The Perfect Time to Try Plastics

Water temperatures have started to level off towards their summertime highs throughout most of the Midwest, and if you haven’t already been hucking plastics, now would be a great time to start.  Usually, I’m looking for 60-65 degrees in most of the lakes I’m fishing to signal the pairing of jigs especially with more plastics than live bait.  This goes for crappies, walleyes, and smallmouth alike. 

That doesn’t mean I’m a plastics-only purist.  We had the water temps on Lake of the Woods recently to support a good plastics bite, but the deep fish still required us to use the salted shiners that are so prevalent up there.  Try as I may, with a number of styles, deep jigs with those mushy minnows drastically outperformed any rubber baits I dropped.  Therein also lies the problem for those who’ve never given plastics an honest measure.  There’s certainly times were live-bait can outfish plastics, but year after year I’m encountering bites when the reverse is just as true, and the sooner you come to believe it, the better angler you will become.    

For most fishing methods stationary, live bait can have a distinct advantage.  With live minnows, crawlers, or leeches, you’ve got all kinds of natural materials that fish have been pre-programmed to love.  Blood, oil, scales, and perhaps most importantly, the all-important profile, shape, and action.  “There ain’t nothin’ like the real thing, baby,” I think is how it goes.

All of which flies out the window when fish are active, aggressive, and particularly shallow looking for food.  Perhaps that’s why bass plastics have been widely accepted and used for decades.  Those bass anglers who incidentally catch ‘eyes, pike, and even panfish, can tell you that active fish often don’t discriminate.  Wacky rigged or dropshot walleyes anyone?   

Live bait’s effectiveness also falls off when you’re dragging around baits at any speed.  Pulling spinners and crawler harnesses around is great for all kinds of species, especially the ones you’re not targeting.  Some days on the river especially, you can catch up to a dozen other species on crawlers before ever catching a walleye.  That’s when artificial copies of the real thing can offer a great advantage.  Plastic crawler or leech imitations abound, and most of them will have a much more pronounced movement in the water.    

The action of the bait then, especially when retrieved or trolled, can have a significant impact on the bite.  Paddletails, split tails, curly tails, ringworms, and other various plastic styles each have their own distinctive movements in the water, offering far more attraction than the live bait that so often ends up dead on a hook.  These tantalizing motions offered by all of the plastics designs these days offer anglers a multitude of means to attract a fish, especially in clear water when visual cues can be the strongest ones fish respond to.

Of course, the allure of plastics goes far beyond the visual in terms of a fish’s interest level.  While it’s true that the color combinations and ability to match the hatch, or completely defy it, is very simple with today’s plastics, so often we forget about the subtle vibrations that plastic can emit.  A 5” curly tail grub emits a pretty good thump as that tail wags side to side, and especially during late fall frog bites, there’s plenty of river walleyes that have used their lateral line to find those “loud” plastics.  Of course, paddletail or boottail varieties come to mind as a great emitter of vibration and “feel” to the plastics game as well.

They’re colorful, offer some bait-like sensations in the water, and even trigger some strikes due to their unique movements.  All of which sounds like a list of attributes you’d like for any bait ever, regardless of species you’re targeting.  The last variable that I think is the most important however, is the fact that plastics fish fast and cover water.  More fish per bait means less dipping into the crawler box, leech bag, or minnow bucket.  Which in turn leads to more casts.  It also leads to the ability to progressively dial up the level of the trolling motor and cover more water.  Especially during this time of the year, any lake, river, or streams biological production is running at high gear, and fish need to eat.  They’re aggressive, and often willing to chase, so you’ll simply run into more of these kinds of fish by putting more casts in front of them. 

Live bait will always have its place and time in my mind, especially early and late in the year.  There’s also times and species that require it during tough bites or poor weather conditions.  That said, for your average summer day out on the lake, if you’ve been reticent as a walleye or panfish angler to focus heavily on plastics, let this be the last year you miss out. 

Photo Credit - Matt Addington Photography

Photo Credit - Matt Addington Photography

The Move Offshore

It’s been a great early season thus far.  A delayed spring and rollercoaster early summer has kept walleyes primarily shallow.  I write this, one-week removed from a great shallow water bite that was only getting better as we left.  While we had some wind, it increased throughout the day as we drifted leeches over rock clusters in 10FOW on Leech Lake.  We’d get a few fish a pass, and each drift was really only a few hundred yards.  Anglers deeper than us weren’t doing much, while our graphs and bent rods were showing hungry fish as shallow as 8 feet.  We fished a few of the big main-lake points, and generally caught fish in most of the places we tried.

