Walleye are aggressive predators and strong fighters, and they’re always looking for an easy meal–with the exception of the spring spawning ritual. That makes them a blast to catch, and like Pringles, you’ll quickly find that just one is never enough!
We’ve written about walleye before, outlining the basics of their behavior. And since fall is a prime season, we’ve provided a targeted guide to help you tilt the odds in your favor as the water cools down at the end of summer.
But our coverage has left some dedicated walleye anglers asking for more: they want to know which walleye lures and baits are the most effective throughout the open-water seasons, how to fish them, and where they’re the most deadly.
Ready for answers? Keep reading!
Table of Contents
- 1 A Few Things to Remember About Walleye Behavior
- 2 Best Live Bait for Walleye: A Go-To Choice for Walleye
- 3 Best Walleye Lures and Jigs – and How to Fish Them
- 4 Final Thoughts
A Few Things to Remember About Walleye Behavior
Walleye sport incredible low-light vision.
Like pike, walleye are visual hunters. But rather than holding still, as pike often do, walleye usually swim in search of prey.
Walleye use low visibility to their advantage, cruising for a meal when their prey can’t see as well as they can. This means dawn, dusk, and night, of course, but also any condition that reduces visibility. The infamous “walleye chop,” as well as murky or stained water, are things to consider carefully when deciding when they’ll be most actively feeding.
They have a sensitive lateral line.
As good as their vision is, walleye also rely on a very sensitive lateral line to detect prey items.
For anglers, this means throwing lures or live bait that will create the exciting vibrations that call them in from beyond visual range.
Blades, rattles, spinners–these are all good bets, as are crank baits that wriggle tightly.
They love contrasts.
As we’ve discussed before, walleye seek out contrasts. On a muddy or sandy bottom, they’ll hunt rocks–and vice versa. Look for unusual structure, and more often than not, you’ll find them.
Fall and spring mean shallow; summer means deep.
In cool water, look for walleye to be hunting shallow. Especially in the fall, they’ll be following the bait fish into shallow flats and weed beds.
But in the summer, when the heat’s really on, they’ll retreat to deeper, cooler water.
In short, your techniques should change with the seasons.
Best Live Bait for Walleye: A Go-To Choice for Walleye
Live bait is an excellent choice for walleye, and for many anglers, it’s the mainstay of their approach.
Minnows, leeches, worms – they all have a place in your walleye arsenal, but to get the most from these options, a few tips can really help.
First, as Greg Bohn warns, “The most perfect rig will be worthless if your minnow, leech, or nightcrawler doesn’t look attractive. It won’t entice a bite. As a result, taking care of bait and hooking it properly are critical. If the bait is dead or sick-looking, you’ll spend all day staring at bobbers.”
So let’s start with the most enticing way to present live bait to walleye: the slip float.
As anglers of species like crappie can attest, one of the most effective ways to rig live bait is probably a slip float. I’m a huge fan of the Thill brand–they’re easy to use and very high quality.
Slip floats are much better than standard bobbers because they allow you to cast well while still controlling the depth of your terminal tackle.
If you’re not sure how to rig and run a slip float, check out these videos:
If you run your live bait on a hook or jig, it’s important to size your bait to your hook. I like to keep a variety of hook sizes on hand. And while it’s true that I like to size-up my minnows in fall, the best bet is always to match the hook to the bait.
When I run leeches on a jig head, for instance, I’m looking to go as small as I can on the head and to tie the knot at the proper point of the eye.
Keep in mind that to tie a jig properly, you must place the knot correctly!
This is not what you want. Note where the knot leaves the eye.
Instead, you want your knot at the top of the eye. This will tilt the jig forward, lifting the tail and presenting your leech to its best possible advantage.
This is what you want.
Minnows are a great choice in cooler water, and they can be really effective when the walleye are hunting the shallows for a quick meal. I like to rig mine on slip floats and suspend them along weed lines, just at their tops or off to the side.
Essentially, this allows the minnow to swim erratically around the float, drawing walleye in for a bite. And of course, the idea when hooking a minnow is to injure it as little as possible, allowing it to swim longer and work harder.
I’d skip the wire Aberdeen hooks for walleye–they’re just not robust enough.
So among many excellent options, I prefer a #2 Gamakatsu circle hook. Sharp, strong, deadly: that’s really all you need to know about these guys.
This video shows you a variety of ways to rig a minnow, and if one’s not getting it done, you can try another:
But it’s important that you select healthy, sturdy bait.Most bait stores carry one of two kinds of minnow: the golden shiner or the fathead. And as you can see from the pictures below, it’s pretty easy to tell these little guys apart.
This matters because, generally speaking, fatheads are a bit more robust than golden shiners, meaning that they’ll take a bit more of a beating and still come out alive and kicking.
Some bait shops also carry red-tailed chubs, and if you can find them, they’re a fantastic option for walleye.
Signs of a Healthy Minnow
When you see farm-raised minnows in a bait tank, you need to assess their health. Sick minnows are more likely to die on you and far less active as bait–both bad things.
To get the most from them, you need your bait to be in good condition. Experts like Tim Allard recommend that you look for tightly schooled minnows rather than loose clusters. They should sport bright scales and undamaged fins, too.
If you see them swimming listlessly near the top of the tank, or you notice that they have damaged fins or dark scales, you probably want to pass.
Leeches are a walleye angler’s best friend when the water’s hot, and of course, I like to work them along weed edges or over submerged humps, hitting the sides and bottom. Smaller hooks are essential when running leeches, however, and I usually downsize my hooks to between a #8 to #4 Gamakatsu, depending on their size.
