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Dig through the record books and you might notice that most of the biggest walleyes ever caught fell in spring, particularly the early part right after ice out. The catch, however, is that while big pre-spawn fish chew at this time of the year, getting these lethargic giants to open their mouths is not always easy. This is why guides and tournament anglers like myself literally hit the water with hundreds of lures in hundreds of colors in spring, and we’re constantly swapping and tinkering to figure out what’s going to make the trophies take a shot.
Mother Nature also makes the spring game challenging. Whether you’re fishing from shore or on a boat, on a river or massive lake, conditions this time of year can flip-flop hourly. Clear water might turn muddy as the wind picks up. The temperature in the shallows may rise or dip a degree or two throughout the day. All of these subtle factors can trigger a bite, or kill the one that was already triggered. The key to success is being ready to adapt to the conditions, and doing so means carrying a variety of lures. Though the choices are almost innumerable, here are 20 baits I can say I rely on more than any others throughout the spring walleye season. If you’re on the hunt for that prespawn goliath, you should rely on these baits, too.
Reef Runner 800
The Reef Runner 800 has been wrecking havoc on monster spring walleyes across the country for more than 20 years. The number of colors and local baitfish imitations the company produces on this proven bait certainly speaks to its relevance and effectiveness. Aside from nearly 400 color options to match any water conditions or forage and it’s ability to dive 30 feet unassisted, the drop-style tail helps the bait “hunt” by altering its action randomly, which triggers bites on the troll from the most lethargic spring ‘eyes. The unique body design also allows the 800 to troll effectively at speeds as slow as .8mph to as fast as 2.5mph, making it exceptionally versatile. To get the maximum depth and perfect tracking, just make sure you take the time to tune a fresh 800 before sending it down.
Rapala Shad Rap
The Shad Rap has a subtle, wobbling action thanks in part to its balsa wood body, and it seems to draw strikes when other baits are just washing paint. Whether it’s being cranked along a rocky river bottom or trolled through suspended fish on a huge body of still water, the Shad Rap’s versatility delivers, and you’d be hard pressed to find a walleye angler anywhere in the country without a few in his stash. This is especially true considering these lures are available in a wide range of sizes, allowing you to tailor them to any depth or current speed.
Rapala Husky Jerk
Believe it or not, I was one of the first anglers to acquire a few Husky Jerk prototypes before they were available to the public. And they were so effective that I felt like I was cheating. What sets the Husky Jerk apart is its ability to truly suspend at depth. Lots of other lure manufacturers make that claim of their products, but trust me, the vast majority actually rise slowly instead of staying put like the Husky. Because of this lure’s exceptional suspension ability, it dominates in water that’s less than 50 degrees, as it will stay in the zone of lazy cold-water walleyes longer than similar baits until a big girl finally decides to pounce. Another benefit of the Husky Jerk is that in all my years using them, every one has run true right out of the box.
Smithwick Deep Suspending Rattlin’ Rogue
The Rogue may be an oldie, but it’s still on tackle shop shelves for a reason. While some walleye anglers may have forgotten about this classic, the smart ones haven’t, because it’s a stone-cold killer in ice-cold water. Thanks to its extra-loud rattle, it also puts up loads of big fish in dingy water. The two downsides to this bait are that they often need regular re-tuning to run true, and they don’t dive as deep as other lures. Fifteen feet is about the max unassisted, however, when spawning females slide shallow in spring, you often don’t need to get down any deeper anyway.
Reef Runner Ripstick
Without question, this lure has caught me more double-digit walleyes than any other. Its unique V-shaped lip allows it to dive nearly twice as deep as other stickbaits in its class. The Ripstick is also just as effective when cast as it is trolled, and by adding just slightly larger hooks than what come standard, you can get this bait to suspend very well. While it has the same body as Reef Runner’s 800 series deep diver, this shallow-running model with a max unassisted diving depth of 12 feet has a much more subtle action that excels in cooler waters. It also trolls beautifully at super-slow speeds, even when run on leadcore or paired with a snap weight.