That pattern will continue with resident fish, but begin to be more sporadic, requiring good wind over a length of time to push those fish from the depths into shallow water feeding mode.  Yet as one pattern fades, another kicks into high gear, and walleyes in the upper Midwest are already starting their summer movements to deeper off-shore structure.

Water temperatures that build into the high 60 and 70 degree marks will definitely get fish moving, and that usually coincides with a few hatches.  Bugs crawling out of the deep mud get rafted against main-lake structure, and signify some of the initial pushes to offshore humps, bars, and reefs.  It’s often when casual walleye anglers, or those who see early mixed bags of walleyes with crappies and gills, stop catching them.   

Anglers don’t always follow, sometimes because they’re not required to.  This is a dynamic time of year as the summer food chain ramps up production.  That means anglers don’t always have to look deep to find fish, and several patterns can be going at the same time.  Shallow weeds and breaklines will hold fish too, but often those fish aren’t as concentrated – or predictable – as the offshore ones.  Wind will focus their locations even moreso, as fish concentrate efforts on the side of offshore structure that collects bait. 

The other advantage to fishing main-lake structure during this time of year is that with electronics, you simply have more observational tools at your disposal.  Fish at depths greater than 10-12 feet or so are less likely to spook due to overhead boat traffic.  Even in exceptionally clear systems, you can easily graph fish in 10 feet of water and deeper, especially when there’s a bit of chop on the surface.  While side-imaging is a great tool found in modern electronics as well, these fish are often buried in weeds or other cover.  Deep fish cannot hide from traditional 2D sonar or down-imaging as well, not to mention, you tend to be more certain that what you’re viewing is walleyes if they’re belly-to-bottom sonar targets.

Of course, electronics also means mapping, which is a key tool for your walleye-finding arsenal.  During this time of the year, I’m looking for wind-blown edges of offshore structure that have good access to deep water.  Specifically, I target points and inside-turns that serve as funnels for movement from the depths to the shallows.  Especially inside turns are super-highways of fish migration during low-light periods.  During cloudy or windy days, these “chutes” hold fish throughout, and allow you to keep the bite going during daylight hours. 

Good mapping and quality sonar go hand in hand, as in a perfect world you’d locate ahead of time a number of likely spots on the cartography, then use your sonar to confirm or deny the presence of schools of walleye.  Picking a spot, seeing fish on the graph, then catching said fish is an activity that really helps build the necessary confidence to use your electronics well.  Rinse and repeat long enough, and you quickly learn what to be excited about, and what to pass over on the way to greener walleye pastures.  Trusting your sonar is paramount to the process, and only happens after you’ve completed that cycle a number of times.

Do keep in mind that there’s a number of ways you can fish walleyes on structure.  I like to take note on the electronics of their position, number, and density.  Walleyes balled up in tight groups on precise portions of structure call for vertical or near vertical approaches.  Vertically jigging with bait, Jigging Raps, or slip-bobbering these fish would be the order of the day if you’re seeing tight schools of fish. 

Fish spread out along the edge of a large sunken island would conversely call for a more mobile approach.  You could rig live bait, pull spinners, or even crankbaits to cover more water and put more offerings in front of more fish.  There’s not a wrong way to do it provided you match what you’re seeing on sonar to the techniques you’re using.  Some methods are more efficient and productive than others, but that’s the part of the puzzle-solving which makes walleye fishing so rewarding. 

Joel Fire-Ball Jig 1.jpg

Bonus June Boom

Photo Credit - Sam Larsen

Photo Credit - Sam Larsen

I’ve written before about what I consider to be in June, the most favorable month of the year to fish period.  It’s nature’s perfect storm of conditions that begin a new season each year in the upper Midwest.  Biological activity is at an all-time high, with fish, bugs, birds, and beasts of all kinds hurriedly carrying out early season rituals in your average lake or river.  Predators, of which even panfish could be considered, eat other living things by definition.  As winter and spring’s hangover begins to wear off, everything is hungry.  To make matters better for you as an angler, only the first few hatches of the year are coming off, and there’s little to no availability for young of the year perch, minnows, or other prey for these post-spawn fish of all species.  Sure, any body of water is going to have some supply of baitfish, but the point is that we’re not to July and August where a fish’s next meal is just a flick of the tail away. 

