and the weed pattern has been working, then the wind works up a nice chop, it’s best to put your jigs away and try something else.”

Sundin’s Plan B when a wind whips up is trolling spinner rigs. “Windy conditions encourage walleyes to move out to the edges of these same weedflats and feed,” he explains. “A simple setup like a 1/8- or 3/16-ounce bullet sinker and Little Joe spinner rig with half a nightcrawler puts plenty of fish in the boat. The cheapest, ugliest fatheads you can find also work well, and pick up more of a mixed bag of fish species, but ‘crawlers catch more walleyes on average.”

He trolls weededges at 1.1 to 1.2 mph, slipping the rig along the tops of the vegetation. “You don’t want to get stuck down in the grass,” he says. “Choose sinker weight to keep you running at the weed tops.”

In-Fisherman friend and decorated tournament pro Keith Kavajecz doesn’t turn his back on a good algae bloom, either. “The walleyes’ metabolism is firing on all cylinders and the fish feed aggressively,” he says. “Don’t let a little bloom keep you off the water.”

Walleye Fishing During Algae Blooms

»Keith Kavajecz keeps it clean to mop up hungry walleyes during an algae bloom.

Two of his top tips for tackling algae involve timing and colors. “The fish tend to bite better throughout the day, but you often find the evening bite isn’t as good—either because it’s too dark or the walleyes have been feeding all day,” he says.

“As for lure colors, remember light penetration is reduced. A lot of the same tactics that work in clear conditions also work during a bloom, but you might need to switch to cloudy-day colors like glows, whites, and bright chartreuses, versus the holographics and chromes that produce well in clear water with no algae. I’ve seen this happen many times while fishing a Shiver Minnow in August, but it holds true with other presentations, too.”

Besides shivering, trolling is one of his go-to bloom tactics. “Crankbaits and spinners have universal appeal,” he says. “However, a few adjustments are in order. To slow the rate at which algae slides down the line and fouls your presentation, pinch a split shot the size of an 1/8-ounce jig in front of the lure or spinner. A snapweight positioned 50 feet ahead of the lure also excels at this—but it also affects the dive curve, especially at slower speeds.” 

Kavajecz notes that a thin superline like Berkley FireLine slices through blooms without accumulating much algae. “Thanks to the lack of stretch, it also lets you know when algae or moss from the lake bottom has fouled your lure,” he adds.

He does have his limits when it comes to summer blooms. “A little garden-variety surface algae is fine, but when the goop gets so thick it turns blue and clumpy, the fish don’t like to be around it—and neither do I,” he says.

Like Kavajecz and Sundin, fellow walleye warrior Jason Mitchell is also a fan of fishing moderate blooms. “We get a lot of them in the fertile lakes in the Dakotas,” he says. “They scare some people away, but produce tremendous walleye fishing. The fish bite all day and don’t spook from your boat, even in shallow water.”

Mitchell also takes steps to keep his lures clean. “A 1½-ounce bottom bouncer works wonders as an algae stopper,” he says. “I blaze through prime areas at 2 to 2.5 mph trolling spinner rigs with deep-cupped #4 and #5 Colorado blades. You don’t need livebait going that fast. Soft plastic trailers like a Gulp! Crawler or various paddletails are awesome.”

As for location, Mitchell plays the shallow game—but he also goes deep. “Weedlines in 4 to 8 feet of water are good, but top shallow spots include where a weedline and top of a sharp rock breakline meet,” he says. “If walleyes aren’t up shallow, look to main-lake structure in 30 to 50 feet of water, sweetened by boulders or smaller rocks. Here, slipbobbering livebait or vertically fishing jigs and softbaits or hard lures is your best bet unless the structure is large enough to allow trolling runs.”


*Dan Johnson, Isanti, Minnesota, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and director of All Creation Outdoor Media. Guide contact: Jeff Sundin, 218/259-2263.

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Patterns That Find Late Summer Walleye

Late Summer Walleye Fishing Tips You have to admire the optimism of statements like, “There’s no such thing as a bad time to go fishing,” even if it’s not necessarily accurate in the sense of fantastic versus difficult times to catch walleyes.

I appreciate the opportunity to fish for the palliative effects of the experience. But I’m mostly here to catch fish, and August walleye fishing comes with challenges. In my guiding days years ago, the August calendar always filled in with folks who subscribed to the notion that hot, late-summer weather and biting bugs somehow translated to biting walleyes. Augusts were made for summer family vacations, and so by the same logic, why not also an ideal time for catching walleyes?

The consequence of such an unfortunate notion was that yours truly and other guides learned by necessity how to scratch enough walleyes on breathless, dog days of late summer. Even on clear, classic walleye water, the task isn’t insurmountable, although you may need to scale back expectations. Regardless of where the walleyes take you, the best late-summer fishing seems to revolve around some combination of these factors: shallow vegetation or rocks; open water; low-light phases; and/or dramatic surges in lure speed and direction.

We’ve long known the reasons behind difficult August bites—incalculable clouds of baitfish shimmer along nearly every drop-off you encounter. Shallow plants are at maximum growth and density; some plant types have begun to wither. Other than a stray thunderstorm, weather and water conditions are about as stable day to day as they are all year.

Essentially, walleyes and their patterns may never be more predictable than in late summer.

But are late summer walleyes easy to locate? If you’re acquainted with the lake, absolutely. And once you find them, you can stay on them for days and even weeks. Easy to catch? Maybe. Boat traffic and fishing pressure often get in the way.

Interestingly, I’ve found that intense motor traffic affects walleyes in shallow water almost negligibly. For the past two summers, we’ve located schools of walleyes in 8 to 17 feet of water in vegetation with an Aqua-Vu camera and noticed that even on busy weekends, they mostly go about their business. Amid endless propeller noise, we’ve watched pods of several dozen fish mill about, occasionally drifting off the edge and reappearing a short distance down the vegetated flat. Over about a five-week period from late July through early September, we’ve tracked the same schools within the same plant bed, sneaking in to scratch four or five fish during hour-long peak bites, often at midday, before anyone’s the wiser.

Top Spinners for Late Summer Walleye WalleyesUltimately, it’s about pattern predictability. Walleyes might only feed for short windows, for instance at first light, moonrise, 1 to 2 p.m., the first hour after sunset, or even at 3:30 in the morning. The rest of the day, it’s often about scratching a fish here and there. That’s walleye reality on relatively clear lakes with modest populations of fish and heavy fishing pressure. Of course, August can be easy, too, like when you’re on a fishery with a peaking walleye population and/or a depressed baitfish supply. I love lakes like Lake of the Woods, Erie, Green Bay on Lake Michigan, Winnebago, and Leech. Rivers also can offer consistent late summer walleye fishing. Reservoirs like Sakakawea also can be fantastic in late July through early September.

Prospecting Plants
Relative to locating fish in vegetation, the best advice I can give is to use an underwater camera. Even with the best sonar screen, walleyes can be tough to discern within vegetation, and easy to overlook. It’s why my Aqua-Vu HD700i camera goes overboard a lot during August.

Besides species identification, the Aqua-Vu also answers important questions. Why are the walleyes here, as opposed to every other cabbage bed in the lake? Perhaps because here a diverse mixture of large leaf pondweed (cabbage), elodea, eelgrass, and coontail provide a patchy and diverse landscape with oodles of edges—key for baitfish and many other aquatic animals. Plant diversity and vegetation patchiness are among the most important walleye location factors.

Something I learned while guiding that remains overlooked today is working vegetation with a simple grass-guard jighead tipped with a small chub or dressed with a 2- to 3-inch softbait. Northland Tackle’s Weed-Weasel jig snakes beautifully through vegetation and is highly effective on walleyes in vegetation, as well as bass, crappies, or pike. Even today, members of the legendary Nisswa (Minnesota) Guides League lean heavily on this veg-based presentation and put good fish in the net each and every August day.

One sweet combo for piercing and canvassing vegetation is a 1/4-ounce Weed-Weasel dressed with a  Z-Man Slim SwimZ, a dainty 21⁄2-inch paddletail swimmer. You can swap the SwimZ for other options, such as a Berkley Ripple Shad or Twitchtail Minnow, or Lunker City Fin-S Fish. It’s the Weed-Weasel that makes the thing go, snaking through leaves, climbing stalks, and momentarily hanging up on stems before shooting free. I like a subtle paddletail like the Slim SwimZ because of its super-soft yet tough ElaZtech construction. The little tail strums along like that of a runaway baitfish. You can fish clean through entire expanses of vegetation, which is nearly impossible to do without getting bit.

You can pitch it along weededges—often along drop-offs from 6 to 15 feet of water—or toss it about a cast-length into the growth. On pressured fish, I often employ the opposite approach, spot-locking atop a shallow flat, casting out past the drop-off and working back uphill. If you’re quiet, this approach can score lots of walleyes in short order.

