— By Jason Mitchell
On many natural lakes across the Dakotas and Upper Midwest, slip bobbers are deadly on walleyes, especially early in the season.
Cold fronts, crashing water temps and dirty water accompanied by strong winds might absolutely wreck many bites, but slip bobbers still seem to catch fish during these tough conditions. Seems like a lively leech squirming in place is just too much for a walleye to resist.
The other reality with slip bobber fishing, though, is that finding fish can be a bit of a problem. You must pick what you believe to be the spot on the spot with the highest probability for contacting fish. Then you must be methodical in your search and slow your process way down. You may indeed be thorough, but make no mistake — slip bobbers can sometimes be a real difficult way to eliminate water and find fish.
Early in the season when trends such as water temperature and unstable weather are going the wrong direction, I find that I will still catch some walleyes up shallow by pitching jigs with bait, jigs with plastics, swimbaits, crankbaits, etc. However, the bite is a tough grind.
Going back through an area with slip bobbers has often saved the day when I could previously only catch a few fish with cast-and-reel presentations. The difference was often striking.
In this context, the sheer fish-catching ability of slip bobbers complements other cast-and-reel presentations that are better suited to sampling water and finding fish. The slip bobber might not be the best presentation to look for fish, but it sure does catch plenty of fish once you find them.
Identify Sweet Spots
Slip-bobber fishing also provides a tremendous learning experience on how fish move through a location. With slip bobbers, you will quickly realize that any location has sweet spots that every fish seems to use. As the fish move through a location or along a shoreline, it often seems like the route of travel is preordained — much like deer following a deer trail through thick cover.
Walleyes using reefs or rock piles might follow the edges of boulders a certain way. Fish running along shorelines might travel a specific distance from shore that seems to be a more important factor than a specific depth.
Slip-bobber fishing allows you to really learn a location and understand how fish use that location. You can even begin to understand the orientation of fish movements by paying close attention to the direction fish are pulling the bobber under.
Depending on the state you are fishing and how many rods you can use, keeping several slip bobbers in the water can keep you busy. With most scenarios, the boat will be anchored and you’ll want to use the wind to your advantage.
Keep the boat upwind from the target area you want to fish. Ultimately, slip bobbers will settle in a line downwind from the boat, and although everything is stationary, each slip bobber will have a drift that must be managed.
Successful slip-bobber fishing is often a matter of managing slip-bobber drifts next to the boat and keeping slip bobbers drifting continually through key spots. This management is often simply a rod rotation where the rod and bobber furthest downwind eventually gets reeled up and placed furthest upwind.
The key is to keep nice, open lanes between slip bobbers and have your rods follow the order of your slip bobbers. Typically, this is much easier to accomplish with several rods if you can anchor the boat sideways with two traditional anchors or an anchor and a Talon.
There are many differences in opinion on slip-bobber setups, and preferences do change from region to region. I consider slip-bobber fishing a methodical, almost finesse presentation in that you are sticking and keeping live bait right in front of a fish.
On the other hand, I also bring almost a power-fishing mentality to slip-bobber fishing. For example, on Devils Lake when we are fishing flooded trees, I like to use a heavier braided line for my main line. Bobber knots don’t grip and stick on braid like they do on mono, so you need to use heavier braided line for the bobber knots to work. I have found a heavier braid like 14- or 20-pound Power Pro works perfectly, because the bobber knots stick and the line is very durable.
Use two bobber stops stacked on top of each other in tandem to help prevent them from slipping. For bobber size, I like to use a larger 1- to 11/4-inch diameter slip bobber that is easy to cast and easy to see. Again, a larger slip bobber might seem like overkill, much like the heavier line, but using a larger bobber allows you to use more weight.
Below the slip bobber, I like to add a sliding 1/8- to 1/4-ounce egg sinker above a snap swivel. The heavier weight pulls the line through the slip bobber faster, and, as a result, the presentation slides down through the water column faster. The faster setup time is crucial around wood, when managing several lines or if you’re power corking as you hunt for fish with your electronics.
Early in the season, I find that a plain snell hook is as deadly as anything else. I believe part of the slip bobber’s allure when it’s this early is that the slip bobber and weight can bob up and down in strong winds, but the action on a plain snell below the swivel is often subdued and cushioned. This passive, subdued action coupled with a lively leech is deadly during tough conditions early in the season. In cold weather I find that “wacky” hooking a medium to small leech on a plain hook will catch fish when nothing else will.
As the water warms up, I find that I can use a smaller weight above the swivel and start to incorporate jigs that add some color and flash. I use a lot of Northland Fishing Tackle Whistler Jigs through the summer, tipping them with either a leech or half-crawler. Shiners and minnows can also work well depending on the water, but on most days on most bodies of water, the ribbon leech is king.
Long rods are often preferred for slip bobbers, and you don’t need to necessarily have the highest quality rod from a weight or sensitivity perspective. Just a simple 7-foot spinning rod that has a moderate action like the Scheels Outfitters Guide Series will suffice.
I also don’t like to use rod holders all that often. Instead, I prefer to rest the rods on the gunwale far enough inside the boat so fish can’t easily pull the rod over the side. Doing this in place of actual rod holders allows me to move and switch rods faster and easier while keeping nice lanes open between each slip bobber.
I use my Talon a lot when slip-bobber fishing, often in conjunction with a heavy anchor so that I can basically pin myself in one spot and ensure my boat orientation is locked in the way I want it in strong wind.
If I am trying to sharp shoot fish with my electronics, I’ll usually keep the bow-mount trolling motor down so I can spot lock and use the side-imaging feature. On places like Mille Lacs where it is very popular to drive around locations to find and mark pods of walleyes and then pitch to them with slip bobbers, it’s worth noting these fish are often suspended. If that’s the case, find the distance the fish are from the bottom by measuring how far they are from the shadow on your side-imaging. Once you know an approximate distance from the bottom, figure out the approximate distance from the top and use your body as a ruler for quickly sliding your bobber stop to the right depth.
I am a little over 6 feet tall, for example. If fish are 15 feet down, I just go twice my height plus 3 more feet. If you are going to commit to a location, using a traditional lead depth finder works for exactly setting your depths, but when you are running and gunning, use your body, wingspan or rod to measure faster.
Early in the season, this simple and effective presentation is often at its best. From emerging weed lines, rock reefs and pencil reeds to flooded timber and shoreline structure, slip bobbers simply catch walleyes.
What is most amazing is just how deadly a simple squirming leech on a plain hook can be early in the season when other presentations are just a grind, particularly when walleyes are shallow in less than 10 feet of water after cold fronts and ugly weather move through an area.
Simply stated, slip bobbers can save the day during tough conditions. In fact, we haven’t seen or fished on many natural lakes where slip bobbers didn’t work. Give this simple technique a try this season, and you’ll reap the rewards.
About the Author: Jason Mitchell hosts the outdoor program Jason Mitchell Outdoors on Fox Sports North and Fox Sports Midwest. Additional programming can be found on the Jason Mitchell Outdoors YouTube Channel.