Artificial vs. Live Bait for Walleye: Thoughts from a Pro
By Gord Ellis
It’s the middle of January as I write this article – snow is falling and it’s a little cold outside.
Like many you I am thinking about open water fishing. If you have booked a flying trip for 2023 you have a lot to be excited about. There’s just about nothing better than getting away from the places where most people can fish and hitting some of the most pristine and wild fishing in North America.
One thing I want to emphasize is that there’s absolutely no need to bring live bait on a fly in trip. It’s 2023 and the technology around fishing is so incredible that live bait is not required. If you’re coming north for walleye there is a number of options you can use that will work better than live bait.
Let’s start by discussing plastics. The number of plastics that mimic live bait in 2023 is unreal. Scented plastics have especially changed the walleye fishing game. Not only do the plastics smell and feel good to fish, but they look good as well. Some of the plastics available these days are hard to tell from a real minnow or worms. Technology has allowed manufacturers to create plastic lures that are life like and realistic. The bonus is most plastics also are much more resilient on a jig or hook than a live bait. I’ve had days where I’ve used only a couple grubs or twisters on a jig and would catch dozens of fish with them.
The scent and flavorings that are in found artificial plastics in 2023 is beyond even what anybody could have dreamt of 20 years ago. Most of these scents are impregnated in the material that is used. I like to use a four-inch Berkeley power minnow for most of the situations where someone might sue a live minnow. In my opinion, it is one of the best artificial minnow representations for fishing that you can buy. I’ve caught walleye, perch, pike, trout and even salmon on them. They come in a variety of colours and sizes, some that look very realistic and some that are attractors. There is no doubt in my mind that you can out fish someone using live bait with them. Another Berkley product I swear by is called Gulp. This product is a little different than a traditional plastic as it is water permeable. That means if Gulp is exposed to air for several hours it will shrink on the hook. However, that water permeable plastics allows for even more scent dispersion in the water. Gulp is also one of the toughest baits out there and can get bit by quite a few fish before needing to be replaced. There are many other companies that sell excellent plastics as well including Northland, Mr. Twister and Z Man. The Z man plastics are also nearly indestructible yet also feel the softest and most lifelike.
As far as jig heads go, the traditional lead head jigs are fine and do the job well. Increasingly, however you can get tungsten heads that are more environmentally than lead and work nearly as well. Whatever kind of jig you use, bring a few different sizes with you. Normally, a one quarter or 3/8-ounce head will work well. However, in heavy current you may want a slightly heavier head. Classic jig head colours like orange, chartreuse, yellow and black will cover off most of your jigging needs.
One of my favorite techniques for fishing walleye is casting a crankbait. A crankbait is any hard bodied lure that looks like a minnow or a bait fish. For nearly 20 years I was a regular on the bass and walleye tournament circuit in Canada and for the majority of those events live bait was not allowed. What I learned tournament fishing is that casting a crankbait for walleye not only caught bigger fish, it caught more of them. It’s also a very exciting and active way to catch them. There are lots of different kinds of crankbaits but one of my all time favourites is the Rapala X Rap . This lure is both easy to cast and has a nice tight wiggle. Another big fish lure that works for all species of fish is the Rapala Countdown #7 or #9 . The Countdown is named that because when you cast it in and count down, each number is a foot of depth. That’s a great way to keep track of how deep you’re lure is getting.
If you like trolling, diving crankbaits work very well. The #7 Rapala Shad Rap is a ringer, especially in the perch pattern. Any perch pattern crankbait is hard to beat when trolling for walleye. The Cotton Cordell Wally diver is another classic but there are many others as well. The Shad Rap gets down five to seven feet, but some crankbaits, like the Rapala Tail Dancer, dive down to 15 feet or more. Pick out a few lures that dive to different depths and you will be able to cover a wide variety of depths.
Even the most traditional bait trolling lure such as the little Joe Spinner – that you would normally put a minnow or night crawler on – can be very effective when the bait is replaced with a plastic. One of the things that is incredibly annoying about live bait fishing is how easy it is for fish like a walleye to pull it off. With a plastic bait it’s much more difficult for the fish to strip it off and often they’ll come back and hit again if they if they miss. If you put an artificial nightcrawler on a nightcrawler harness and you can also play around with colour, using chartreuse or even pink. Another great thing about plastics is that many of them are buoyant, so a plastic nightcrawler will float just enough to keep your spinner from getting snagged on bottom. Just another way to win.
Hopefully this article has helped you see all the ways that artificial lures will work for you on a fly in trip. No more dead worms or belly-up minnows. Yet artificial lures also work well in the hard fished waters where you might think live bait would give you the upper hand.
Make 2023 the year you take the artificial lure plunge. You won’t regret it.