On pressured fish, I like to slowly stitch the bait along bottom, using a fast-tip 6-foot 6-inch St. Croix Legend Tournament Walleye rod (LTWS66MLF) to pop the jig off temporary hang-ups. I load a Shimano Stradic FK 2500 with 8-pound Sufix Nanobraid and tie on a 10-foot leader of 6-pound-test Seaguar AbrazX fluorocarbon to guard against abrasion.

Best Baits for Late Summer Walleye For the first dozen or so casts into a new area, I let the jig fall to bottom and commence a rapid swim-rip-pause swim-rip-pause retrieve. I work the 20- to 30-foot zone from the drop-off into the tallest pondweed with relatively rapid-fire retrieves. If you catch several fish in the vegetation and you believe more are there, switch to a less-aggressive stitching approach, perhaps also adding a live fathead minnow or medium-sized ribbon leech. It’s a similar approach to the one used by In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange and others who work a 3/8- or 1/2-ounce jig/paddletail swimbait combo aggressively, tagging a few fish per spot, before moving on to slower, more precise presentations. Overlooked as well, jig spinners such as Gopher Tackle’s Bait Spin or the Johnson Beetle Spin, dressed with a softbait, can be fine shallow-water walleye lures.

Cabbage and 
Balsa Cylinders

The most potent means of extracting spooky shallow walleyes, particularly from vegetation, is a simple slipfloat rig. “When walleyes are in weeds, you’re silly not to fish a slipbobber,” says legendary walleye angler Bruce Samson who’s, won tournaments with a lively leech beneath a floating balsa cylinder.

“While wind is required to activate walleyes on rock and other shallow structure, calm water often shines for pitching bobbers in vegetation,” he says. “No wind means I can toss a bobber into a specific area and let the leech undulate between stalks without snagging. Let it sit for a few minutes and then reel it in 10 feet to canvass the next zone.

“A 6- to 12-foot point with plants growing 1 to 4 feet above bottom is a perfect area for working a bobber. In this scenario, a little wind ‘trolls’ the bobber for you, skimming the bait over the tops. Points indicate hard bottom and walleyes love hard bottom, which is also ideal substrate for large-leaf pondweed, the greatest walleye plant on earth.”

He presents a leech on a 1/32- or 1/16-ounce jighead, occasionally an 1/8-ouncer in heavier plant growth. He uses an 81⁄2-foot Fenwick steelhead rod and 6-pound-test Berkley Trilene XT or IronSilk, a slightly stiff line with tremendous abrasion resistance. A longer rod allows for easy line mending—keeping drag-loops off the water—and quickly removes slack line to sweep the hook home. The long, soft steelhead rod also minimizes shock to light line and small hooks.

“I prefer a float with a brass insert on the stem, which assures line passes freely without abrasion,” Samson says. “Larger through-stem bobbers are my favorites, including Northland Tackle’s Lite-Bite and Thill’s Pro Series. I don’t like bobbers with lead-weighted stems, because in wind, these sink on the upside of every wave, causing frustration and missed bites. In shallow water, these floats also won’t lay over on their side when the bait hits bottom. You want the float to indicate bottom—it’s like a remote depthfinder. The right float can show you the high spots on a point, which can be key walleye zones.”

In calm conditions, he weights his floats by adding split shot a foot above the jighead until the float’s stem just protrudes above the surface. In strong wind, he uses slightly less shot. “A jighead is much better than a plain hook,” he adds. “Leeches nearly always ball up around a plain, weightless hook, but trail horizontally and undulate naturally on a jighead. Jigs with long-shank hooks, such as a Northland RZ Jig, are better than short-shank versions. And at times, the attractor of a Northland Thumper Jig or other bladed jig score 10 bites to every one on a plain jig.

“As soon as you hook a fish, your partner needs to reel in, net the fish, and immediately cast his rig back to the exact spot the fish bit. You can’t believe how many fish you can catch in quick succession this way. Often, walleyes in vegetation feed competitively, and when your float goes down, there’s likely more walleyes waiting.”

Top Lure Choices for Late Summer Walleye Erratic Angles
On the other side of the presentation spectrum, dramatic alterations in lure speed and direction can produce exceptional bites amid profusions of baitfish and warm water. About 10 years ago, while avoiding a power-boater’s attempt to mow down my planer boards, I accidentally discovered that rapidly accelerating from 2 to 7 mph caused my boards and baits to surge ahead like rockets, triggering a 29-inch walleye. I wrote an article on that tactic called “Turbo Trolling” for In-Fisherman in 2007. Rapid jolts of acceleration to your lures often work so well it’s hard to believe. You can turbo-troll with stable crankbaits like a Rapala Shad Rap or Storm Hot ‘N Tot—anything that tracks true up to 5 to 7 mph.

The same principle can apply to lure direction. Minnesota guide Tony Roach knows many walleyes follow trolled lures without biting. It’s why for the past several seasons, he and other anglers have taken turbo-trolling in a different direction, literally, using wandering crankbaits like Rapala Scatter Raps and new wave spinner blade rigs to inject his trolling passes with a multi-directional punch—accelerating and random side-to-side jukes and jives equal big bites on difficult days.

“For the last several summers, I’ve spent a lot of time pulling shortline spinners behind 1/2- and 3/4-ounce bullet sinkers through cabbage,” Roach  says. “At midday, we’ll pull onto a big weedflat and drop Trokar Revolve hooks and Mack’s Smile Blades 50 or 60 feet back and start ‘mowing the lawn.’”

For Roach, it’s often a numbers game, trolling 1.2 to 1.6 mph over vegetated points and flats, usually near a drop-off. “The Revolve hook gives the bait a fast, erratic flip-flop action and gets the tail of a ‘crawler or softbait kicking.”

While Mustad debuted the first “Slow Death”  style hook at least five years ago, he says few recreational anglers he fishes with have enough confidence in these erratic rigs to consistently rely on them. That’s a mistake, Roach says, as he believes these dynamic spinner rigs are very effective.

Most recently, he dressed his revolving hooks with softbaits, including various paddletail swimbaits and lures like Northland Tackle’s Impulse Ringworm. He’s also begun to experiment with Smile Blades, a non-metallic, pliable spinner shaped like a heart.

Mack’s Lure was perhaps the first to offer a revolving, smile-bladed rig. Their Smile Spindrift Walleye & Trout Rig has become the biggest trend in spinner-rigging, particularly on Dakota and western reservoirs. The unique blade shape accentuates lure action, giving the hook an exaggerated kick-out motion, while the blade wobbles and wanders subtly in different directions. The Smile Blade also works at slower speeds than classic metallic blades, allowing for abrupt speed changes without sacrificing thump or flash. Mack’s Smile Rig employs a VMC Spindrift hook, a revolving, bent-shank bait hook with a built-in swivel that alleviates potential line twist.

Spinner-Rigs for Late Summer Walleye Bait School Bombs
Don’t think these spinner rigs won’t work equally well on rock and sand in reservoirs or in deep lake basins. This is fertile ground for a method most fish haven’t seen. One of the most potentially exciting new options I’ve been experimenting with is casting big spoons and softbaits to schools of suspended baitfish.

For years, anglers have trolled cranks across deep flats where walleyes forage on open-water ciscoes, smelt, and shad. Casting big rubber baits for suspended muskies has resulted in enough big walleyes now to make the this worthy of closer study. These past two years from July through October, these “accidental” open-water walleyes have been 25-plus inchers. More time dedicated to casting spoons like a 6-inch Williams Whitefish 90, Sebile Onduspoon, or Nichols Flutter Spoon should be worth it.

Drive around open basins, dropping waypoints on the biggest bait balls, especially those within 20 feet of the surface. Go back, drop the trolling motor, quietly putter around the perimeter of the bait and fire long casts. Let the big spoon flutter and flash, calling fish from all directions. The only difference between a ball of bait on your sonar screen and a big boulder on a point is obvious—the former attracts fish, moves, and offers walleyes something good to eat.


*In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt, Brainerd, Minnesota, is an avid walleye angler, often experimenting with and reporting on novel tactics.

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Trolling for Walleye During Summer

Trolling-for-Walleye

Trolling for walleye is one of the most effective ways to find and trigger them in July and August. From the Canadian Shield to big rivers, prairie potholes, and the Great Lakes, pulling a variety of presentations helps cover water in search of active, catchable fish at a time when walleyes are scattered and forage is abundant.

Many top guides and tournament competitors troll to put fish in the boat when the chips are down. Often, their systems are variations of popular trolling methods modified to best fit their favorite fisheries, and tweaked to match the conditions and mood of the fish.

Saginaw Strategies

Former In-Fisherman PWT champion and walleye expert Mark Martin of Twin Lake, Michigan, has trolled countless lakes and river systems in his career. He offers Lake Huron’s storied Saginaw Bay as an example of multiple trolling patterns that often exist within a single fishery.

