The following article shares some basic insight I've gathered over the years regarding one of my favorite species, targeted by many - the sometimes elusive walleye. During spring and early summer they can be caught rather easily. At other times they can be somewhat harder to catch. I will include some tips and tactics on how to catch them, the baits and lures and techniques. All of these techniques can be used by shore anglers and boaters. While much of my experience has come from fishing Cherry Creek Reservoir in Colorado for many years, these techniques will work on any lake that has walleyes.
There are a myriad of tactics that will catch walleye. There is only space to share some of them. This information is meant to help mostly the beginning angler, shore fishermen during the open water season or for anyone looking to catch walleye with some consistency. I won't tell you everything, as most of your fishing includes learning on your own. But, I will provide plenty to get you started, and help you catch them. Don't be surprised when you catch, bass, wiper, and some others species that may be in the waters you fish. These tactics and lures will catch them too. It's about the right bait at the right time presented in the right way, with the right presentation depending on where walleyes are holding, what they are feeding on, the season, and other factors.
Minnow Shaped Baits
One of the all time great baits for catching a true trophy fish and plenty of keepers is the minnow bait, jerk bait, or stick bait. Available in floating and suspending models, these baits should be fished at night or lowlight periods, along rip-rap, dams, and shallow shoreline areas with deep water close by. Walleye will bite one or the other, depending on their mood.
Use these baits at night when your odds of catching a trophy increase. Fish them during the hour before dawn and dusk, as the rapid change in light intensity during these times is a main trigger to feeding activity. The walleye's eye structure gives them a sight advantage over their prey at night. Therefore, they are often more actively feeding during lowlight conditions.
You can fish these baits spring through fall, all night. In the fall use larger baits up to seven inches long. As walleye key in on larger forage to fatten up for the long winter, and nourish there developing eggs. You should consider practicing with these baits in the daytime for areas you plan to fish at night to familiarize yourself with the area, and learn how each of these baits performs.
The photo shows the two different models of baits. Yes, they are similar - on the left are floating models, on the right suspending. Among these are Smithwick Rogues, Bomber Long A's, and Storm Thunder sticks.
There are plenty of other minnow baits on the market with different types of actions which are effective. Some others are Original Rapalas, X-Raps, Cotton Cordell, etc. Having a good selection of different types, lengths and colors allows you to experiment with different baits to find what type action/color the walleye prefer, depending on their mood and other factors. For example: water clarity, wind conditions, if you're fishing at night, etc.
Floating baits excel when the walleye are more active and will pounce on these lures cast alongside shore with a slow steady retrieve. Boaters can long line floating baits at night 100' or more behind the boat. When trolling you want the bait to run about a foot or two above the bottom. More running depth can be achieved by placing a split shot a foot or two in front of the bait. Experiment with the weight of the split shot and length of line out, to achieve this. Whether casting or trolling, most of the time, you want a slow, steady retrieve with these type baits as a walleye cannot track the bait as effectively in the dark when you stop it or pause.
Suspending baits excel when walleye are not quite as active and need a little time to commit to the strike. You should cast parallel to shoreline and vary your retrieve with slight jerks and pauses which can last for some time. Pitch these baits out over open water too, as walleye often suspend high up in the water column in a lake with stained water. You have several good choices in suspending baits, Rapala X-Raps, Smithwick Rogues, Storm Thundersticks, and my favorite, the Bomber Pro Long A. Husky Jerks are ok, but in my honest opinion these others will out fish the Husky. There are many others too.
One important note about suspending jerk baits, and something that you should not overlook, is that most suspending baits do not suspend properly! You would be hard-pressed to find one of these baits that will suspend correctly out of the package. What I mean by suspend is they remain neutrally buoyant, neither rising nor sinking after being cranked down to their running depth. Don't believe me? Take any of your suspending jerks and drop it in the water. You can do this at the lake, in a five-gallon bucket, swimming pool or while taking a bath (be very careful with the latter). Almost all of them will float upwards, some faster or slower than others. Worst of all this changes with water temperature throughout the season due to the different density of water (cold water is denser than warm water).
