I’m often asked how I decide what live bait to use. Contrary to popular thought, choosing a minnow, leech or worm isn’t based solely on the season. The decision actually rests more on water temperature, and that can change from day-to-day or even hour-to-hour. Water can be cold in the morning and warmer at noon, especially in spring. I’ve had guide trips when minnows worked in the early morning onto to have walleyes switch their preference to leeches by mid-day after the water temperature rose a few degrees. Always have at least two kinds of baits in the boat to be safe.
The surface temperature can be misleading. Water is far colder one or two feet off the bottom where the bait is than on the surface, which warms as the day progresses. Check the temperature in the late afternoon for the most accurate reading.
With that said, there are some rules of thumb. For example, minnows are typically a cold-water bait. They’re the choice from opening day when water is 40 to 50 degrees until the temperature reaches 60 to 64 degrees.
Leeches become number one by May and produce well through summer to October.
Nightcrawlers have their place, but it isn’t around panfish-infested weed beds in July. However, crawlers work well on deeper structures such as humps and rock bars, sand bars and after dark when water is 65 to 80 degrees.
I’ve caught more trophy walleyes on leeches than all other live bait combined, so let’s talk about them first.
Leeches come in several sizes from medium, large, extra large and jumbo. They all work, and just as you wouldn’t leave the dock with only one kind of bait, always take more than one size of leech along. A mix of medium, large and jumbo sizes is best on unfamiliar waters when the average size of walleyes is unknown. I’ve bombed on trips when I didn’t have a variety of sizes or enough of the right size.
The size of the average walleye in a body of water dictates the size of the leech to use. Check with bait shops or anglers coming off the water at the ramps to learn what size walleyes they’re catching. That’s the best clue to deciding what size leech will be best. You’re in for a long day if you fish with extra-large or jumbo leeches in a lake that has walleyes averaging 17 inches.
Many anglers are misled about using jumbo leeches to trigger trophy walleyes. That only works where trophy walleyes live. If the lake is dominated by small fish, it may be one of those bobber-watching days if jumbo leeches are all you brought. You can go from a no-fish day to hauling in fish after fish just by downsizing the bait. I’ve had other boats move closer to me after watching me catching fish. They thought I was on a hot spot. But, the truth was their spot was probably just as good. They were just using the wrong-sized bait.
Stick with medium and large leeches where walleyes average 14 to 20 inches, which is true for many lakes. An exception is when you target weeds filled with panfish. Try a bigger leech, like a jumbo size, to discourage them.
Another exception comes when you’re fishing for trophy walleyes on deep rocks. That’s when you super-size the bait. Imagine a size #4 bleeding-red hook with a 6 millimeter Northern Lights ruby glass bead tipped with an extra-large or jumbo leech ribboned out and swimming over boulders in 22 feet of water. It’s killer! But, forget about catching 14-inch walleyes. Only big walleyes will touch it. The average size fish on a jumbo leech in trophy locations will measure 25 inches and weigh more than five pounds. Be prepared for less action. I’ve had clients who wanted to catch a 10-pound walleye and did, but it was the only bite they had all day.
Leeches work best on aberdeen style and live bait hooks paired with ruby red glass beads. Heavy jigs limit their ability to swim naturally. Use 1/16 oz. Jig Bugs with size #4 aberdeen hooks.
Popular thought says to hook a leech through the suction cup. But, that often ends with a leech that’s cast off or ripped off by pesky panfish. Instead, hook the leech just slightly behind the suction cup. It doesn’t reduce action or life span. The leech also appears to be swimming away from the hook as if trying to escape. When used near wood or rocks, the leech senses the safety of cover nearby and tries to reach it. The result is enticing.
Check the leech at the side of the boat before you cast. If one doesn’t swim well, change it.
If you get no action after a while, retrieve the rig and examine it for problems. The knot may have slipped or the leech may be gone. Some leeches also seem to give off a walleye-repelling odor. Change the bait and see.
