Walleye Fishing: A Big Spin on the Big Water by Keith Jackson

Walleye Fishing: A Big Spin on the Big Water by Keith Jackson

For a walleye fisherman, few things are as intimidating as a big body of water the first time you fish it.

That is certainly true of the Great Lakes where bays are bigger than many inland lakes.

walleye beckman net spinner red fishing great lakes

Part of the intimidation is a lack of confidence, not knowing that you’re using the right gear at the right time.

Snelled spinners can help because few lures work better at catching walleyes during the open-water season.

“There’s something about a spinner-and-crawler rig that walleyes can’t resist,” says walleye pro, guide and educator Mark Martin of Muskegon, Mich., “It doesn’t seem to matter when you are fishing or where, it works.”

But using the right lure or bait isn’t all of the equation. Another key is how deep.

“Walleyes in the Great Lakes often are suspended,” says Martin. “Since they like to eat, they follow the forage, and that forage follows its food as well.

“That means bugs. As the bugs rise to the surface, the fish that feed on them rise as well, and these forage fish bring up the walleyes,” says Martin.

There is a host of baitfish that come up to feed: gizzard shad, smelt, white bass, baby sheepshead, alewives.  Just about any forage fish will head up to near the surface for the buffet.

“The key is to find the depth of the bugs,” says Martin. “You need to be good at reading your graph since you’ll see them as little blobs. It’s likely you won’t see fish, though, because you’re moving so slow, and the walleyes will shy away from the boat, moving to the side outside the transducer cone.”

Once bugs tell you the depth you want, it’s a matter of putting the right spinner at the right depth.

“In the spring,” says Martin, “you’ll find the walleyes somewhere around the 10-foot mark, or maybe they will hold about 12 feet.  You will want to be moving slowly in the cold water, right around 0.8 to 1.1 mph. That means your spinner should be right there, and that means that you don’t need much weight or a lot of line behind your planer boards.

“As a rule of thumb, when the water is calm, I run 25 to 45 feet behind the boards and use an inline sinker that weighs maybe ¼ to ½ ounce. But when the waves are higher than two feet, the surging of the boards will reduce the number of fish you catch because they’ll feel the unnatural pull during a surge.

Changing blades is a snap, literally, with the plastic clevis seen here. Note that the Lindy spinner and the VMC spinner both use quick-change clevises in their production spinners.

Changing blades is a snap, literally, with the plastic clevis seen here.


“When the water is rough, I’ll still use the same weight, but I’ll use clip-ons and put them maybe 10 to 20 feet ahead of the spinner. The clip-on weights create a vee in the line, and when a planer board surges in a wave, it pulls the vee out of the line rather than pull against the spinner directly.

“While it might be hard to visualize,” says Martin, “using clip-on weights results in more bites and more walleyes in the boat.”

Of course, different waters can bring different conditions. Walleye guide Jason Muche, fishes in Green Bay and finds things slightly different a bit earlier in the year.

“When you’re coming off post-spawn,” says Muche, “you’ll find the walleyes focusing on the shoreline. They’re keying on baitfish. Mostly, we fish a breakline at seven to nine feet; that’s pretty typical.

“In those conditions, I’ll troll between 1.1 and 1.3 mph with 50 feet of line out behind the boards but no weight at all.  If the weeds and junk in the water are bad, though, I’ll crimp on a #2 split-shot.

“It’s important to crimp the shot on the leader side of the swivel to keep from twisting the mainline.  Also, because of the added weight, you need to let out less line behind your boards—maybe 25 feet or so should do it.”

Muche says that when the fish move off the bank, he’ll use a one-ounce inline sinker.

“The reason for the one-ounce sinker,’ says Muche, “is that I can get a good idea of the depth Like most pros, I use 10-pound monofilament, and for every two feet of line I let out, I’ll get one foot of depth. In other words, if I let 20 feet of line out behind the boards, I can figure the spinner is running 10 feet deep.”

The Spin Is the Thing…

Mark Martin tends to stress presentation more than the lure itself, but he adds that using the right spinner and blade combination for conditions is very important.

“For trolling as slow as I do early, a spinner with a Colorado blade is my first choice,” he says.  “That will give you a steady thump-thump-thump. But while I use that wider blade style, it’s not the only answer.

walleye spinners lindy crawlers fishing

“You really need to keep changing until you find the combination of blade style, size, and color for any particular day. For instance, I’ve found that willow leaf blades on a spinner also work at times.

“The weird thing is that this long, thin blade is one I’d choose when trolling a lot faster than I do early in the year.  However, I’ve found that at slow speeds, the willow leaf doesn’t spin; it just wobbles mostly with an occasional full rotation.  This is an action that will catch fish.”


Like Martin, Muche prefers larger blades, in this case, the #5 Colorado Lindy Crawler Harness in perch, tullibee or purple smelt.

“Those three colors are what I start out with,” Muche says. “And I’ll let the fish tell me what works.  I also like the shiner-finish blade because its mostly white appearance looks a lot like the baitfish we have in open water.”

Martin’s choices reflect his own fishing situation.  “My choice of blades generally centers around silver, brass and copper,” he says. “However, in my opinion, Northland’s holographic finishes are the best in the business.  Pick ones that reflect the baitfish in your area for the best of luck.

northland spinner crawler harness

Mark Martin feels that Northland’s holographic spinner blades are the best on the market. The company also offers big #5 and #6 blades, and they come in Martin’s new favorite color—purple.

