By Jim Stephens
During the first pre-dawn minutes when the sky begins to pink, adrenaline tingles our bodies and soaring expectations of lunker walleyes send us riding a crest of white foam to our hot spot.
Then the biteless minutes can lengthen into hours. Frustration sets in.
Other fishermen are catching fish. Armed with knowledge and skill acquired through hard fishing days, we don’t want to admit our livewell is empty and ask what they are using.
That’s what we do later, back at the boat landing: Ask questions, exchange information. On the lake, we persist in dragging our scorned stickbait past tantalizing fish images showing on our graph. They bit like crazy on the same plug last fall and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t now, right?
I made that mistake one opening day on a popular reservoir by washing the paint off a tooth-scarred perch-colored crankbait for most of the morning.
Water temperature was about the same as the previous fall, sky slightly overcast, water nicely ruffled. Stable weather for three consecutive days. Ideal conditions for a hot bite. My graph displayed fish. Other boats were netting fish.
I thought, great, after waiting all winter, opening day was fast going out the bilge pump. I sat there drinking a cup of coffee with my feet propped on three full tackle boxes of some of the finest lures ever conceived by America’s talented fishing lure engineers.
Each separate compartment in those tackle boxes represented a brilliant flash of past inspiration, selected and paid for with hard cash, for an anticipated specific fishing situation requiring the ultimate artificial to save the day.
And now I was using a couple hundred dollars of plastic, hooks and paint for a footrest.
The excursion was a prime example of how reluctant we can become to change from previous effective tactics that currently are not producing fish, to try a sharp right-handed turn and experiment with a pattern that might save a fishing trip.
I opened a box and found a couple of walking sinkers still in their packages, purchased no doubt, with some fine fishing in mind when I heard they were the hot item every serious fisherman couldn’t do without. I had promptly condemned them to the darkest recesses of my tackle box, alongside jars of pork trailers and under a package of crappie rigs still stapled together. (Jigs are the only item for crappies, right?)
Most of us have a good, unused idea somewhere in our tackle boxes.
I gave a small mental shrug. The stickbait was ineffective, so what did I have to lose by tying on a crawler harness with double hooks, a half dozen red beads and a small yellow Indiana blade? In my cooler, two dozen plump crawlers were sleeping with my sandwich.
One of the crawlers volunteered as bait. I lowered the rig over the side, flicked the electric on, and trolled with the sinker wire just ticking the bottom. I quickly ran downwind, straight across a big stump-strewn underwater hump where my graph showed the same fish I had failed to catch earlier.
My anticipation thinned as I passed the far breakline and the graph image plummeted to deep fishless water. Undaunted, I returned, this time upwind. On the way back the rod tip very s-l-o-w-l-y formed an arc, then began throbbing. I felt the headshaking thump of a fish.
The walleye wasn’t a monster- but it was a walleye. The others that followed came from the same year class- just the right broiler size to produce golden brown filets. Changing tactics and paying attention to details made the difference in the trip. I never took a fish running downwind.
The creeping speed and pulsating attraction of the spinner blade turned on the fish, not the stickbait’s faster presentation. The walleyes preferred the slower upwind offering- they didn’t have to chase it- just suck in the harness as it passed and hang on. That change in technique produced a limit of five fish.
As the water warmed in later weeks, the walleyes turned aggressive, and I tried the walking sinker using floating stickbaits instead of a crawler harness in an area I would never try to crankbait. The snag infested reservoir bottom required a rig that would telegraph the presence of plug-eating wood, allowing me to lift the lure out of harm’s way. The walking sinker saved countless expensive plugs.
On a roll with experimenting, I tried the new high-tech braided lines. The sensitivity and lack of stretch of these new lines coupled with bottom bouncers produce far more hookups in deep water than stretchy mono ever thought of doing.
When you run through weeds you can almost “hear” the sound of the weeds squeaking on the line. I’ve watched floating weeds wrap around my line, then felt them as the water pressure forced them scraping down the line toward the lure.
With one of my stiffer graphite rods, I can feel the wire of the bottom bouncer ticking its way over gravel.
Fish are caught with just about everything imaginable but how often do we radically change tactics when we’re fishing? Could be we get so involved with patterns that worked last week or last year we forget the information we avidly gleaned from articles and books read during the winter. What about all the tips from the fishing pros who divulge their winning secrets? Do we listen and then follow their advice?