Beware of the leech death roll. Leeches will sometimes ball up so tightly you can’t get them off the hook. They can even knot the line. They may have been hooked too far behind the suction cup. They might have been frightened by a walleye into a protective ball. Whatever the cause, a leech will never return to the swimming action you want once it starts the death roll. Get rid of it, and keep fishing in the same area. A walleye might be nearby.
Buy as many leeches as you can care for early in the season when their quantity and quality are at their peak. Choices diminish later in the season. By the end of summer, you’re lucky to find any at all.
First, sort through the container and look for the bloodsuckers, which are often mixed in. They have teeth surrounding the suction cup, they have a blob-like appearance and they are often spotted with an orange underside. Toss them out. Walleyes don’t like them.
Caring for bulk leeches is easy. Put them in a plastic pan with a half-inch of water over them and put them in refrigerator at 37 to 42 degrees to mimic winter conditions. They’ll hibernate. If you add too much water or store them at too high a temperature, they’ll fade in color and look worm as they swim themselves to death.
Just rinses them off every two days to prevent them from suffocating in their own slime.
GETTING THE MOST FROM MINNOWS
Minnows are the first choice in spring from ice-out through spawning time when water is in the low to mid 40s. They remain the best bait through May or early June when the temperature reaches about 62 degrees.
Many people oversize minnows in spring thinking small minnows won’t catch big fish. Untrue. The smaller sizes actually work best early in the year.
Minnows also are great starting in fall again when water cools back down to 60 degrees and continues to drop until ice-up. That calendar period is trophy time. Big walleyes want big minnows at that time of year. Big Bait — Big Fish!
If you’re struggling in summer trying to get a bite using leeches and nightcrawlers, switch to minnows. There’s a two or three week period in July or August when huge clouds of young-of-the-year perch sun themselves near the surface in bays on the weed lines. Walleyes will be there, too., and they’ll bite best on minnows. Watch the cloud. Do they look nervous? That could be a sign walleyes are nearby. Cast your slip bobber rig right to the middle of the school. Instant strikes are common. You’ll know when to try minnows in summer by inspecting stomach contents of your catch for perch or when walleyes cough them up in the livewell.
I use fatheads and retail chubs in northern Wisconsin, though redtails can be hard to purchase early in the year.
Fatheads are usually two or three inches long and sell for about one dollar a dozen, making them an inexpensive, but great choice. They’re especially good in cold water. They are available most of the years because they come from lakes where they are more accessible to commercial trappers.
Redtails are three to four inches long in spring, when you can find them. They’re trapped in rivers, which are prone to high, dirty water early in the year. They start to become available mid-May to mid-June, perfect timing for use in emerging weed beds. Walleyes prefer them in vegetation. They reach five to six inches in fall when walleyes are looking for a meal. Retails are more common later in the year because trappers have had all summer to build their supplies and stock bait shops.
Black chubs are a good substitute for redtails. Black chubs are lake-dwellers, so they are more accessible to trappers. They are hardier and tougher than redtails, too. Walleyes in some lakes prefer them. I’ve had some great outings with black chubs around spawning areas, wood and steep shorelines in spring.
The action of the minnow triggers the strikes so they must be hooked precisely. The Mr. Slip Bobber Jig Bugs I designed feature quality gold aberdeen hooks for good reason — aberdeen hooks are the best slip-bobber hook made. They are thin and sharp so they won’t damage a minnow.
Jig Bugs also have enough weight to stop a minnow from tying knots in the leader.
Match hook size to the size of the minnow. Size #2 and #4 hooks work best with redtail and black chubs. The size #6 works well with medium to large fatheads. Big Blue-Nose fatheads in July require size #4 hooks.
During seminars, I usually ask fishermen where they hook a minnow. About half say to hook them in the lips, the other half say to hook them under the dorsal fin. Both are OK.
But, the best place to hook a minnow is between the dorsal fin and tail, and actually closer to the tail.