Bandit Walleye Deep
A relative newcomer to the walleye world, this offering from a brand most synonymous with bass lures has already proven itself very effective during the early spring season when the water is still chilly. It’s loud rattles produce a unique tone that’s unmatched by similar stickbaits, making it a must-have in dirty water. I’ve noticed that the Walleye Deep doesn’t have quite as good an action when pulled at low speeds, however, if you’re bumping the throttle a bit, these lures have terrific action. As a side note, many guides and tournament anglers prefer to swap out the hooks that come stock on this lure with premium #4 trebles.
Original Rapala Floating Minnow
If you call yourself a fisherman of any kind, this lure needs no introduction. Rapala’s Original Floater is arguably one of the most legendary, versatile, and productive lures ever made. Walleye anglers use them for everything from hand lining, to flat-line trolling, to bouncing 3-way rigs along the bottom, and they continue to score when more modern baits blank. The only thing that has changed about this rattle-free, balsa wood killer since it hit the market almost a century ago is that it is now available in dozens of colors to match every walleye food and water condition you might encounter.
Smithwick Perfect 10 Rogue
The Perfect 10 may have originally been designed as a jerkbait for smallmouths and largemouths, but these days you’ll find them in myriad walleye colors and patterns. That’s because while the lure is technically classed as a shallow diver, its max unassisted diving depth of 10 feet—which it will reach incredibly fast—means it’s getting down a bit deeper than similar baits that often struggle to hit 8 feet. Whether you cast it or pull it behind a weight on the troll, the Perfect 10’s unique tungsten rattle has a pitch and tone that cold-water walleyes can’t seem to resist.
Storm Deep Jr. ThunderStick
The Deep Jr. ThunderStick has been catching walleyes all across the country in a variety of condition for decades. The only reason it’s not a front-runner in the stickbait category is because many see it as a lure best used in certain situations, namely flat-line trolling in shallow water when finesse counts. This lure only measures 3 ½ inches, making it very compact and unobtrusive. The beauty, however, is that it will get down between 6 and 15 feet quickly without needing to pay out a football field’s length of line. When the water is clean, the less hardware you need to hit depth the better, and while you may not pull this bait on every trip, there will come a time and place when it will dominate.
Silver Streak Spinner Harness
Without question, it’s hard to pull a more effective walleye lure than a spinner and crawler harness combo. While there are lots of spinner rigs available, Silver Streak’s has always been my go-to. Versatility is key with a spinner rig, as different delivery options—from leadcore, to snap weights, to in-line weights—allow you to keep your night crawler twirling through any part of the water column the fish are holding. Blade style, size, and shape preferences vary from region to region, as do the seemingly countless colors choices. But in my opinion, it’s hard to go wrong with a size 6 Colorado blade in classic silver or gold.
It doesn’t get much simpler than a curly-tail grub on a jighead for hooking heavy walleyes—or just about any other fish for that matter. While they won’t do much good on the troll, when casting around shallow reefs or probing the bottom on light tackle in river eddies, curly-tails are a must. They’re also relatively inexpensive, which is critical considering you’ll lose a lot to snags. For walleyes, 2-to 4-inch grubs are most popular, but as for color and brand, take your pick; hundreds of companies make classic curly-tails and while black, white, and chartreuse are top producers, you’re hometown ‘eyes might dig a funky mix of pink and brown poured by a local basement soft-plastic maker.
Silver Streak Blade Bait
Even the laziest walleyes in cold spring water seem to be driven insane by the rapid vibrations given off by a Silver Streak Blade Bait. Many believe the reason they hook so many fish when jigged is that the strong vibration can be felt from a distance, and the fish home right in. In stained to downright dirty water, these baits can be straight-up magic. Available in plated and UV colors, these lures have a high landing percentage thanks to their shape and a double set of treble hooks. When dropping a Blade Bait, be sure to use a small snap and short, stiff fluorocarbon leader with a swivel attaching it to your main line to help reduce fouling.