“July and August on Saginaw Bay offer a potpourri of productive patterns,” Martin says. “One of the most overlooked is the shoreline weed bite. Many anglers leave weed walleyes in their wake on the way to troll deeper waters, but why drive past fish if you don’t have to?”

According to Martin, opportunities to play the green card abound. “Pretty much the whole west side from Bay City State Park up to Au Gres has coontail, cabbage, and a mixture of both. It’s a similar scenario going the other direction, from the power plant out to Sand Point. Walleyes of all sizes, including fish up to 9 or 10 pounds, inhabit vegetation all summer, and trolling is a great way to catch them.”

Mark-Martin-Trolling-for-Walleyes

Martin plies vegetation with a two-hook Northland Fishing Tackle Baitfish Spinner Harness with a #4 holographic Baitfish-Image blade in perch, emerald shiner, or gold perch patterns. He tips the rig with a 6-inch Berkley Gulp! Nightcrawler, since a variety of bait-stealing small fish make fishing with live nightcrawlers a frustrating exercise in rebaiting. “To reduce weed fouling, don’t run your hooks all the way through the Gulp! Nightcrawler,” he says.

“The rig is far more weedless without the point, barb, or bend sticking out.” He fishes the rig on no longer than a 3-foot leader, and when tying his own he uses 15- to 17-pound Berkley Vanish fluorocarbon, explaining that fluoro allows a metal clevis to spin at slower speeds than mono. “I can add one or two of Northland’s cork floats to the line for extra lift, and troll under 1 mph,” he says.

He trolls the setup behind one of Northland’s Slick-Stick bottom bouncers, which slides on the line ahead of the swivel linking leader to mainline. “These are the most efficient bouncers for weeds,” he says. “The weight parts the vegetation for a second or two, allowing a spinner rig on a short leash to shoot the gap before the curtain recloses.”

Martin says Saginaw Bay’s weedline is irregular and typically lies in 8 to 12 feet of water. “The best way to troll it is hand-holding a trolling rod and line-counter reel loaded with 10-pound Berkley FireLine, keeping your line at a 45-degree angle,” he says. “With multiple people on board, run the heaviest weights in the front of the boat, to avoid tangles. Say, 3 ounces on the front line, a 2-ounce Slick-Stick in the middle, and 1 to 1½ ounces on the stern lines.

“Watch your sonar while trolling in and out of the weedline,” he continues. “Pay attention to plant height. When they come up 2 to 3 feet off bottom, start thinking about pulling out because by the time you do, they’ll be 7 feet high. In sparse vegetation it’s possible to mark fish. When you see one, bang your bouncer on bottom several times to get their attention. It’s like blowing a grunt call at a whitetail buck. You want the walleye to know your rig is there and key in on it.”

Saginaw Bay also offers a basin bite. “Walleyes can be in 15 to 35 feet of water,” he says. “Don’t just put your lines out and start trolling. Spend time looking for pods of baitfish on sonar. The bait is typically suspended, and active walleyes typically make upward forays to feed on them. Don’t hesitate to send a bottom bouncer rig down to check out fish marked tight to bottom and don’t spend more than 20 minutes trying to get bottom fish to bite or you’re wasting your time.”

Martin’s open-water arsenal includes ‘crawler harnesses with bright-colored #6 holographic blades, trolled 1 to 1.8 mph. In 2 feet or less of surface chop, rigs trail 8 feet behind an in-line weight. “When the wind picks up and swells get bigger, surge becomes a factor, so you need to replace the in-lines with clip-on weights 50 feet ahead of the rig,” he says. With either system, mainline is 12-pound Berkley XL, the stretchiness of which allows striking walleyes to suck the harness far enough in for solid hookups, he says. “Some days leadcore works well, too,” he adds. “It pays to experiment with your weighting systems.”

Martin also trolls crankbaits on the bay—sometimes in the same spread as spinner rigs. “To some anglers it’s heresy to mix spinners and crankbaits,” he says, “but it works wonders at speeds up to 1.8 mph. If I need to go faster, I switch to all cranks.” 

Top lures include deep runners like the #12 Rapala Husky Jerk Deep Diver, #9 Rapala Tail Dancer, 43⁄8-inch Storm Original ThunderStick Deep, and size #5 or #7 Rapala Shad Raps (he likes both the rattling, plastic RS series and regular balsa models equally well). “You can also pull a variety of shallow runners behind leadcore, in-line sinkers, or clip-on weights,” he adds.

Martin spreads his lines port, starboard, and aft with a flotilla of planer boards and stern planers. In general, he presents both rigs and crankbaits in the top half of the water column, “Divide water depth by two and fish up from there,” he says. “Start midway down and if you’re not getting bit, keep moving your lures higher, even if you’re not marking fish that high. Saginaw walleyes holding on bottom aren’t shy about rushing up and grabbing rigs 2 or 3 feet under the surface.”

Hawkeye Patterns

Longtime guide and In-Fisherman confidante Doug Burns trolls up walleyes all summer long on Iowa’s downsized yet fish-rich version of the Great Lakes. His pet trolling pattern for connecting with hot-weather walleyes entails trolling crankbaits over the largely featureless abyss of Spirit Lake’s sprawling basin.

Doug-Burns-Trolling-for-Walleye

“Spirit Lake is a big bowl,” Burns says. “From drop-off to drop-off on each shoreline, it’s basically a 20-foot flat, except for a long trough on the east side of the lake that drops to 22 feet. Sometimes walleyes are in the trough, but for the most part they’re in the basin.”

Burns says walleyes follow their stomachs into the basin. “Our main forage is spottail shiners and perch,” he says. “Spottails get into the basin in early summer, usually around June, and 1½- to 4-inch perch also move out to feed on bloodworms.” 

He relies on sonar to search for baitfish and the larger marks of hungry ’eyes shadowing the forage. Trolling a feeding frenzy can be productive, but not always. “I target feeders on bait first, but sometimes it gets to the point where you have too many baitfish,” Burns says. “When you don’t get bit trolling through baitfish and walleyes, move away from that area. Not far, maybe a quarter to half mile. Just far enough to find walleyes that have recently eaten and are an hour or two from eating again. These fish aren’t actively feeding, but you can often get them to bite.”

When he finds fish, he trolls hardbaits from 2.5 to 3.5 mph. “I use a precision, dual-power approach,” he says. “I engage my Mercury kicker just enough to almost reach the speed I want, then let my Minn Kota Terrova do the rest. With the trolling motor linked to my sonar and GPS, I can repeat productive trolling paths and adjust them as needed when the fish move.

“Summer walleyes like speed and direction changes, so I use the ‘rabbit button’ on my bowmount remote for a burst of speed while turning right or left. The combination makes a sharp corner that cracks the whip with your outside lines while the inside lines slow down. Do that two or three times to make the baits dance and change direction, then go back to straight and steady for a while.”

Burns favors shad-bodied baits over minnow imitators. “Shad profiles are key in this system,” he says. “I run smaller lures in late June and early July, such as #4 Rapala Shad Raps and Berkley Flicker Shads. Bass-type baits like Wiggle Warts, Bandits, and Bombers are also good; 5A or 6A Model A Bombers are especially good behind planer boards, higher in the water column. They’re a little bolder and track true at speeds of 3 mph or more.”

He also adds #5 and #7 Rapala Scatter Rap Crank Shallows and Scatter Rap CountDowns to the mix, occasionally experimenting with smaller lures like Rapala’s Ultra Light Shad and Ultra Light Minnow. “Perch and shiner patterns are perennial producers, but gaudy colors have their moments,” he says. “I start with at least one pink or purple in the mix and go from there.”

Burns’ depth preferences and weighting methods are a study in diversity. He typically runs most baits close to bottom, where they produce eater-sized walleyes with the occasional big fish. But he keeps a lure or two around the middle of the water column to pick up bigger fish. Weighting options include Off Shore Tackle Tadpole resettable diving weights, along with leadcore—four colors of which keep his baits close to bottom at 2.5 mph. He favors a 15-foot braid leader when fishing leadcore, which telegraphs lure action. “Even with small lures, I can see a little vibration on the rod tip and tell when the bait is fouled,” he says. “With Tadpoles, a 4-foot leader is plenty.”

As for the summer outlook, Burns notes that Spirit Lake’s walleye fishery is in excellent shape, with “a bunch of fish in the 23- to 27-inch range, plus good year-classes between 14 and 18 inches.”

Big River Bounty

Summer trolling isn’t just for still waters. Mississippi River guide Marty Hahn plucks plump walleyes from Pools 3 and 4 in July and August. One of his favorite patterns is slowly pulling 1/16-ounce weedless jigs tipped with a leech or half a ‘crawler downcurrent in flows of .7 to 1.3 mph.

“This pattern works on the main river in low flows, and in backwaters when the main river is moving too fast,” he says. “Finding the right current speed is more important than targeting a specific type of structure or bottom content, although clambeds with the right amount of flow can be especially good this time of year.” 

