By Jason Mitchell
On so many natural lakes, slip bobbers are deadly on walleye. Particularly early in the season. Cold fronts, crashing water temps and dirty water accompanied by strong winds might absolutely wreck many bites but slip bobbers still seem to catch fish during the tough conditions. Tough to beat a lively leech squirming in place just for the sake of catching walleye. The other reality however with slip bobber fishing is that finding fish is a probe. You must pick what you believe to be the spot on the spot with the highest probability for contacting fish. You must get methodical and your search process gets slowed way down. You may indeed be thorough but make no mistake… slip bobbers can also sometimes be a real difficult way to eliminate water and find fish.
So often early in the season when trends are going the wrong direction… trends like water temperature or instable weather. I find that I will still catch some walleyes up shallow by pitching jigs with bait, jigs with plastics, swimbaits, crankbaits, etc. but the bite is a tough grind. Going back through an area with slip bobbers where I could previously only catch a few fish with cast and reel presentations often saved the day. The difference was often striking. In this context, slip bobbers compliment other cast and reel presentations. The other presentations catch a few fish, enable you to sample water and find fish. The slip bobber might not be the best presentation to look for fish but it sure does catch fish once you find them.
Slip bobber fishing however also gives you a tremendous education on how fish move through a location. With slip bobbers, you will realize quickly that any location has sweet spots where it seems like every fish uses. As the fish move through a location or along a shoreline, it often seems like the route of travel is preordained much like deer following a deer trail. Walleyes using reefs or rock piles might follow the edges of boulders a certain way. Fish running along shorelines might travel a specific distance from shore that seems to be a more important factor than a specific depth. Slip bobber fishing does allow you to really learn a location and really understand how fish use that location. You can even begin to understand the orientation of fish movements in the direction fish are pulling the bobber under.
Depending on the state you are fishing and how many rods you can use, keeping several slip bobbers in the water can keep you busy. With most scenarios, the boat will be anchored and you want to use the wind as an advantage. Keep the boat upwind from the target you want to fish. Ultimately, the slip bobbers will settle in a line downwind from the boat and although everything is stationary, each slip bobber will have a drift that must be managed. Successful slip bobber fishing is often a matter of managing slip bobber drifts next to the boat and keep slip bobbers drifting continually through key spots. This management is often simply a rod location where the rod and bobber furthest down wind eventually gets reeled up and placed furthest upwind. The key is to keep nice open lanes between slip bobbers and have your rods follow the order of your slip bobbers. Typically, this is much easier to accomplish with several rods if you can anchor the boat sideways with two traditional anchors or an anchor and a Talon.
There are many differences in opinion on slip bobber setups and preferences do change from region. I consider slip bobber fishing a methodical almost finesse presentation in that you are sticking and keeping good live bait right in front of a fish. On the other hand, I also bring almost a power fishing mentality to slip bobber fishing. On Devils Lake where we are fishing flooded trees, I like to use a heavier braided line for my main line. Bobber knots don’t grip and stick on braid like mono so you need to use heavier braided line for the bobber knots to work. I have found a heavier braid like fourteen- or twenty-pound Power Pro works perfect because the bobber knots stick and the line is very durable. Use two bobber stops stacked on top of each other in tandem. I like to use a larger 1 to 1 ¼ inch diameter slip bobber that is easy to cast and easy to see. Again, this larger slip bobber might seem like overkill much like the heavier line but the key to the larger slip bobber is that it allows you to use more weight. Below the slip bobber, I like to add a sliding 1/8 to ¼ ounce egg sinker above a snap swivel. The heavier weight pulls the line through the slip bobber fast and the presentation gets through the water column fast. This fast setup time is crucial around wood, when managing several lines or if power corking when you are hunting for fish with your electronics.
Early in the season, I find that a plain snell hook is as deadly as anything else. I believe part of the slip bobbers allure early in the season is that the slip bobber and weight can bob up and down in strong winds but the action on a plain snell below the swivel is often subdued and cushioned. This passive and subdued action on a lively leech is deadly during tough conditions early in the season. In cold weather, I find that whacky hooking a medium to small leech on a plain hook will catch fish when nothing else will. As the water warms up, I find that I can use a smaller weight above the swivel and start to incorporate jigs that add some color and flash. I use a lot of Northland Fishing Tackle Whistler Jigs through the summer where I tip with either a leech or half crawler. Shiners and minnows can also work well depending on the water. Most days on most water however, the ribbon leech is king.
Long rods are often preferred for slip bobbers and as most can assume, you don’t need to necessarily have the highest quality rod from a weight or sensitivity perspective. Just a simple seven-foot spinning rod that has a moderate action like the Scheels Outfitters Guide Series will suffice. I often also don’t like to use rod holders and instead prefer to lay the rods on the gunnel far enough inside the boat where fish can’t easily pull the rod over the side just so I can move rods faster and easier while keeping nice lanes open between each slip bobber. I use my Talon a lot when slip bobber fishing and often use it in conjunction with a heavy anchor and attached chain so that I can pin myself on short amounts of anchor rope in strong wind.
If I am trying to sharp shoot fish with my electronics, I am typically keeping the bow mount trolling motor down so I can spot lock and using the side imaging. On places like Mille Lacs where it is very popular to drive around locations to find and mark pods of fish and then pitch to those fish with slip bobbers, these fish are often suspended so find the distance the fish are from the bottom by measuring how far the fish is from the shadow on your side imaging. Once you know an approximate distance from the bottom, figure out the approximate distance from the top and use your body as a ruler for quickly sliding your bobber stop. I am a little over six feet tall for example. If fish are fifteen feet down, I just go twice my height plus a few more feet. If you are going to commit to a location, using a traditional lead depth finder works for exactly setting your depths but when you are running and gunning, use your body, arm width or rod to measure faster.
Slip bobbers save the day during tough conditions. We haven’t seen or fished on many natural lakes where slip bobbers didn’t work. Early in the season, this simple and effective presentation is often at its best. From emerging weed lines, rock reefs and pencil reeds to flooded timber and shoreline structure. Slip bobbers simply catch walleye. What is most amazing is just how incredibly deadly a simple squirming leech on a plain hook works early in the season when other presentations are just a grind particularly when walleyes are shallow less than ten feet of water after cold fronts and ugly weather.