This year, we’re in a bonus round of June fishing, because not as much of it happened in May.  Cooler than average air temps and fronts brought resultant water temperatures, and with them, fish that didn’t play ball as well early.  That means, for those of you caught up in school, graduation parties, and lots of yardwork, there’s less excuses this year.  Pretty much anyone should be able to catch a fish now and in the coming few weeks. 

That’s not to say it’s always easy, as there’s still cold fronts, tight-lipped spawners and the like.  That said, no matter your quarry, now may be as good as it gets to cancel other plans and get some fishing in.  Typically, phenological indicators tell me when fishing can be good for certain species in my neck of the woods.  Tip-offs like blossoming lilacs signal spring crappies spawning in the shallows, and blowing cottonwood seed has usually meant some great topwater bass fishing.  Well those same indicators are happening this year as they always do, just later.  All of which may call for a change of tactics should annual fishing trips and traditional spots not produce the same way they usually do. 

If you do anything this season, consider turning back the clock a few weeks and think about what your species of interest started off their season doing.  Whether it be crappies, pike, muskies, or walleyes, the answer is likely spawning.  If you’re not finding those fish in their normal haunts, consider backtracking to likely spawning sites and just off of them.  Most of these species should be post spawn in all but the most northern extreme areas. 

When it comes to bass and bluegills, there’s the real possibility that they may just be spawning.  If water temps are exceptionally cold still for whatever reasons, they may still be pre-spawn even.  Much differs north to south, and especially lake to lake where water temps can vary drastically, even between lakes next door. 

For that reason, let this be the year that you start a fishing journal and record some of those surface water temperatures.  Bear in mind too, that water temperatures can vary a great deal throughout an individual day, and then drop again with clear skies and frontal conditions.  Water temps measured at the end of a bright, still, sunny day may be elevated as much as 10 degrees from a morning reading.  For that reason, it’s good to note a water temperature range if you’re out on the water for more than a few hours.  Even better, note what you were finding in which water temperatures.  One bay for example may have spawning muskies in 60 degrees, paired up and nearing post spawn, while another bay in the same lake with more rocks and less weeds may be mid 50’s and fish are pre-spawn roamers.  

If you’re not familiar with the spawning and post-spawn movements of your favorite species, never fear, the internet is here.  You’d probably be unsurprised to hear that not everything you may read there is spot-on, but by paying careful attention to reputable sources, many of you can take five minutes and a sandwich to figure out what stage of the game your species of interest may be when out on the water.  Of course, still nothing beats old fashioned observation on the same body of water year after year.  Sure, nothing is the same from year to year, and you can have a lot of confounding variables, but experience is the same thing that made grandpa as good as he was. 

So fish fearlessly, even quickly.  Know that given even reasonable weather there’s biting fish somewhere on the lake you’re fishing.  If not, switch lakes, as this time of year is too good to pretend like it’s August.  Whether it’s toothy critters or what they’re eating, enjoy some bonus June boom time this year as I’m thinking it’ll extend well to the end of the month, and maybe even July in northern portions of the Midwest.  Take a kid out fishing, and try some new baits, spots, lakes, and species.  There was never a better time to gain confidence in anything new than this month.

Fishing Rod Selection - Technique Specific Applications

In the last article, we defined the terms “power” and “action” while discussing the benefits of specific types of each.  Those terms are fairly objective, which makes the next part of the process more difficult. The perfect walleye jigging rod if you will, can often only be perfect in the eyes of the beholder. Still, there’s a number of features in any fishing rod which hold for the angler, key advantages in any fishing situation; shallow or deep, walleye or bass, with lures light or heavy. That is why I will offer a few popular lengths, powers, and actions along with typical applications so you can have the right tool for the job.  No matter what your price point, we’ll focus on finding the right fishing rod characteristics to handle the task at hand.