We want these baits to suspend properly, so we can stop the bait right in the face of a following fish, allow it to suspend there for seconds, up to several minutes, jerk it slightly, and move it along slowly. They cannot resist. You experiment with the jerk, pause motion to find what it takes to trigger a fish to strike.
One way to make your jerk baits suspend properly is with stick on weights such as Suspendots/Strips. These are applied to the underside of your baits a little at a time until reaching perfect neutral buoyancy. Each lure will have to be "doctored" with various amounts of these sticky weights. One lure style may need the weight more towards the tail (X-Raps) others towards the front. Perfection is achieved when the bait suspends horizontally in the water, and does not float up or sink.
The pictures show a few baits doctored with these sticky weights applied where needed. The smallest amount of weight makes a difference. Save/use the portion around the dots for adding slight amounts of weight. Remember; if you use a snap to attach your baits, as I do for quick lure change, you will need to adjust the amount of suspend strips used. That is, the added weight of a snap will cause the jerk to sink or float nose down after you have "doctored" the jerk. If you change hooks, even the pound test fishing line, or if using fluorocarbon line or leader (sinks, mono floats) will affect how these baits suspend.
Take the time to "Doctor" all of your suspending jerk baits. The payoff will be well worth the effort you put into it.
Lipless Crank Baits
This bait/lure could use special consideration as it not only catches walleye, but many other species as well. The lipless crank bait is a great all around lure, and anglers use it to cover water quickly from shore. It's an excellent bait to use when searching for active fish during the day, and especially at night. It emits a lot of sound and vibration, and will call fish from a distance. Their are many makers of these great lures including the Bill Lewis Rattle Trap, Berkley Frenzy, Rapala, Cotton Cordell, just to name a few.
Perhaps unknown to some anglers is an eye opening quality of the Cotton Cordell Super Spot Sinking model. As demonstrated in the picture, this bait suspends with the tail up when resting on the lake bottom. I am aware of one other lipless crank that does this. Other brands fall on their side, while the Super Spot looks like a minnow foraging on the lake bottom. Work this bait slowly along bottom, as it looks and acts more like a real live baitfish. Lipless cranks can be fished from top to bottom in the water column, and are a must, if you would like to catch more fish.
The weight-forward spinner is a simple but effective lure overlooked by many walleye anglers. These became popular many years ago on the Great Lakes and still are still popular there today. They come in several makes, sizes, colors and weights, so you can fish them shallow or deep.
Tie these spinners directly to your line, as they do not need a swivel for line twist. Primarily a daytime lure, boaters could cast these from a distance to target shallow windswept shorelines/points. They can also be used for suspended fish with a countdown method. Add a worm/crawler on the large hook for scent; just bunch it up on the hook any old way.
When you cast these lures close the bail of your reel so the spinner snaps back before hitting the water. This keeps the hook and wire portion from tangling. After it hits the water let it settle to your desired depth, give it a sharp pull to get the blade spinning, and reel it steady. Shore anglers can cast these lures a long way and cover lots of water. Consider using them when the fish are suspended, just off bottom, or when you would like to make a long cast to a specific area. I carry several in a small plastic case which fits nicely in my fishing vest. You could tip it with some type of plastic, without anything, but scrunching up a crawler on the hook is your best bet.
Worm harnesses fishing for shore anglers
This next system was born from another popular tactic for catching walleye - the bottom bouncer with a crawler harness. This technique gives the shore-bound angler the option to use a system mainly used by boaters. Boat anglers can also employ this system when eyes are on shallow flats or suspended over the main basin with a long line. I tie worm harnesses the same as you would a crawler harness for a bottom bouncer, but make them on a shorter leader, about a foot long. The harness is attached to an inline weight with bearings to avoid line twist; these in the picture are called keel weights/sinkers.
Keel sinkers are shaped like a rudder and have bearings on either end with a snap for quick change of various harness colors. They can be a little difficult to cast, it takes some practice to get the lure to snap around much like you would with a weight-forward spinner.
For my worm harnesses I've found that the best color combination is orange beads with a silver spinner blade. My extensive testing has been done on several lakes with different water clarity. I've used every color combo under the sun in clear/dark water, and the orange beads with silver blade out-fished every other color, every time.
