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Walleye Week: Minnow Methods: Old School Livebait Secrets for Walleyes

And why the artificials-only hype is nonsense.

Walleye Week: Minnow Methods: Old School Livebait Secrets for Walleyes

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Confession time. I, along with the rest of the fishing world, bear some responsibility for propagating the notion that artificial lures have made livebait irrelevant for walleyes. It’s nonsense, of course. But if you’ve been paying attention to popular walleye culture lately, you’ve heard the proclamations. Certain celebrity types have even come right out and said it—that they no longer need to mess with minnows, ‘crawlers, leeches or other such messy fare because artificial lures are so much more efficient. Maybe. Sometimes. Actually, not really. Yet, I have to wonder what old masters the likes of Bill Binkelman or guides such as Harry Van Doren would have made of all the artificials-only hype.

There was a time I actually believed it. For about a four-year period in the early 2000s, I rarely fished a minnow, leech, or ‘crawler for walleyes. My big homemade minnow tank merely collected cobwebs. Those first several years after we got serious about pitching Jigging Rapala-style lures, you could spot-lock and induce bite after bite from wolfpacks in rapid succession. When we first showed walleyes that rapid, random dart-dart-dive action, fish often ate the lure so intensely and with so little hesitation that dropping a big minnow never entered our thought process. Caught loads of 5-, 7-, and 9-pound fish, and more than a couple heavyweights. But a few years in, while sorting through photos, I realized most of the large fish I’d caught—before and after the initial “artificials-only” frenzy—had eaten big chubs fished on a stealth rig. Moreover, easy bites on artificial baits were becoming less frequent.

All the while, procuring a cache of truly primo bait was becoming increasingly expensive, especially finding quality minnows of the right size. Meanwhile, on many of my favorite minnow creeks, catching or seining enough good baits for a few days of fishing had also become problematic, at times unlikely. About 90 percent of my walleye fishing today is still done with a jerkbait, a Jigging Rap, or a softbait on a jighead, drop-shot or Tokyo rig. But—and it’s a big but—some of the most impressive fish I catch, year after year, still eat a 4- to 6-inch creek chub or, less frequently, a redtail chub.

For over a decade, one of my favorite end-of-season rituals has been to hop in the boat with two of my longtime friends, one a popular guide and another a legendary walleye pro. While the waters we fish shift from year to year, the mission never changes: Sneak out to one of our best big walleye lakes, with a stash of wild creek chubs in the tank.

All three of us remain or have been active promoters of various artificial lures over the years. But when we’re out to catch fish, particularly big ones, it’s all about sizable, wild-caught chubs. Thirty-inch walleyes are rare, even in trophy water. So, we’re fishing for anything over about 27—a good fish anywhere. Lots of years, I might start the day pitching a Jigging Rap or a bladebait and crack the first few fish that way. But little time passes before we realize walleyes are eating chubs with much greater frequency and ferocity, despite that it’s a much slower method that covers a finite amount of water, relative to a lure. But given the precision of sonar today, this is no longer a limiting factor, as we’re often targeting individual fish—dropping on them for a few minutes before moving on. At least for myself and colleagues, backtrolling an entire breakline is rarely part of the plan.

Five commone livebait minnows for walleyes, with descriptions.
A guide to minnows.

Chub Commentary

One thing Bruce “Doc” Samson, among the best minnow fishermen I know, instilled in me years ago was that the creek chub (Semotilus atromaculatus) is often the superior species, particularly compared to redtail (hornyhead) chubs (Nocomis biguttatus) purchased from a baitshop. While I’m a huge supporter of local mom-and-pop bait stores, most of the minnows from these wonderful little places just don’t compare to wild-caught chubs. Though many of the minnows you buy in a baitshop have been harvested from wild lakes or streams, they’ve also been transported many miles in confined spaces. Baits then enter tiny baitshop tanks where they’re further stressed by nets and hard, sharp edges, losing protective scales and slime coats. In short, many of us have paid $20 for a dozen redtails, only to receive exactly 12 baits that tire or die quickly on a hook. Moreover, many shops give you feeble little 2- and 3-inch chubs, which while fine for tipping a jig, aren’t the larger specimens we leash to a stealth minnow rig.

In many regions of the redtail’s native range, once-rocky, gravelly streams, which hornyheads require for spawning, have become silted in with erosion and runoff from agriculture and development. Just in the last 10 years, I’ve seen many small, clear, freestone streams with thriving redtail populations turn into silted-in, stagnant flows resembling ditch water. As such, ecologically sensitive creatures such as redtail chubs have vanished. Moreover, pressure from bait trappers has intensified on remaining populations, as invasive species regulations have limited our access and use of many streams, such as feeder creeks of larger rivers. Hence, we’re now paying $15 to $20 a dozen for redtails, and still often receiving inferior bait.

