Transitioning Tactics for Transitioning Seasons
By Gary Parsons and Keith Kavajecz
Every year walleye fishermen across the country go through a very visible transition. In early spring it can be pretty hard to recognize your buddy fishing right next to you. Chances are he will be bundled from head to toe in a parka, bibs, hat and gloves. A few weeks later, he may appear about 20 pounds lighter, as he will now be fishing with bare hands and wearing a sweatshirt. Before long he will be trading in his stocking hat for a ball cap, enjoying a sunny day on the water in a t-shirt.
During this same time frame, the walleyes are continuously changing their habits. The water is warming up, bait is getting bigger, and the metabolism of fish is increasing. The walleye also go from holding in tight places to spreading out over a large area. To stay on the bite, you need to change along with them. Let’s take a look at some different presentations and how you need to tweak each of them as the walleyes transition throughout spring and into summer.
In early spring you will want to start out jigging by using live bait or Berkley Gulp!, which is the best imitator of live bait you can find. Since Gulp! is a very soft bait, it has really good action. Plus, in cold water, the scent it gives off really attracts the walleyes.
Gulp! is made with water-based resins. This allows for excellent scent distribution, unlike baits created from oil-based resins, the oil literally traps the scent inside the bait. While some of the scent does get out, the oil is actually functioning as a barrier. Gulp! on the other hand, disperses the water-soluble scent as soon as it hits the water because there is no oil barrier keeping the water out.
This allows the bait to disperse scent almost like a blood trail, expanding the strike zone by attracting fish that do not see the bait. That’s why it is important to fish Gulp! bait slowly and allow the bait to do what it is intended to do: disperse scent. Some of the baits you will want to try are a 3” Gulp! Minnow, 4” Gulp! Crawler, or a 3” Gulp! Fry.
When the water starts to warm up, you will want to get more aggressive with action tails such as the Berkley PowerBait 3” and 3.5” Ripple Shads, Pro Series Jig Worm, and Rib Worm. These tails often draw fish to them because of the vibration they put out.
The Ripple Shad has a rippled minnow-shaped body that gives it a swimming action. The paddle-tail puts out a lot of vibration as the lure is retrieved. We often use this lure like we would a mini-crankbait or small swim-bait, but with a jigging action rather than a steady retrieve.
When you are using this lure, you want to make sure that the paddle tail vibrates vigorously on the up-swing and flutters as it drops back down. Use a heavier jig than you would normally use for live bait, by going to a quarter or 3/8-ounce range. This will help you get the action you need to work the tail the way you want to. We also work these tails quicker than we do Gulp! baits and pop them off the bottom instead of lifting.
The Pro Jig Worm doesn’t have a lot of vibration in the tail, but it is very limber and has a flattened bottom on the tail that gives it a really good “flipping” action. As you jig, the tail flips up and down, displacing water, which the fish can sense. You can fish it vertically or pitch it out, let it settle to bottom, and then lift and hold while it swims back to you, then let it fall back to bottom again.
The PowerBait Rib Worm has a curly tail that gives it a subtle vibration, moves with the slightest rod movement and undulates in the current. While this bait was made for river use, it is a great alternative when casting anywhere.
We like to use the Bass Pro Shops XPS Walleye Angler semi-standup jig heads when jigging. Not only does this jig reduce your chance of getting snagged, but it also puts the hook in the right position for walleyes that grab it off the bottom.
For rods we like to use a 6’ medium-light Bass Pro Shops Walleye Angler (Model WL60MLJS). This is important, because if we are using a no-stretch line, such as 8-pound Berkley NanoFil, we will want the rod to be able to handle the shock absorption. We tie a 10-pound Berkley 100 percent Fluorocarbon leader to the jig. This is especially important when fishing in clear water.
To turn it up another notch as summer nears, you can test the limits by using blade baits or working Moonshine Shiver Minnows. The darting action of the Shiver Minnow draws the attention of the fish. We have written a lot about “Shivering” recently, but remember the key is to give the rod a pretty good stroke to get the bait to jump to the side, but then immediately give it slack line so the Shiver Minnow can glide back to it starting position. For blades like the Johnson Thin Fisher, be sure to stroke the bait off the bottom and feel the tell-tale vibration as it sweeps up, then let it swim on a semi-tight line to the bottom so it looks like a dying bait fish. Both are aggressive – both trigger fish to bite!
We love getting on a bite where the fish are relating to structure. Jig trolling is a great way to catch the fish early on and cover small areas with finesse.
We begin by moving along the structure with our MotorGuide Xi5 bow mount trolling motor at ½ to ¾ mph. You don’t want to let out too much line, as you need to have a handle on what the jig is doing at all times. Keep the jig at a 45-degree angle to the rod tip for maximum sensitivity in the presentation. By using a basic “lift-pause-drop” action, you will be able to keep the jig in the strike zone, while also being able feel bottom as you slowly move along the break. Use a 3/8-ounce Bass Pro Shops Walleye Angler XPS semi-standup jig tipped with a Gulp! or PowerBait tail.
As the water warms up you will want to pick up the pace and cover more water by trolling with a bottom bouncer. We like to use a 7’ bottom bouncer rod with a soft tip, such as the Bass Pro Shops Walleye Angler baitcasting rod (Model WL70BBT). The typical range for bottom bouncers is 1-2 ounces, with 1.5 ounces being the standard choice. Tie a Berkley 100 percent fluorocarbon snell about that is up to an arms length long to the bottom bouncer. Then tie the other end to a #2 Mustad Slow Death Hook (Model 33863NP) baited with either a half a live crawler or a Gulp! Killer Crawler – just make sure the worm is spinning and you’ll catch fish.
Later in the spring transition to a Super Death Hook and a 3” Gulp! Fry or 4” Gulp! Crawler or even a full real night crawler.
The Killer Crawler and half crawler have a tight corkscrew action and the Fry has a wider action. The Gulp! Crawler has a unique lazy roll, which when using the Pumpkinseed color it imitates a crawler, while Watermelon Pearl imitates baitfish. Spinning a full crawler can be especially good on bigger fish.
Super slow is the way to go when it comes to pulling cranks early in the spring. You will want to start out at about 1mph and by early summer be up to 2mph. To achieve the slower speeds, you may have to use your MotorGuide Xi5 trolling motor before going to your kicker motor.
From spring into summer you will generally move from smaller baits to larger baits. The term “small” can mean different things in different places. On a natural lake, or bodies of water with 2-4lb. fish, a small bait to start with might be a #4 Berkley Flicker Shad or a #5 Berkley Flicker Minnow. On the Great Lakes, a small bait might be a #7 Flicker Shad or a #9 Flicker Minnow. Larger baits on a small lake would be a #6 or #7 Flicker Shad, while on the larger bodies of water it would be a #9 Flicker Shad or #11 Flicker Minnow.
It is important to remember no matter if you are jigging, working structure or cranking, that you have to constantly change your presentation as the seasons and conditions change. The best time to experiment is when the fish are biting and if you push the envelope, you are bound to get your Next Bite!