Making your own crawler harnesses, it is quite easy to do, and you will have the excitement of catching fish on your own hand-made lure. It is important when you make your harnesses to add enough beads to keep the blade at least 1/4" away from the first hook where the head of the crawler is hooked. If the blade is spinning too close to the head of the worm, you will get fewer strikes. I use Berkley 10 lb. XT for my harnesses. It's tough and will stand up to the abuse of dragging through rocks and the wear of a spinning blade.
You can tip the hooks with plastic worms in a variety of colors, use the worms with paddle tails or curly tails. Gulp Leeches are also a good option. They and the plastic worms will last and are durable from repeated casts.
Fish worm harnesses from the dam for suspended walleye early and late in the day or under lowlight/cloudy conditions. Cast them parallel to shore and don't neglect to pitch them out over open water too.
Note-- I knew an angler many years ago who employed this system trolling at Cherry Creek with great results. I came up with the idea for the shorter leader to cast from shore, though I don't use it a lot, I can tell you it catches fish.
Considered by many as perhaps the greatest walleye lure of all time, the lead head jig is deadly, when tipped with live bait, plastics, or a combination of both. The jig will catch every species of game fish, and is an all time big fish producer.
The jig with its wide range of styles, shapes, colors, sizes, weights, can be jigged, hopped, dragged, swam, or any way you can think of to fish these baits. The lead head can be tipped with a wide array of plastic baits like curly tail grubs, creature baits, minnows, or leeches. There are many, many options to use on these heads.
The color combinations are endless, and walleye are known to prefer wild colors (not always) whether on plastics or hard baits. They see the colors of orange, green and chartreuse the best, but much of this depends on water depth, clarity, etc. Specific colors work under different conditions, and walleyes do show preference for a certain color at times.
If you are a beginner learning to catch walleye, lead head jigs with their many applications, are an absolute must in your tackle arsenal. Get a variety of jig head designs, and plastic baits to tip them. Get out there, experiment, and learn how to use them. You won't be disappointed.
Spinners for walleyes
Spinners!! That's right, spinners! They catch walleye mainly when the fish are active and on the prowl. Go with larger spinners with bigger blades and bulkier profiles. Some of these you would associate with catching pike, or perhaps musky, but these are not the real big spinners you would use for them. Spinners with buck tail, spinner baits or even the Pike Bunnies.
Use large spinners at night and the smaller ones during the day. At night, these big blades produce mucho vibration, and flash, something the walleye needs to track with its lateral line, locate in the dark, and strike.
Fish spinners with a quality swivel to avoid line twist. On the other hand spinner baits should be tied directly to your line or use a snap for quick lure change ability. Spinners are another great option to catch some walleye!
Spoons, Blade baits
Spoons are an all-time proven fish catcher, and you should have an assortment of sizes, styles, colors. You don't need very large spoons. Try to match the size and color with the available forage in the system. They should be fished with a quality swivel to avoid twist in your fishing line. I usually cast spoons in the 2-3" and 1/2- 3/4 oz. size. Kastmasters and Crocodiles are a good choice. There are many other good ones too.
Blade baits, on the other hand, do not need a swivel. They come with a snap, which when tied to your line, holds the blade. Reef Runner makes the Cicada. Bass Pro Shops has excellent blade baits too. I purchased a bulk of hand-poured blades on E-Bay for less then half price, and custom painted them. The blades are shown in the picture on the upper left hand side, they look different then all of the other spoons.
Blade baits have much the same action as lipless crank baits, but don't have the added rattle noise. They produce a tight, rapid, vibrating action, irresistible to many species of game fish. Blade baits are excellent to cover all depths of the water column. They have 3 holes on top, which produce a little different action and running depth, depending on where you attach the snap. You can jig them too.
I included Tasmanian Devils with this group, in the center of picture, because they are similar, in a league of their own, a definite plus to your fish catching arsenal. They are indeed unique, but like a spoon.
Spend time on the water learning how to work these lures, use various retrieves from crawling along bottom, to reeling in slowly, to snapping and letting it fall back.
Who da' thunk' a hunk of metal would have such great results. Use them!!!