Hahn says 8-pound Berkley Trilene Sensation monofilament mainline allows the jig to reach bottom on a long cast in depths of 12 feet or less, which is another cornerstone of the system.

“Walleyes typically turn and move with the current after they bite,” Hahn says. “Since you’re trolling downriver, bites feel like a subtle tick—the kind you get on a livebait rig—instead of the crushing strike of a river walleye hitting a crankbait trolled upcurrent. When you feel a tick, follow the fish back with your rod tip, but don’t open the bail to feed it line. When the line tightens and you can’t extend the rod tip any farther, make a long, firm, sweeping hook-set. Don’t be gentle about it. You have to compensate for the fish coming at you, having a weedguard on the jig, and the stretch of mono mainline.”

He also fishes the featureless “no man’s land” of Lake Pepin, which functions much like a river-run reservoir and lacks appreciable flow. “The suspended bite here is overlooked,” he says. “It’s a shad-based pattern that can be as simple as trolling #7 Shad Raps, Jointed Shad Raps, and Flicker Shads at 1.5 to 3 mph on superline or leadcore, 10 feet down in 20 feet of water.”

While it helps to locate baitfish on sonar, such sightings aren’t a necessity. “Sometimes you’re grinding it out, hunting for scattered fish with nothing on the screen,” he says. “You have to stay focused because the rewards are worth it. This is a big-fish pattern that produces lots of walleyes from 23 to 27 inches.”

Lake of the Woods

On the U.S. side of Lake of the Woods, veteran guide Jon Thelen trolls minnowbaits to find walleyes scattered over the offshore basin. “The north end of the lake is rich in structure and walleyes may take up residence on a reef or point, but the southern end has far fewer of these fish-holding areas, so walleyes move out to the basin for the summer,” he explains.

Jon-Thelen-Trolling-for-Walleyes

Here, walleyes roam relatively soft-bottom areas in depths of 30 to 35 feet. “Their summer range covers a massive area,” he adds. “The fish can be anywhere from 3 miles offshore to 20 miles up the lake.”

In such expansive fishing grounds, it’s wise to find fish before wetting a line. “Blind trolling is a slow way to find needles in such a big haystack,” he says. “My Humminbird Helix 12 marks fish at 20 mph, allowing me to quickly track down schools of walleyes that may be miles apart. At such speeds, the fish show up as a streak, so I turn around, slow down, and get a better feel for what they are before deciding whether to start dropping lines.”

Minnowbaits are Thelen’s weapon of choice once fish are found. “Trolling small, shallow-running, stickbait-style lures like the 2½-inch Cotton Cordell Wally Diver has long been a favorite on the south basin in mid- to late summer,” he says. “The Wally Diver’s slender profile and tight wiggle mimic the action of shiner minnows, which are the lifeblood of the fishery and a staple of sauger and walleye diets. Downriggers have been the traditional delivery system for decades. But in recent years, folks have also figured out how to get these baits down with leadcore, which is also extremely effective.”

To increase his odds of boating larger fish in July and August, Thelen upsizes from a Wally Diver to a 4½-inch Smithwick Floating Rattlin’ Rogue, which dives from 4 to 10 feet on the troll. “Lake of the Woods also has tullibees, which add another dimension to the food chain,” he says. “A Rogue offers the same slim profile and tight action as the Wally Diver, in a bigger package that’s more appealing to walleyes looking for a larger meal. Switching to a Rogue allows you to sort through fewer 12-inchers while targeting larger slot fish for the livewell and trophies for release.”

With both the Wally Diver and Rogue, he favors shades of gold or silver, which “produce some flash and look like the natural food choices.” But when strong winds muddy the basin’s water, he opts for brighter patterns.

He’s no stranger to trolling up summer walleyes on a variety of other fisheries. He used to fish the In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail (PWT) and currently travels the Upper Midwest and southern Canada filming Fish ED television and online programming for Lindy Fishing Tackle. “Basin trolling is a factor wherever you have a lack of deep structure coupled with an abundance of food in some sort of featureless ‘middle of nowhere,’” he says.  

On some lakes, he makes the same midsummer switch from small to upsized stickbaits that he does on Lake of the Woods. But not always. “In some cases, it depends on the food source,” he explains. “Smithwick Rogues are effective on Minnesota’s Mille Lacs Lake, which also has tullibees. But on North Dakota’s Devils Lake, where the fish are used to smaller meals like juvenile perch, freshwater shrimp, and minnows, I stick with the smaller Wally Diver all season.”

Thelen says that Rogues aren’t just for basin trolling where large forage is available. “I troll them on structure, too,” he says. “For example, when I’m on a Canadian fly-in trip and walleyes are relating to a breakline, trolling a larger stickbait consistently catches larger fish than a traditional jig-and-minnow or jig-and-plastic presentation.”

Paradise Found

High Plains guide Matt Liebel fishes North Dakota’s Lake Sakakawea, where a rejuvenated walleye fishery helps overcome summertime challenges. “It’s probably the most difficult time of year to locate fish because they’re so spread out, but thanks to a record walleye population, it’s still possible to catch big numbers of fish trolling,” he says.

Case in point: While checking a 10-mile stretch of shoreline last summer, Liebel landed 60 walleyes in five hours. “I left the landing at 7 a.m. and ran two crankbaits in 10 or 11 feet of water,” he recalls. “I never turned around once. Just kept trolling down the bank. Some spots weren’t that hot, but others were lights out.”

Matt-Liebel-Trolling-for-Walleye-in-North-Dakota

Liebel’s game plan includes trolling flats near the old river channel, typically in 10 to 15 feet of water but sometimes as shallow as 3 feet, when a favorable wind blows into flooded grasslines or other cover as the impoundment reaches its high-water mark in July. “Back bays can be sleepers,” he adds. “Most people overlook them, but if baitfish are in there, so are the walleyes—even in water temperatures in the upper 70s.”

He leans on crankbaits like the #11 Berkley Flicker Minnow, #7 Flicker Shad, and #5 Jointed Shad Rap. He also fishes a variety of beefy Bagleys and Salmo Hornets. A typical four-rod setup includes two 12-foot poles and two 5-footers. Fished off the sides of the boat, the long rods are loaded with 10-pound-test superline mainline, which is linked to the crankbait with a dual-lock snap; 100- to 150-foot letbacks are typical, but vary according to depth.

“Short rods are fished straight out the back of the boat,” he says. “I run 18-pound leadcore with a 15-pound FireLine leader on these rods, even in shallow water, because the leadcore helps the lures track better and reduce tangles. With most baits, one color is plenty to reach the fish.”

Trolling speeds typically hover between 2.5 and 3 mph, but Liebel doesn’t hesitate to put the hammer down and hit 3.5 mph when the walleyes are up for it. “Pushing your speed reduces the number of small fish you deal with,” he says. “Increase it as long as the bigger ones keep biting.” Just another timely trolling tip to help you boat more fish this summer.

*Dan Johnson of Isanti, Minnesota, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and director of All Creation Outdoor Media. Guide contacts: Doug Burns, 712/209-4286; Marty Hahn, 612/875-8848; Matt Liebel, 701/770-6746.

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Catch Trophy Walleye with Swimbaits

Trophy Walleye on Swimbaits

Paddletail or thumper-style swimbaits are a fundamental walleye lure category on par with crankbaits, livebait rigs, and other classic presentations. In-Fisherman has long championed paddletails, chronicling the latest baits, applications, and benefits of these hard-thumping, versatile softbaits.

In the May issue, we looked at the paddletail’s rise to prominence. The lure’s storied history sets the stage for this discussion with top anglers on how they’re using them to catch more and bigger walleyes.

Northern Exposure

In-Fisherman contributor and guide Jeff Matity says he’s been following In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange’s swimbait teachings for nearly two decades. “It’s paid off,” he says. “What began as Stange’s summertime weedline patterns has evolved into an all-season, open-water quest with a cast of different baits that possess varying qualities that best suit the changing habitats and forage needs of big walleyes.”

During the 2017 season, Matity and his brother Jason fished swimbaits from May until November, from Saskatchewan to Ontario. The number of 7- to 11-pound walleyes they caught was impressive, and the lessons learned were remarkable.

Spring—“The biggest walleyes in a system rub shoulders with big pike in order to have access to prime forage and warmer water,” Matity says. “What that means is some of the biggest walleyes in a lake are in ‘pike’ bays. Whether walleyes are there to eat suckers retreating from their spawning runs or to soak up the sun and boost their metabolism is yet to be proven. Still, the best walleye contact is made during the heat of the day during stable, warming weather, which suggests the latter.”

Big-Hammer-Swimbait-for-Trophy-Walleyes

He says top spring baits are deep-bodied, 5-inch paddlers like the Big Hammer Swimbait and Berkley’s now-discontinued Flatback Shad. “Since these bays often have an off-color stain or suspended sediment, the kick of a big tail is important, providing roll and creating flash from the deep-bellied bait,” he says. “This draws fish in less-than-clear conditions.”