It is surprising how many people select rods based on species alone, as if there were separate rods to use for bass or walleye or pike.  Instead, the focus should be placed heavily on technique and the interplay between length, power, and action.  Fishing rods perform best when fished with lure-types, and most importantly, lure weights, that fit the build and design of the particular rod in-hand.  This places an emphasis on situation-specific rods that place an emphasis on handling a certain scenario in the fishing world.  Again, you can use a screwdriver to knock out bolts, but a hammer and punch are far more effective.

Still, there are species-specific considerations, often based on tradition, that creep into rod design.  Take the split-grip phenomenon for example and how prevalent it is in bass rods.  Walleye anglers on the other hand, tend to lean more towards full cork handles that have typically been more commonplace.  Spinning vs. casting does also offer a few changes to the mix, as each of them fish differently for different fish species, with spinning being far more common for walleye, trout, panfish, etc., and casting rods getting the nod for bass, pike, musky, salmon, and catfish. 

There are far too many ways to fish for a list of all technique-specific recommendations, however, here is a few common ones that I feel will offer you a distinct advantage on the water, and get you thinking of the interplay between length, power, and action:

Pitching/Casting Jigs – Material – Carbon Fiber - Power – ML, M, Action – XF, Length 6’ 6” – 7’ - If there were ever a case where the best of the best makes a big difference, jig-fishing is where.  Better blanks have lighter, faster actions that translate to more hooks in more fish.  Pair common jig sizes fished to the range of weights that rod handles as listed on the blank.

Vertical Jigging – Material – Carbon Fiber - Power – ML or M, Action – XF, Length 6’ – 6’6” – Most anglers prefer the rod tip a bit closer to them when jigging over the side of the boat.  Line watching and overall management is far easier, while still having enough length to keeping big fish buttoned up.

Rigging – Material – Carbon Fiber - Power – ML or M, Action – Fast or XF, Length 7’ – 8’6” – Live bait rigging involves feeling a fish before it feels you, making Fast and Extra Fast (XF) actions perfect for the task at hand.  Riggers also have to manage the length of a snell boat-side as they net fish.  Longer rods do a great job of keeping the fish hooked up with a bouncing sinker and long leader lengths, though sometimes at the expense of feel in a big wind.  Choose accordingly.

Casting Crankbaits – Material – Carbon Fiber/Glass Blend or all Glass - Power – M - MH, Action – Moderate, Length 6’6” – 7’6” – Casting crankbaits happens for a variety of species, but the highlight of any good crankbait rod is some give in the middle section, hence the moderate action.  Crankbaits notoriously pull out of fish’s mouths if the rod (or line) doesn’t have enough give to let the fish engulf it in the first place.  The next key is pairing common bait sizes to the range of weights that each rod handles as listed on the blank. 

Trolling Crankbaits – Material – Carbon Fiber/Glass Blend or all Glass - Power – M - MH, Action – Moderate, Length 5’ – 10’ – Again, the key component of a good crankbait trolling rod is the moderate action and give that it offers.  You’ll see a very large range in lengths, and that’s because most trollers are trying to pair multiple rods at various lengths to cover the most water without tangles.  For example, many trollers pair 8’-10’ rods with a set of 6’ rods to be able to troll 4 lines un-tangled.

Finesse Jigging/Drop-Shot – Material – Carbon Fiber - Power –  L - ML, Action – Fast/XF, Length 6’6” – 8’6” – Fishing small baits for panfish, bass, or walleye, requires a blank matched to the weight of that specific jig.  Longer rods make for further casts of small baits, so consider going as long as your rod locker has storage for and you’re comfortable with.

These recommendations are only basic guidelines, as there needs to be some wiggle-room for hard-earned experience and personal preference to inform the process.  One last piece of advice is to buy the best rod you can in terms of price point, while adhering to the basic rules of length, power, and action.  Especially for light-biting fish, you get what you pay for in that higher price-point rods are typically lighter, more sensitive, and help you experience a technique in the best way possible.  With today’s materials and craftsmanship, you can get a good rod at a great price, but it’s not a sales pitch in saying that the net result of higher quality is more bites and more fish.

Fishing Rod Selection - Power and Action

Fishing Rod Selection – Power and Action

Take a trip to any sporting goods retailer, and you’ll find arguably too many options. Design, materials, and basic function can take a backseat to outward appearance and marketing, and of course there’s always the price factor. Among the bling, heavy decoration, and in-store specials, are just a few basics to purchasing a fishing rod. Understanding the terms “power” and “action” will help you separate hype from helpful to pair you with the best tool for the job.

