Speed Jigging For Walleyes

By Dan Small - July 1, 2012
Old beliefs die hard.

Take walleyes, for instance. Let's look at three common beliefs regarding walleye behavior.

In summer, they go deep, right? Some do, some don't, depending mainly on three key variables: water temperature, oxygen levels and food availability. In many lakes and reservoirs with shallow weed beds, the vegetation offers those three variables, along with ambush cover, so a fair number of walleyes hang out in the weeds all summer.

Another belief is that walleyes are finicky eaters, light biters, slow-moving critters. Not true! Walleyes can move nearly as fast as pike and muskies and they will slam a bait with the ferocity of a bass. Recent underwater video footage shows big walleyes moving with lightning speed as they attack minnows.

The third belief? Walleyes hit only slow-moving baits. By now, if you're thinking this also must not be true because of the facts in the preceding paragraph, you're right! For sure, walleyes will hit a bait that moves slowly, but under certain conditions, they will also hit baits that zip along. And this includes jigs, the bait designed for probing bottom slowly.

Finding Weed Walleyes

Aquatic vegetation functions much like grass on a prairie or trees in a forest. It provides cover and nutrients for a complex food chain of organisms, from tiny zooplankton and insect larvae to top-line predators. Many minnow species and the young of some panfish and game fish live under the protective canopy of aquatic vegetation.

Like grass and trees, aquatic vegetation also provides shade and photosynthesis, two factors of great value during the hot summer months, creating an environment that is cooler and richer in oxygen than the surrounding weedless shallows.

Because of these benefits, walleyes frequent a variety of different weed types.

"Walleyes are often found in weeds in summer," said Northland Tackle pro staffer Brian "Bro" Brosdahl. "Especially submerged vegetation like cabbage and coontail. Walleyes also like the relatively open cover of bulrushes, and they sometimes hang out under the overhead protection of lily pads and pondweed."

Emergent vegetation is most often found in shallow water along shorelines and around islands. Submergent vegetation can be anywhere light penetrates deep enough for photosynthesis. Top spots include flats, bars and humps that rise up out of deeper water.

In lakes without much depth variation, weeds will hold walleyes regardless of time of day. In those with deep water adjacent to weeds, you'll find more walleyes in the weeds early and late in the day.

Weeds are harder to fish than traditional rock structure or the open lake. A locater will give you readings on depth and bottom structure, but won't help you find fish in this shallow water because your boat will spook fish before you mark them. About the only way to find them is to fish for them.

After a cold front passes through, walleyes often hold tight to cover and will not feed aggressively. This is when you must move methodically from one weed bed to another, pitching jigs into open pockets and working them slowly to produce strikes. Under stable weather conditions, however, walleyes prowl weeds in search of food. That's when speed jigging really pays off.

Walleye Behavior Revealed

Often thought of as bottom-hugging sluggards, walleyes move about readily, cruising long distances in search of food. They usually travel in schools of like-age fish, which is why when you catch one you'll often catch another about the same size using the same techniques.

Many anglers have observed walleyes using underwater video cameras, but few have reported on the variations in walleye behavior in response to that of forage species. Pro angler James Holst, who produces and hosts the TV fishing program In-Depth Outdoors, recently used an underwater camera to monitor the actions of dozens of six- to 10-pound walleyes. Fishing in six feet of clear water, Holst was able to watch walleyes both eat and ignore his offerings. His efforts gave him a rare glimpse of walleye feeding habits.

"We like to think of walleyes as fairly easy-going animals that feed with the utmost care and finesse," says Holst. "The reality is, these shallow-water fish were just as active and predatory as bass or pike."

Perhaps Holst's most interesting discovery was the different ways walleyes reacted to live minnows, depending on the bait's action or lack thereof. "Every time our baits failed to show signs of life-kicking their tails and trying to swim away-walleyes coasted by without even giving the little morsels a look," Holst says. "I think they literally viewed the hook and motionless minnow as an inanimate object.

"On the other hand, when we had an active minnow down there, reactions were strikingly aggressive. Even though the walleyes were actively hunting food, they absolutely would not consider biting unless our baits were lively and kicking. Whenever a minnow pulsed its body, these big walleyes lost all inhibition and became deadly hunters."

Holst surmised that the walleyes were keying in on the vibration - not the sight - of the moving baitfish.

"We captured several live strikes that show walleyes facing completely away from the minnow; yet as soon as the bait gave a little kick, the fish executed a lightning fast 180 and engulfed the meal," Holst says.

To record this behavior, Holst used Marcum Technologies underwater cameras. His footage will appear in an episode of In-Depth Outdoors on the Fox Sports Network.

Holst's observations show what relatively few anglers have known for some time - walleyes will slam a fast-moving bait as aggressively as a pike, bass or muskie will.

Many anglers have caught walleyes accidentally while casting or trolling for other species and have written off the experience as a fluke. A few recognized a pattern and learned how to exploit it.

Walleyes in weeds are not always aggressive. On bright days when the barometric pressure is high or rising, they tend to remain deep in weed cover, venturing higher in the water column to feed only as darkness approaches.

