Best Winter Walleye Baits
How many different kinds of bait does it take to catch winter walleye? How about 4? You can keep lugging around all those tackle boxes filled with an arsenal of baits or lighten your load with a few tried and true jigs, spoons and lipless cranks. Each of these types of bait makes for a unique presentation tailored to both sulky and voracious walleye. Here’s a rundown of what many feel are the best and all are available on our Winter Gear page.
The Rapala Jigging Rap has been around for nearly 50 years and represents the gold standard among anglers. Its sleek, minnow profile and crazy circular swimming motion mimics a wounded baitfish that can ignite strikes from suspended walleyes. The bill at the back-end of the bait allows for the rap’s movement on both the rise and fall. Rapala also offers jigging raps with a UV finish, great in low light or stained water. Depending on your line weight and water conditions, you can have a lot of success with sizes #5, #7, or #9.
The Rapala Jigging Shad Rap is a cross between the traditional jigging rap and the fatter bellied, lipped shad rap. It’s designed and balanced to create a deadly swimming and darting action that can trigger strikes. You can easily control the presentation, from slower shorter jig strokes for a lazy circle-down action to a faster, more aggressive circling with a quick snap of the rod. Its quality balsa wood construction provides the buoyancy needed to mimic a swimming baitfish and it’s weighted with environmentally friendly zinc.
The Rapala Snap Rap is a new twist on the jigging rap. Its larger fin and wider profile creates more lift and more glide. It is designed for the snap retrieve method – it will dart very aggressively on the snap and then quickly dive straight for the bottom. If the walleye are in a hungry mood, this rap is the ticket. It has a lead body and a plastic top sheath, so it’s very durable. It’s not meant to replace the traditional jigging rap, but to compliment it with its unique action.
Spoons (Flash Baits)
The VMC Tingler Spoon’s v-shaped design, curved body, over-sized holographic eye and baitfish pattern can attract walleye from a distance. Its exaggerated slow fluttering action resembles a wounded baitfish. Most spoons’ action is limited to the water column directly beneath your fishing hole. What sets the Tingler apart is how it flutters out to the sides as it falls, so you cover more area and increase your chances. After the fall, work the spoon back towards your hole with short jigs for a different presentation that may be just what a walleye is looking for.
A Canadian classic, the Nipigon Spoon’s silver or 24-kt gold finish packs a brilliant flash for dirtier, tinged water. If you’re going down to 20-30 feet, in the late afternoon light, with several inches of ice and snow up top, you need a spoon that will flash through that darkness and grab that walleye’s attention.
The main difference between a lipless and lipped crankbait is in the action. Lipped cranks have an exaggerated wobble, while the lipless bait has a very tight wiggle that simulates how baitfish act in cold water. Winter baitfish tend to swim very slowly, emitting a subtle flash every time they move, just like an injured shad. That death flutter and flash is exactly what walleye are looking for.
The Live Target Golden Shiner lipless crankbait sports a particularly life-like, detailed paint job and is perfectly balanced to fall horizontally for a deadly presentation. It also has a powerful harmonic rattle that walleye can sense from 20 – 40 feet away, making it a doubly irresistible lure that triggers their instinct to strike. Use it like a jig, just allow it to drop to the bottom and then retrieve with small hops and sweeping action. Here’s an internal view:
Rapala likes to say its “Clackin’ Cadence Rattle” initiated the clackin’ craze. I don’t know about the “craze” part, but there’s no denying Clackin’ Rap’s unique, steady thump is a great attractant. It also has a strong visual presentation, with holographic foil for body flash and 3-D eyes for realism. This too, like the Golden Shiner, above, is a lipless crankbait that often performs well with an aggressive lift and drop method.
Finally, you absolutely need the spinner jig in your arsenal. The spinner blade’s flash helps catch the walleye’s eye and when tipped with a minnow, this tried and true bait becomes irresistible to a hungry fish. If you’re allowed to fish 2 or more lines and have drilled a couple of holes, putting this bait on a dead stick increases your chances of attracting a walleye that might not be in the mood for spoons or cranks.
