If you’re fond of worm guts under your fingernails, don’t read this article.
If you’d rather not deal with the hassles of live bait, read on. We’ll tell you when and where soft plastics can replace crawlers, leeches and minnows. You might be surprised by how often soft plastics work – and how they can outfish the real thing.
First, let’s discuss why much of the walleye world has such a “live bait” mentality. Most of the original articles about walleye fishing originated from Minnesota and Wisconsin, from anglers who knew how to fish the clear natural lakes that were already getting lots of pressure. In those environments, live bait worked better than anything available at that time. When these same anglers started branching out, fishing some of the original walleye tournaments, the live bait mentality branched out with them. Because many of these anglers were experts at finding fish and catching them with bait, they were often tournament winners, further reinforcing the live bait mentality.
But, if you think about it, soft plastics ought to be as acceptable to walleyes as the real thing. Look at the success of crankbaits catching fish in all sorts of environments. Today’s soft plastics can closely mimic the profile of bait whether it’s minnows, crawlers or leeches. Heck, many of smell and taste so good to fish that they’ll eat them just like they would the real live stuff. And the newer generations of plastics are soft enough to look good to a fish as the lure wiggles through the water and feel good to a fish when it bites down.
When do soft plastics work particularly well? Let’s have a look at several scenarios:
Art Lehreman and Dave Lincoln are a couple of Iowa guys who used to kick butt in Masters Walleye Circuit tournaments on the Mississippi River, mainly using soft plastic shad imitators on a jig head. They had so much confidence they could get fish to bite by the mere action they gave the lure that they rarely tipped their jigs with any kind of live bait.
This really shouldn’t be surprising. In river situations, walleyes that want to eat have to make split second decisions. They often can’t see a bait well in the dark water, often locating their food by “feeling” it with their lateral lines. When they feel the right kind of vibrations come wiggling by in the current, they’ve got to strike right now or have their potential meal wash away downstream. Soft plastics that kick out vibrations are extremely effective for walleyes in rivers.
When fish are shallow soft plastics can rule. The fish are shallow because they want to eat, often competing against other walleyes in the same school. Toss a 1/8 ounce Fireball tipped with a shad tail plastic baitfish that gives off some vibration and you’ll very likely get bit.
Oh, let’s just say Canada, where there are lots more fish than fishermen. Plastics can work extremely well in Canada’s tannic, stained water. Again, the fish are often more aggressive, eating fast to out-compete other fish. We fished one time in Alberta’s Lesser Slave Lake for a whole week. By combining a 3/8 ounce Whistler jig and half a plastic crawler we pounded walleye after walleye. This can also be true on southern impoundments where walleyes are rarely targeted.
Where there’s pesky fish
Our friend Mark Boyd has experimented with plastics and getting good results on North Dakota’s Lake Sakakawea, a massive impoundment of the Missouri River. Even though the water is extremely clear, Power Crawlers have been known to outfish the real thing, mainly because the fake stuff stays in the water for much longer periods of time. Perch can bite the real worms off too quickly for a walleye to ever see the presentation, whether it’s a crawler/spinner rig or a part of a crawler on a jig head.
When rigging a spinner, use the same two hook harnesses as a real crawler. Since a Power Crawler will not stretch out the back hook can typically be placed closer to the end of the tail – resulting in fewer short bites and more walleyes in the boat.
When Live Bait Isn’t Available
With winter fishing upon us, walleye anglers only choice for live bait is typically minnows. A few years ago, we kept several dozen crawlers alive to use in December and January on the Mississippi river – we wished we had saved a whole flat (500 crawlers). The fish jumped all over half crawlers on a jig. Makes one wonder how leeches would perform in fall and winter?
Plastics are always available and probably more economical. Unless you pick crawlers on a drizzly day in May, the price of a package of Power Crawlers will be about the same as 2 dozen crawlers – but will last a lot longer. We’ve paid up to $3.00 for a dozen leeches in September, the worst part being they wouldn’t pass for a good panfish leech earlier in the year. Plastic leeches are always the right size, shape and color.
Let’s take a quick look at some of the new styles of soft plastics on the market.
We’re proud to say that we’ve worked with Berkley’s top chemist, John Procnow, in developing softer plastic composition and some hot new shapes of Power Bait. For us, the key goal was to get baits that mimicked live bait as close as possible.
One of our absolute favorites is the Power Jig Worm, a lure that closely resembles the tail of a night crawler in terms of its softness and action. It was also designed with a flat tail to catch the water as it falls through the water and increase it’s action. Start out with pumpkinseed color and fish it on a jig head like you would a worm.
Another top contender among the soft plastics is the three-inch Power Leech. We’ve actually outfished real leeches by using this soft plastic on a spinner behind a Rock Runner bottom bouncer. This bait has ridges built into it’s tail to provide more surface area for the Power Bait scent to be transmitted to the water.
We also like the Power Night Crawler, one of the first Berkley Power Baits aimed at the walleye market. Like the Power Jig Worm and Power Leech, Power Night Crawlers come in the new “Tournament Strength”. This means there is twice the scent in these plastics as normal Power Bait. Power crawlers are limp like a real crawler. Do not assume a “bass” worm will work as well. They are typically much stiffer and do not have the action needed to entice walleyes. We like fishing the Power Crawler whole on Mustad’s Pro Select Crawler harnesses – especially when pesky perch are robbing us blind of everything else.
For minnows – well let’s just say “in progress”. For all the baits, we go through several proto-type sizes and shapes before you ever see on. We grade them with only on criteria – do they catch lots of walleyes.
So, don’t be afraid to try soft plastics in lieu of live bait. Start out slowly. When you find some active fish, throw on a plastic bait and convince yourself that they catch fish just as fast as live bait. Next, when you’re fishing with a buddy, let him use live bait while you throw plastics. If he outfishes you, switch to live bait yourself. If you out-fish him – which will happen regularly – be generous and share your Power Bait. He might enjoy keeping his fingernails clean for awhile.