The transom slaps into the waves with rhythmic percussion.
The light rods load slightly, their soft arcs reaching out over the water. At the tip, the line takes a right angle, pointing back into the gentle chop behind the slowly progressing boat.
Somewhere back there, a long, slender hair jig and a realistic, minnow-imitating plastic body progress slowly along, undulating with the rise-and-fall of the boat.
Backtrolling allows each wave to slow or sometimes stop the boat, and the baits angle slowly toward bottom, tails fluttering. On each turn the outside baits rise and accelerate, while the inside baits parachute to bottom and make contact, raising plumes or clicking on rocks.
The strike is the same gentle “tic” felt when pitching jig-plastic combos or hair jigs to bass, lake trout, walleyes, or just about anything else, which makes this a hands-on operation.
Rod holders work when hooks are extremely sharp and walleyes are particularly aggressive, but trolling for walleyes with soft plastics or hair generally demands holding onto the rod. But that’s not to say boards are out of the question.
Regardless of all the above, trolling soft plastics is one of the most effective tactics I’ve encountered for taking walleyes when they move into areas less than 20 feet deep. And might continue being as effective for walleyes in even deeper water. I just haven’t applied the tools necessary to try fishing them deeper and haven’t needed to. For the past several years I’ve been finding plenty of shallow walleyes right through June and well into July in every conceivable type of habitat.
Walleyes stay shallow longer when
1) the perch spawn is delayed or extended;
2) surface temperatures remain relatively cool; and, most importantly
3) when pelagic, open-water baitfish populations are down.
Consider the plight of those open-water baitfish. Smelt populations declined decades ago and have never recovered. Alewives, also in decline, are being replaced by gobies as the primary forage source for a number of species in the Great Lakes. And in our inland lakes, ciscoes (also called lake herring or tulibees) are in decline as well.
According to every fisheries agency in the region, our lakes are warming up. Overall we’re experiencing warmer high temperature ranges in summer, earlier warming in spring, and delayed cooling in fall. Professors Heinz Stefan and Xing Fang of Auburn University collaborated with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MNDNR) to identify those lakes in Minnesota in which the cold-water cisco would have the best chance of survival. They concluded that by 2100, due to warming and loss of dissolved oxygen in the depths, ciscoes will become extinct in 460 of the 620 lakes they now inhabit in Minnesota.
In other words, ciscoes are in decline. In those lakes where ciscoes provide the primary source of open-water forage, walleyes will be increasingly forced back to structure and structure-oriented baitfish like perch, shiners, gobies, chubs, and suckers. Even when warming isn’t the culprit, every one of those species—open water or structure oriented—can experience off years, when conditions during the spawn are not conducive to promoting good year classes.
Over the years, in the inland lakes of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, I’ve often noticed that, when conditions are poor for ciscoes to spawn in fall, or when severe cold weather right after the spawn claims a lot of young-of-the-year (yoy) ciscoes, structure fishing rules the following year. And after big die-offs of ciscoes due to extremely hot weather, structure fishing picks up. Conversely, when conditions are poor for perch to spawn in spring, open-water trolling takes center stage.
To find walleyes, find the most abundant forage.
It never ceases to amaze me how many walleye anglers program themselves to follow the same routine year-after-year no matter what nature is doing. Most anglers know enough to work shallow in spring, because that’s where all the baitfish are. But, as if hearing that whistle erected by the Morlocks, they file out to deeper water like the entranced Eloi at a certain point early on each summer and never look back no matter how poor the fishing is.
When conditions produce huge blooms of perch and other structure-oriented baitfish in spring, walleyes stay shallow. Doesn’t matter if surface temperatures top 85°F. Doesn’t matter if it stays calm and bright.
Last year, we were sight fishing for walleyes in mid July in depths of 5 to 10 feet all over Minnesota, while guides around Green Bay and other areas of Lake Michigan reported the same kind of activity. When guides are catching walleyes by pitching jig-minnow combinations to depths of 6 feet in gin-clear water, trolling with plastics can be obscenely effective.
Walleye pro Tommy Skarlis, famous guide Brian “Bro” Brosdahl, and TV personality Al Lindner have all related past success stories to me detailing how they trolled plastics to catch walleyes. Skarlis and Brosdahl described fairly similar tactics, using in-line trolling boards to “tether” jig-plastic combos above the cover while sailing them out over weeds or wood. Lindner sometimes keeps plastics on a short line, using fairly heavy jigs to stay almost vertical, directly below the boat while pulling them with the electric motor.
All of those tactics can be deadly, but my program is a little different. For years I’ve written about fishing “in space” for bass and other species. A tube, grub, finesse worm, soft-plastic jerkbait, or swimbait can be presented way behind the boat—way beyond casting range—on a light jig at slow speeds, using an electric trolling motor to pull them along.
A plastic bait or hair jig wafting around way, way back there is one of the most natural presentations possible. By trolling in a slow, wide zig-zag pattern, the lure not only escapes the “spook zone” around your boat by an added cast length, it covers lots of water that the boat doesn’t pass over.
But walleyes in shallow water are different animals.
They invade shallow water to feed and, in the absence of adequate cover, they leave when done foraging. Weed walleyes, many of us assume, stay shallow but bury themselves when not active. I don’t think walleyes using rock, sand, gravel, or other “open” structures behave that way. In areas with only rock cover, we can run the boat right over active walleyes in depths of 10 to 12 feet without interrupting their bruise cruise. Any shallower and we see them push off to the sides, but active walleyes are quite tolerant of a single boat passing by most of the time.
