Live bait is back, baby. You better believe it. Despite the buzz about plastics, the reality is, walleyes eat live bait. Period. In the end, all artificial lures lack two potent, inimitable ingredients: organic random movement and instinctive flight response. In the presence of predators, live baits like minnows exhibit a set of natural, random escape maneuvers. These moves represent the single most effective strike triggers in existence. Often, walleyes (and other species) simply will not ingest an offering until they've examined it for extended periods. Without all the little shakes, twitches and retreat signals performed by live bait, sometimes you simply will not get bit.
Talk is talk. Yet the truth lives within the boats of master walleye men. Inside the baitwells of anglers the likes of Gary Roach and Bruce "Doc" Samson reside a perpetual, steady supply of fresh live bait. Let's begin with Mr. Walleye himself.
Roach on Rigging
"When the going gets tough, it's still tough to beat a Roach (live bait) Rig, even after all these years," states the venerable Roach. "Quick-Change Walking Sinker, ant swivel, fine-wire VMC cone-cut hook, and Roach Finesse Snell-still the deadliest live bait delivery system ever devised." The real beauty of the rig, Roach says, lies in its simplicity. But it's a deceptive simplicity, Roach adds.
"This rig didn't happen overnight. It took years of fishing effort, tweaking and redesigning." The result, Roach says, is a rig that simply places bait in the walleye's face, then steps back and allows the tasty morsel to steal the show. "Keep a rig and active live bait in front of a walleye, and eventually, she'll eat. It's as close to a sure thing there is."
Crawler Haulin' Hawgs
There are times, of course- especially as water warms in summer- when extra speed, bulk and flash trigger big fish. It's why when Roach finds walleyes on broad flats, he reaches for the bottom bouncer rods. "When walleyes get cranked up in summer, I love running a big spinner rig," Roach continues. "Flashy Colorado blades, beefed up #6 beads and a 4-foot snell tied with 17-pound test Berkley XT and run behind a bottom bouncer - it's a package that puts a fat juicy crawler in front of a lot of big 'eyes."
Developed on the Great Lakes and windswept western reservoirs, the Crawler Hauler by Northland Fishing Tackle is equally at home on shallow, dark water rivers and lakes. "Lots of times, bulking up your rig is far more effective than the usual tendency to downsize, especially for big fish, and at night," Roach contends.
Longtime tournament ace and electronics guru, Doc Samson, agrees. "Live bait is simply about confidence," Samson offers. "Even in the toughest bites, live bait adds the extra dimensions of natural scent and movement. As Gary says, eventually something's going to eat it."
For Samson, live bait has been like money in the bank. In 2002, he walked away with a cool $300K, winning the FLW Championship with Roach Rigs and minnows. More recently, he cashed a first place check at a PWT event at Ottertail Lake, Minnesota, rigging a 1/16-ounce Northland Thumper Jig and leech below a slip-float. "I love blade jigs like the Thumper," Samson reveals.
"Lots of fishermen think they're for dirty water only. Actually, they shine in clear water; I think the flash of the little spinner better attracts walleyes in clear water, because there's more light available to reflect off the blades." Walleyes, Samson believes, detect the subtle baitfish-like flash of the blades flickering near the bottom, and swim over to eat. A vigorous leech seals the deal.
"Rig your float rig so the jig hovers just inches off bottom," he instructs. "In troughs between waves, the jig dips and the blade just rubs bottom-looks exactly like a silvery-sided baitfish. Tipped with a leech, this is a real go-to method," he offers, with a grin.
Keeping Your Soldiers Happy
For live bait artists like Roach and Samson, proper bait care is key-but it's also the one step most anglers fail to execute. "My baits are like my soldiers," says Samson. "They're always fresh and ready for combat. I often see guys fishing bait that's in really sorry shape. I want to tell them they might as well be fishing with an old sock."
To assure your bait stays healthy and happy, follow a few simple steps:
- Minnows - Maintain a steady cool environment in your bait container (under 60-degrees whenever possible), adding non-chlorinated ice to baitwells as water warms. Avoid adding too much ice at once, which can shock and kill baitfish. Keep water infused with a steady stream of oxygen, too. An insulated baitwell, such as a Frabill Aqua-Life Bait Station, provides a cool, aerated baitfish environment. Change water every day in cooler weather; several times on hot summer days.
- Crawlers - The "happiest" environment for crawlers is within an insulated cooler filled with slightly damp (not soggy) worm bedding. Bedding is cleaner and makes for robust crawlers. Frabill offers a great bait care product called the Habitat Deluxe Worm Kit. The kit includes a large insulated "Habitat" cooler, smaller cooler for toting enough bait for a trip, a pack of specially-formulated Super-Gro bedding, and even a jar of crawler food. Here's an old guide secret: just minutes before fishing, place a crawler into a small cup of cool water. The crawler will swell in size, becoming fat and frisky on the hook. Don't over soak.
- Leeches - Like baitfish, leeches require cool, clean water. Most top walleye anglers keep leeches in a container like a Frabill Leech Tote, which fits nicely inside your boat's aerated livewell. The Tote features a removable bait strainer that lets you hand-select the choicest leeches in the stash.
As long as walleyes swim, livebait will remain a prime presentation. Put a frisky minnow, leech or crawler in a walleye's face and it's over. They just can't help themselves.