Most of those secrets and techniques are closed up in their tackle boxes. When was the last time you spotted bottom-hugging walleyes under a school of bait fish, watching the arcs as they rose to feed, ripe for a trolling crankbait, but didn’t hit on the offering? The timing was right, but the lure color or lure action might have been off.
Did you change lures every three or four passes? What was the fascination with the dud plug you were towing around? Had to be terribly important if it wasn’t catching fish. Maybe it was one your wife gave you for a Christmas present and you felt guilty if you didn’t use it.
Then again you might have felt if you took the time to change lures, you would lose precious fishing time. Of course you don’t think anything of spending time racing across the lake to a new location in search of biting fish, so why not use multiple lure changes when you know you’ve located prime territory, but they won’t hit your offering?
That’s exactly why pro fisherman carry a number of rods, each rigged differently. Crank in one, pitch out the other. Sixty seconds and you’re back in the ballgame with a totally new bait. Predator fish are attracted by the “difference” in fish, usually indicating a weak or injured bait-fish that won’t have the stamina to elude the attack. If the walleyes are chasing shad, you might need to oversize or undersize your lure to make your bait obvious. Dig out something from your tackle box that doesn’t “match the hatch,” Wally Diver, Ratlin’ Rogue, or jointed Rapala.
During a vacation I found walleyes in eight feet of water in bright daylight simply out of frustration of not catching them on classic breaklines in 15 to 25 feet of water. I ran deep-diving crankbaits, quick trolled tipped jigs, slow trolled a crawler and slip sinker- just about every proven walleye option except a trap net.
I gave it up as a lost cause. Using a bottom bouncer and crawler harness with a spinner (a rig which collected more weeds than I wanted), I ran through the deep water side of the weeds with the electric looking for a hungry bass, staying in less than 12 feet of water. Though bass doesn’t rank even close to number one in the skillet, they’re fun to catch.
Then the whole game plan comes together by sheer accident. The first hit was a feisty 20-inch walleye. Then came more weeds and more walleyes. It as a pain to keep stripping weeds from my rig and losing crawlers. Northerns kept cutting off my harness. Sometimes fishing is a rough life.
It was a pattern that worked and I kept at it. So it was a little tough fishing. The option was to move out to the snag-free breaklines where I had marked good numbers of tight-lipped fish. Foraging fish had headed for the weeds, the neutral fish were resting on the breaklines.
I put up with the weeds.
Changes and techniques can come from anyplace if we’re willing to listen. A fishing buddy dropped a real winner in my lap during one excursion, a technique so simple it falls into the why-didn’t-I-think-of-that category.
Tie on a number 11 or 13 floating Rapala and pinch on a couple of large split shots, four or six feet ahead of the lure. This is a subtle approach to tantalize lethargic fish. Kick the electric into the slowest speed possible for wind and wave conditions. Let out enough line to get the sinkers on the bottom, then give your rod short solid forward snaps. Pop the lure forward, making it dive.
Drop your rod tip back, maintaining a tight line. With the split shot riding on the bottom, the stickbait will produce two strike inducing motions with this technique: one as the lure is jerked forward, the second on the pause as the lure floats like a tired, wiggling to the top of its tether wounded baitfish.
This procedure is best done with your stiffest rod with some good backbone. The bulk of the walleyes will be lip hooked on the rear hook. This is where ultra sharp hooks are a must. Sharpen or change yours, making sure they grab everything they touch. I haven’t caught one walleye that has engulfed the lure like a voracious northern so hook sharpness will relate directly to success.
Pause, snap again. Feel a little tic? Set the hooks hard. Odds are it’s a walleye trying to finesse a meal. Or a bass or a northern, or even an early morning channel cat. This simple technique has given new life to the Shad Raps, Bomber Ling A’s, Thundersticks and Rapala’s in my tackle box.
With today’s super electronics, it’s easier to find fish than to catch them. Probably why we call it going fishing instead of going catching. Use a systematic approach by working through your tackle box with those brilliant inspirations you have tucked away.
A new lure size/color/speed/presentation can be just the ticket for pulling a fish’s starter rope and rescuing a fishless day on the water.