By Jason Mitchell
So often with walleye fishing, we get conditioned to think a certain way regarding a presentation. We fish life bait rigs below the boat. We troll crankbaits. We pitch jigs. We get locked into how a specific presentation should be fished. What can become detrimental to our own growth as anglers is we quit thinking and quit experimenting with the potential of how some presentations can be used. By straying away from tradition and by experimenting with what might be unorthodox uses for some presentations, we can make ourselves more efficient.
So often, catching more fish is all about adapting to the location and what the fish are doing. This increases our efficiency dramatically. The reality is that most days, a walleye will eat a live bait rig, jig, crankbait or anything else that lands in front of their face. The right presentation matched up with the right location however can accomplish this task with more efficiency.
One hot tactic we are seeing emerge across the Midwest is slow troll tactics that incorporate soft plastic swim baits. Swim baits have blown up in some regions and over time, we have become conditioned or engrained to fish them a certain way. Many anglers using swim baits are casting them. Swim baits shine when fished through weeds or up into shallow water. Anglers cast and reel swim baits over emerging vegetation. Swim baits can be worked and twitched with a swim and stop cadence. Swim baits can be fished a lot of different ways. The stout single hook can be fished through weeds effectively and offer a good hook up percentage where more leverage or pressure can be applied to the larger single hook compared to the much smaller hook and gap found on the treble hooks of crankbaits or even traditional jig and live bait combinations.
Swim baits however can also shine out over deeper water and in water deeper than eight to ten feet, slow dragging or trolling behind the boat can be deadly for reaching fish down to twenty-five feet of water. Swim baits fish very well dragged behind the boat at a forty-five to eighty-degree angle and allow you to fish slower than traditional spinner harness and crankbait speeds. You can crawl forward at a mile to a mile and a half an hour, faster if necessary but this wide window of speed can enable you to follow irregular weed bed edges and bottom contours that can be difficult at faster speeds.
Dragging soft plastics slowly upstream on river systems first planted the seeds for experimenting with slow trolling swim baits behind the boats on reservoirs and natural lakes. There were a few earlier lessons as well but somehow out of my own stubbornness, I didn’t embrace these tactics for how effective they could be. I remember years ago; I was guiding a couple on Devils Lake and the wind was blowing about thirty miles per hour and boat control was a struggle as we fished a point. We were catching fish in about fifteen feet of water and even with two large drift socks out, we struggled to slow the boat down. One of the anglers I was guiding threw out a quarter ounce jig with a three-inch twister tail grub and simply dragged it behind the boat and started catching several nice fish. We replaced the other rods with more jigs and grubs and caught a lot of fish that day in fast order. The next day, I went back to the bottom bouncer and spinner so some lessons come hard. Dragging soft plastics behind the boat wasn’t something I easily embraced. Some lessons are learned the hard way.
In my opinion, why slow trolling with soft plastics can work so well is the hang time and stalling fall soft plastics have when popped off the bottom. As walleye anglers, we are conditioned to rig soft plastics on jigs for fishing below the boat or for pitching away from the boat. By simply changing our mentality, we can expand the uses for soft plastics dramatically if we fish these baits with a trolling mindset.
Over the past five years, I have lit up big walleyes by trolling swim baits over shallow reefs after dark. We have even caught scattered basin fish by running swim baits behind planer boards. The only requisite seems to be a clean bottom as it can be difficult to avoid any bottom contact unless targeting suspended fish. If there is a lot of algae and anything else on the bottom that fouls up hooks, a crankbait or bottom bouncer and spinner often works better but if the bottom is clean, trolling or dragging swim baits can be surprisingly effective. Whenever you need to either drop your speed down or need to fish closer to the boat to follow contours, swim baits can give you a lot of flexibility.
Probably the biggest difference I see with pulling swim baits versus crankbaits or spinner harnesses is that you often must set the hook. Compared to what I would prefer for either crankbaits or harnesses, swim baits seem to work better with a faster and heavier action rod. A rod in the rod holder doesn’t seem to hook up with the same consistency when using swim baits. Even when we used swim baits behind planer boards, we often had to manually set the hook by sweeping the board forward. Swimbaits seem to require a more hands on approach where you hold the rod and set the hook.
As more anglers’ experiment with all the different applications where swim baits can work for walleye fishing, I suspect that more refinements will continue to be made and shared. The versatility of swim baits can enable walleye anglers to catch more and bigger fish and in many ways, swim baits compliment other traditional walleye presentations.