Michigan fishermen love the spring walleye bite. When ice disappears and spring robins announce daylight, Michigan’s waterways are alive with spawning fish and some of the best fishing of the entire year becomes available, particularly for trophy walleyes. Sure there are times when small jigs and tiny minnows take fish but typically when walleyes become active it makes sense to offer them something worth chasing. Lures that resemble mature baitfish are important and when it comes to fishing rivers large jigs fit the criteria. The trick is to tip them with something that offers flash, wiggles like live bait and triggers a feeding frenzy from big supertankers. This point is best made by the following anecdote.
It was a warm spring day when I picked up my son Zach and his girl, Kat Hawkes from Dearborn, and we bought minnows at Bottomline and headed to the Trenton Channel for walleyes. We tipped our 5/8 oz. jigs with Fin-S-Fish by Lunker City and bounced offerings along bottom. The weather was perfect as I used the bow mounted Minn Kota electric motor to keep lines vertical. Zach hooked the first fish but Kat quickly put a fat hen in the net. Soon the sun touched the western horizon and Kat broke off on a snag. “I think I’ll use this one,” she announced as Zach attached to her line a bright chartreuse TJ’s Walleye jig tipped with a Fin-S Chartreuse Ice minnow. Then she reached into the minnow bucket and grabbed the biggest minnow available. Soon as the bold offering hit bottom Kat was fighting a monster walleye. It stripped line from the reel and she let out a delightful scream. The tug of war was interesting to watch and when the big hawg’eye came to net she smiled from ear to ear.
I readied the camera, snapped photos of the duo as they proudly held their prize catches in the beautiful setting sun. From the corner of the jaw of the impressive fish Kat held dangled a big sparkling plastic and super bright jig. I laughed with joy at the sight of my son enjoying Michigan’s great outdoors on a pleasant day with his dad and girlfriend. Seagulls circled above and announced the end of our adventure. We motored back to the launch with lights reflecting off the calm surface of the beautiful waterway and our live well full of tasty walleyes.
Whenever I think of spring walleyes, plastics come to mind. When it comes to realism and fish-attracting power the debate is over. These fish-looking soft plastic imitation minnows rule. They offer a combination of color, realistic profile, natural forked tail movement and body action that walleyes simply cannot resist. I prefer the models with jiggly tails and some manufacturers are now designing plastics with metallic sides, big eyes, gills and more. Last spring I field tested with outstanding success Jackall Clone Fly in violet shad and Fish Arrow Flash J split tail plastics made in Japan. These minnow imitation plastics are difficult to find, I ordered them online in the four inch size. I hope American manufacturers will come out with similar looking plastics that look like real minnows.
I’m absolutely sold on big bulky baits for spring hawgs. Walleyes obviously like the enticing action. Perhaps the draw is itsy forked tails that vibrate in the current, maybe it’s the dancing tail action that mimics baitfish, or is it a wiggling darting flash that draws the savage strike? My hottest bait is a Fin-S-Fish colored Blue Ice rigged on a TJ’s Tackle 5/8 oz. walleye jig. However the secret to limit catches is you need to bulk up the presentation and add a live minnow. And I’m talking a large walleye size blue shiner that resembles a miniature tarpon. There is something powerfully attractive about this big and bold presentation that gets the attention of big walleyes and causes them to engulf the offering.
Jig size is important but color and jigging technique are the keys to fishing success. In cold clear water fish it slow. In stained or off-color water slow the drop and lift jigging technique. At times you lightly drag bottom or twitch the offering near bottom to entice strikes. In clear warmer water you can jig more aggressively, hop it in the current and aggressive monsters will gulp the offering. With a jig and plastics you can fish slow by dragging bottom, medium speed by lifting and dropping or fast by thunking bottom and lifting the jig 15-24 inches off bottom and allowing it to free fall and crash bottom. Jigs that tap bottom disturb sand and have an action like a live minnow dusting bottom in search of food.
It is also my belief after watching walleyes feed that when baitfish tip upward and nibble on bottom they are in a precarious position and walleyes instinctively attack. Therefore, when a jig thunks bottom, kicks up silt and stands upward with plastic minnow and live minnow attached it mimics natural movement of live baitfish. Predator fish instinctively slash at minnows that have their head in the sand. Add to the realism a jiggling plastic tail hugging a live minnow that wiggles and flashes mint silver and big territorial walleyes go bonkers.
When stream conditions are ideal and the fish are biting, you will catch big dogs that gulp the presentation with a solid unmistakable thump strike. You will net fish that engulf the presentation and you need pliers to remove the hook from their gullet. Believe me, there is nothing more enjoyable than large walleyes attacking your hook. The adrenalin rush keeps you coming back for more.
With this setup I can bounce it along bottom, jiggle the rod and make the forked tail on the minnow wiggle and POW! Fish on! This offering is heavy enough to allow me to feel bottom structure and it comes through rock piles and sunken logs very well.
Over the years I’ve learned I can triple my catch if I bulk up the presentation with a live minnow. Now you’re talkin’ about big, bold bait that not only attracts the attention of walleyes but it offers the smell of live bait and seductive wiggle of a silvery shiner. In some ways the bold offering keeps little fish from striking but when it comes to those giant walleyes with canine teeth like a German Shepherd the bite is ferocious, savage and the results are huge walleyes in the box.
Rising spring water with murky to moderately clear conditions is ideal for this presentation. The combination of snag resistance, flash, vibration, smell and color prove irresistible to walleyes. Part of the key is to match the jig size to the water conditions. Use ½ oz. in the Saginaw River, try 3/8 oz. in the Tittabawassee River, for Detroit fish in 12-17 ft. try ½ oz., 5/8 -1 oz. in 20-40 ft. depths. The faster the current the larger the weight is a good rule. If the water turns to chocolate milk try a black jig head and sparkle chartreuse plastic.
If water temperatures are in the 30s use a slow jigging presentation by slowly lifting and lowering the offering. When temperatures hit 40 degrees use more active techniques and in 50 degree water you can use a lift and drop style and actively bounce bottom or jiggle and twitch the offering a foot off bottom and entice walleyes to swim upward and gulp the lure.
If water conditions are clear I switch to Fish Arrow Split Tail minnows which have a slightly smaller profile but the realism of these plastics is unsurpassed. Split Tails have gills, bulky eyes, lateral line. Wiggly forked tail, metallic flash from sides and scale pattern covering their irresistible body. Fish Arrow look and feel like a live minnow. My top producers were four-inch Flash-J Split tail colored: Maiwashi, Sirasu, Katakuchi, Neon Green and Pro Blue with silver sides. When large hen walleyes have finished spawning chores and smaller males are still in rivers switch to the perch color or purple/gold colors for increased hook ups.
When it comes to plastic worms, I like the Lunker City Ribster 4.5-inch ribbed variety in black or brown colors. Ribsters have extra-action because of a uniquely designed slinky tail section. In addition, they have a special cupped Willowleaf tail that will catch the river current and cause the worm to wiggle. However, the most popular plastic worm used on walleye rivers in Michigan is the four-inch Wyandotte Worm and the hot colors include white, brown and black. To make worms even more appealing make certain to tip the hook with a lively minnow and use a small piece of plastic to hold the live bait in position.
Try these tactics this spring and I guarantee you will be happy with the results. Kat certainly enjoyed catching those big walleyes on big and bold presentations. But come to think of it all the fish came to the surface with a smile on their face. I think they slammed the hook just so they could get cranked to the surface to get a peek at the gorgeous blond on the other end of the line.