Reef Runner Cicada
With a willow-shaped blade, the body of the Cicada has different curves than other blade baits, and it makes a big difference. Unlike similar lures that require an aggressive snap of the rod tip to put out maximum vibration, the Cicada sends out strong vibes with a less heavy-handed presentation. In fact, many anglers have a tendency to overwork a Cicada, when a gentler lift is all it takes. Because this lure can be worked with more finesse, it’s a better choice in cleaner water. Always use a snap to connect this lure to your main line or leader, as the sharp blade can actually cut your line if you tie direct.
A lead head and some natural bucktail is one of the oldest (and most proven) combinations in angling, and yes, a simple hair jig works wonders on giant walleyes. While some of the more popular walleye hair jigs are made out a synthetic material, don’t overlook tried-and-true natural bucktail in colors like black, white, or chartreuse. Hair is so effective because it flares and pulses even at rest. In cold water, this is highly useful, because it means you can do minimal rod work for a slow presentation, but the lure is still “fishing.” Hair, be it natural or synthetic, also holds scents well, and you can tip these jigs with countless styles of trailer to alter the weight, vibration, and visual appeal.
While several lure companies produce versions of what are collectively known as “ring worms,” the common trait among them is a series of thin ribs or “rings” around the body, and short curly tails. The rings on these baits trap air, causing them to release bubbles as they’re hopped or swam. The ribs and the tail also combine to produce more vibration than other soft plastics. Four- to 6-inch ring worms are most popular for walleyes, and they’re usually rigged on a jighead. Veteran river anglers, however, often bite an inch or two off the head to make their ring worms more compact if the fish are snubbing full-size baits.
Big Bite Baits Jerk Minnow
Much like a ring worm, this 3.75-inch fork-tail minnow excels when fishing in current. While this soft-plastic puts out plenty of vibration thanks to its slender tail, I’ve found that it produces more bites in clean water than stained or dirty water. I think that’s because its action is fairly subtle, helping this bait to mimic natural forage movement instead of just working as a reaction bait. In clean water where walleyes have lots of look time, the Jerk Minnow’s subtle swagger can trip a discerning trigger. These lures can be rigged on a jighead, but don’t overlook a traditional bass style drop-shot rig if you’re marking walleyes hovering just off the bottom.
Rapala Jigging Rap
While originally designed for ice fishing, the Jigging Rap has become a not-so-secret open-water destroyer. This lure swims in circles when jigged with controlled slack, and this action drives walleyes bonkers, particularly in chilly early-season water. Best worked as perfectly vertical as possible, the only modification you should make for using a Jigging Rap in open water is swapping out the stock center treble for a treble one or two sizes larger. While this lure crushes fish by itself, many anglers like to tip the center treble hook with a minnow head for added scent appeal.
This Swedish Pimple is another legendary walleye lure that ultimately made its mark on the ice. But don’t rule this hardwater producer out on open water, either. Unlike other ice jigs, Pimples are available in sizes large enough to be fished in current and in very deep water. The signature plastic fluorescent “flapper” on the lure’s split ring is what many anglers swear triggers the bite when fished slowly in clear water. While a Swedish Pimple can be deadly solo, most anglers tip these metals with several small minnows or a single large minnow head.
Big Bite Baits Suicide Shad
This 4-inch soft-plastic swimbait puts off intense vibration thanks to the super-thin section between the body and boot tail. In dirty water, the Suicide Shad can be downright unstoppable, yet the wider profile and ability to maintain stellar action at slower retrieve speeds make it equally effective in clear water. In cold water fall rate is key, and when the water is clear on top of being frosty, I often bite an inch off the front of this bait before rigging it on a jighead. Doing so makes the bait a more bite-sized morsel, but it will still maintain a slow fall rate thanks to that wide boot tail.