In the bait store, I look for medium to large leeches, avoiding small and jumbo options. The small ones attract too many tiny fish, and the jumbos are just too big for an ideal presentation.
You want a natural-looking rig–not a lot of hook on a little leech!
Slip bobbers are great with leeches, but the smallest jig heads you can pitch work really well, too. Just work them slowly, pulling the jig off the bottom, cranking a few times, and letting it flutter and settle again. Walleye will often hit them as they fall, so be ready!
As generations of fishermen will tell you, there’s no questioning their effectiveness:
Worms can substitute for leeches, but they don’t provide as much natural action. As a result, I don’t usually suspend them below a slip float or toss them on a standard jig head.
Instead, I use them to sweeten a larger spinning lure like a Hildebrandt Hammer Time Walleye Spinner.
Rigged on a spinner like this–also called a “worm harness” for obvious reasons–you can really work your bait, and that spinner sings to the walleye, calling them in.
A sweetened lure like this is super effective for working the bottom, drop-offs, humps, and the edges of weeds.
Best Walleye Lures and Jigs – and How to Fish Them
Jigging with big swimbaits
Nothing calls to walleye like the flutter of a paddle-tailed swimbait, and in the hands of someone who knows how to work these lures, they can trigger strike after strike.
One excellent option is the 3 ½” Gene Larew Sweet Swimmer. Extra-soft, they provide incredible tail action, generating just the vibration you need to entice walleye.
As always, select natural colors in clear water. “Threadfin Shad,” “Gray Ghost,” and “Glass Minnow” are ideal choices. But in stained water, don’t forget the hot pinks and whites.
I rig these swim baits on a ⅛- or ¼-ounce jig head. Give the Temorah ball jig heads a chance: they come in assorted colors, hold a soft plastic really well, and won’t break the bank.
How to fish them:
Many walleye anglers make a basic mistake with soft plastics–a habit ingrained by live bait: they fish swim baits too slowly, forgetting that the lure needs you to do the work.
The good news is that paddle-tails are easy to master.
Perhaps the simplest approach is to run them like a crankbait. Cast to the edge or top of a weed bed, and crank in a steady cadence. That’ll get the tail wagging, drawing strikes from hunting wallies.
I also like to pop and retrieve my paddle-tails in uneven cadences and let them sink and fall freely every few feet. If you’ve ever tried this in clear water, where you can see the action of the swim bait, it simulates an injured bait fish, and it’s certain to attract attention.
Swim baits are excellent options for working the bottom, the sides, and edges of submerged humps, and drop-offs where walleye will school bait while hunting. I like to keep a variety of colors on hand to match conditions and the appetites of walleye.
Lipless crankbaits allow you stand off and cast a country mile, providing excellent stealth in shallow water. They also allow you to work large areas quickly, identifying productive water in a hurry.
One awesome option is the Strike King Red Eye Shad. In clear water, I throw these in “Shad” and “Chrome Sexy Shad” respectively.
The Strike King Red Eye Shad is one of my favorite lipless crankbaits, and on cold autumn mornings, it’ll produce strikes when nothing else will.
Available in three sizes and an incredible range of colors, these lures wriggle tightly and create just the right vibration to encourage strikes. Equipped with an internal rattle, it essentially rings the dinner bell for hungry walleye.
Another lipless crankbait that can only be described as “legendary” is the Rat-L-Trap. Packed with BBs, these wriggling lures are available in pretty much any pattern and color you can imagine. Tight-swimming when jerked free from weeds, these bad boys are walleye killers, especially in colors like “Chrome Black Black.”
How to fish them:
I like to look for those high-contrast spots walleye love: a rocky hump on a muddy or sandy bottom, a shallow strewn with boulders next to a steep, sandy drop-off, or a flat holding lots of live weed beds.
The magic of a lipless crankbait won’t be apparent on a steady retrieve.
Instead, the idea is to run these lures just over the top of weed beds or rocks. When you feel the treble hooks bite vegetation or encounter the rough edge of a boulder, jerk the bait, let it fall for a second, and retrieve again.
Think of this as a “stick-rip-fall-run” cadence–also called a “yo-yo.”
You can also work these lures off the bottom, ripping them up, giving them a crank or two, and letting them fall again. This is especially effective on shallow flats, muddy bottoms, and along transition zones–points, drop-offs, humps–adjacent to deeper water.
The basic idea is to take advantage of the unique shape of lipless crankbaits, as well as their proclivity to sink. This vertical movement is key–and the more you make use of it, the more effective you’ll find your lure.
And a pro tip: if you find that your rear treble is hanging in the weeds too often, simply clip the offending single hook with a pair of pliers. Cut it back at the curve, and you won’t find hookups a problem–though it’ll now run much more weedless.
Whether you’re slowly trolling in summer, or drifting past a shallow and working weed beds at a distance, crankbaits are essential walleye tackle. They allow you to cover a lot of water quickly, cast at a distance, and reliably produce vibration and action that walleye can’t resist.
What more could you want?
How to fish them:
One easy approach is to troll very slowly–less than 2 mph–and let the lip and action of these lures work their magic. Look for those submerged humps, steep drop-offs, and other features likely to attract feeding walleye.
I particularly like to fish these a bit like jerk baits–ripping and stopping, then cranking again–to create a dramatic strike. They’re also excellent cranked steadily down the sides of weed beds and over structure and cover.
And they can be deadly over rocks in shallow water:
Lots of lures and approaches work well on walleye, but if I was choosing just a few options for angling in all seasons and situations, these would be my top choices.
Live bait, swim baits, and crankbaits of all styles: if these don’t produce a few fish, they’re just not biting!
As always, we’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.