— By Tyler French
I am as guilty as the rest. I’ve read the articles, seen the TV episodes and fell for plenty of stories at the bait shops.
Spinner blades need to have yellow spots. Bottom bouncers can’t be heavier than 3/4 of an ounce. All the walleyes are in 8.5 feet of water. Use 8-pound test because 10-pound line is just way too heavy.
And as soon as you spend your money on that secret lure and perfectly dial in all the details, the weather changes and you should have been here yesterday because there are clearly no hungry fish left in the lake.
It’s easy to get caught up in the small details. It’s in our nature as fishermen, as we often think that the perfect combination of lure color, size, bait, line test, rod action and jig stroke will fill the boat up with walleyes.
Sure, there are some instances when one special bait saved the day. The truth is, though, the stars do not need to align to have a good day of walleye fishing.
Instead of getting caught up in the small things, think big picture and make big changes. Finding the big pattern before dialing in the finite details ultimately means more fish, and when I think big picture details, I think of location, technique and the extremes.
The most important piece of the puzzle is fishing where there are fish. Of course, we all know that. It may be an oversimplified concept, but the reality is you can’t catch fish if they aren’t where you’re fishing!
To take it one more step, you can’t catch active fish if active fish aren’t there. Active walleyes are the ones we, as walleye fishermen, need to be searching for. Active fish are the ones that eat whatever you put in front of them. If anglers move enough, cover some water and keep searching with electronics, active fish can be found soon enough.
Too often, however, we can get caught up fishing the same point and the same shoreline just waiting for the fish to “turn on” when, in fact, we should keep moving. Cover the area, but if the fish aren’t there you may need to look for active fish that are following a completely different pattern.
Change from weed cover to timber. Fish the east side of the lake instead of the west. Have you fished the windblown shorelines? The deep end of the lake? Steep structure and mud flats?
Think big changes instead of messing with the little details that might entice a random bite here and there.
Another key factor of location is depth, remembering the whole time that not all depth is the same.
Rumors of fish depth are pretty common boat-ramp small talk. “How deep did you get ‘em?” anglers often ask in passing while boats are filtering in and out of the ramp.
“We hammered them in 18 feet,” comes the static reply.
The question that rarely gets answered, though, is what kind of 18 feet? Was it in 18 feet of water on the top of a break? Tip of a point? Near weeds, timber or rock?
It’s important to keep in mind not all 18 feet in the same body of water is the same. Each piece of structure has walleyes using different depths and a different pattern, often in very different ways.
Don’t spend all day grinding the same stretch of shoreline or the same point in 18 feet of water just waiting for the fish to turn on because you heard 18 feet was the arbitrary depth of the day.
Somewhere on the lake walleyes are actively feeding. It could even be right next to you on top of the break line in 12 feet of water instead of the rumored 18 feet that the guy loading his boat mentioned.
The Big Three
At any given time, almost all techniques known to catch walleyes can, in fact, produce fish. This is certainly true during the early summer months. June may be the best time to get walleyes in the boat, and anglers can usually fish their favorite techniques to be successful.
Although any technique will work, one technique can oftentimes far outshine the rest. Why? There may be several reasons, but much of it comes down to level of aggression and time in the strike zone.
Toward that end, let’s discuss the “big three” techniques when it comes to walleye fishing: crankbaits, rigs and jigs.
Of the big three, crankbaits are the most aggressive. Their speed, sound and vibration can really turn fish on.
Crankbaits are typically trolled at 2 mph, but they can also be pulled at speeds as high as 4 or 5 mph, which means they can cover a lot of water and can certainly trigger reaction strikes.
The best situations for trolling crankbaits are when walleyes are spread out over large flats, long stretches of shoreline, wide and shallow basins, or suspended in open water.
Pulling live-bait rigs, including several variations of spinner, Slow Death and Lindy rigs, behind a weighting system is a moderately aggressive tactic. The average speed of spinner fishing is around 1 mph, though new spinner designs or those with vented blades, such as JB Lures Ventilator spinner rig, allow anglers to pull spinners faster now than ever before.
Spinner rigs combine sound and vibration from the beads and blades with a juicy appetizer that usually consists of a crawler, leech or minnow. The technique allows you to still cover ground fairly quickly while keeping you in the strike zone.
The best situations for live-bait rigs are when pods of walleyes are strung out along a specific piece of structure, such as a point, ledge or hump.
The least aggressive technique of the three is jigging. Jigging can take a lot of forms including vertical jigging, drift jigging, rip jigging and casting.
Jigs are often fished with live bait, plastics or sometimes both. While some plastics produce big action, a typical jigging situation calls for a slow, subtle delivery that keeps the bait right in the walleye’s face until it simply can’t resist any longer.
Jig fishing is most productive when walleyes are using tight pieces of structure once that spot on the spot is located. Jigs can often pick up the remaining neutral walleyes after the aggressive fish have been caught by trolling.
While all of these methods can produce a lot of fish, the key to catching even more fish is finding the right level of aggression to which the fish are willing to respond while also keeping your baits in the strike zone. The more time in the strike zone in front of the right fish, the more efficient your technique.
If your technique just isn’t putting enough fish in the boat, try something different. Let the fish determine the level of aggression, and then think of the structure type and size and what techniques will most effectively keep your baits in the strike zone.
OK, here’s where you got me. At this point I am going back to some of the finer details, as the last of the big details are the extremes — color, speed, sound and size.
It’s easy to get lost in the small details that may not help with catch rates anyways. Once you have a location and a technique down, though, going extreme on the small details can give you big-picture results.
When you consider size, color, shape, weight, pattern, flash and sound, there are literally thousands of combinations of jigs, rigs and crankbaits that may get you more bites. Go to the extremes to narrow down the combinations: small vs. big, bright vs. natural, solid vs. pattern, rattles vs. quiet, slender vs. fat, and so on.
A good average or middle ground between the extremes may ultimately be the ticket, but you will be surprised how many times moving from one end of the spectrum to the other will start producing walleyes.
Let’s take color, for instance. I’ve been in situations where I have convinced myself that orange is the best color. Orange always works on this particular lake, but for some reason something isn’t working right now, as I’ve already spent the morning switching between different shades and stripe patterns of orange, and still have no fish to show for it.
This is a case where I’m stuck in the small details and need to get out!
A better strategy than fishing only colors that “should” work is to go to the extremes and find what does work. Try your old standby orange colors, but then try other colors, as well. Make drastic switches, including dark patterns to light patterns or bright patterns to natural patterns. Those are the extremes, the big details.
Fishing the extremes is all about finding the right balance. I won’t pull the same lure around on 10 different spots and assume that those spots are bad. I’m also not going to go through my whole tackle box on one spot assuming there is a magical detail I’m missing.
Fish a few extremes on each spot, and keep moving spots until you connect. Fishing the extremes is an efficient way to offer a lot to the walleyes without getting bogged down by throwing everything, including the kitchen sink, at the fish.
Next time you are out on the water and not connecting with walleyes, take a step back and think of the big details. Try a new spot, pick an efficient technique and give them the extremes. Don’t get caught sitting there, stuck on all the small details.