Solid-body lures threaded onto 3/8-, 1/2-, and 3/4-ounce saltwater jigheads, such as the Hammer Head Jig or Owner Saltwater Bullet jig, are the primary presentation. “However, when conditions are flat calm and the water becomes increasingly clear, the sinuous swimming style and realistic look of a hollow-belly swimbait like the Strike King Shadalicious, again 5 to 5½ inches long, fished with an internally rigged jighead such as a 3/8- to 3/4-ounce Bass Magnet tube jig, seem to out-do solid-body lures,” he says.

“As you progress from a 3/8- to 1/2- to a 3/4-ounce head, you can fish deeper or faster, or both,” he says. “It’s surprising how upping the weight and fishing faster can get the fish chomping—the opposite of what many anglers would think for triggering sluggish fish.”

Summer—“As you progress from the shallow bays to main-lake rock and shorelines, newer shallow-belly swimbaits snake their way through the terrain and into the mouths of big walleyes,” Matity says. “One such lure is the Storm 360GT Searchbait, which has a large paddle tail but a slim physique. With a prepackaged head that weighs 3/8 ounce, this lure is a shallow-water presentation, fishable down to about 15 feet. Wave action and wind spur the use of this shallow pattern and, unlike deep-bodied baits, that can be fished with a variety of retrieves, shallow-bellies perform best on a straight retrieve.”

Jeff-Matity-Paddletail-Swimbait-Trophy-Walleye

On main-lake reefs and flats, Matity’s focus shifts back to deep-bellied baits. “If restricted to one size for trophy walleyes, 5 inches would be my choice,” he says. “However, for open water, the 5½-inch Big Hammer and Shadalicious get the nod. Upsizing bodies yields gains in tail size, action, and vibration. This, along with the deep belly, gives the lure thump and flash, and moves a lot of water as it’s reeled along.”

The 3/4- and 1-ounce heads are right for 15- to 30-foot depths. He rigs the Big Hammer the same way as in spring, but says the Shadalicious also fishes “right” with an external jighead like the Hammer Head, superglued in place. “An external jighead gives the bait a 6-inch profile and telegraphs bottom well,” he says.

His go-to retrieve is stop-and-go. “After the lure hits bottom, raise the rod tip to 10 o’clock and hold it steady while the lure is reeled quickly about 10 feet, then stop to allow it to scurry to bottom again,” he says. “During this process, the lure sprints off bottom several feet, then stalls and swims back to bottom. Contact with the bottom are short or can be prolonged should the fish prefer to pin the swimbait to the bottom. Any bump is telegraphed to the motionless rod and the hook is set hard.”

Fall—Autumn walleyes may roam shallow bays when a warming trend draws them shallow or if they are congregating in current areas. “When this is the case, spring tactics apply,” Matity says. “If the lake has large walleyes, however, odds are there’s an open-water forage base that is both soft-finned and high in protein.

“Depending on where you are on the continent, prey may be alewives, shad, or ciscoes,” he says. “In the case of ciscoes, walleyes take advantage of the fall spawn to hunt prey that is vulnerable and focused on spawning. In this situation, walleyes eat ciscoes measuring a foot or longer, so 5½-inch swimbaits are superb.”

More Matity Tips

“Anytime wind roughs up the shoreline, swimbaits are great to throw,” he says. “They fish shallow to deep and catch everything that swims.” He says that adding a scent product like Pro-Cure Super Gel gives following fish a whiff of something attractive. “Trophy Walleye and Anise Plus are my favorites,” he says.

He says that paddletail swimbaits force you to fish walleyes as true predators. “Only by doing so do you realize how often the largest walleyes behave like any top predator, such as pike, muskie, or lake trout, aggressive with a big appetite.”

He rigs a medium-heavy 6½-foot rod with a medium-size Pflueger reel spooled with 20-pound Sufix 832 mainline tipped with a 25-pound Sufix Invisiline fluorocarbon leader.

Strolling and Downsizing

In-FishermanField Editor Gord Pyzer, long a fan of paddletail swimbaits, notes a few recent trends in his paddler presentations. “When we first started years ago, the bigger 5- and 6-inch paddletails were best because they generally targeted the biggest fish, often walleyes in the 8- to 10-pound class and better,” he says. “Smaller walleyes hit them, but there are often better presentations for run-of-the-mill walleyes.

Gord-Pyzer-with-a-Trophy-Walleye-on-a-Swimbait

Pyzer prescribes smaller paddlers for eater-size walleyes, and “strolling” to keep your bait in front of walleyes of all sizes.

“More recently, however, we’ve discovered that we catch more typical nice-size walleyes, those in the 16- to 24-inch range, by using smaller 3- and 4-inch swimbaits, and fishing them in shallower water,” he says. “Regardless of the length and size of the fish, the key always is using a heavier jighead than you would expect for the depth. I often use an ounce for big walleyes in 8 to 10 feet of water. The heavy head forces you to fish swimbaits in the aggressive style walleyes often prefer.”

Pyzer continues to promote paddletail “strolling.” “As I’ve written about in the past, we often stroll the baits alongside the boat, in a modified snapjigging sort of way,” he says. “By strolling and not casting, you keep you lure constantly in the water—no time wasted casting, waiting for the bait to fall, and retrieving—it is always in their faces.”

Not Livebait

In-Fisherman contributor Scott Glorvigen, a longtime professional walleye angler, advises anglers eager to excel with swimbaits to think beyond the connection to traditional livebaits. “I think the biggest mistake walleye anglers make is looking at plastics solely as a replacement for livebait in traditional presentations, like a jig and minnow,” he says.

“There are certainly softbaits that serve as excellent substitutes for livebait—including split-tail smelt baits and nail-tail designs like the Berkley PowerBait Pro Twitchtail Minnow. But a lot of different plastics, including paddletail swimbaits, work wonders on walleyes when fished as you would a crankbait or other artificial lure, not the way you’d fish livebait,” he says.

Ever on the hunt for a better way to put walleyes in the boat, he experiments with swimbaits and other softbaits from a variety of manufacturers. “I’m not tied to any sponsors, so I try lots of options,” he says.

To better understand where swimbaits excel, he compares them to the Twitchtail, which sports a thin, flexible tail that dances at the slightest twitch of the rod tip. He considers the Twitchtail a finesse bait. “It’s one of the few softbaits that lends itself to a subtle approach similar to a shaky-head presentation. You don’t hop it, just twitch it along bottom and let that magical tail do the work for you,” he says.

Paddletails, in comparison, are higher-octane options. “They’re great alternatives to hard-bodied, shad-style crankbaits,” he says. “You can fish them anywhere in the water column, at a variety of speeds.”

One of his top swimbait patterns is as straightforward as it is deadly. “I’ve been fishing smaller swimbaits on round jigheads, close to bottom with a steady retrieve,” he says. “I’ve used them to catch walleyes in areas where traditional livebait tactics fail—going back in with a paddletail after crawlers and leeches struck out.”

The presentation starts with a 3½- to 4½-inch paddletail. “The Megabass Spark Shad, Storm 360GT Searchbait, and Gene Larew Sweet Swimmer are great choices for this,” he says. Bait colors lean toward the natural end of the spectrum in clear water. “Minnow, smelt, and shiner patterns are effective in these conditions,” he says. “In stained or other low-vis conditions, try chartreuse, pink, and orange.”

Storm-360-Searchbait-for-Trophy-Walleye

Baits are rigged on a round-head, long-shank jig. “An extended shank, particularly with a wire keeper, helps hold softbaits in place,” he says. “Choose a jig that’s heavy enough to keep the bait near bottom given the water depth and conditions. I generally use a jig of the same weight I’d choose for a slipsinker if I was dragging a livebait rig in the same scenario. A jig box stocked with an assortment of heads from 1/4- to 1/2-ounce allows you to adjust to most situations.”

Glorvigen favors a 6-foot 9-inch to 7-foot spinning rod with a medium-fast tip for this paddletail presentation. “My mainline is a fused line like Berkley FireLine Crystal or a braid like Sufix Performance Braid, which lets me feel bottom, the lure’s tail action, and walleyes overtaking the bait,” he says, noting that braids also make it easier to cast in windy conditions. “Plus, they slice through weeds, which helps when you’re trying to wrestle a big walleye out of the greenery.

“High-visibility mainline helps you visualize where your bait is and detect strikes,” he says. He adds an 18-inch fluorocarbon leader to the end of the mainline.

DIY Paddlers

Longtime tournament pro and reigning Cabela’s Masters Walleye Circuit world champion Tommy Skarlis has fished paddletails since the early days. He’s a fan of their ability to put walleyes in the boat, especially when the chips are down. And while he’s fished virtually every swimbait under the sun, he’s convinced some of the best around are poured in garages, not on large-scale production lines.