Plain Round Jighead
While most people think of a jighead as part of a lure rather than a lure itself, consider that these simple weighted hooks have probably caught more walleyes than any other lure on this list. The caveat, of course, is that they have to be paired with a natural bait. Pin a live shiner, crawler, or leech on a jighead, and suddenly you’ve got the perfect delivery system that perks up a live bait bouncing across the bottom. There are also countless color options to match any conditions. The jig-and-bait combo is just as effective for anglers standing on a riverbank as it is for boat guys in the middle of a Great Lake. My best piece of advice for this simple presentation is to make sure there’s plenty of gap between the hook point and your bait of choice after it’s pinned. If that gap is too small, and I promise you’ll miss lots of fish.
4 Tricks for Catching Spring Walleyes
Blame it on global warming or zebra mussels—the fact remains that in the last few years, anglers across the Great Lakes and elsewhere have noticed that walleyes are spending more and more time down deep than they did in decades past. It’s becoming tougher and tougher to find fish suspending high in the water column, and at no time of year is the bottom-hugging tendency more noticeable than in spring.
Now, when the water is cold, the fish not only can be way down; they can also be discerning, requiring a subtle presentation. Hard baits with long diving lips may reach the fish, but their action is lackluster when pulled at the slow speeds often necessary to score bites. The shallow-diving stickbaits that work in summer, on the other hand, can be pulled with slow finesse. The problem is getting them down to the fish. These four tricks will put those summer hard baits in the face of deep spring monsters.
1. Get the Lead Out
Originally popularized by salmon trollers, leadcore line is made up of a Dacron sheath surrounding a thin lead core. Every 30 feet, the line changes color, which allows you to keep track of how much line you feed out so you can reset a trolled stickbait at exactly the same depth every time. Leadcore provides a very subtle presentation because the weight is distributed throughout the entire line, as opposed to a snap weight that adds weight to only one spot on the rig.
Slight speed changes will make a stickbait trolled on leadcore rise or drop in the water column, making it easier to get the lure working at your desired depth without hanging on the bottom. The only hitch with leadcore is that running more than two lines behind the boat is a recipe for tangles.
2. Three’s a Charm
Another tactic that’s older than bell-bottoms, but simple and effective, is trolling a stickbait on a three-way swivel. The main line gets tied to one swivel eye, while a short leader and the stickbait are tied to a second eye. The swivel’s third eye gets another leader—or dropper line—for attaching the sinker that will get the stickbait to your desired depth. The most common mistake with three-way fishing is not using a sinker that’s heavy enough.
You want to have your line out at no more than 45 degrees when the boat is running at trolling speed. Even though dropper lines are usually short, don’t be afraid to make them up to 4 feet long. Remember that the length of your dropper does not equal the exact distance your bait will run off the bottom, as the water resistance from the moving boat will cause it to rise slightly.
3. Thin Out
For most walleye trolling applications, monofilament line rules. But simply swapping the 10-pound monofilament on one reel and replacing it with a small-diameter braid can get a trolled stickbait down an extra 5 or 6 feet because braid creates less drag in the water.
A braid such as 12-pound Sunline SX1 is strong enough to land even the largest trophy, yet nearly half the diameter of 10-pound mono. If you switch to braid, just make sure you set your drag looser than usual, as the lack of stretch makes it easier to rip the hook out of a fish’s mouth.
4. Snap to It
Snap weights are relatively new to the walleye game, but they work wonders for getting a stickbait in the zone. They attach to your line via a clip that can be easily removed when fighting a fish. To fish a stickbait with a snap weight, first let out anywhere from 15 to 50 feet depending on how deep you want your lure to dive. Once your length is set, clip a snap weight to the main line and send it down.
A little trial and error is often necessary, as boat speed and weight size drastically affect diving depth. With heavier weights, make sure to use a clip that has an internal pin to keep the weight from accidentally coming off during a fight.