The art of selecting a quality fishing rod is a time-honored tradition that takes place across the country every spring.  Anglers flock to spring sales, weary of winter’s woes, dreaming of the first cast of the season.  They pull a rod from the display and perform their tests of choice.  A shake, a bend on the ground, or a dreaded “grab the tip and pull down” are what most folks use as criteria for determining their stick of choice. 

Most never give a thought to how they’ll use it or for what.  Instead, they’re motivated by feel, price, marketing materials and large numbers after the letters “I-M” that would seem to indicate sensitivity and/or quality.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Here’s the first of a two part series on rod selection that’ll put the right tool in your hand for the job at hand, no matter what price point you’re looking to spend to.

Any good story starts at the beginning, and for fishing rods, that discussion gets off the ground with the terms “power” and “action.”  Contrary to popular belief, the terms are not interchangeable, and mean drastically different things.  Before you think we’re getting bogged down into an engineering debate, know that “power” relates to the amount of pressure it takes to impart a bend in the rod, and “action” is the part of the blank that actually deflects.  That’s a big distinction, as I’ve heard pro after pro relate to rods as a heavy or medium action, knowing full-well that they mean “power” here, as I’ve made the same mistake myself. 

While power is an easy concept to grasp, as we’re used to purchasing the appropriate power for the species we like to target, “action” is a more abstract notion.  That is, until you look at a rod chart and see that actions start at moderate, bending closer to the mid-section, and progress all the way to fast, then extra-fast actions that bend far closer to the tip of the rod.  

It’s important to realize that you’ll need to understand both terms, as two medium power rods can have completely divergent actions which will benefit drastically different styles of angling.  It’ll also help to know a bit about a few other variables as you decipher which rod to buy, namely rod length, materials, components, and a bit about the manufacturer you’re purchasing from.  Did I mention that not all rod companies mention the action, and there are few universal standards by which the entire industry grades their powers and actions?  We’ll make it simpler, I promise.

Start with the power, knowing that your ability to impart extra leverage on larger fish will hinge on it.  Powers range from Ultra-Light, to Light, Medium Light, Medium, Medium Heavy, and Heavy.  Choose wisely based both on the species you’re targeting, but also the lure weight you’ll be using to target these species.  If you’re angling for a good number of species, Medium Light and Medium powers handle the largest swath of lure designs and fish species. 

While you’re thinking of lure types, know that the fastest of all actions like Extra Fast (XF) will excel when you need to move the rod minimally to set the hook fastest.  Baits like jigs that rely on extreme sensitivity and feel find huge benefit with these XF actions, as you get to the backbone of the rod that much more quickly on a hookset.  XF actions are so often paired with the highest end carbon fiber rods at the peak of sensitivity and price.  At the opposite end of the spectrum, you’ve got moderate actions, which most of the cheaper rods already exhibit and truly excel for things such as crankbait fishing where you want some give to account for the bend that the diving crankbait’s bill will impart on the rod.  A crankbait rod without the proper “give” sees you missing far more fish on account of hooks pulling out of the mouth of the fish.

Rod length can be a function of personal preference, height of your casting platform, or any number of customized factors, so be sure to choose what you like here while observing a few generalities.  The trend has been towards longer rods in the 7 foot region and longer for a number of reasons.  Longer rods offer a number of advantages from casting distance to leverage and coverage, and as rod storage in boats gets more accommodating while rod manufacturers build increasingly lighter rods, I don’t see this reversing itself.  For that reason, I’m a big fan of shorter rods primarily for vertical jigging, and longer rods moving longer for most applications outside of this. 

Materials are harder to decipher, as all companies offer different marketing strategies to endear their version to you.  Most rods however are made in the same factories, offering the same technologies branded differently for different importers.  Very few rods are vertically manufactured, offering the customer a product that was custom made from scratch to solve a specific fishing problem.  Know that more technology, better components, and lighter materials make for more expensive rods.  It can also make them more brittle and prone to breakage as engineers push the limits of the goods at hand, making a solid warranty a necessity when purchasing a high end rod.

In the second part of this series, I’ll offer some personal suggestions for common species and techniques, as well as a few shopping pointers to make sure you get the best rod for the money.