“Lately, tournament partner Jeff Lahr and I have been using the Ripper, a homemade bait poured from a mold made by Do-it Molds,” he says. “The Ripper is a fat, ribbed bait with a large, round paddletail. The name makes people think you have to fish it aggressively, and you can, but it’s versatile enough to do just about anything.”

Paddletail-Swimbaits-tips-for-Trophy-Walleye

Available in 2½-, 3½-, and 4-inch sizes, the Ripper is the brainchild of Do-it Molds product manager Kyle Steinfeldt, an avid walleye angler. “I aimed it at walleyes, knowing bass would like it, too,” says Steinfeldt. “I began working on the Ripper two years ago, and let the fish tell me what they wanted while I went through about a dozen prototypes. The bait was finished in the spring of 2017 and quickly became our most popular selling lure mold.”

Steinfeldt says the Ripper was designed for both still and flowing water, with equally deceptive action on the fall and during straight retrieves. Its attributes, he says, include a large paddletail,  ringworm exterior, and deep-bodied profile. “It produces a wide wobble and pronounced side-to-side rolling action that causes baits with different colors top and bottom to flash like a swimming minnow,” he adds.

As for jig pairings, he says initial experiments with teardrop-style designs proved promising. “A lot of anglers like the nose-first, bombing action created with teardrops, but then we introduced a new design—the Swimbait Head Jig—that matches perfectly with the Ripper. It has a large eye, rounded head, double keeper, and the belly of the jig extends into the plastic body, so the bait matches the shape of the jig.”

While some anglers might hesitate at the idea of making their own softbaits, Steinfeldt says its simple, inexpensive, and offers a variety of benefits. “If you can heat something up in a microwave, you can make your own baits,” he promises. “All you do is heat up the plastisol for two minutes, until it reaches 350°F, add desired color and glitter, then inject it into the mold, where it sets up in 30 seconds. The process is a lot faster than driving to a tackle shop or waiting for baits ordered online to reach your doorstep. Plus, you can pour your own baits as inexpensively as 7 cents apiece, which is a lot cheaper than you can buy them off the shelf.

“Tackle crafting also allows you to customize bait color and action,” he adds. “You can create color patterns to match any species of crayfish or baitfish—or stand out from the crowd or environment. Different hardening and softening additives also let you adjust the bait’s action. You can loosen it up and widen the wobble, or tighten it to accentuate the tail thump.”

Skarlis’ strategies for fishing the Ripper are many and varied. “During the 2018 tournament season, I plan to pull it on three-way rigs along the faces of wing dams on the Mississippi River, slow-troll it on the edges and tops of flats on lakes like Mille Lacs, and vertical jig it on the Illinois River for monster saugers and walleyes,” he says. “Plus a variety of pitching, dragging, jerking, snapjigging, and other presentations everywhere from Saginaw Bay, Michigan, to Cass Lake, Minnesota.”

His pitching program: “I cruise along at 30 or 40 mph, watching for fish on my Raymarine Axiom sonar. When I mark a fish, I touch the sonar screen to save the coordinates. Then I spin the boat around, come back, and pitch to the icon, right in the prop wash. High-riding fish are typically more active and apt to hit an aggressive retrieve, but you need to figure out what they want at the moment.”

Fishing-for-Trophy-Walleye

Skarlis cautions anglers against having one pet paddletail presentation or preconceived notions about what jigstrokes and other motions are going to catch fish. “You never get up in the morning and say, ’This is how I’m going to catch them today,’” he says. “Walleye preferences change. One day they want you to rip the bait erratically with the rod tip as high as possible, and the next they prefer a steady lift and gentle downward glide. Other times, you have to twitch and wiggle it along the bottom like a swim jig.”

When vertical jigging paddlers in rivers, he often slips downstream, executing classic lift-fall-pause routines. “You can also swim paddletails downstream about 2 to 6 inches off bottom, or drag them over the right kind of bottom,” he says.

No matter the retrieve pattern, Skarlis advises using a strike-detecting combination of a hyper-sensitive rod and line. “The ability to tell when a fish takes the bait is paramount,” he says. “Sometimes you get lucky and a fish that hits on the fall is ‘magically’ there when you go to rip the bait again. But most times, most anglers don’t feel the hit, they feel the spit.”

He favors a 7-foot, medium-fast St. Croix Legend or Legend Elite spinning rod, loaded with light superline mainline with a 2-pound-test diameter and 10-pound break strength. “Berkley NanoFil is a great choice, and hard to beat for long casts,” he says. “FireLine is good, too, and I’ve also been trying a new braid from Cortland.” He adds a 2- to 6-foot fluorocarbon leader of the same break strength to the end of the mainline.

“As soon as you feel something different or see the line do something different, set the hook. Hook-sets are free, and the action imparted by an ‘airball’ hook-set sometimes triggers a strike,” he says.

“Again, vary your retrieves at times. Always imagine a walleye is following your lure. Sometimes it just takes a change up to get them to bite.”

*Dan Johnson of Isanti, Minnesota, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and director of All Creation Outdoor Media.

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Types of Walleye Forage

Walleye Forage

If we take a walleye from a lake where the primary forage is scuds and small fish—maybe from Devils Lake, North Dakota—and transport it to a reservoir where alewives are top forage, as in Kentucky’s Lake Cumberland, how long before the fish changes its feeding pattern? Not long, I suppose.

Walleyes sometimes travel long distances to follow what they like to eat. Take the fish of Lake Erie, for example. Both walleyes and smelt spawn on reefs in Ohio’s Western Basin and as far west as the rivers of Michigan. Procreation finished, the smelt head east to the offshore waters of New York and at least some of the walleyes follow. It’s a mass movement of both fish and food over hundreds of miles, crossing three state lines.

But the migration of a food source doesn’t always mean walleyes follow. Take the disappearing act of Lake Huron’s alewives since 2003. Walleyes don’t migrate to Lake Michigan where alewives are still plentiful—they rely on other food sources, primarily the goby and gizzard shad. Perch have also made a comeback in the Great Lakes since the alewives left (alewives feed on young-of-the-year perch and walleye) and help to fill the void.

“If you have naturally reproduced walleye, such as in Huron, and they have some fat on them, then you know they’ve been feeding well throughout their life cycle,” says Jim Baker, ­fisheries unit manager for the Michigan DNR. That’s the case with Huron walleyes.

To catch walleyes, saugers, and saugeyes, it helps to know the habits of their forage. Find the bait, match your lure to the bait, get it at the same depth as the bait, and you’re probably going to catch fish. One way to categorize meat-and-potatoes forage options is by shape. Here we take a look at some common walleye forage.

Short and stocky—Alewives are common throughout most of the Great Lakes, rivers, and reservoirs of the southern and eastern United States. Although they can reach 15 inches, 1- to 6-inchers are the norm. Alewives are schooling fish, found high in the water column of deep lakes and estuaries. They’re easy to find on sonar as thousands pack into massive pods. In spring, they head shoreward to spawn on rocky breaklines, especially in rivers.

Walleyes grow large quickly on a diet of these high-protein fish. Proof can be seen in the fish of Lake Huron. It was common to catch walleyes over 10 pounds when alewives were abundant. Today’s generation of walleyes, though healthy, average 5 to 6 pounds.

Walleye Forage

Gizzard shad have one of the widest ranges of any forage species, living in lakes, large rivers, reservoirs, estuaries, and in saltwater, from the Atlantic west to the Great Lakes and Plains states, and south into Mexico. A closely related species is the threadfin shad. Both are omnivores and, like alewives, school in massive balls high in the water column and migrate shoreward to spawn. Walleyes love to eat 1- to 2-inch young-of-the-year gizzard and threadfin shad in late summer.

In warm, shallow lakes throughout the Midwest, wide-­bodied panfish such as crappies and bluegills also fill the gullets of walleyes. Young-of-the-year panfish are weed-oriented, and walleyes consistently hold near vegetation because of it.

Gobies are a new entrée on the menu, brought to our waters via the ballasts of seagoing freighters. These bottom-dwellers have invaded the hard-bottomed areas of the Great Lakes in droves, although they also do well in weedgrowth. When they’re available, walleyes do their best to eat them.

Long and thin—Rainbow smelt can be found from the east to west coasts, throughout the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River basin, and on in reservoirs of the Great Plains, along with the coastal shorelines of Alaska.

Like shad, smelt are schooling fish, but they can be found throughout the water column rather than just its upper reaches. Smelt are anadromous, living in saltwater or large inland lakes and spawning in tributary rivers and streams. They may migrate hundreds of miles to spawn and are an important food source wherever they swim. In the late 1990s, the smelt in South Dakota’s Lake Oahe were lost during a highwater drawdown, and this severely affected the walleye population. The smelt have rebounded since then, shad have been added to the mix, and walleyes are ­prospering again.


