Blade Baits for Winter Walleye
Blade Baits for Winter Walleye
Nature can test an angler's patience. All week, temperatures had hovered around freezing. Now that the weekend had arrived, the mercury had plunged and a strong nor'-wester lashed the frozen landscape. On cue, the normally co-operative walleye had developed lockjaw. If anything else could go wrong, now was the time. Sure enough, a search through my tackle for one of my favourite jigging lures - a beat-up old blade bait - proved fruitless. "Smart move, Pyzer," I mused. "Sharpen up the hooks and then leave them at home." Ah, but my partner is bound to have at least one blade bait hidden in the tangled mess he calls a tackle box. "A what? Nope. Got none of them. Aren't they those new, weird-looking casting lures?" he answered to my question.
I suspect his assessment is common of most anglers - some truth and a lot of fiction. Yes, blades have their biggest following among the open-water bass and walleye crowd. You can cast them a mile, they drop like a rock, and boy do they shimmy and shake on retrieve. But where they really excel is as a winter walleye jigging lure. When the water is cold and fish are deep, blade baits can be hot. Snapped upwards, they swim through the water and create a pulsating vibration that mimics an injured or escaping baitfish. This attracts and allows a walleye to home in on the lure, especially when visibility is poor. Depending on the mood of the fish, you can jig a blade bait to create a subtle swimming and fluttering motion, effective at attracting skittish, light-biting walleye; or rip it upwards to produce a dynamic, erratic action that might just be the ticket to get the interest of fish in need of a wake-up call.
Another misconception is that blade baits are a recent innovation. Not so. They arrived on the angling scene more than three decades ago, with the introduction of the Heddon Sonar, followed a few years later by Cordell's Gay Blade. Although these two designs became synonymous with blade baits and dominated the market, they soon spawned a number of rivals. A few are close in appearance to the originals, but others have significant modifications, particularly to profile, weight distribution, and size. Along with the Sonar and Gay Blade, Reef Runner's Cicada, Wazp's Zounder, and Luhr Jensen's Rat'lin Rippletail are proven performers.
Compared with a minnow-imitating lure or a spoon, blade baits look odd. However, their unusual shapes create flash and vibration that's alluring to fish. These lures are just a thin strip of stamped steel or brass (the body of the bait) sandwiched between a bulky lead or zinc head. Although this basic design is the starting point for all models, each manufacturer has created a lure unique in shape, size, and weight distribution. For example, the Sonar, Gay Blade, and Zounder's bodies are straight and sleek, but the position and contour of their heavy heads produce different results. Conversely, the Rat'lin Ripple Tail and Cicada have proportionally wider bodies, with wavy and cupped tails. These variations allow each lure to obtain its own unique vibration. As a comparison, the Gay Blade is at the lower end of the spectrum, while the Rat'lin Ripple Tail and Cicada are at the top. In-between are the Sonar, Bandit Bait, and Zounder.
Incidentally, blades based on the Heddon design are easily modified. Using pliers to put a slight bend in the tail gives the lure a more irregular action, like that of an injured minnow. However, be careful; bending it too much ruins the action. Like most modern lures, blade baits come in a wide range of sizes and weights, from a tiny 1/16-ounce model up to a beefy 2-ouncer. On most walleye waters, where the average fish is 1 to 1 1/2 pounds (.45 to .7 kg), I find an assortment of 1/4- to 3/8-ounce blades is the best bet. On the other hand, in the Bay of Quinte, where a 6-pounder (2.7 kg) barely rises an eyebrow, a 1/2- to 3/4-ounce rattling blade with a chunky profile is deadly. When it comes to colours, I stick to those that have put the most fillets in my skillet, namely silver with blue, chartreuse, or red hues, or a fire-tiger pattern. If none of these arouse any piscatorial interest, then I try one with a subdued paint tone or, just the opposite, one decorated wildly with fleck paint or prism tape.
A few blade baits have two or even three holes on the top of their backs for line connection. Since each placement allows for a different vibrating action, be sure to read the manufacturer's instructions for its recommendations on which hole is most suitable for various applications. If there are two holes, generally the front one, with its tighter wiggling action and less vibration, is the best bet for vertical jigging. When three holes are available, choose the centre one. Never tie your line directly to the lure. One good smack from a big walleye and the thin metal body will shear monofilament like butter. Use a round-bend snap or a split-ring to make the connection.
Although blades without live bait catch walleye, sweetening one with a medium to small minnow or even a minnow head significantly improves catches, especially when walleye fishing is tough. The additional bulk and scent entices walleye to target your lure. On a blade with two sets of trebles, add the minnow to the front set and specifically on the hook facing towards the centre of the lure. Although, adding a live minnow is critical, it creates an annoying problem. It often gets snagged on the rear treble, destroying the lure's balance. Some anglers partially solve this by cutting off the hook facing the centre from the rear treble. I usually remove the treble and replace it with a medium-sized single hook.
You jig a blade roughly the same as any standard ice-fishing spoon. Bounce it a couple of times on bottom to get the attention of any walleye in the vicinity. Next, flip your wrist to make it rise about six to 10 inches. While walleye will hit the bait at any point of the jigging routine, many strikes occur on the initial lift and are easy to detect. Unfortunately, fish that attack the lure at the end of the lift or as it's dropping are more difficult to feel and are frequently lost. To connect with these fish, watch the line as it descends, keeping just enough tension on it with your rod to maintain contact with the lure. Anytime it seems to stop falling or you feel even the slightest tick, quickly set the hooks.
Last winter, my biggest walleye - a 9-pounder (4 kg) - inhaled a half-ounce blade without the slightest hint. Not even a little tap. If I hadn't noticed the line go slack on the downfall, I surely would have missed that trophy. As I set the hook, I felt the fish streaking downwards, and the combination of opposing forces snapped my rod in half. Getting over the initial embarrassment and shock of trying to reel in line without a rod, I yanked off my mitts and retrieved it hand over hand. So, always expect the unexpected. And if you miss a hit and think the minnow has been stolen, don't immediately crank the lure up to the surface to check. Wait a minute or so and keep jigging. Often the action of the lure itself creates a second opportunity. Having a few blade baits mixed in with your normal compliment of winter walleye spoons gives you an added advantage. They're relatively inexpensive, so get a few in different size, shapes, and colours and experiment. You'll be pleasantly surprised at the results.
Oh, by the way. The day I mentioned earlier ended up a lot better than it started off. After several fruitless hours of constantly changing baits and locations, we hadn't so much as caught a perch. At mid-morning, however, while digging out my coffee container, I found my blade baits tucked away in a corner of my packsack. I still don't remember putting them in, but thank goodness I did. Within 15 minutes of hooking on my old, faithful silver and blue Sonar, I had a chunky 2-pound (.9 kg) walleye flopping on the ice. At least I had my lunch. After catching another walleye a few minutes later, I noticed my partner slowly shuffling toward my tackle. He still thinks blade baits look weird, but that disaster he calls a tackle box now has a few stashed in it.
This article is printed with permission by Fish Ontario. Visit their website, http://www.fishontario.com, for more Ontario fishing information.