Tie on a combo of new and well known baits to catch Season Opener walleyes, say two top pros.
Cabela’s National Walleye Tour 2013 Champ Chris Gilman and Freshwater Hall of Fame Legendary Guide Tom Neustrom will both be throwing Storm®’s new 360GT Searchbaits on the MN Fishing Opener.
Gilman’s tried-and-true early season baits will be Rapala® Shad Rap®s and CountDown® hardbaits. Neustrom’s classic presentation will be a VMC® Neon Moon Eye Jig dressed with a live or soft-plastic minnow. Another new bait Neustrom will tie on is a Rapala Shad Dancer.
By the time Upper Midwest states open their walleye seasons (most don’t allow fishing during the spawn) water temperatures will likely be in the high 40’s to low 50’s. That should make for a great bite, both Gilman and Neustrom agree.
“The bite this year should be really, really good,” says Gilman, a central Minnesota resident who competes in top national walleye tournaments. “Right after the spawn they’re super-charged, trying to feed and bulk back up.”
Gilman has enjoyed previous fishing openers on Minnesota’s Mille Lacs Lake, Leech Lake, Winnibigosh Lake and on the Mississippi River near Red Wing, Minnesota. This year, he’ll likely fish a lake near his home in Chisago City, a short drive north of the Twin Cities.
“I usually go kind of shallow on the opener, depending on the lake,” he says. “Most of the time, the shallow bays where there’s weed growth are the areas I’ll target first, because they warm up first.”
Neustrom, who guides on many of the lakes in and around his home base of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, says “the fish are going to be done spawning and they’re going to be hungry.”
Early in the season, Neustrom targets points, new weed growth and inside turns – often in that order. Points, inside turns and weed edges all create ambush spots for walleyes to feed on baitfish. “If you’re not getting fish on points, keep moving around and look on those inside turns,” Neustrom says. “Sometimes the wind will blow and funnel warmer water in there.”
Storm® 360GT Searchbait
Creating the ultimate illusion of natural movement, the 360GT Searchbait pairs a lifelike, single-ball rattling jig head with a realistic, phthalate-free soft body with 3D holographic eyes and a toe-in boot tail that imparts incredible action at any retrieve speed. “GT” stands for “Go To” bait.
“People are definitely going to want to have some of those in their possession early this season,” Gilman says. “If you’re throwing at rocks, you can let it sink to the bottom and then just do a slow reel. Everything will bite that.”
Neustrom agrees. “I think it’s going to be just an awesome, awesome bait this spring for walleyes,” he says.
In the clear and slightly stained water of the small to mid-size natural lakes in and around his home base of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, Neustrom will mostly target main-lake points in four to 12 feet of water. He’ll fish shallower on windy days and deeper in still conditions.
“I like points with rock and sand or gravel,” he says. “Because that’s where there’s going to be spawning areas early in the season. Walleyes actually stay in their spawning areas anywhere from three to six weeks after they spawn. They don’t drop all the way down into the deep stuff offshore. They stay close.”
Gilman agrees. “The spawn will be over, but the males are still going to be hoping a couple more females are going to come up to shore,” he says. “They’re going to be in those six- to ten-foot areas adjacent to spawning areas.”
Neustrom favors a steady retrieve for 360GT’s. “It’s not so much a jigging motion,” he explains. “It’s more of a swimming motion.” On huge natural lakes like Leech and Mille Lacs, where “the shiners spawn up in the sand,” Gilman will snap-jig 360GT’s for a reaction bite while trolling at about 1.2 mph. “This time of year, you’ll out-fish everyone on those kinds of lakes quite a bit if you’re snap jigging, I feel,” he says.
Here’s how Gilman snap-jigs Storm 360GT Searchbaits:
• Make “a nice easy cast” about 15 yards behind the boat.
• While trolling the bait, let it hit bottom “for a split second,” then snap it forward and let it fall back on slack line.
• Be prepared for bites to come when the bait falls back. “When you snap forward again, one’s on there,” Gilman says. “You never really feel them bite, hardly.”
In those big natural lakes, Gilman will target shallower bays with emergent weeds. “That’s where the minnows are going to be,” he says. And that forage is what the 360GT imitates so well.
Neustrom agrees. “It really emulates a minnow and it’s got a little bit of rattle in the head,” he says. “And it’s also got body on it that just absolutely shimmies in the water, like no other tail.”
The 360GT Searchbait is available in 11 color patterns: Chartreuse Ice, Gaga, Herring, Houdini, Hot Olive, Marilyn, Pearl Ice, Smokin’ Ghost, Smelt, Tru Blue and Volunteer. It’s available in three sizes: 3 ½ inches, 1/8 ounce; 4 ½ inches, 1/4 ounce; 5 ½ inches, 3/8 ounce. Each size comes in a handy package containing one pre-rigged bait and two extra bodies.
Rapala® Shad Dancer
Rapala’s new Shad Dancer crankbait is another multi-species star in the making. Not since the Shad Rap has a single bait excelled so well at catching both walleye and bass.
Neustrom can attest to this himself, having fished them last season with none other than multi-species fishing legend Al Lindner, co-founder of In-Fisherman and host of the influential Angling Edge and Fishing Edge TV shows.