Prey Type Affects Walleye Behavior 

Walleye Forage

The availability of large prey items is a critical component in the production of large predators. Consequently ciscoes, also called lake herring or tullibees, play an important role in growing big walleyes. Recent research on the muscle enzymes of walleyes in several Ontario lakes suggests that walleyes may become comparatively lazy in the presence of large-bodied prey like ciscoes, which may further improve their growth potential when compared to a menu of perch alone.*

Current climate projections, however, suggest that the outlook for ciscoes, a coolwater fish, isn’t good. In stratified lakes, ciscoes escape warmer surface waters by heading deep, but their ability to stay in deep, cold water is regulated by oxygen. In lakes that have oxygen depletion in deep water, ciscoes are forced into a narrow band of water that meets their temperature and oxygen demands. Meanwhile, in larger, windswept systems that don’t stratify, ciscoes are forced to deal with ambient water temperatures. Today, summerkills of ciscoes have become more frequent. These kills typically occur in August.

The effects of climate change on walleye populations remain unclear. Certainly, warmer summers may cause even more summerkill situations, and any reduction in cisco numbers is bound to affect the walleye populations that depend on them.

*Kaufman, S. D., J. M. Gunn, G. E. Morgan, and P. Couture. 2006. Muscle enzymes reveal walleye (Sander vitreus) are less active when larger prey (cisco, Coregonus artedi) are present. Can. J. Fish. & Aquat. Sci. 63:970-979


Many shiner species are an important forage option throughout North America. They live in nearly every creek, river, lake, and swamp east of the Rocky Mountains, from northern Canada south to Mexico. Some of the most prolific species of importance are emerald, spottail, striped, common, red, rosyface, spotfin, redfin, weed, and mimic shiners.

Many, but certainly not all, can be found throughout the entire water column, though emerald shiners live only in the warmest waters of a lake, well above the thermocline in summer, then move shoreward as the lake cools. Spottails, meanwhile, are bottom-dwellers, hiding in and feeding among weeds, rocks, and wood.

Creek chubs inhabit sandy, gravelly, and rocky streams and lakes. Walleyes target them in rivers during spring spawning runs, and again as they move back into rivers in fall.

In the same family as the walleye is the prolific yellow perch, which can be found in deep, cold, natural lakes, rivers, and reservoirs, as well as in shallow, warm water from the East Coast throughout the Great Lakes, to the Plains states and into Canada.

Although thought of as bottom-dwellers, perch suspend above the thermocline when shiners and insects are present. Young-of-the-year perch usually seek shelter in vegetation and often are a primary walleye target.

In-betweeners—On the dinner plate of walleyes in relatively sterile inland lakes throughout the Midwest, Mountain States, northern Great Lakes, and Canadian Shield lakes are thick-bodied whitefish and ciscoes, also known as lake herring or tullibee.

The waters whitefish and ciscoes inhabit range from deep, cold, and low in nutrients to medium-fertile waters that host both cool- and warmwater species. Ciscoes in particular are considered one of the best food sources for growing big walleyes.

Trout, especially stocked rainbows, also are attractive forage and have the potential to grow world-class walleyes. Rainbows inhabit all parts of the water column during spring, fall, and winter. They’re available to walleyes during most of the year. During summer they often hold just below the thermocline, where some walleyes probably follow them.

Creepy critters—Insects and crustaceans make up a portion of the walleye diet. Walleyes gobble up tiny scuds, or freshwater shrimp, as they flap their fan-like tails and scoot along lake and river bottoms, often near thick weeds and wood.

Crayfish often are a target, too, especially in lakes where other forage is in short supply during some yearly periods. Walleyes probably don’t gain a lot of weight on crayfish, but they can sustain fish through lean periods.

Walleye Forage

Making up one of the largest parts of the forage scene are insects. Perhaps the most common and abundant are species of mayfly, eaten in both adult and emergent form. Emerging nymphs are an easy target as they waggle their way up from the bottom during an early-summer hatch. Walleyes often gorge on them so heavily that the fish become difficult to catch, being fully sated.

Juvenile lampreys are an overlooked prey option, with diffeent species found in the Northwest, Northeast, Midwest, and in Great Lakes waters. The eel-like, jawless lamprey preys primarily on soft-scaled fish—especially trout and salmon. With rows of sharp teeth, they attach themselves to the outside of the fish, feeding on blood and tissues. Walleyes eat immature lampreys, though it isn’t known how important a prey item they are.

Walleyes are omnivorous predators, though their primary targets are fish. Understanding which prey species fish are keying on at any time and place can lead you to logical choices about lure shape, color, and size, from spring throughout summer and into fall.

*David A. Rose is a writer, photographer and fishing guide who lives near Traverse City, Michigan.

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Paddletail Swimbaits are Walleye Candy

Paddletail-Swimbaits-for-Walleyes

Fishing with paddletail or thumper-style “swimbaits” rose from obscurity to prominence within the last decade or so. Today, lots of anglers use these hard-thumping, ’eye-catching lures and almost every company that produces softbaits has at least one in their lineup. The paddletail category has become as fundamental as other categories critical to walleye fishing.

In-Fisherman encouraged anglers to join the revolution, detailing benefits, including the ability to fish more aggressively and often catch larger fish than other techniques. Editor In Chief Doug Stange, in particular, championed this category and continues to push the boundaries of how to use them. “Paddletails are remarkable tools for walleyes—among the best of the best for producing fish in many situations,” he says.

By now, of course, many other top anglers have found solid new ways to use these lures. We’ll explore that theme in the next issue. First, let’s chronicle how we got to where we are today.

The roots of the paddletail movement trace to early soft designs like the legendary Creme Wiggle Worm, followed by baits with paddle or boot tails that enhanced action and vibration. Stange considers the Vibrotail, which he used in the 1970s, as the first of the thumpers. But it had limitations. “It came prerigged with an anvil-shaped head that didn’t allow the body to swim,” he says. “The tail didn’t move much, either. But it was an important product of choice for a cadre of anglers who waded for walleyes, casting into wind.”

The arrival of Mister’s Twister Sassy Shad in 1979 was a breakthrough. That introduction was a follow-up to the company’s original classic curlytail, developed in 1972. Dressed correctly on a light, round jighead, the 3-inch and particularly the 4-inch curlytail were the original swimming softbaits, according to Stange. “The body of the bait rocks back and forth ever so slightly as the tail shimmies along,” he says. “That combo did a good job of imitating small bullheads as forage in shorecasting situations.”

The Mister Sassy Shad was a pronounced improvement. “It was the first true paddletail swimbait,” he says. Stange wrote about fishing it on reaper-style wedgehead jigs or on a jighead with a long-shank hook offered by Mister Twister. Shorecasting worked best when the water was cold. You had to retrieve a Vibrotail too fast to get the tail to work. The Sassy Shad excelled at slower speeds.

Even by 2003, thumpertails still suffered an identity crisis. Most companies and anglers considered them saltwater lures. “Berkley sold three styles of thumpers, each of them great for walleyes, yet all were listed as saltwater lures,” Stange says.

Most manufacturers were also hesitant to market softbaits large enough to trigger walleyes to bite in many situations. “In a mad continuum that makes market sense but doesn’t mean better fishing, manufacturers consistently offer softbaits that are too small,” Stange wrote in 2003. “Three-inch lures dominated sales, 4-inchers are less common but should be the most versatile choice, and few 5-inch thumper-style softbaits are available.

“Six-inch baits were even scarcer,” he says. “Large, even by contemporary standards, they worked better in some situations than most anglers could imagine.” To offer a complete lineup for hardcore walleye anglers, he recommended at minimum 4-, 5-, and 6-inch baits, with half-inch increments adding even more versatility.

Early Experiments

Stange experimented with lures of all sorts, often pitting hard- and softbaits against one another to see which produced best. “For about 20 years, I spent 30 nights a year wading for walleyes,” he says. “On the hardbait side, it became apparent that bigger stickbaits like the #13 Husky Rapala or #13 Floating Rapala (doctored with lead shot to cast farther, fish slower, and suspend) produced more and larger fish than tighter-wobbling stickbaits and smaller baits.

Doug-Stange-Paddletail-Swimbait-Walleye

“When 3-inch Mister Twister curlytails came along, we used them but they didn’t consistently produce big fish. It wasn’t until the 4-inch Sassy Shad arrived that we began catching more big fish on softbaits. It was a toss-up between the Rapalas and the 4-inch Sassy Shad, usually fished on a 1/4-ounce head.”

He found numerous situations where paddletails fished as well or better than crankbaits, usually for casting but at times for trolling, too. “Thumper plastics often fish better than the more widely used crankbaits,” he wrote in “The Theory & Practice of Plastics for Walleyes” in 2003. “They fish as modestly as a Floating Rapala or as distinctively as a Cotton Cordell Ripplin’ Red-Fin,” he wrote. “They fit into any lineup as a tool to be used at least on occasion, and often are the best choice.”