The one positive here is that where redtails decline, creek chubs thrive—at least to an extent. Many of my once-reliable redtail streams have now become flush with large creek chubs, which are often easiest to collect with baited hooks or Sabiki rigs, as opposed to traps. Seining can also be effective in deeper pools. But just because they’re “minnows” doesn’t mean they can’t be overfished. It’s why we release almost all chubs over about 6 inches in length, to preserve a healthy spawning stock. Even on relatively remote streams, one effective bait collector can wipe the slate clean.  

Again, baitshop redtail chubs, in my opinion, don’t work nearly as well as wild-caught ones. Though, if I can get baits fresh from the delivery truck—before they enter baitshop tanks—I’m happy and confident. In my experience, wild creek chubs trigger more big walleyes, though a nice 5-inch wild-caught redtail can be exceptional, depending on the day or the waterbody.

An overlooked minnow species is the central stoneroller (Campostoma anomalum), aka rock sucker. Samson says wild stonerollers live in many of the same gravel-bottom streams as redtail chubs, and are roughly the same size and shape as a chub but with more muted coloration. Its underslung sucker mouth is equipped with what’s described as a blade-like lower jaw for moving small stones while feeding. According to Samson, most of us have probably encountered these minnows among store-bought chubs or in seining nets. Though most anglers discard them, he says stonerollers exhibit tremendous stamina and the wildest fleeing action in the presence of predators. In short, he calls the stoneroller the best trophy walleye bait he’s ever fished.

One other note worth addressing is the long-held notion that big minnows only work in fall; that you must use small shiners or fatheads in spring; that big minnows turn walleyes off early in the season. While it might be true for small male walleyes on some waters, from a broader perspective, it’s mere propaganda. If I’m on a lake that holds any number of fish over 3, 4, or 5 pounds—even right at season opener—I’m confident a 4- or 5-inch chub or wild golden shiner will produce more big bites from big female walleyes than any other presentation.

If I can get large golden shiners early, I know I’m in for some great fishing. I believe goldens are far more attractive to big walleyes than the ubiquitous spottail shiner, and many times more active. Unfortunately, if you’re not willing to trap your own shiners from local waters, you likely won’t find them in baitshops, as invasive species regulations on baitfish now restrict their importation in many states. Note: golden shiners, like creek chubs, stonerollers, and to a lesser degree, redtail chubs exhibit ranges that extend across the entire Midwest, Midsouth, Great Lakes, and into the Northeast. So, good minnows live and thrive all across the range of walleye.

True Reaction Strikes

Each bait species moves and reacts slightly differently to the presence of predators. Sometimes, a wild creek chub in danger can be too erratic and flighty to ultimately induce a bite. Not because their flight response isn’t perceived as natural, but because, sometimes, walleyes on a given day might not be willing to exert enough energy to chase the bait down. This is where shortening the length of your leader to 12 to 18 inches can be key.

A smiling angler hoisting a livebait-caught walley in a boat on a lake.
Bruce “Doc” Samson hoists a hefty walleye caught on a chub.

Samson might not always agree, though I still think redtail chubs rarely kick so heartily and with so much stamina as a plain old creek chub. A creeker is one tough customer. While redtails require cool, clean, well-oxygenated water, creekers exhibit greater tolerance. Kept in a circular bait tank lacking sharp edges or blunt corners (I’ve used an oval, poly plastic 125-gallon livestock tank for years), creek chubs can thrive for months. Creekers respond well to feeding and actually grow and get plump on a diet of smaller fathead minnows. Though as voracious predators, they’ll often chomp minnow heads off clean, leaving the corpses.

Which reminds me of a story about the late great Harry Van Doren, which I’ve heard in various forms over the years, from guiding friends working the Brainerd Lakes area in Central Minnesota. Van Doren, whose name remains inexplicably absent from the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, pioneered an entire livebait walleye system while fishing for Marv Koep’s Nisswa Bait & Tackle and independently for a 50-year span that ended in 1978. Beyond the fact Van Doren invented the earliest form of backtrolling, precisely maneuvering his boat along a breakline, using transom-mounted “splash guards” and the first Lowrance flasher-sonars, the legendary guide stashed much of his rigging tackle in a little wallet-sized fold-out featuring hooks, swivels, and sinkers. As the story goes, anytime he caught a small perch, he’d quickly replace his live minnow or nightcrawler with the perch, knowing it was a walleye’s favorite meal. Sometimes, he’d cut off the head or tail and use that for bait. While other guides were blanking in midsummer, Van Doren rolled in to Koep’s with limits bursting at the seams.

Stealth Rigging

I don’t know if Van Doren ever met Binkelman, the angler most responsible for popularizing and pioneering the livebait-walleye gospel during the 1960s and 70s. But as far as I can tell, Binkelman was the first to promote “stealth” livebait rigging, as well as being the first to publish any mention of the drop-shot rig, which he did in 1973: “For several years,” Binkelman wrote in his Catching Fish Blue Books, “this drop-shot rig has been a sort of secret weapon.”