I don’t hook minnows through the lips. Walleyes eat minnows head first, so I’m always concerned about the line and hook being in that kill zone. In addition, when the minnow is hooked through the lips, the hook point sometimes gets turned, points toward the tail and gets imbedded in the minnows head. The walleye never feels the barb when you set the hook. That causes lost fish during a battle.
Hooked under the dorsal fin, a minnow swims without effort. They don’t struggle at all. They just swim along no matter where the bobber floats. They cruise and get lazy.
But, a minnow hooked near the tail is a struggling bait. They are “head-heavy,” and they will fight to stay level and swim and swim until they’re worn out. When the bobber pulls them one way, they’ll try to swim in the other. When my minnows need to be changed, they’re dead, really dead. That’s the kind of action that yields strikes.
Some minnows have the right attitude. They’re the ones that jump out of the minnow bucket and volunteer. Also, choose the minnows that swim in the bucket or try to hide under the school. They have the best action. Save the deadbeats for jigging. Panfish and walleyes nick or beat the scales off minnows over time so they don’t look good. Get rid of A.B.C. minnows — Already Been Chewed.
AS THE WORM TURNS
Nightcrawlers aren’t used enough on slip bobber rigs. For some reason, most anglers don’t consider using whole nightcrawlers at all. But, they’re awesome on the right spots at the right times.
A weed bed is not the right spot. Panfish will eat up a dozen nightcrawlers faster than you can buy them. Once a ‘crawler is damaged, it is no longer effective. Half a nightcrawler may work on a jig, but you need the whole worm on a slip bobber rig that’s looking for a big walleye.
A nightcrawler in a weed bed that goes untouched by pesky bluegills or perch early in the day can be a sign walleyes are present and keeping panfish away. But, panfish will migrate to the weeds in force by mid-day. That’s when I move to deeper rock piles and use nightcrawlers and leeches to fish for trophy walleyes. The panfish won’t be there or they will be lunch.
A friend of mine, Lac du Flambeau guide Lyle Chapman proved to me nightcrawlers work well into fall when he met me at the ramp on day with six big walleyes. It was an awakening. Now, from mid-June to late-September, I like to suspend nightcrawlers three or four feet off the bottom on those big-fish posts where walleyes swimming over mid-lake structures feed on cisco, smelt or whitefish, can see them. It’s a waiting game, but so what? You’ve already got your limit of eaters from the weeds by then. You’ve got nothing to lose.
Deeper bars that top out at 25 to 40 feet, are best during the day.
Bars that top out from 10 to 25 feet are best after dark when trophies lose their edge. They’re less skittish and less aware of danger. At the same time, all of the daytime distractions from panfish are gone. Use a whole nightcrawler below a lighted bobber starting shortly after dark over mid-lake humps and rock bars that feature boulders. Every rock bar has a peak. Find it and mark it on your GPS. That’s the exact “spot on a spot” to put your bobbers.
As with all live bait, how you hook a nightcrawler makes all the difference. Poke the point of the hook into the head of the nightcrawler and thread the worm on until the eye of the hook is embedded inside the worm. The line should appear to come out of the head of the worm and the worm should hang straight when you’re done.
Inject a little air into the ‘crawler by pushing the needle of a Lindy Worm Blower in a third of the way up the tail. Insert air toward the tail, not the head. The worm will squirm more.
Use large hooks, up to size #4 Diiachi or Gamakatsu bleeding red hooks or glow hooks, at night when the odds of catching a big fish are best.
Always use the Mr. Slip Bobber Aurora Borealis bead with red hooks. What a combo. I think walleyes view them as the nightcrawler’s eyes. Glow beads and glow hooks are critical. Fire them up with a Lindy Techni-Glo Tazer 2 light, flashlight or headlamp. The glow lasts several minutes. Hold the glow rig near your running light before each cast to maintain it’s charge.
Be patient. Walleyes inhale nightcrawlers, and when they hit at night, they are playing for keeps. With multiple rods fished over the right rock bar, action will be fast and furious.
For more slip bobber tips, check out Greg Bohn’s book “Master the Art of Slip Bobbering“.