In the age of super plastics and lifelike finishes, many anglers are turning their back on live bait. I’ll be the first one to say it: On many days, it’s not necessary. But a recent trip to Louisiana’s offshore oil rigs was a harsh reminder of why I don’t like to leave home without bait. The water under the rigs looked like an aquarium, but the plethora of fish slashed at our jig and plastic without so much as a little tug. A quick toss of a handful of shrimp caused what can only be described as a frenzy. For the next two hours straight, our shrimp-tipped jigs caught fish after fish.
The same scenario often applies to walleye fishing, too. While there are a multitude of local or less popular options like frogs and willow catfish, there are three main types of live bait you need to consider before your next walleye trip.
Nightcrawlers Chances are, most people reading this caught their first fish on a worm. While I don’t understand it myself, fish just seem to love them, regardless of the species. Crawlers are relatively inexpensive as far as live bait goes, and they’re easy to obtain and care for, making them a no-brainer for many walleye anglers.
Regardless of where you fish, one of the best ways to catch walleyes is with a nightcrawler harness. Stretch a worm over a two- or three-hook harness with a spinner blade and a few beads and walleyes are sure to follow. This simple rig has accounted for a good portion of my derby checks and thousands of walleyes for guided clients over the last few decades.
Worms are incredibly versatile, and just a quarter or half of one tipped onto a crankbait or a jig will get the job done. When tipping a crankbait, use a small piece and check to see which hook it performs best on. Depending on the specific lure in use, they can easily be thrown out of tune if overloaded if placed on the wrong hook.
The last and arguably most popular way to use a nightcrawler for walleye is on what’s called a live bait rig. This is often also referred to as “rigging” or Lindy rigging. This simple setup consists of a hook, swivel and sinker. The swivel acts as a stop to keep the sinker from sliding down to the hook. Anglers traditionally fish the rig passively on the bottom with an open bail and drop slack when they feel a bite. This allows the fish to freely swim with the bait and fully take it before the slack is removed and the hook set.
Leeches Not only are ribbon leeches the preferred leech species for walleyes, but they aren’t the blood sucking type many of us think of when we hear the word leech, making them doubly awesome. Ribbon leeches can be found in both black and brown, but black is more popular, partially because of supply and partially because the most hardcore walleye anglers believe they get more bites on a black leech.
One of the biggest mistakes anglers make when fishing a leech is using a big hook, which impedes the swimming action and makes the leech look unnatural. In most cases, a thin wire #6 octopus hook is all you need. An old school trick to make leeches swim consistently is to add a dab of Preparation H to their skin. Their unique, rollercoaster swimming action is likely why they draw so many strikes, so fishing them slower is generally more effective. Fish them fast and they’ll have little to no action.
If there is one downside to fishing with leeches, it’s that they don’t work great in cool water. Instead of that great swimming motion, they ball up on the hook. While the definition of cool water is relative depending on where you live, if the bait shops don’t have tanks full of them or if they aren’t swimming erratically on their own, it’s probably time to choose another option.
Minnows Minnows, much like nightcrawlers, seem to catch everything. But keeping them alive can be challenging and the cost can be downright insane. As with most live bait, getting the right hook for your minnow size and type is critical. Many anglers will live bait rig with the same octopus hook that they use for leeches and nightcrawlers, while other anglers prefer a light wire Aberdeen hook. An Aberdeen hook has a round bend and longer shank which makes it perfect for running through the minnow’s mouth, out the gills into the back. This is typically a better rigging method when fishing faster, trolling, or when fishing around cover that could rip a lip-hooked minnow off. This is why jigs like Northland’s Long Shank Fireball are so popular. Rigging the hook farther back is better for short strikes than an octopus hook and lip hooking a minnow on a rig that is going to be fished with an open bail and fed.
Depending on where you live or what time of the year it is, minnow choices will vary. It’s important to find the best bait shop in your area before purchasing. Some bait stores carry only what they can easily obtain and keep alive, but this may not be what the walleye actually prefer. Species like gizzard shad, smelt, chubs, cisco, herring, and a multitude of subspecies of shiners are often on walleye diets, but three are most common.
Shiners: This can include a wide array of species within the shiner family. On the Great Lakes, an emerald shiner is preferred because it’s the local forage. Head north to many parts of Minnesota and a golden shiner is like candy to walleyes. On other small lakes and reservoirs, a spot tail shiner is often better. A little research on the natural forage in your given body of water can yield big results.
Fat Heads: Fat heads have a bad reputation on many lakes because some walleyes just refuse to hit them. This is often the case if they aren’t natural forage in those waterways. But if you find a place where walleyes will eat them, their advantages include cheaper price, better availability, and ease of maintenance.
Creek Chub: I think anglers who fish creek chubs have their own club. Many of them refuse to purchase this live bait from a store, instead opting to catch their own on hook and line. The reasoning is simple: They believe the creek chubs swim more wildly and will run from an approaching walleye, which draws strikes. While they can be used year-round, they're more effective in cooler water temps and they dominate in the fall.
You don’t always need live bait to get enough walleyes for a fish fry, but it might make that process a whole lot easier. Do a little research to find the right type and size and you’ll have success on your next trip.