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"Thee way" to more Walleyes with Three-Ways

By Fishing The Wild Side - July 1, 2003
Written By Doug Newhoff

When it comes to their bellies, walleyes aren't all that much different than human beings. Some days, they will go to great lengths to please their palates by roaming expansive flats or cruising miles of shoreline in search of a few crayfish or shiners. Some days, they prefer not to spend a lot of energy in search of dinner and simply rest on the bottom and wait for dinner to be come to them.

Even then, there are days when they just can't make up their minds what they want. Fuzz-E-Grubs or Fire-Ball jigs? Gum-Drop Floaters or plain hooks? Minnows or leeches? Rapalas or Frenzies?

When we wrestle with such a dilemma, we simply head to the neighborhood smorgasbord to satisfy our fickle appetites. On the water, we can take the smorgasbord to the walleyes. That's the beauty of three-way rigging, which allows an angler to set the table with a variety of baits and let the walleyes choose their favorite.

Springtime presents a unique set of conditions ranging from high, swift and sometimes stained water in river systems to

"Co-Founder of Fishing the WildSide, Chip Leer hoists a hefty walleye that thumped a three-way when more traditional tactics failed."
wind-swept structure and bottom-hugging fish in lakes and reservoirs. Often, those conditions eliminate vertical jigging, pitching jigs, casting cranks or drifting as efficient and productive presentations.

In addition, post spawn walleyes tend to roam in search of forage as they rebuild their strength. That often scatters them over large sand flats, reefs, shorelines or long, sloping points.

Lead-core trolling can be a great solution in some of these situations. However, if there is debris in the water such as grass and weeds, it's tough to keep crankbaits running clean. In addition, the lead-core approach limits how many and which baits were are able to present to fussy fish.

Three-way rigs can be the answer. While they may be the only effective option in severe current or high winds, they have their time and place as a go-to presentation for several members of the Fishing the WildSide pro staff under any conditions.

"The real beauty of three-way rigs is when you have uneven bottom situations like sand dunes or a series of humps and depressions, or you are fishing a fairly sharp break," notes Professional Walleye Trail veteran Tommy Skarlis.

"The rig follows the contour. If you were trolling the traditional way, your lures would pass right over the heads of the fish laying in those depressions or tucked in behind those little sand dunes or holding tight to those breaks. With three-ways, you can always be in the strike zone."

When walleyes get in those foul moods when they won't move a foot for a jig or a crankbait, three-ways can save the day, adds Fishing the WildSide co-founder and Leech Lake Guide Coalition member Chip Leer.

"There are times when they're negative and they just won't budge," he explains. "What's neat about three-ways is how they allow you to tease the fish when you have to. You can slow things down, especially in current, and hold that bait right in their faces so they don't have to expend any energy to eat it."

Regulations vary from state to state in terms of what an angler can include in a three-way rig.

In states where only one hook per line is permitted, most anglers use a sinker on an 8- to 10-inch dropper line in tandem with a stickbait, floating jig head, plain hook, small jig, small spoon or spinner rig tied to a 36- to 40-inch leader.

"For every one foot of dropper length, you should have three to four feet of trailer," notes Skarlis.

Of course, there are exceptions. When fishing these rigs in shallow, snaggy water, a shorter trailer can help keep an angler out of trouble because it bounces up and over potential danger where a longer lead settles back in the trouble zone after the sinker has passed. Conversely, in clear-water situations where walleyes tend to be spookier, longer snell lengths can be an advantage.

Sinker styles and sizes depend on the cover, current and wind.

When the fish are buried in rock or timber, Lindy No-Snagg sinkers are hard to beat, although pencil-shaped sinkers work

"...Imagination rules when putting together three-way rigs."

well, too. When the bottom is void of snags, bell sinkers are a good choice. Some anglers paint their sinkers for added attraction while others even use jig heads with the hooks cut off to accomplish the same purpose.

In river situations where the early season current is ripping, it may take a 5- or 6-ounce sinker to fish a rig effectively. Strong wind creates similar considerations. In general, however, use just enough weight to keep the rig in contact with the bottom at trolling speed.

"You want to fish three-ways fairly vertical because the more you let them get away from the boat and the more you reduce the angle from your rod tip to where the line enters the water, the more you drag your baits and allow them to get closer together," Skarlis explains.

In states where regulations are more liberal, imagination rules when putting together three-way rigs.

Where two hooks per line are permitted, most anglers prefer a heavy jig, like a Lindy Jumbo Fuzz-E Grub as a dropper. It can be tipped with live bait or Berkley Power Bait. The trailer options are unlimited.

Another variation that is deadly on wingdams and along rock faces consists of a big jig as the dropper with the trailer attached to a barrel swivel or allowed to slide freely up and down the line above the dropper. The effect is similar to the drop-shotting technique that has become popular with bass anglers.

If the dropper jig isn't producing, remove it, switch to a lead sinker and double up on the trailer line. A popular rig on midwestern rivers features a stickbait followed by a floating jig head tipped with live bait, which is tied to the rear hook grommet on a two-foot leader.

"Sometimes that's more than they can handle," says Leer. "If not, a lot of times they might pass on the jig when it comes past but they'll whack that second one when it comes by right behind the first one."

It's even possible to rig a pair of stickbaits in tandem without killing their natural action. The trick is to mix sizes with a smaller lure in front. Many times, pumping the rig forward and slowly dropping it back triggers jarring strikes.

"Sometimes that's more than they can handle. If not, a lot of times they might pass on the first bait but in states where you can rig two lures on a three-way, they'll whack that second one when it comes by right behind the first one."

Skarlis sometimes uses three-way rigs to go places where few other anglers go.

"A cool way to rig is with a Lindy No-Snagg sinker and a No-Snagg hook with a wire weed guard," he notes. "You can wiggle and jiggle that through almost anything.

"That set-up is great for dead-rodding, too. You can be casting shoreline or whatever and give yourself a chance to catch some bonus fish without having to worry about snagging up much."

Skarlis is choosy when it comes to what line he uses on his rigs.

"I love Berkley Vanish Fluorocarbon," he explains. "The advantages are that it's invisible, it has better wet strength than most other lines, and it actually sinks and gets down there where the walleyes are where monofilament tends to float more. It also retains its limpness and you don't get coiling that can affect the action of your trailer.

"You want to make sure to use lighter line for your dropper, too. I try to use a dropper line that is four pounds lighter than the line on my reel with a trailer that is two pounds lighter than the dropper line. That way, only one line breaks and you get the rest of the rig back instead of having to start over."

When traditional methods aren't getting it done this spring, don't turn down that one-way street to the deli. There are three ways to get to the smorgasbord.

Author Fishing The Wild Side
Fishing The Wild Side
Editors Note: Doug Newhoff is one of the talented Pro Staff members of Fishing the WildSide.
Co-founded by Chip Leer and Tommy Skarlis, Fishing the WildSide is an extensive effort focused on generating excitement for the great sport of fishing. For more articles, fishing tips, info on the latest and greatest fishing gear or a schedule of Fishing the WildSide Pro Staff appearances, log onto For a free copy of the Fishing the WildSide Annual, call (218) 547-4714.
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