“It’s a great bait,” Neustrom says. “It’s got a little bit different profile and a really good action.”
Although the Shad Dancer “is not what you’d term a ‘traditional walleye shape,’” Lindner has said, “that doesn’t matter, they like it. It’s been a hot walleye bait. …It has a touch of magic.”
Swimming with a silent but aggressive, hard-thumping and sweeping tail action, the Shad Dancer offers the excitement of a Rapala Tail Dancer in a shad-profile bait. It features a tough balsa body that dives 7 to 10 feet whether cast or trolled.
Neustrom will cast Shad Dancers around shallow structure throughout the early season on windy days and in low-light conditions. To get more bites, he will retrieve them erratically.
“Don’t reel them all the way in all at once,” he instructs. “Stop it, start it, change your cadence. Because you want to emulate a minnow. Minnows don’t swim 20 yards in one direction, or at one speed. They start, they stop, they start again. So you want to do that too.”
Once he’s reeled in a Shad Dancer in this manner to within 15 to 20 feet of his the boat, Neustrom will speed his retrieve to get the bait back to the boat as quickly as possible to make another cast.
Shad Dancers are available in 16 color patterns: Live Bluegill, Dark Brown Crawdad, Firetiger, Hot Steel, Helsinki Shad, Live Largemouth Bass, Purpledescent, Live Pumpkinseed, Live River Shad, Silver, Shad, Silver Fluorescent and Chartreuse. It measures 2 inches, weighs 1/4 oz. and comes armed with two No. 6 VMC Black Nickel Round Bend Hooks.
“Probably the most overlooked bait” for early season success, Gilman says, is Rapala’s CountDown minnow. And not just for walleye – they’re irresistible to bass and pike as well. Gilman favors a size No. 9, which measures 3 ½ inches.
“If I was on a mid-size natural lake, I’d be going for the weed bays, covering water, casting CountDowns,” he says. “They cast a mile and you can run them from two inches under the surface down to 8, 9 feet.
Sinking at a consistent rate of one foot per second, CountDown minnows allow anglers to easily target specific depths repeatedly. Whether fish are suspended, cruising weed tops, or holding on bottom structure, a CountDown can get you to them consistently.
A weighted balsa lure that can be trolled or casted, a CountDown swims with a slow-rolling, classic Rapala action. “They don’t have a real tight wobble, which the fish really don’t want in colder water,” Gilman says. Outfitted with VMC black-nickel treble hooks, CountDowns are hand-tuned and tank-tested to swim perfectly right out of the box.
Year in, year out, the one bait all walleye anglers should tie on for the Fishing Opener is a Shad Rap. And not just one, but several – and in numerous sizes and color patterns. No other hardbait produces bites as consistently in cool water.
“I would definitely bring a bunch of Shad Raps,” Gilman says. “A No. 5 and a No. 7, you just have to have them.”
If Gilman’s CountDown bites start coming deeper than shallower on the Opener, he’ll start exploring deeper weedlines. That’s when he’ll pick up his rods rigged with Shad Raps.
“You want to be able to cover everywhere from zero out to 10 feet, which you can with a No. 5 and No. 7 Shad Rap,” he says. “You can tick right over the top of those deeper weeds.”
In windy conditions, try switching to a Shad Rap RS — aka, “Rattling Shad Rap.” Not only do they “throw a little further than standard Shad Raps,” Gilman says, but they also come in two new color patterns not available for their balsa brethren – Pink Clown (chrome body, pink back) and Purple Clown (chrome body, purple back).
“Those are just going to be lights out,” Gilman says. “Walleyes won’t be able to resist those, there’s just no question.”
A plastic version of an original balsa-wood Shad Rap, the Shad Rap RS is a little heavier for easier casts in wind. It elicits a slightly different “wobble” while swimming, and adds a cadence-type rattle to the Shad Rap experience.
Both Original Shad Raps and Rattling Shad Raps are hand-tuned and tank-tested and come armed with premium VMC black- nickel hooks. Rattling Shad Raps come in three sizes (04, 05, 07) and 11 color patterns. Original Shad Raps are available in six sizes (04, 05, 06, 07, 08, 09) and an amazing 46 color patterns.
VMC® Neon Moon Eye Jig
If your Fishing Opener gameplan is to go old-school with a jig-and-minnow combo, make sure your jig is a VMC Neon Moon Eye, Neustrom says.
“I like a Neon Moon Eye Jig because it’s got a pill shape, so it drops faster,” he explains. “If you’re using a regular ball jig, it has a little bit more resistance. So in a lot of situations where I’d use a 1/4 oz. ball jig, I can use a 1/8th oz. Neon Moon Eye.”
Neustrom’s other favorite features of Neon Moon Eye Jigs are their “really stout and sharp” VMC high-carbon steel hooks with a top-of-the-line black-nickel finish, and bait keepers that work equally well to lock on both live and soft-plastic minnows.
Neon Moon Eye Jigs are available in five sizes (1/32nd, 1/16th, 1/8th, 1/4th and 3/8th oz) and 23 color patterns. Neustrom fishes them on clear, 6- to 8-pound-test Sufix Elite monofilament line.