Want Walleyes? Show Them the Blade

By Dan Small - May 1, 2011
Blade baits. They cast like a bullet and sink like a brick - the antithesis of what most anglers think of as an ideal bait for walleyes - yet those finicky, light-biting critters practically knock themselves out to hit these solid-metal jigging spoons.

The secret to the attraction of blade baits is vibration. Whether jigged, ripped or retrieved, blade baits send out a thumping, pulsing rhythm that walleyes just can't resist.

The original blade bait was the Heddon Sonar, introduced in the late 1950s. Unlike nearly all the wooden or plastic plugs of its day, when it hit the water the Sonic sank straight to the bottom. When retrieved, it wobbled with a tight vibration you could feel even on those old glass rods of yesteryear.

Many anglers lost them on snags and gave up trying to use them. Those who stuck with the sinking baits, however, learned to retrieve them quickly or jig them near bottom and soon found they caught fish.

A generation later, numerous blade baits wiggled onto the scene. This year, Northland Tackle entered the blade-bait market with its Fish-Fry Minnow Trap, a blade with an ultra-realistic Live-Forage photo finish. They all have certain features in common: a thin shape, a vertical fish-like profile, and rapid vibration.

"The vertical profile of a blade bait mimics a minnow or small panfish," says pro angler and guide, Brian "Bro" Brosdahl. "Fish need to see it only for a split-second before they decide to eat it."

Brosdahl, a self-proclaimed "fishing nerd" who has been guiding for nearly two decades, grew up fishing rivers for walleyes. He began competing in local, then national tournaments and worked his way up to the FLW Walleye Tour. He has eight top-ten finishes in major tournaments, many of which he credits to blade baits.

Whether guiding or competing, he often uses a blade bait to prospect for active fish because he can cover a lot of water with a blade in a short time.

"Whether I mark fish or not, if a spot looks good, I can drop a blade down and jig it a few times," Brosdahl says. "If there's a fish there, it will often come up and hit it. It's a good way to speed fish through a list of spots."

He sometimes switches to live bait once he locates walleyes, but just as often he sticks with the blades because their vibration seems to get walleyes "riled up" and trigger strikes.

"I started using blades when I was in high school," Brosdahl says. "I had money for gas, but not enough to keep buying live bait, so I relied on artificials - plastics, spinners and blades. I learned to fish with them out of necessity, but now I rely on them because they work so well."

A blade works much the same way as a jigging spoon, with a flash as it tumbles, but it hangs horizontally, the way a fish holds in the water. A blade also adds vibration to the mix, which gives it a second dimension a spoon does not have. Blades will often outfish live bait, if for no other reason than they get down to the fish more quickly.

The simplest way to fish a blade is to let it drop to bottom, jig it vertically with a sharp, upward motion and let it fall to bottom again. Let it pause for two or three seconds, then repeat. If you're doing it correctly, you should feel a buzzing vibration as you lift the rod. This is what attracts fish. Walleyes feel the vibration with their lateral line, then look for the source. A blade that rises and drops mimics the death throes of an injured minnow, something walleyes key in on.

Walleyes seldom hit a blade tentatively. Most strikes will come as the lure falls. When you go to jig it again, you'll often find a fish has taken the bait and is hooked.

If you do get short strikes, try to keep the line taut and "follow the bait down" as it drops. That way, you can sometimes detect a light hit as a line twitch. Most of the time, though, walleyes seem to hook themselves.

In dark or stained water, stick with short strokes of two feet or so. In clear water, you can lift your rod a full four feet before letting the blade drop. In either case, a sharp upward stroke will cause more vibration and draw more strikes.

Most blades come in a variety of colors that will let you come close to matching the preferred forage species. Perch is always a good choice anywhere, and a shiner finish will imitate most baitfish in a river. In dark water, go with a gold finish. In clear water, silver works well. Natural-finish blades really attract walleyes in clear water, Brosdahl says, because they look so lifelike.

"The new photo-finish patterns really put the fork in the fillet," he says. "I've had walleyes hit a stationary blade just hanging over the side of the boat when I was busy doing something else."

Use the lightest blade you can get away with for the current speed and depth you are fishing. A quarter-ounce size is a good all-around choice. Go to a heavier blade for faster current or water 30 feet deep or more.

Some anglers tip a blade with a minnow head or piece of nightcrawler, but Brosdahl says this is usually not needed. Besides, anything on a blade hook - whether it's live bait or a strand of weed - can impair the action.

Brosdahl recommends spooling reels with a non-stretch six-pound test diameter braided line to help feel the vibration and strikes. To reduce tangles, add a two- to six-foot shock leader of eight- or ten-pound test monofilament - shorter in dark water, longer in clear water. Tie the mono directly to the split ring on the blade. He joins the mono and braided line with two double clinch knots, or ties a No. 14 barrel swivel between the braid and the mono to prevent line twist, which can happen with some blade baits.

"Be careful not to reel the swivel right up to the tip guide," Brosdahl warns. "Otherwise, you could crack or scratch a ceramic guide."