On breezy, overcast days walleyes move freely under the cover of weeds. Baitfish, too, move more on cloudy days, so walleyes are likely to feed at any time of day. On days with a steady, stiff wind, concentrate on weed beds on the downwind shore, as wave action will push baitfish into the weeds and stir up insects and other food from the bottom.

I've had some of my best walleye action on days when wave-whipped foam drifts into bulrushes on a windswept point or gusts lift the edges of lily pads, revealing their light green undersides. On such days, walleyes roam weed beds in search of injured baitfish and insects dislodged from their hiding places. This is when speed jigging is at its best.

Speed Jigging Basics

I first experienced the effectiveness of speed jigging more than a decade ago, while fishing a shallow, dark-water lake with pro angler Chuck Demlow. This lake's only structure of note is a few rocky shorelines and a handful of submerged weed beds. To catch walleyes, most anglers troll slowly across the lake's main basin with shallow-running crankbaits. In contrast to this technique, Demlow worked the shoreline rocks, weeds and flats, much the way a bass angler would.

As we approached the first weed bed, Demlow handed me a spinning rod rigged with a ΒΌ-oz. Northland Whistler Jig tipped with a chartreuse plastic Cubby Big Mini Mite. I had several of these funny-looking jigs in my tackle box, but to be honest had never used one. I flipped the jig toward shore and proceeded to do a slow, lift-drop, lift-drop retrieve, just as I had always done with a jig-and-plastic combo.

In sharp contrast, Demlow made a cast nearly to the riprapped shoreline, then began cranking his reel handle rapidly. About halfway to the boat, his rod bent sharply and he set the hook with a grunt. I figured he had a largemouth or northern, as both species are almost as common as walleyes in this lake. After a brief tussle, he led an 18-inch walleye to the net.

I continued my slow retrieve, and two casts later, Demlow hooked another walleye, slightly larger than the first one. That's when I started paying attention. In the next hour, Demlow conducted a seminar on speed jigging.

"Cast toward shore, and begin your retrieve just as the jig hits the water or even a little before, as it is falling," Demlow coached. "Adjust your speed so you can feel it just ticking the weed tops."

The weeds reached to within two feet of the surface, leaving a narrow band of water to work with. At first, my jig either got caught in the weeds or bulged the surface like a spinnerbait. Finally, I got the timing down and started catching fish.

Demlow told me he had discovered this technique totally by accident while pre-fishing a tournament. Using the same Whistler/Mini Mite combo in a slow-retrieve mode, he had made a cast too close to shore, so he cranked his reel fast a few times to get his bait out to deeper water. A walleye grabbed it during the fast retrieve.

Determined to see if that first fish was a fluke, Demlow continued experimenting with speed jigging and caught several more walleyes. In the days that followed, he tried speed jigging over weed beds, gravel, rock and rubble and caught walleyes nearly every time out. He found the technique worked best over submerged weeds.

"Walleyes in the weeds don't have a big window of opportunity to hit a bait, especially in a stained-water lake like this. They grab it as soon as they see it."

If James Holst's observations of walleyes and minnows can be expanded to include artificial lures, there is little doubt the propeller's vibration triggers walleyes to strike the same way a minnow's pulsating tail does. I have tried a number of other noise-making jigs and plastic tail combos. Jigs with rattles and safety-pin type baits with spinner blades, tipped with shad tails, curly tails and split tails all caught walleyes.

Speed jigging fills a niche left vacant by most walleye techniques. An inline spinner can be worked fast, but it catches too many weeds and snags easily on logs, rocks and other things walleyes use for ambush cover. Most crankbaits can't be worked at high speeds, and they also hang up in weeds. The propeller on a Northland Whistler Jig and the spinner blade on Northland's Thumper Jig help fend off snags and stabilize the jig, keeping it at the same depth on a retrieve. Other jig designs sink too quickly, snag easily or swim erratically at fast speeds.

Advanced Speed Jigging

Speed jigging works wherever walleyes are found. Once you get the hang of catching walleyes over submerged weeds, try the technique in lily pads or pondweed. These plants have leaves that float on the surface and stems that will grab most baits dragged through them. If you cast along the edges of pad beds or into open pockets, you can rip a jig at about mid-depth, steering it clear of most stems.

Bulrushes, or pencil reeds, present another challenge. With most baits, it is too easy to snag their stiff, upright stems. Propeller jigs tend to push the stems aside, making them an effective presentation in rushes.

Speed jigging will also take walleyes in wood and over fish cribs, brush or rock piles. Let your jig sink to just above the level of the structure, then retrieve as you would over submerged weeds.

Another trick is to look for small fish dimpling or jumping and cast toward the commotion. You'll also take bass and white bass with this method. If there is no such evidence of feeding walleyes, then work areas that should hold baitfish or crayfish.

Try the technique in rivers, too, especially in slack water behind points, bridge abutments and other obstructions where shad, shiners and other baitfish hang out. Delicate techniques like crawling an ultralight jig over deep rock structure, long-line trolling a crankbait across a shallow reef at night or slip-bobbering a leech along a weed edge all have their place in the walleye angler's game plan. But sometimes the most effective technique is the most unlikely. Put speed jigging in your bag of tricks and you'll boat more walleyes this season.

Author Dan Small
Dan Small
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.