Plastic swim baits are one of the best lure options in fishing. Walleyes, love their profile and action. Use swim baits that have paddle tails. These lures will display two actions on a retrieve. The bait has a side-to-side swimming motion and the tail wobbles and thumps. You will need at least two different kinds of lead head jigs to fish these baits, round heads and swimming jig heads. You can rig these jig heads with something like a Berkley 5-inch Saltwater Power Bait Swim Shad or a number of other swim bait options. With this type of swim bait rigging, various jig head and swim bait body sizes can be matched to conditions and achieve the proper depth, speed, and vibration.
Swim baits are really good when fished on a 1/2-ounce jig head, when searching new territory for active fish, because they can be cast far and retrieved quickly. Cast one out, let it sink to the bottom, or count down to the intended depth. Retrieve it using a combination of lift-fall and straight retrieve, or just a straight retrieve. Sometimes, you let it fall to the bottom, move it along again for 15 feet or so before letting it fall again. Other times cast it out and retrieve them all the way back slow and steady.
Many times walleye engulf these large baits without the need for a stinger hook for short striking fish. You really should not fish anything smaller than 4" when targeting the larger fish in the system. This presentation strikes most anglers as being too large, to be reasonable in so many situations where they're used to using much smaller lures.
Bass like them, walleyes eat them up. They work all season long, something you must consider adding to your walleye/fish-catching arsenal.
I think everyone knows about live bait and how to use it. Just a few comments when using live bait. As a rule, use the smallest hook possible. A size 6 is a good all around choice when using leeches, crawlers, or minnows (depends on the size of the minnow). There are exceptions for using larger hooks and you should know that using a larger hook will give you a better hook up potential and help keep the fish from throwing the hook when landing it.
Never try to pull the hook out of a fish that has swallowed it deeply in its gullet. Cut the line at the opening of the fish's mouth, it will be easier for the fish to feed, and swallow food, than if you cut the line down in its mouth. The fish will have a better chance of survival and the hook will eventually dissolve/rust out over time.
Consider using circle hooks or barbless hooks to help releasing a fish unharmed. If you use barbless hooks, place a small piece of a plastic grub on the hook after baiting to help keep the bait on the hook. Consider learning through the gill hook removal. Lots of fish are killed by anglers using live bait. It is up to us to protect the resource through education and application.
When fishing any impoundment from shore we have to put a few clues together each time out. Under certain conditions you will always find walleye in shallow water. At night, in lakes with stained water, under overcast skies, or windy weather which causes a chop on the water and decreases light penetration. On the other hand, bright calm days may push the fish into deeper water.
Look at the map of your lake; find shallow areas with deep water nearby. Look for structure around the shoreline that may extend out into the lake. Rocky rip-rap shorelines, sandy, hard bottom and weedy areas are just a few. Don't stay in an area/spot for too long if you have not caught a fish. Your best bet is to be mobile, fish an area for 20 minutes then move down the shoreline a bit. These fish are wanderers, but will stay in an area if sufficient food and cover is available and the conditions are right.
So, we have to hunt for them. With one pole I cast a search lure, something that covers a lot of water like a spoon, rattle trap, swim bait. I'm looking for active fish. Cast these lures out and let them settle to bottom before starting the retrieve. Experiment with retrieves to find what action will trigger the fish to strike. With your second rod pitch out a leech, crawler, whatever live bait (You must purchase a second rod stamp in Colorado). We want to try everything possible to see what they are hitting on. It could be live bait, lures or both. You want to establish what is called a pattern; that is, a precise lure or bait presentation that will catch fish consistently. The pattern could change during the day and from day to day and so on. If you don't catch a fish within a reasonable time, move to another spot. I see lots of anglers fish a spot for hours and not catch a fish or move to another location. We have to put in some effort and work a little to have success.
These tactics should get you going in the right direction. It's only a matter of going out and applying them to achieve success. More time on the water gives you more opportunity to catch the fish of a lifetime. Just keep plugging away and stay focused! Don't be afraid to experiment with your own ideas and think out side of the box.
Lastly, practice catch and release to preserve our resource. It's OK to keep your limit, some to eat, or the trophy for your wall. Please consider having a replica created if you do catch a trophy. I wish you success!