At that time, Berkley offered the Power Pogy, a classic thumper design that somewhat resembled the Sassy Shad, as well as the more tubular minnowlike profile of the Berkley Power Mullet. The Saltwater PowerBait Swim Shad also was available in 2003. That year In-Fisherman aired its first TV segment about using that lure, which Stange rigged on Owner Saltwater Bullet Jigheads, weighing 1/2 or 3/4 ounce. He targeted walleyes along deep weededges. “The PowerBait Swim Shad became my primary paddletail,” he recalls. “It was also the catalyst for the swimbait wording we began to use in print and on TV.”

As we’ve mentioned, the main criteria for considering a product a “swimbait” is that the body produces a swimming motion as the tail also does its thumper thing. “Today the best term seems to be ‘paddletail swimbait,’ to distinguish from the several styles of bass swimbaits on the market,” he notes. “Not all paddletail swimbaits produce much body swimming motion, although they all have tail movement. The best of them do both, although of course to do that they also have to be rigged on an appropriate jighead.”

Other classes of thumper baits began to emerge, including the Matzuo Sterling Minnow and Northland Tackle Mimic Minnow. These were built along an opposite line from the original shad-bodied softbaits—narrow on top with a fat belly—somewhat like the original Vibrotail.

Storm’s WildEye Swim Shad also debuted as a unique prerigged design with the plastic head and body formed around interior lead. The bait had a wide flat belly, thin back, and long tail with the widest flap of any thumpers to date. “The WildEye Swim Shad is the best prerigged swimbait I’ve used,” Stange says. “Most designs aren’t keeled correctly and ride up on their sides when you run them a little faster, but the Swim Shad grinds along true as can be. Even in the 6-inch size, the body swims seductively as the tail thumps distinctively.”

Today, the paddletail swimbait category is flush with options, allowing anglers to experiment until they find the right combination of size, profile, and tail characteristics for the conditions at hand. Again, we’ll dig more deeply into that in the next issue.

Swimbait Benefits 

As the paddletail swimbait genre matured, In-Fisherman further noted the lure category’s benefits, such as the ability to sometimes catch more and larger fish than other presentations. Anglers can also make long casts with swimbaits to cover lots of water. But the primary advantage is that they provide precise depth and speed control, the two most fundamental elements in any presentation. They often excel when fished aggressively, allowing anglers to search efficiently. They work well through the edges of weedcover or along the edges of rocky shoals, or run over the top of such shoals. They also work well in open water.

Fishing swimbaits for fish suspended in open water is mostly unexplored. On one occasion, fishing on the Bay of Quinte near Picton, Ontario, in late November, Stange and Merland Park Resort owner Kevin Lavers had found big fish scattered across about a two-mile stretch of the bay by using standard trolling methods. Stange suggested they make controlled drifts and cast 5-inch swimbait bodies on 3/4- and 1-ounce jigheads. They completed a TV show segment by catching four fish from 8 to about 12 pounds. The fish were 10 to 15 feet down over 30 to 40 feet of water. They duplicated that feat two years later. Stange has also caught fish suspended about 25 feet down in portions of the basin area that runs 35 feet deep in Mille Lacs in Minnesota.

One thing that often surprises anglers is how deeply walleyes take a swimbait. A fish sees the bait, rushes to overtake it from behind, opening its mouth wide, gills flaring as it inhales the lure. There is a momentary lack of resistance, a pause in jig action, as the lure is pushed forward, before everything stops. Often the jig’s totally gone, down the hatch, literally at the entrance to the gullet, even with smaller fish. One soon realizes that the reason for this must have something to do with how thoroughly walleyes are fooled by this presentation.

Science helps explain some of what’s at work here. Predatory fish use their lateral -line system to detect underwater vortices, or wakes, left by baitfish as they swim. Such trails allow predators to identify and home in on potential prey. When a walleye sees something of interest, it swims steadily toward the object, gets behind it, and tracks it. In such close quarters, the lateral-line system, not vision, tells the fish whether to break off the chase or eat the object of interest.

“The reason swimbaits often so completely fool fish is because the lateral line is getting feedback from something that feels perfectly natural as the predator closes in,” Stange says. “It’s alive, or the closest thing to it.”


In the Beginning

In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange began fishing the 4-inch Mister Twister Sassy Shad after it was introduced in the late 1970s. He considers it the first true “swimbait,” although the prerigged Vibrotail preceded it. Stange mainly fished the Sassy Shad body on a jighead while shorefishing (boot fishing) for walleyes in shallow areas during spring and fall.

Paddletail Swimbaits for Walleye

(From left) Mister Twister Sassy Shad and wedgehed jig, J Mac Jig and Lunker City Salt Shake, Berkley PowerBait Salwater SwimShad and Own Saltwater Bullet.

In the late 1990s, he began using the 1.5-ounce J-Mac jig for muskies, dressing it with a Berkley saltwater swimbait, the 6-inch Power Pogy, or a Lunker City Salt Shaker. He rigged the bodies flat on the jighead to give it bulk, make it swim (glide) better through shallow weedgrowth, and to add vibration to the presentation.

This 7-inch package was deadly for muskies on many waters, but a curious thing happened, as he often also scored big walleyes on it. Even more curiously those walleyes didn’t just strike that big package, most times they totally engulfed it.

He made the connection to using another Berkley swimbait product, the 5-inch Saltwater PowerBait Swim Shad on one of his favorite jigheads, the Owner Saltwater Bullet, which he often used in the 1.5-ounce size for tarpon, redfish, pike, muskies, and stripers. He downsized to the 1/2-ounce and 3/4-ounce sizes for working weededges in from 5 to 15 feet of water.

The first television filming with that combo was in June, 2002, on Mille Lacs lake. That footage aired in 2003, and he began to write about using what were at the time considered saltwater swimbaits, starting the march to where we are today.


Getting Started 

It isn’t hard to get the hang of fishing swimbaits, although there’s a bit of a learning curve. “Lots of anglers are used to tiptoeing around, dragging slowly, lift-dropping minutely, trying to finesse ‘finicky’ walleyes into taking a nip,” Stange says. “The underlying presentation principle at work with swimbaits is that fish sometimes respond tentatively to tentative presentations, while they may in the same situation respond exactly the opposite—aggressively—to a bolder presentation.”

Stange instructs that someone just getting started should cast it out, count it down, get the rod tip up, and fish the lure on a slow, steady grind. Get the lure doing its thing. Then you can stroke the rod tip a bit to make the lure bob and swim a bit more. Drop in a stop-restart move from time to time. When walleyes are holding close to the bottom, you may have to stop the retrieve to re-establish bottom contact. If you hit weedgrowth, often it works to just rip it free. Generally, though, you move the lure steadily along.

Stange admits that he was slow to start using smaller swimbait bodies. “Early on I was in ‘Give ‘Em Holy Hanna and Hang On Mode,’ with 4-, 5-, and 6-inch baits most of the time,” he says. “But I started catching a lot of river fish on a 3-inch Berkley Hollow Belly (now discontinued) rigged flat on 3/8- and 1/2-ounce jigheads. That got me using smaller bodies anytime fish seemed a bit hesitant or I was on a water with smaller fish and I was looking for a mess of eaters.”

One of his favorite smaller bodies is a 3.5-inch Berkley PowerBait Ripple Shad, trimmed to about 3 inches, rigged flat on a jighead like the 1/4-ounce Northland Tackle Slurp jighead. That jighead has a longer hook shank that couples well with that size swimbait. He rigs the body flat, as opposed to how it’s designed to be fished with the body projecting a natural profile.

Assorted-Paddletail-Swimbaits-for-Walleyes“Rigged flat you have more hook gap so you hook more fish,” he says. “The bait glides better and settles on the bottom without tipping, which means it has a natural touch-down and takeoff as you swim it along. As you swim it, any rod-tip pump makes the body tip slightly, providing natural baitfish flash. And if you slowly grind it, the body swims as the paddletail also does its thing. Not all smaller bodies fish best like this, but many do.”

Tinkering with smaller size classes of swimbaits on lighter jigheads triggers more walleyes in some environments. And once anglers have a bit of faith in a smaller package they don’t have so much trouble moving on to something a bit bigger, which, as Stange’s experiences have shown, is what big walleyes want in many places across North America.

Once you become proficient with swimbaits, you can tackle many conditions on countless lakes, rivers, and reservoirs. Stange has caught walleyes on them from the Great Lakes to the Columbia River; on many Canadian Shield waters as well as reservoirs and rivers in Canadian provinces; up and down the Missouri and Mississippi rivers; on classic mesotrophic waters across the Midwest—lakes like Mille Lacs; and many more, including Devils Lake.

Paddletail swimbaits should be a fundamental part of your presentation program. Next issue we follow up with a look at how some of today’s top anglers fish these modern marvels.

*Dan Johnson of Isanti, Minnesota, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and director of All Creation Outdoor Media.

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