We use jigs in the 1/16- to 3/8-ounce range most of the time, depending on how deep the area is and how much speed walleyes will tolerate. Lighter 1/16- to 1/18-ounce jigs match best with depths of 4 down to about 12 feet, and from there down to 20 feet, even a little deeper, ¼- to 3/8-ounce jigs excel at the necessary speeds.
While speeds of 3 mph can produce, I find the range between .8 and 1.2 mph to be the most consistently effective with most styles of plastic or hair. Ring worms, soft-plastic jerks, swimbaits, and long bunny-strip jigs have been so productive, we really haven’t needed to experiment with other styles. Certainly, however, other shapes and styles must be applicable.
When people think walleye lures, they tend to think bright, fluorescent or glow-in-the-dark colors.
Last year the most productive color for us, day in and day out, was watermelon pepper. Coming in a close second was green pumpkin. After that, minnow-imitating colors like smoke with copper flake and clear salt-and-pepper produced verywell, as did all white or all black—especially in adverse conditions.
We experimented with all kinds of jig styles—bullet heads, football heads, mushroom heads, ball heads, and swimming heads. Whichever style kept the presentation near bottom in deeper water, or kept it from dragging on bottom in shallower water, was the most efficient and ultimately most effective. Sometimes a fluorescent chartreuse, pink, or orange head works best, but we use black, green pumpkin, and watermelon jigs most of the time.
The combination I’ve used most over the past several years has been a 4-inch Case Plastics Ring Worm on a 3/32-ounce Gopher Tackle Mushroom Head built with a light-wire Gamakatsu hook. Gopher makes the same jig with a variety of hooks (including Owner and VMC), but the one with the Gamakatsu hook is the lightest. (I’m saying all 1/8-ounce jigs do not weigh the same—in fact, very few 1/8-ounce jigs weigh 1/8 ounce). In shallow water, lighter tends to be better, as jigs will begin to drag back there at the distances you want them to run. Other great combinations include 4- to 6-inch worms, swimbaits and soft-plastic jerks from Zoom, TriggerX, Berkley, Northland Tackle, Venom, and a whole host of companies. Just about every plastics manufacturer out there molds one or more viable options for this tactic.
We make long casts behind the boat then let out line until we have just over 100 feet out. I’m sure line counters would be more efficient, but we use spinning gear.
One of the great things about this program is that you can stop and cast the same baits whenever you visually see big groups of walleyes.
We always stop and cast to those spots where we catch one or two on every pass, too. When moving, we use a transom-mount electric to backtroll, slowing the boat down as much as possible. It can be hard to forward troll slower than 1 mph, even with a kicker motor.
Another great thing about trolling jigs is the ability to cover huge areas of water relatively quickly without leadcore, without rod holders, without boards, and without any really sophisticated trolling gear. Side Imaging sonar, like my Humminbird 998C, can be invaluable, though, for revealing where the tops of reefs and humps are in relation to the boat, and for checking to see if fish are off to the side in shallower or deeper water.
In clear water, trolling a jig halfway down in the water column can be effective. In stained or cloudy water, the jig needs to be within a couple feet of bottom. In cloudy water, I use the same principle to determine speed that I use when casting and retrieving: The jig should kiss bottom occasionally. If it drags, speed up. If it never touches bottom, slow down.
Keeping a jig down isn’t the problem. A heavier head can always be employed. The problem is dialing into the speed walleyes respond to best. As mentioned, slower is better most of the time, but I believe that includes drop speed. Heavier jigs drop precipitously on the inside of a turn and when the boat stalls momentarily in waves. Lighter jigs drop slower and, I think, create a more natural look. I try to use the lightest jig possible. Last year, the most active fish were in 7- to 9-foot depths almost every day, and our most effective weight with a ring worm was 1/16-ounce—but that was because of the tackle we were using.
Keeping a 1/16-ounce jig down in the water column requires light line (lower line diameter means less friction means more depth at the same speed with the same weight). I used 4-pound Maxima Ultragreen on a light-power, 8-foot, St. Croix Avid AVS80MLM2. The long rod loads on a light bite without walleyes feeling you before you can se the hook. I also used 4-pound PowerPro braid with a 6-foot, 7-inch G. Loomis GLX TSR 791. Stopping to cast requires a very slow, steady retrieve which demands a smooth reel like the Shimano Stradic CI 4 with braid, or an Abu Garcia Cardinal STX 165 with light mono.
We popped numbers of fish over 8 pounds with that kind of gear, and few things are more fun than battling 10-pound walleyes with light line and long, light rods. It’s not like they’re tentative with plastics or hair, either. Almost every fish we caught trolling plastic and hair, from mid May through July, took jigs deep into their mouths and even down their throats.
The big girls often post up near the deep-water side of structure, on the tips of reefs or right at the base of a shallow bar or hump.
On long fingers of rock stretching from the shallows out toward deep water, rising only a foot or two off the surrounding bottom, the bigger walleyes would be right on top or on the transitions between hard and soft bottom along the side. But sometimes they just spread out on shallow sand-and-gravel flats. For those times and places, we always had a couple 7-foot, medium-power rods along equipped with 6- to 8-pound mono for pulling jigs behind small boards like the Church Tackle TTR-6 Mini Planer, or the Off Shore Tackle OR34 Mini Planer Board.
Small boards spread the coverage out, but we rarely need to do that. Just pitch a hair jig or jig worm out behind the boat this year, turn on the electric motor, keep the speed just under 1 mph, and hang on.
Few tactics are this simple yet so productive at the same time.
- written by Matt Straw