By Jason Mitchell
Live bait is a critical component to catching walleye on many fisheries. Even with the advent of soft plastics and the fact that more walleye anglers have confidence with artificial baits, there is still a time and place for live bait. With today’s presentations that have replaced live bait with soft plastics in regards to both rigging and jigging, the fall back to live bait often correlates with finesse and triggering fish that won’t commit to more aggressive presentations. When you need to sit on a spot, live bait still shines.
Live bait is far from dead and the dependency of using live bait can vary from angler to angler and lake to lake. Some fisheries just seem to require live bait if fish are going to be caught with any consistency. Typically, if you have extremely clear water, low population densities of fish and an abundance of forage… live bait will often trump everything.
With my own fishing, live bait can be a productive fall back option. I often start out using soft plastics and start out covering water. Typically, you can find the fish and catch the easy fish with soft plastics or artificial baits before eventually wearing out your welcome. After you wear out your welcome on a spot and remove the easy fish, decreasing the competition amongst the remaining fish… these remaining fish typically become tougher to catch. At this point you have two options, you can either keep moving and find new fish or you can hunker down with live bait and scratch a few more. Because of this overall strategy or theme, my live bait rigging has evolved to be a change-up pitch that is used as a final trick in the bag as soft plastics are used on jigs, harnesses and slow death presentations. The reality is that like many walleye anglers, I only use live bait a fraction of what I did twenty years ago.
When a spot goes cold, you can either keep griding away with what worked earlier and wait out fish movements as new fish recharge the spot or you can change up what you are doing to catch fish that have ignored you thus far. Live bait is now what I divert to when nothing else is working. What can scratch more fish off a spot is simply change. The change is what is most important in that there is no silver bullet but simply changing bait, angle and look can often catch a few more fish. Here are a few tricks that have worked well through the years.
Scoot and Shoot
In water deeper than ten feet, you need to trust your electronics. Speed up and scoot around until you mark fish. Remember as well that when you wear out your welcome in a spot, one of the first things that can happen when a spot gets too much pressure is the size of the fish drops off. When looking for fish with your electronics, the thicker or taller marks are typically your bigger fish. When you find a targeted fish, you can either use the spot lock on your trolling motor or hover if back trolling. If hovering over the top doesn’t work, try going over the fish and dragging past the fish. After you get past the fish, turn around and hit a different angle. It is amazing at times how a fish will require a few tries and only hit on one specific angle. The quicker you can scoot and cover water between fish, the more fish you can catch so often I revert to heavier snells like ten-pound test so the snell doesn’t get all twisted up as I cover water between fish.
Bait and Switch
So often, anglers get locked in to a specific bait type. Minnows in the spring, crawlers and leeches in the summer. Some lakes require shiners where as other situations require chubs or rainbows. There are general rules of thumb where some minnow or bait types shine on specific fisheries or seasons but when things get tough, give the fish a different look. If you have beat up some fish on a jig and shiner, try making a pass through the spot with a rig and leech. Experiment with different baits and sizes because what can work so well is to just give the fish something different.
Keeping bait in tip top condition is paramount when fishing gets tougher. Keep crawlers and leeches on ice. Give leeches new water frequently and use fresh caught wild minnows. So often, the best live bait riggers simply have the best bait. Some anglers trap or catch their own minnows while other simply have better sources but better bait means better fishing. When surface temps warm up, putting a block of ice in part of the live well and using the recirculation can keep minnows in better shape. A live well additive like G Juice (U2 formula) works well keeping minnows in top form.
Feeding versus Dragging
There was a common thought with anglers at one time that live bait rigging meant keeping the bail of the reel open and feeding line to the fish when bit. Anglers would count to five or ten seconds, close the bail and set the hook. Over the years, anglers have become more conservation minded by not purposely letting a fish swallow a hook.
When feeding the fish the bait is necessary, simply dropping the rod tip back towards the fish will usually give the fish enough time to get the bait. What can also work extremely well particularly later in the summer when the water warms up is to not drop the rod tip back or feed fish line but to simply drag the fish with the rod. Let the rod simply load from the fish and keep your forward momentum. What I think happens at times is simply the walleye grabs on to the minnow or chub and the fish can feel the bait sliding out of their mouth. The fish simply chokes up on the bait faster and these fish often hook themselves.
What can be amazing is that these two opposite responses can have drastic effects on your fishing. When the dragging response is working, anglers feeding line will struggle and vice versa. Most walleye anglers are familiar with feeding line or dropping the rod tip back… get comfortable with dragging fish before the hookset as well.
More fishing information can be found at www.jasonmitchelloutdoors.com.