Blades are well suited to fishing rivers, where you can slip downstream with a trolling motor and jig vertically. From an anchored or stationary boat, you can let a blade bait work its way downstream as you jig it, then retrieve it directly upstream. In spring when the water is fast, walleyes will find "sweet spots" of quiet water in front of obstructions or along current seams. Walleyes often hold off the mouths of tributaries to the main river, especially just after spawning. Work these areas thoroughly, jigging vertically as you drift with the current.

Any time of year, look for pockets of calm water, such as behind or in front of bridge abutments, wing dams, rock humps or log jams. Drop a blade down into the quiet water and jig it a few times to entice strikes.

You can also cast a blade across the current and retrieve it as it swings downstream. This technique lets you cover a lot of water, but if there is a lot of debris on the bottom, it is easy to get hung up.

Later in summer, Brosdahl looks for walleyes in front of structure in four to eight feet of water.

"You can pitch a blade and rip it back toward you like you would a crankbait," he says. "Rip, Pause, rip, pause. When you pause, the blade drops right in their face. When they hit, they really pound it."

Blades work well in lakes both large and small. When walleyes are shallow in spring, work lightweight blades slowly along drop-offs. Use your electronics to locate fish and bump your blade along bottom right where they are holding. If the water is cold, pause four or five seconds between rod sweeps.

"Don't be afraid to fish a blade in shallow water," Brosdahl says. "If they are hungry, they'll hit it."

In summer, when walleyes often move to deeper water, blades really shine because you can work them as deep as necessary and still keep contact with your bait. As the water warms, you can shorten the time interval between rod sweeps to two or three seconds. Vary your jigging speed and pause interval until you start catching fish.

"The fish will tell you what they want, if you pay attention to them," Brosdahl says.

You'll sometimes find walleyes on humps, bars and off the tips of points in summer. In shallow, clear water, try not to park right over a school if walleyes. In dark water or water over ten feet deep, your boat should not spook them. When in doubt, stay off to the side of the fish and pitch and retrieve a blade, rather than jigging it directly beneath the boat.

Blades are a great choice for suspended walleyes, too. Walleyes often suspend under schools of baitfish or adjacent to a hump. Walleyes off a hump are usually aggressive, but those under baitfish are often lethargic, Brosdahl says, because they can eat whenever they want to. Regardless of where you mark fish, you can get a blade down to them more rapidly than any other bait.

"In a recent tournament, my partner and I needed one more fish," Brosdahl says. "I marked some fish suspended 20 feet down over 60 feet of water, dropped a blade down and caught a good fish that earned us a second-place finish."

One of the deadliest times for blade baits is in late summer to early fall, as lake temperatures begin to drop. Where there is no structure, walleyes often hold belly-to-bottom along the transition between hard and soft bottom in order to ambush baitfish.

If you mark fish on bottom, stay on top of them and drop a blade right down to them. Sometimes it helps to let the bait bounce on bottom, especially if there is sand.

"I think it's both the puffs of sand and the sound of the bait hitting bottom that get them going," Brosdahl says. "They will hit anything that looks injured and tumbles down to them."

If you are fishing with a partner or two, one or more anglers can let a little line out and fish behind the boat as it drifts along a contour. You can cover more water that way and avoid getting your lines tangled if one of you hooks a fish.

My first successful experience with blade baits occurred several years ago in fall on a river with guide Chuck Pohlman. We found a deep hole on an outside bend and began jigging with quarter-ounce blades, letting them pound the sand bottom before ripping them upward. Pohlman had three fish in the boat before I got the hang of the technique and started catching them. The first walleye I caught nearly took the rod out of my hand when it hit. After that outing, I was convinced of the effectiveness of blades and have used them ever since.

Despite his success with blades, Brosdahl has a hard time getting his clients to try them, especially if they are inexperienced anglers. While they stubbornly stick with live minnows, Brosdahl keeps putting fish in the boat with blades. Eventually, some clients reluctantly give them a try, but without a lot of conviction.

"Most people have not seen blades work, so they don't believe they will catch fish with them. You can't just put one on and use it for a few minutes and expect to catch fish," he says. "You have to convince yourself it's going to work and give it a chance, then you'll catch fish."

It helps, too, to have many years of working blades under your belt so you know what to expect and how to vary your technique. Brosdahl used to be secretive about his use of blades in tournaments, but when you stack up eight top-ten finishes in big tournaments in a short period, competitors begin to take notice.

"I used to keep quiet about blades," Brosdahl says. "But now I don't care anymore, even in tournaments. Other guys know what I'm using, so I'll talk about it now before they do. Blades work all year long, from cold to warm and back to cold again."

Blades also work well in winter, Brosdahl says with a smile, but the last thing most of us want to think about now is ice fishing, so we'll hold that thought for another time.

Give the walleyes in your area the blade this year and see if you don't put a few more than usual in the boat.

Author Dan Small
Dan Small
Editors Note: This article first appeared in Wisconsin Sportsman and other Game & Fish publications in March, 2011. Reprinted with permission by the author.
Dan Small is host/producer of Outdoor Wisconsin on Public Television and Outdoors Radio. He is also contributing editor of Wisconsin Outdoor News. He has written several thousand articles for national, regional and state-based outdoor publications since 1972. Listen to his syndicated weekly radio show on stations throughout Wisconsin and here on Lake-Link. For more information visit www.dansmalloutdoors.com.