Winter is here
As winter closes in and the ice begins to set, there will no doubt be reports of hungry fish with an aggressive bite. First ice always brings fishermen out in droves to take advantage of what’s considered to be the best time for ice fishing. And it doesn’t necessarily matter if you’re way up in Minnesota, Wisconsin or Michigan, because early season ice fishing can be super just about anywhere. The fish go into a feeding frenzy this time of year and walleyes are no exception.
The question is, why does the action get so hot and heavy while the weather is cooling off? There are a number of theories, but no definitive answer. One possibility is that all the sediment that was kicked up during fall’s unstable weather begins to settle out once the ice puts a lid on it. The water clears and the baitfish are still in the shallows and easy to see, so walleyes don’t stray too much from their earlier haunts and habits. They will continue to hang around their usual breaks and structures. Another point often made is that the females are especially concerned with feeding in preparation for the spring spawn.
It could also just be that early winter is a continuation of fall habits. The sun shines bright, oxygen content is high, and the minnows continue to meander about the shallows. Add the notion that the fish are bulking up in preparation for midwinter and you’ve got the perfect conditions for some hot action.
So, this is a great time to break out the winter gear, because by the middle of January the light will diminish because of the snowpack, the oxygen content will drop and walleyes will move to deeper water and the bite will definitely slow.
Of course, this is a good time to remind everyone that safety comes first. You’ll want to be certain that the ice is thick enough to support whatever you’re bringing to the game. According to the experts, if it’s just yourself and your gear, the ice should be at least 4 inches thick. If you are bringing your midsized truck onto the ice, make sure you’ve got at least a foot underneath you. By the time the ice is that thick, it will be the middle of winter and time for a new strategy to tempt those otherwise lethargic ’eyes to take the bait.
Jigs are probably the most popular lure for fishing walleyes. The jig is a hook with a silicone or rubber-coated lead head that comes in various sizes, weights, colors and configurations. Very often live or plastic baits are placed on the hook to complete the presentation. 1/8 and 1/4 ounce jigs are good for shallow waters. A 3/8 to 5/8 ounce jig weight works well in deeper or strong current settings.
The idea is to fish with the lightest weight possible, just enough to let you feel the bottom. If you keep a variety of different weight jigs, you’ll be ready to match all environments. Jig color is also an important factor in attracting hungry walleye. Chartreuse, orange, and green are popular colors. Again, usually the darker the water, the brighter colored jigs you’ll want to try. They stand out in the walleye’s eye, but each situation is different, so if one color isn’t working for you, switch over to another. There’s sometimes no telling what walleyes might be attracted to on a given day.
Crankbaits, also known as plugs or divers, are hard bodied lures that come in many sizes, shapes and colors. There are hundreds of them to choose from, but look for specific characteristics that are the most successful in enticing hungry walleyes. The “action” of the lure is all-important. Most hard baits wobble from side to side as they are reeled in. But walleye are most attracted to a bait’s top-to-bottom roll, or “side flash”. Walleye lures typically have bright colored sides and dark backs. As these hard baits move forward through the water, their roll presents an alternating flash of color that simulates live prey, a presentation walleyes find hard to resist.
A spinner lure (aka crawler harness) includes one or more metal blades that spin as it moves forward. Its attraction is twofold in that the spinning action creates a visual flash and the vibration mimics live prey. A spinner rig also includes a number of small brightly colored beads to increase visibility. Add a juicy nightcrawler, leach or minnow to the trailing hook and you’ve got yourself one of the best walleye baits there is.
There is no doubt plastic baits are very successful in landing this elusive fish, but artificial baits and lures are missing a couple of key traits that live baits offer. First, hard baits don’t display the natural random movement of a live minnow or crawler. Second, artificials don’t exhibit the typical flight response of live bait when harassed and nipped at by a hungry fish. Minnows, crawlers and leeches are the most popular live baits for catching walleye, but they can be picky eaters. If they’re not interested in their usual fare, frogs, salamanders, and crayfish can be appealing alternatives.
And, by the way, none of the above are particularly expensive to buy. Every place from the neighborhood Walmart to your favorite tackle shop will likely have great walleye baits and lures for a decent price and purchasing online could save you even more.