When Reality Bites

by: Mark Martin

When the going gets tough, the tough get baiting. At least that¹s the way I look at it when faced with adverse conditions in the realm of the walleye. Sudden weather changes, fishing pressure and factors unbeknownst to us humans can all put the fish off the feed. Enter the great equalizer, live bait.

So many times, in fun and tournament fishing, I've seen no better way to pluck fish than with the liveliest bait presented with a measure of stealth and precision. It's a technique that works spring to fall, whenever cold fronts roll in or a pack of boats sours the walleye's mood. The trick is to stay over the fish with electronics, check their exact position with an underwater camera, and then mop up with a gentle touch.

The Place for Bait

I always start with the best bait I can find, and perhaps my favorite is a lively leech. Leeches deter pecking panfish, won't tear like crawlers, and absolutely do a number on walleyes. But you have to take care of them. Even after weeks in my livewell, leeches stay active and energetic with the help of a Beckman Leech Bag, a mesh bag that not only lets the critters acclimate to the temperature of the lake but also allows them to scrub themselves clean and keep themselves from suffocating (which they commonly do in a foam cup). When I reach for one, it's jamming. And it's going to catch me more walleyes.

Crawlers are also an excellent summertime offering. (But since there's no Crawler Tamer, you're just going to have to keep them cold and in top condition.) I inject a crawler with just a bit of air, otherwise you'll have an enormous sausage of a worm that will often float too high off bottom. Rather, a touch of air will keep the crawler down in the fish zone. Keep an eye on your electronics to determine how high the fish are from bottom and how high in relation you want to run your crawler.

Now I'm going to put either bait in a place where I know there are fish, either from experience over the last few days or with the aid of my electronics. Say you've fished for a few days with bottom bouncers and spinners and cleaned up on the walleyes before the bite goes south. I move in to the same areas with a Roach rig, a live-bait rig with a sliding sinker and a long snell of six to 12 feet, and let the bait do its thing. The best way to present it is by moving with the wind, controlling the drift with an electric motor, letting the leech (or crawler) jam and jive. The walleyes are going to take the bait. 

If I don't have a history in the area, I look on structure with my electronics, using a Lowrance X-16 liquid-crystal unit, which shows fish in brilliant color, to find the walleye's whereabouts. Another tack is to take out an underwater camera. While it's possible to
work an area and catch a fish here or there, I'll take the opportunity to drop my Aqua-Vu camera to see why I 've found the walleyes in a particular place.  

Sometimes you'll see walleyes relating to low-lying weeds, or perhaps
rocks. When you know such information, it's easy to repeat the pattern by finding similar areas.

Likewise, it's possible to find out if the fish are atop the structure - say,
a point or reef, and then duplicate what you've found in the next spot.
Typically I find that walleyes are down at the base of the structure, often
on the transition from hard to soft bottom, unless the wind's howling. Then they often move atop it.

At a time like this you can often look for the edge of shallow breaks with
naked eye as well, at least with a pair of quality polarized glasses. Good
glasses are just the ticket for spotting edges of breaks, shallow rocks, even fish. On clear waters, even in wind, it's possible to spot walleyes cruising the shallows. This is a time to toss a lively bait in there on a light Roach rig or with a split shot.

Tackling Up
One of the most crucial elements to fishing bait the right way is proper
tackle and technique. As I grow older (dare I say wiser?), I've lightened up my spinning tackle to feel bites and to tease walleyes into taking. Where I once used a medium-action rod for live-bait rigging, I've switched to a medium light. And while I once used tiny hooks, ones as small as No. 8, I now seldom go smaller than a No. 4.

Why the changes? I ve gone with a Berkley Series One in that medium-light action for its ability to sense light bites and to "weigh up" fish. By that I mean it's possible, when you sense a bite, to feed line to a fish and then tighten up a touch to a point where the walleye bends the rod a bit. This gives me an indication of whether a fish (and not a rock) has a hold of the bait and lets me tighten up before setting the hook. 

It helps, meanwhile, to have a sharp and wide-gapped hook such as a No. 4 octopus from Daiichi in the Bleeding Bait Series, red hooks that often seem to make a difference for their color and attraction when fishing bait.

One final piece of vital equipment is a powerful set of trolling motor
batteries. From there, with the boat in position, the rest is up to you‹and your bait

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