“While I like the metallic finishes in general, I’ve also found that having purple on the blade is a big draw at times, and I’m using that color more and more.”

Martin also uses floating spinners in a lot of situations, both for the minimal bit of flotation they provide (it’s more of a neutral buoyancy rather than flotation) and for the larger profile and more intense color presentation they make.

“When I’m fishing really slow, I’ll often use a floating spinner,” Martin says. “It’s not that the floats in the body keep it floating, but on inside turns, the extra flotation of the body keeps the spinner from sinking. That keeps it off the bottom and can be important when you’re fishing very shallow or close to the bottom. That’s also the situation where I always use Colorado blades.”

Plan B, Plan C, Plan D…

One thing is fairly certain: if you’re fishing in clear water, there are times when little changes can make the difference between an okay day and a great day, or a blank and a limit.

One thing you can do to up the odds in your favor is to carry a selection of blades in colors, sizes and styles. For a quick change on the water, there are plastic clevises that make changing a blade a snap. Both the Lindy Crawler Harness and the VMC Pro Series Hydro Flow Rigs come standard with the quick-change clevis, but the clevises are readily available elsewhere.

Body-color is an important factor in fishing spinners, especially so in clear water where walleyes have a good view of what you’re pulling.  Changing the body configuration can buy you more bites, and certainly, it’s possible to find the magic bullet that produces limits when everything else hauls water.

For instance, adding a single silver bead to the middle of the standard orange beads that you see on so many snelled spinners can be a trigger. So can simply building a body of all silver beads.

As Mark Martin says, using spinners with bodies that float is another obvious choice. Thirty years or so ago before the widespread use of bottom bouncers, “floating spinners” were the rage on a lot of reservoirs and lakes because they provided some lift above sinkers bouncing on the bottom.corkys corkies spin glos spinglos spinglows glows

With 178 finishes and 10 sizes, Yakima Bait Company has these floating, winged bobbers that will give walleye fishermen a strong neutral buoyancy as well as strong colors and vibration. The sizes range from mosquito small to salmon large. 

But they still work well off bottom bouncers, and it’s likely that one reason is that they provide a larger profile and more of a target with the larger size. 

Northland sells floats as does Lindy, but if you want a wider variety of sizes and colors, look to Yakima Bait’s line of Li’l Corkies and Winner floats. Both have proven to be deadly on Columbia River walleyes

The Spin-N-Glo is the four smaller sizes make a great low-impact spinner for walleyes that has a strong following out West but is largely ignored in the Midwest.

spin glos blades walleye fishing

Finally, some Great Lakes anglers are reporting back to Yakima Bait Company that the Big Al’s Fish Flash is kicking some walleye tail.

The Fish Flash is an in-line flasher that has a delta shape with the tips of the wings offset to get it to spin.  It revolves and provides a lot of flash with little drag. Used in salmon fishing, it’s become a strong favorite of fishermen because it works well with bait or lures that have their own action—such as a spinner-crawler combo.

Using a four-inch Fish Flash is a presentation that will require tuning to get it right as far as trolling speed, water depth and the amount of line to let out to get it to the depth you want. But it’s something few walleyes have seen and fewer still can resist.

flashers yakima bait

And that’s something you can say about spinner and crawler combinations as well---walleyes find them hard to resist.  Get the right size blade and color combination, and troll it at the right speed and depth, and fishing for Great Lakes walleyes will be intimidating no longer.

Using Jet Divers & Spinners for Walleye

Getting your spinner down to suspended walleyes can be a problem at times, especially if you don’t own downriggers or can’t use leadcore because the fish are holding closer to the surface.

There are options: you can use clip-on weights, a line-counter reel and take a guess at how deep the spinner is by trial and error. You can also use Dipseys, but they tend to pull more than I’d like. They generally require heavier rods and line, and they do take a bit of the fun out of the whole thing.

However, if you take a page from the steelheaders on the West Coast, you can do a fairly good job of putting your spinners where you want them. 

jet diver baitcaster reels fishing luhr jensen

Luhr Jensen Jet Divers come in five sizes, from the diminutive 10 that will hit the 10-foot level to the big 50, seen here in black. Note that the 50 is already rigged with a short dropper to be used as a free-sliding diver.

The Luhr Jensen Jet Diver is a series of floating/diving planes that will pull your gear down to depth.  The Jet Divers run in size from the smallest, a 10 to the largest, the 50 size.

While actual diving depth the Jet Diver will reach depends upon factors like speed, line diameter, the length of line out, and the resistance of the lure, as a rule of thumb, you can figure that the 10 will run 10 feet deep, the 20 will run 20 feet and so on.

I’ve used the Jet Diver for big rainbows in Western lakes (and in steelhead and salmon applications in rivers as well as saltwater, and it does a good job of diving as well as acting as an attractor.

swivel jet diver baitcaster

To get the most attraction out of Jet Diver, rather than tie it to the mainline and leader directly, tie it on a short dropper, say a foot or so in length.  Tie the end of the dropper line to a slider or small barrel swivel that is free sliding on the mainline.

The dropper does two things: first, it allows the diver to move more freely back and forth, a hunting action that provides more flash and also a bit of action to the spinner.

The second thing it does is trip when you reel it in, and that makes it a world easier to bring back to the boat. Otherwise, you are reeling in the diver that is trying to dive against the line, and you have to reel against a significant drag.

- written by Keith Jackson



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