For Binkelman, it was the most logical means of elevating a minnow 3 or more feet above bottom, where he believed most of the bigger walleyes hovered most of their lives. It’s another before-its-time observation that happens to be spot-on, given Binkelman’s time observing walleyes both via scuba mask and his custom glass-bottom boat. Underwater cameras also verified this behavior, starting in the late 1990s.

When fish were off the bite, Binkelman frequently abandoned heavy, bulky sinkers, believing instead that “patience sinks the bait.” He often used a simple splitshot rig with a small #4, #6, or #8 hook. While this probably worked beautifully with ‘crawlers or small minnows, it would have been impossible with large chubs. I still believe many anglers improperly use small hooks for big baits, which nearly guarantee missed strikes. It’s why Samson and I have both used #1, 1/0, or 2/0 octopus hooks for 4- to 6-inch chubs. (Samson occasionally uses even bigger baits.) Gamakatsu’s Drop/Split Shot hook, in my opinion, remains the finest light-wire minnow hook to date.

At least three-fourths of the time, when building a stealth rig, I’m snelling one of these hooks with 6.6- or 8.2-pound-test Damyl Tectan Superior mono, depending on minnow and fish size. I don’t like fluorocarbon for this, which drags and weighs baits down. A snell knot is easy to tie and provides the cleanest, strongest connection possible. I’m a fan of small, stealthy tungsten bullet weights. Green pumpkin-colored sinkers in pebble-sized 1/4- to 7/16-ounce sizes from Reins and other companies blend with the bottom and get your rig down fast. Add a tiny clear bead and an ant-sized #1 black ball-bearing swivel, tied to 10- or 12-pound fluorocarbon mainline, and you’ll rarely lose an expensive tungsten weight and easily maintain vertical control.

An angler in a boat holding a bait minnow with a hook in it over a bucket.
Running the hook into the bait’s mouth and out one of its two nostrils (nares) improves hookups and keeps minnows livelier.

While the longstanding trend has been to rig with long 6- to 10-foot leaders, I like to start with a 3-footer and go from there, sometimes reducing to a 1-footer. Longer leaders are all about bait movement, which often becomes problematic with wild chubs. As you increase leader length, you sacrifice control and contact with your bait and biting fish. As Samson says, “I like shorter leaders because I like to know what my minnow’s doing.” A little panicked-minnow action is a plus. Too much can be counterproductive.

One of the biggest problems with rigging big chubs has long been that walleyes either won’t exhaustively chase a wildly fleeing minnow, or, when they finally eat, you lose contact with the fish because it’s running back toward the boat or up, at an awkward angle, relative to your sinker.

Samson notes that a chub suddenly pulsing on the rod tip almost always is the early warning signal of the presence of a predator. But when the line suddenly stops shuddering, it often isn’t because the minnow has stopped kicking, but that a walleye has wolfed it down. Too many anglers fail to capitalize on this because their ultralong leader extends at an awkward angle relative to the sinker, creating a slack line effect that disconnects angler from striking fish.

I’ve been outfished by Samson, who prefers a single, large #1 splitshot or rubbercore sinker, often no more than a foot from the hook. He believes, as I do, that a longer leader rarely is the reason for more strikes, unless fish want a wildly aggressive bait, such as in warm midsummer water. He also likes the instant leader-length adjustability of his simple splitshot and stealth rig, adding that he never experiences line twist because “there’s nothing that’s spinning or twisting line down there.” As he also rightly suggests, “I’d rather use just one knot than three.” As you might imagine, he moves precisely and slowly across specific pieces of turf, defined by genius use of his electronics, hence his nickname, Doctor Sonar.

For triggering fish that bite and drop the minnow, one potent trick I learned from Binkelman was to give the line one to three hard twitches, line pinched between thumb and index finger. Do this with direct contact to your minnow and you’ll often entice the fish to circle back and eat for keeps.

Further to underwater study, bigger walleyes almost always engulf the entire bait the first time around. So, it’s rarely necessary to feed excesses of line, as many of us have been taught. When he’s got a runner on the line, Samson executes a “rapid reeling contest,” speed-retrieving line until he catches up with the walleye, loads the rod, and then sweeps a deep arc into the blank.

He notes that it’s possible to pull a minnow out of the fish’s throat without hooking up. This is often because the hook has become embedded back into the minnow’s head or that you’re using an insufficiently small hook. You can also increase hookup ratios by running the hook into the bait’s mouth and out one of its two nares (nasal passages), providing more open hook gap and which also keeps the minnow livelier, longer.

In the end, most of us who struggle do so because we’re merely overthinking a livebait rigging game that’s fraught with fallacies. You may find, as I have, by simply returning to the beginning of the modern angling era, digesting the ideas of anglers like Binkelman and Van Doren, those old minnow methods still catch a lot of good fish.

In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt is an exceptional angler and insightful writer on all manner of multispecies topics. His detailed commentary often blends historic relevance to address topics of our times.


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